By Cat Jones
“Save me. I can’t be saved. (I won’t.)”
— Portugal the Man
Chapter one: God Pamphlets and Cartoon Salvation
It’s early morning, in the hills of Wyoming, and I am on a pilgrimage. I’m crossing the country, again, and I have a lot of time to think. Maybe it’s the caffeine that inspires me, this morning, to experience a breakthrough concerning a parable I’ve been mulling over for awhile. Or maybe it’s that Salvation, with a capital S, seems almost like it might actually be attainable out here, in these rolling foothills below the Tetons, bronzed with the morning light. I feel almost clean again. I have a new perspective on a lot of things in this green and open air, and something that happened months ago, back home in New York, comes drifting to mind as I consider the huge questions, beneath a giant sky. These are the questions everybody has, I guess, regarding existence, the universe, and the possibility of any kind of point to it all. Sometimes you can get a hint of an answer in the random clues God, or whoever, gives you. An inference. If you can’t read such a subtle whisper, then the answers pretty much evade you. These hills are filled with whispers. And I’m trying to hear them.
So let me share the parable. This is a true story. It begins with a very real character in my strange neighborhood back in New York. The only detail that I’ve changed is his name. And I mainly only did that because I don’t really know his name, but I bet it’s probably Richard. He looks like a Richard. But I’m going to call him Sal. Which is short for Salvation. I think he would appreciate that part, anyway even if it doesn’t strictly suit him.
Sal wanders up and down my street, handing out God fliers to believers. He has grey eyes that always seem to be masking a sad, private joke. He seems shy, from a distance, and is not a bad looking man, if you like that type. He has a soft look about him that turns out to be shockingly at odds with the snarky fire and brimstone that come tumbling from his mouth, or the secret poisons he’s constantly injecting into keyboards, not to mention the air between himself and his apostles. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.
So there was this fragrant afternoon in the newborn spring when the light was a lot like it is right now, tinged with golden grace, the long rays at the other side of the day. It was nearing sunset, one of the first warm days, and all the city was joyfully celebrating the returning of the light. I was sitting on my stoop, contentedly sipping Blue Moon and watching people, my city and our bodies just waking up with the spring. I saw Sal from some distance, noticed him winding his way along, among people who were trying not to notice him, not to make eye contact, not to engage him. People don’t like to be proselytized much, and everyone was doing their best to fend him off. In retrospect, I’m sure he sees that as a biblical failing on their part, perhaps a private joke between him and his angry God. A vindication of his own disdain for other people. But on that afternoon, I felt sad for him. I projected a nervous sense of rejection into him, onto the scene unfolding along the sidewalk; I imagined him suffering some kind of psychic pain with each person who turned away from him, waving off the pamphlet so hopefully held out to them. One by one by one.
There he was, just trying to save their souls, I thought, and everyone was being so coldly ungrateful for the effort. No one was even looking him in the eye. How dehumanizing. I hurt for him. So by the time he got to me, I had decided not to be that person. I would take his flier and thank him for it, I’d decided. I would hear him out.
It’s not that I wanted to be subjected to someone else’s religious dogma either. I don’t like those God pamphlets any more than anyone else did on the street that afternoon. (Well, except there was one, once. It was a “What Happens When You Die” flowchart, if you can believe the presumptuousness of that. Now THAT was entertaining. But that was an exception.) These things are usually just ridiculously simplistic – angry, toxic, unhelpful missives that illustrate a basic misunderstanding concerning the literature of the very religion they claim to be speaking for. An ironic and offensive blend of hatred, patronizing condescension and childish ignorance, often illustrated with badly rendered and vaguely disturbing cartoon drawings. Mainly of Hell. The stuff of candied nightmares.
And this is a shame, by the way. I’m no Christian, but I have studied Christianity, along with a lot of other religious traditions, and I have been surprised to discover that it’s actually a very beautiful religion when not twisted up in small and angry minds. Like any good anarchist, I’d once looked arrogantly down my nose at this “organized religion” I thought I knew so much about for having grown up in a country where it’s as patriotic as the flag. (I cringe now, to recall how self righteous I must have been in my absolutist rejection of it and anyone who practiced it, knowing nothing beyond Jimmy Swagart and Oral Roberts.) It was only when I got into college and started studying comparative religion as a minor that I learned what a blind spot I’d had about this one – Christianity isn’t just gross televangelists and bloody crusades and slut-baiting, misogynist, homophobic, puritans. In fact, none of those things has any more to do with Christianity than Ronald McDonald has to do with gastronomy.
Really it’s a fascinating religion; Its literature is filled with mystical and poetic allegory, and with a very radical, social justice edge that almost everyone who has ever thumped upon a bible has relentlessly failed to grasp. Until the letters to the epistles get involved, it’s even feminist.
So these God pamphlets, and the people who wield them, are almost universally dissatisfying in that respect, in their failure to fairly understand or represent the teachings of their own foundational literature. While I, too, looked upon the fliers in Sal’s hand with some distaste, I didn’t want to let that show. I wanted to suspend judgment, to give him a chance. I wanted to be polite. Respectful. I felt that he’d suffered through enough rejection on his way to my stoop, and I wanted to be nice to him. And here he presently was, offering to enlighten me. I smiled warmly at him, welcoming him to speak. And so he did.
