Violence, Hatred, and the Desperate Search for Moral Certainty
For many people religious practice is an outlet for rage
This story was originally published on Medium in April, 2021. It has been updated to repair the title and description.
Like every fire and brimstone preacher, Christian cult leader and conspiracy theory maven Sherry Shriner relied heavily on the Bible to foment fear and encourage hatred.
She did it with a duplicitous honesty that continues to catch so-called “normal” preachers off guard. By using some of the more heinous passages from the Bible, Sherry laid bare the lie that God is perfectly happy to wait for his people to come around.
I spent a year looking into Sherry’s cult trying to understand her attraction and power. One recurring theme was that God punishes the enemies of the righteous. If you drop the hippie-Jesus interpretation, that very well may be the point of the Bible.
Normal preachers don’t have nearly as much to work with, so they have to be a little acrobatic. They bang their heads against the text, trying to turn Bible stories about torture, judgement, and horror into tales of hope, redemption, and the rewards of faith. They are doomed to obfuscate and people can smell it on them.
From the fiery pit of damnation, the rich man begged Lazarus for help or pity, asking him to just flick a little water down, anything for a moment’s relief for the insane torture…Lazarus ignored him.
The spittle flying from the fire-and-brimstone preachers is the acid truth that God hates and gleefully kills his enemies. People like Sherry Shriner tell it like it is. And we all know how Americans love a leader who tells it like it is.
I’ve come to understand that some stories told by normal preachers can’t be reimagined Wicked-style, that the heroes in the Bible are as atrocious as the villains.
It confused me when I was a child, the idea that we should celebrate the torture of the righteous (martyrs, Jesus, John the Baptist) right along with the torture of the wicked, like the “Foolish Rich Man” in the story of Lazarus (not the raised-from-the-dead one).
Christ relayed this tale of comeuppance story amidst a hail of parables, each more disappointing than the last.
Once upon a time, a poor beggar named Lazarus languished at a rich man’s gate. The dogs licked at his festering wounds and fought with him over scraps from the rich man’s table.
When Lazarus and the rich man each died they went to heaven and hell, respectively. From the fiery pit of damnation, the rich man begged Lazarus for help or pity, asking him to just flick a little water down, anything for a moment’s relief for the insane torture.
Lazarus ignored him.
Finally, Abraham, of near-baby-murder fame, shows up to address the eternally damned man.
“You had your chance and you blew it,” the patriarch of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism tells him. “Plus, you’re in hell now, and people can’t cross back and forth. It’s against the rules.”
As a weird aside, I once heard a priest explain as part of his sermon that the scraps were likely greasy bread. He went on to tell us that before napkins came into wide use, people would wipe their hands on the soft inside of bread and throw it away, or to the dogs.
That’s what he wanted to focus on, the degradation of eating another person’s bread-napkin. It retrospect, it’s probably because this is a story without a lot of moral outrage. I don’t blame him for trying to up the stakes.
The story ends with the rich man asking if Lazarus can go back to Earth and warn everyone. Abraham said they already have prophets they don’t listen to, adding (a little conveniently, I think, given that Jesus is telling the story), that if they’re already ignoring the prophets, they probably won’t change their ways even if someone came back from the dead.
If the Lazarus story was disturbing at church, it was downright horrible as a Sunday morning cartoon. The rich man’s trip to hell was very 1970s bizarro Electric Company or School House Rock, that kind of hastily compiled animation.
The characters bobbed up and down as if they were finger puppets, creatures not so much without expression as without transitional emotions. The narrator did all the heavy lifting.
Everyone in hell was naked, in agony, and wading through lava. I remember being shocked that there was nudity on television, but the women didn’t have nipples so I guess it was tasteful as well as educational. The Rich Fool begging for relief, his predicament juxtaposed with Lazarus lounging around heaven like Nero.
That your ultimate reward for being a good and selfless person is to listen for eternity to the tortured wails of the damned as if it were the world’s least-pleasant elevator music only amplified the horror. We’ve all been in a doctor’s waiting room that had the television volume set to “reeducation camp.” And that’s the best case scenario.
We’re given to believe that another part of your reward includes recognizing the tortured and taking comfort in your superiority. Like having the high school bully pumping gas into your Jaguar, it’s a fantasy of the shallow and unimaginative.
The Real Real Real Meaning of Bible Stories
If you’d like to waste a couple good hours looking on YouTube, you might find this cartoon, but mostly you’ll find apologists talking about how this story is in no way about enjoying the suffering of others, I think.
The video headlines were a variation on “What Jesus really meant,” but I didn’t watch them. I have no respect for apologetics. It’s a faux-intellectual endeavor that rots the mind.
Still, these were the stories told in attempts to build us up and make us better Christians. If you listen long enough you stop noticing that they’re nonsensical, contradictory and mean, especially if you don’t go to church as a way to validate your hatred.
Sloshing around in Sherry’s hellfire preaching, I noticed stories of God’s acute and specific punishment of the wicked took a much more central role. I think that is the first place I heard the story of Elisha and the Two Bears.
