“I don't believe there's anything after this,” Connie says. “We get one time around and when we die, it's all over.” She pauses, then adds, “There's nothing more, nothing less.”
Lying on my back, staring at the bunk above me, I sense she pities anyone naive enough to rely on a religious crutch to explain our existence. Spiritual leanings, hard-wired into the modern psyche because of evolutionary advantage, are nothing to her but the result of legends used for societal control and group cohesion. The more I listen, the more I dread coming out.
Connie is tall, tanned and outdoorsy and we've just met at the folk-music camp we're both attending. She's the type I single out in crowds as a potential kindred spirit. Maybe it's the whalebone necklace she wears, her easy confidence, or the fact she's living out of the back of her van that draws me to her. However it happens, after our first conversation I know we'll get along.
She and I share the same bunkhouse for a week and get to know each other through late-night conversations, each of us emboldened by the darkness. While guitar riffs and campfire smoke waft into our cabin we swap stories of our children, travels, sex lives, plans for the future and our understanding of the supernatural. When Connie speaks, I wonder how she would react to the vocabulary I use to describe my world view. I have a feeling words like Jesus, Christianity, sin and redemption will turn her off. I like Connie and want her to like me back, so I keep quiet and huddle in my religious closet. I need time before I come out to her.
This kind of thing happens to me often and I'm getting used to the anxiety of sharing my spiritual orientation. God knows, I'm getting enough practice. Put me in a room full of people, and I'll naturally seek out someone repelled by my religion. My friend-radar zeroes in on people who are wary of absolute truth claims, disgusted with their perception of the Christianity and describe themselves as atheists or agnostics. Maybe I like them because of this. After all, who wants to hang out with a dogmatic, self-righteous doomsayer, much less be one?
The book of Jeremiah reminds me why I want to trade my world view for a sleeker model. There's the cheery quote many Christians recite about God's plan to give us a “hope and a future” (Jeremiah. 29:11), but it's tucked been pages of savage warnings and judgement. Instead of the tidy inspiration most people think of when referencing that well-known verse, the rest of the book thunders with God's intolerance.
This vehemence, stemming from His people's waywardness, seems excessive, hard to relate to and inconvenient for my personal life. In fact, when it comes to making friends, I'd rather admit I'm not sure about anything, except positive energy and the pursuit of happiness. The next time I meet a potential BFF I'd like to be agreeable and say nothing about a Creator who spews punishment. Our conversation would be as palatable as a mashed banana, that is, until I think about burned tongues and stolen lives.
And this is where the plot thickens, because while I'm trying to learn a few fiddle tunes and get to know Connie, women are being trafficked. Sweaty men are straddling daughters who have disappeared. Perverts are panting over ten-year-olds. When these girls with too-small hips, who have names, favourite colours, and signature laughs, end up bearing children, their owners find ways to keep the babies quiet. The children have learned not to cry because, if they do, their tongues, or their genitals, will be burned. All this,while their young mothers work through one wet violation after another.
When I hear accounts like these, anger churns and I feel as if I might actually roar while staging my own living-room protest. I'm desperate to stand up for innocents who are used up until they are infected or dead. But I don't. Instead, I shake off my horror and go on with my day, unloading the dishwasher and thawing meat for our evening meal. But later, when I settle into my couch to read Jeremiah, I finally get it. In fact, I lap up every word bristling with the promise of justice.
The entire script records God's passionate outrage. It gives a picture of a God on a rampage; a God who does roar, who stands up for abused children and the trace of Beauty in each one of us. Instead of shaking it off and frying hamburger, this God is consumed with making it right – the way a father might respond to his daughter’s assault. But it's not just the sex trade that elicits this cosmic response. God is so invested with humanity He can't contain himself when people are oppressed, abandoned, greedy, proud or drunk on themselves. The only reason I can stomach such a judgemental God is because I cannot stomach children being raped, or even my own self-absorption. And this is why I keep holding on to a faith that turns my friends off.
The next morning, Connie shows me the back of her van. I admire the way she's converted it into a cozy home and notice how every item is carefully stowed for maximum efficiency. I ask her questions about her gear, her travels and if I'll see her at music camp next summer. I also ask her about hope. I've been wondering how she finds meaning, or the courage to continue, while believing there's nothing beyond our disintegrating bodies and decaying society. She pauses for a moment and then responds,
“The next generation will do it better than us. They're learning what it means to look after our world; how to be more empathetic and more human. I believe in our children.”
I applaud her environmental consciousness, but relying on the next generation to use less plastic and be kinder isn't reassuring enough to me. Something's wrong, and it's not just in cement rooms reeking of semen and shame, but in our own comfortable homes and pleasant lives. Even if we aren't shackling little girls, we need an intervention more powerful than optimism and good values to save us from ourselves. We need help, or in my lingo, we need Jesus.
But I don't say that to Connie. I'm not brave enough to come out the whole way, even after a few late-night conversations. I'm afraid of false assumptions, using words that would mislead her, and identifying with a movement rife with misconceptions. Being a Christian can be a drag, especially when I want to connect with the girl wearing a whalebone necklace.
The next time I scan the crowd and meet someone interesting, or visit with an old friend, I probably won't claim to understand God in all Her terrifying majesty. I doubt I'll give a detailed summary of my belief system, or point to any fundamental creeds. But if someone returns my question about hope, I know how to answer. I'm not holding out for a global recycling project or highly evolved grandchildren. My hope is in a God who rants for stolen children, demands justice and then dies for their broken abusers. And I think that's coming out far enough.