“Rachael, trust me,” he said, lifting a trembling, bony finger. “Religion is the biggest cruelty mankind has ever seen, and one day, just like I did, you are going to find out it isn’t true. Not a lick of it.”
I watched the skin of his cheeks sag as he spoke, causing his bones to stick out and his eyes to look bluer, more fragile, wondering again, how I got into this relationship with this ex-bank robber, this self proclaimed “bad Catholic,” this man who spent time in a federal prison.
“It’s all rules— all guilt,” he continued, his voice coming out in small, weak breaths. “ Jesus may have been a good man— but believe me young lady—“ he smacked his lips together. “There’s no way he was the Christ.”
He tugged at his collar, trying in vain to straighten it, looking more serious, more sad, than he had all morning.
He loved a woman once, this man who robbed banks, the man they called “bat boy” because he was trying to save enough to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates. Her name was Peggy. He stumbled upon her in a 1945 version of Giant Eagle, and a piece of his soul jumped right out of his chest, past his knitted sweater, and right into her basket, which she threw on the counter and drug out of the store without a second glance. But something about the combination of her blonde hair and her smile put a spell on him, so strong that he made a vow to the Virgin Mary to never marry. It was self inflicted punishment because he wasn’t good enough for Peggy.
Because of Peggy, because of the Virgin Mary, this man the bank robber is an eighty four year old virgin. “Do you believe that religion can ruin a life yet?” He asked me, smiling sadly.
The other day on the street a woman stopped me, shoved a bundle of scriptures in my face and asked me, argumentatively, if I was aware that I have a Heavenly Mother as well as a Heavenly Father. She was intrusive and opinionated, and when I disagreed with her, she began to yell at me, right there in the middle of the sidewalk, so that cars slowed down to watch as they drove past. I left feeling angry, violated, and unheard. Is this why people dread running into Christians? I wondered.
Two women, clad in hats and mittens, began talking with me today about the weather as our bus trudged through freezing rain and snow. I told them I was not ready for winter. They told me we all just need to pray to the One Above for some warm winds— but we all have to do it, otherwise it won’t work.
And the question that eats at me now, as I sit in a quiet apartment with a mountain of schoolwork, is when did God become a joyless hammer of guilt and petulance, a woman, and an easily persuaded weatherman?
Because, really, it’s all a bit silly, isn’t it? This whole—religion thing. That God would come in human form, would perform miracles and heal people, would die, would be raised again so that we can be forgiven for our sins. It’s a method of manipulation— of coercing people to live a certain way, under a restrictive, guilt ridden set of rules. Religion is another word for threatening people with an eternal barbecue, for which you could be the main course if you don’t listen to what I have to say, dearest. Why would God need to die anyway? Why would it matter? Why does any of it matter?
“Just you wait,” the bank robber said, nodding confidently. “One day you’ll ask questions that don’t have answers. Then you’ll know what I know— that there is no God.”
My dad became a Christian when he was twenty one. He didn’t mean to— he wanted to go to a rock concert. His friend invited him to church before the concert, and he went. He says he met that night a God who knew everything he ever did and loved him anyway, and from that day on, he was a different man.
My dad became a Christian while working toward his Ph.D. in Electrochemistry. He rode a motorcycle and had wild hair, not a likely candidate for all that religious dogma. He just met Jesus, plain and simple, and he was changed.
I think part of the problem with the stigma of religion is that it’s been put in the hands of men who wish to use it only to create power and order. Men have used it for centuries to inflict guilt and shame upon people under the pretense of religion, when that has never been the message of the gospel. And we respond to it by either wearing our guilt and taking life long vows to atone for ourselves somehow, we change God and tweak the Bible until it fits our own preferences and comforts, or we reduce God in our minds to the One Above who changes the ten day forecast.
One day you’ll ask questions that don’t have answers.
I wonder for a moment, if he could look into my heart and see the pile of unknowns, anxieties, questions that need answering that have sat so long they’re fermenting. I wonder if he’d believe me if I told him, I have asked those questions. That I may not have lost a Peggy, but I too, have known grief and asked why. I too, have sat in church and wondered if there is any truth in this; if we aren’t all part of a giant hoax. That I may never have taken bags of money from the vault of a bank but I too, have regrets. That I too, have stayed up all night and I too, have longed for answers, and I too, have ignorantly wished for God to be nothing more than a well wisher and pleasant weatherman. I too, have wanted to walk away.
But believing something or not does not make it any more or less real.
I have asked and demanded a hundred questions of the Bible, of its validity and relevance. I have looked for holes, for inconsistencies, for historical discrepancies. But the more I ask, the more I believe, because the Bible has stood up to every single one of my questions, leading me to believe that this Jesus is in fact the Son of God, that he is something more splendid and beautiful than we can even currently imagine, and to believe that he did not come to impose on us a series of rules and expectations we can never meet, but rather to set us free from them.
I think Jesus, from what I’ve read and experienced of him, would get along with my friend the bank robber as well as, and maybe even better than, the next person. That he loves him, even after knowing everything he ever did, died and lived again in order that he might taste life. And I wonder, in all those years in the Catholic Church, if anyone ever told him that.
“Tell me you agree with me, Rachael,” he said. “Tell me you don’t believe any of this Christ business.”
One day you’ll ask questions that don’t have answers.
That night I met a God who knew everything I ever did and loved me anyway.
Believing something does not make it any more or less real.
I have been convinced of a God who is much more dangerous and powerful than any weather man, and yet much more full of joy than any set of rules, who has loved us with an everlasting love. And his hope is an anchor for my soul, firm and secure.
“I can’t, sir,” I responded. “Because I do believe this Christ business, very much.”