In addition to 12 years of Catholic school, I spent about a decade going to Vacation Bible School. Lives of the Saints and Bible Verses for Children were books I had and read regularly.
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I would have sworn I knew most of the Bible stories, but Elisha and the Two Bears didn’t ring a bell with me, and it absolutely would have because it makes the Lazarus story look like a tender yarn.
Sherry and her people loved Elisha and the Two Bears. Several that I was able to contact told it to me. It goes like this:
Once upon a time, Elisha was walking along minding his own business and doing the lord’s work when a bunch of kids came out of the city and told him to take his kooky religion and his bald head and keep on moving:
“From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. ‘Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!’”
Elisha got mad and cursed them, so God sent two bears to MAUL 42 OF THE 50 KIDS TO DEATH.
Praise be to God.
Apologists haven’t been able to do much with this story, the most creative among them pointed out that “kids” could also be translated as “young men” because somehow two holy bears tearing through 42 young men while God’s prophet smiles down at the agony, the gore, and the massive loss of life with satisfaction is easier to digest, I guess.
A License to Hate
Sherry and her people trotted this out when they thought she was being mocked. The implication being that people on the wrong side of Sherry died badly and, whenever they did, it was a direct judgement from a vicious God.
One of her minions delivered it as a kind of veiled threat against me, or maybe an open threat. I don’t know which. Clarity isn’t really their thing. Caught in a lie and challenged during our message exchange he warned me to remember about Elisha and the Two Bears:
“Don’t forget the story of the children that taunted the Bald Prophet calling him baldy baldy etc. He called a Bear from the woods and the bear killed them all.”
Maybe he never even read the story. He got an awful lot wrong in just two sentences. Whether he got the details right is secondary to the central message: he is one of the chosen and if I mock the chosen I could end up bear food.
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Should I die or suffer a tragedy, he will rejoice because it’s evidence that God hates me. He will rejoice because he knows that God only hates justly, which confirms that he was correct to hate me, too.
Known agent of Satan, David Rockefeller, hung on well into old age, but Sherry’s cult still celebrated God’s victory when the lord finally got around to destroying the 102-year-old: “Welcome to Hell Rockefeller Your Money Didn’t Save You!” they gloated.
I want to return that hate, and I struggle not to. It’s not novel to say is that no good has been done in God’s name that couldn’t have otherwise been done, but that you can’t say the same about evil.
The thing I’ve been struggling with is this inkling that more people than we’d like to believe are drawn to God because he is the last one who gives us instruction as well as permission to hate, and it seems to be playing out.
People are abandoning traditional churches because it’s getting harder and harder to get their weekly hate fix. So much so, that even the Catholic Church just reaffirmed its proclamation that gays weren’t fully human.
That gay people choose to be abominations before the Lord and deserve to be chastised for it puts butts in pews of all denominations, but it must get a lot of Catholics out of bed on a Sunday. I suspect when the Pope seemed to hedge on gays possibly being good people, collection-plate hauls plummeted requiring a firm corrective statement.
People of conscience who make their livings trying to minister to people’s souls increasingly are faced with this real and terrible problem: Given that much of what goes down in the Bible is mean, brutish, and violent, how do you use it inspire?
I know that many of them can and do, and I admire the effort, but you can only tell the story of the Good Samaritan so many times. The rest of the Good Book seems to be about discovering and eliminating non-believers and encouraging damnation Schadenfreude. Certainly it’s the part that interests people.
I Just Don’t Get It
I will just never see the attraction, this gleeful gut-reaction to human suffering and frailty. This relentless drive to say why your neighbors are evil and don’t deserve your pity any more than did those children who made fun of a religious kook’s bald pate.
The desire to force others not only to respect your superstitions but be legally and culturally bound by them. And of course, the glee of their assured salvation and our assured destruction and eternal torture.
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This is where it gets tricky for me. I know a lot of really good people who claim to be Christian. I say “claim” because I’ve spoken with some self-identifying Christians who believe that the reptilians who run the government are actually fallen angels serving Lucifer.
I’ve also spoken with self-identifying Christians who believe in an all forgiving God and deny the possibility of hell. Each and every shade of Christian claims the others have it wrong, as if that somehow explains the endemic cultural damage and the lives ruined in an effort to show we’re trying to make God happy.
The good people who claim to be Christian talk about how their faith is restorative, how the songs at church uplift them, and make them feel like they’re part of a community that’s working for good in the world. It’s unfortunate, but when I write about “religious people” they get caught up in that description and it can upset them.
I mean, I get why it’s upsetting, but I don’t know what I can do about it. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t distinguish between people who believe I deserve to be ripped apart by bears and people who believe I have an eternal soul.
Those are both Christian beliefs and have plenty of Biblical support. I’d say they should work it out among themselves, but after more than 2,000 years of various holy wars, I just don’t know whether they’re up to it.
In the meantime I’ll treat “Not All Christians” the way I treat “Not All Men” as a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s at stake and what has been lost to the evil of bad actors.
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Tony Russo is a journalist and author of “Dragged Into the Light: Truthers, Reptilians, Super Soldiers, and Death Inside an Online Cult.” Subscribe to his Bagel Manifesto here.