How Unexamined Beliefs Could Literally Kill Us
(Originally published Jan 2021 on vocal.media)
My Christmas paraphernalia is still out. I usually give it a week into the new year before I start thinking about undecorating. By then, well actually before New Year’s, I’m thoroughly fried on Christmas music, Christmas movies, and Christmas food, with the exception of eggnog which calls me to marshall every last ounce of my will power to stop drinking because that’s some tasty shit any time of year and thank you sweet baby Jesus the stores stop carrying it otherwise I’d probably most likely be still swilling that creamy goodness. I think I’ve made my feelings on eggnog crystal clear. Not taking down any decorations for at least a week also gets me through Epiphany. It’s when some faith traditions observe the visit of the Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. In Latin American and some European countries it’s called Three Kings Day (Dia de Los Reyes) and it’s sometimes an even bigger celebration than Christmas Day.
Let me take this moment to invoke my annual tradition of calling for the Wise Men to be removed from all Nativity scenes. it propagates an untruthful narrative: they were NOT at the scene of the birth. Not to get too deep into the weeds here, but every biblical account of Jesus’ birth does not included the Wise Men. And it’s pretty clear from the only passage that mentions them that it was at some undetermined time after the birth. Some call their inclusion in Nativity artistic license. I call it lazy writing. It fascinates me how those who would use Bible literalism to stir up anti-gay sentiment don’t have a problem with this prevarication. And don’t get me started on the fact that no-one knows when Jesus was really born, and the scholarly research that disputes the location of his birth. Sorry Bethlehem, it was more likely Nazareth after all, but that wouldn’t fit the narrative of the prophecies would it? Virgin birth? Give me a break.
Don’t get me wrong: I love me some Christmas. Even after years of believing the story as fact. It’s a time that inspires generosity and compassion like no other time of the year. It's an occasion that bridges the secular and religious worlds. As a parent, some of my most cherished memories included the glee on my daughter’s face, including this past Christmas when, as a twenty-year-old, she unwrapped one of my gifts she didn’t see coming: a custom-ordered throw featuring a medieval-era image of a man falling from a tower with the quote, “Yippee-ki-yay thy fornicator of motherhood!” Yes…Die Hard is a Christmas movie and yes she’s her father’s daughter through and through and yes I’m super damn proud of her.
I had every intention to have packed up Christmas by now, but then on January 6th, Three Kings Day, the Capitol was breached by supporters of the President in a violently ham-handed attempt to stop the certification of an election he doesn’t believe he lost. People died, and the insurrectionists were so confident in their privilege that they recorded themselves before, during, and after their crimes, then voluntarily shared their videos and pictures with the world. Millions across the country and around the world watched in real time with disbelief and shock. Millions like myself are still processing what happened, what else might happen, and as a result we’ve been caught in a limbo of swirling thoughts and emotions that leave us paralyzed.
I am a pastor, and this past Sunday it took everything out of me to focus enough to prepare and deliver a sermon, then moderate our hospitality hour over Zoom. I’m still struggling to get a handle on how I feel about this. I know I’m sad and angry. I’m conflicted that I mourn the death of the two Capitol Police officers, but that I have no sympathy for the deaths of any of the rioters, especially the Darwin Award winner who electrocuted himself repeatedly in the testicles until his heart give out from the taser he held between his legs while trying to rip a painting from the wall. I wonder what accountability would look like for those who poured fuel on ,and fanned the flames of, this dumpster fire of a coup and the misinformation that led to it. I already feel the frustration that there won’t be enough accountability. The lack of security because of “optics” compared to the unnecessarily excessive show of force for the Black Lives Matter rally adds to the weight of the systemic racism felt for so long, even more acutely since last summer.
I realize that much of my disappointment stems from my assumption that people take the time, ever so often, to do a deep dive on their beliefs; to question the ones that don’t make sense; to release the ones that don’t hold up, even if they’ve been at the core of their identity. That last one is the hardest. It’s easy to forget that our beliefs serve us, not the other way round, and it’s okay, even healthy, to change them. Too often, and too easily, in an effort to meet our intrinsic need to belong and feel loved, we adopt beliefs that both our brain and heart rally against. Loneliness and loss, real or imagined, are powerful motivators. They are also very frightening. In an effort to fill the void we let ourselves believe the unbelievable. To quell the fear, “we turn on ourselves and make ourselves the enemy, the source of the problem…[we] make others the enemy [and] the greater the fear the more intense our hostility. Our enemy becomes the parent who never really respected us, the boss who is preventing us from being successful, a political group that is taking away our power or a nation that threatens our lives.” (from Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach)
Loving ourselves is so very hard. Some of us have a lifetime of internalized negative messages to delete so that there’s space to create our own narrative. The messages came from well-meaning parents struggling with their own worthiness; from abuse and trauma; from a society placing higher value on certain insignificant metrics; from a system built on generational oppression. Some of those tapes never fully go away, and then our work is to be mindful when they start playing and turn the volume down. When we don’t love ourselves and write our own narrative, we are easily swayed by those with a compelling story who appear to love us. In the wake of the attack on the Capitol, there has been a plea for the rioters to come to their sense because, “This is not who we are.” But it is who many of us are: frightened angry individuals who have not yet learned to accept and love ourselves, who can be swayed to the point of our own demise.
I no longer believe in the literal story of Christmas (or much of the Bible for that matter), but I can still appreciate its message of hope, and the reminder that there is always light in the darkness. I deconstructed my beliefs and came out the other side stronger than when I started. It was scary to challenge the beliefs I once held to be true. It still is. And fear is ego’s effort to avoid pain. Pain will not destroy us, but unexamined beliefs can. We all need a safe community and strong supportive friends who will always encourage us to challenge our beliefs and love ourselves. I am grateful for mine. They are the gift that keeps on giving.