“Do you believe there is life after death?” He began, and I’ve got to hand it to him here, that’s a pretty good intro. A little hackneyed, I guess, but it’s got some drama, taps into the Eternal Question, draws in the audience by asking for some feedback. And see, he hooked me a little here, too. Because I’ve had a lot of reason to wonder about this question in my world, and this is something that’s been looming in my mind for awhile now. The thing is, my lover died a few years back, from cancer, and I miss him a lot. I was right there with him when he left this world, but I don’t know where he got to… if anywhere. This has been a heavy question for me. I want him to still, you know, to BE, somewhere. Somehow.
And the fact that all the rest of us are going to die some day as well? Well that’s a big bunch of terror, isn’t it. This is especially so for one who has been close enough to its impact as to not be able to live blissfully in denial anymore, like everyone who hasn’t been so near tries to do. So yes. I’d like some reassurance. Very much so.
This question is one I constantly wrestle with, and Sal, in asking it over the top of his neatly buckled briefcase filled with literature, well he kind of indicated that he believed he had an answer. I fell for it a little. What do they call that, in sociology? The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective. He had the trappings, and they spoke to me. I was dubious, but some intrepid little part of me thought, well, I mean you never know. See, he’s got a briefcase. So I got serious about it, and I gave him a thoughtful answer.
“I fervently hope so,” I said, and I utterly meant it. “But I have absolutely no idea,” I added honestly. And I really don’t. I have no answers. No idea.
“What if I could prove to you that there is such a thing as Eternal Life,” he said. “That the soul can live on after death.”
God yes, I thought. Please prove this to me. I hadn’t been expecting the answer to come from a Christian propagandist, but you never know what form the Teacher will take. Stranger things have happened. I was genuinely interested, over my Blue Moon, in what this man might have to say.
But …well, “How long will it take,” I asked. I mean, I had to be a little practical about it. If he could really prove the existence of an afterlife to me, I was more than willing to hear him out. But the skeptic in me was reluctant to devote too much of the golden afternoon to what was probably going to be empty propaganda. So, well I didn’t want to be rude, but how much time was I committing to here, in engaging in this conversation? I thought we should be clear on this before proceeding.
“Maybe three or four minutes,” he said.
Fuck, man. No kidding. This guy was gonna prove to me that there is life after death in 3 or 4 minutes. He was gonna show me that Sid could still be Sid somewhere, that everything isn’t just fucking pointless after all. In just a few minutes. Christ, how could I not give him that chance?
“All right,” I said, suddenly (perhaps ridiculously, in retrospect) completely open to the possibility that, maybe, just maybe, this quietly unassuming man could be the teacher I’d been searching for. Maybe he really could convince me. He was about to offer up a theory that I could examine for myself. Sign me up. I leaned forward and eagerly waited for him to make his case.
“Well, first,” he began, “Do you believe that all people are basically evil?” He didn’t say “sinners,” or maybe I’d have answered differently. He said evil. Basically evil.
This was kind of a tough one for me. Because I’m something of a misanthrope. People get on my nerves a lot. But are they basically evil? Well some of them certainly are. And a lot of their behavior certainly is sinful. But that isn’t what he was asking. He was asking whether I believe all of us are intrinsically, basically, evil. And I’m not sure I do. So I had to think about this a minute.
I took the question seriously. On the one hand, people can be really fucked up. Look how they treat nonhuman animals. Look how shitty some people are, even to each other. Look how crappy some of them have been to me. They certainly are sinners, that’s for sure. But are we all “basically evil”? I thought about the people I’ve come to love. The people in the margins, whom I’ve come to call my people. I thought about Ben the Dog, who thinks I’m an angel. (Ben’s real name is George the Bear, and he said I could say that.) He might have his problems, but there’s no way anyone could credibly call him evil. I think he’s even more likely to be an angel than he thinks I am.
I thought about my upstairs neighbor, “Jim,” who once kicked Ben the Dog/ George the Bear. Jim has said and done a lot of really shitty things since I have known him. But is he, himself, basically evil? No, I don’t think so. I think he has a good heart, even if it has to pass through a whole grid of fucked up worldview to get out.
I thought about my friend Inde, who has literally risked her life and her freedom again and again and again for the earth and the animals, who fights relentlessly for what she believes is right. She’s broken some laws and gone to jail for it, if that’s what a “sinner” is (and I don’t think it is), but she is anything but evil. She is closer to wayward saint.
I thought about my friend Matt, quiet and polite, not such an obviously radical firebrand as Inde, but just as much a saintly warrior. Matt has been fighting for the oppressed and saving the lives of nonhuman animals all his life. I’ve seen him risk his own safety and well-being for others many times, including a harrowing farm pig rescue he once helped me with, where he was willing to climb into the back of a trailer with stressed out, terrified, 4 month old, 350lb pigs to keep them from hurting each other as they screamed and fought on their way to sanctuary. The reason he popped into my mind right then is that he’d just returned to the US after helping to get 33 former circus lions out of South America and over to sanctuary in South Africa. How can someone who does shit like that be evil? He can’t. Matt, too, is anything but “evil.”
There were so many people flashing through my mind at this question of Good and Evil. People whose love and altruism convince me that sainthood is real, and people who have done bad things but have good hearts. People I love, and people I don’t even like but can’t honestly pretend are evil. And I thought of Sid, himself, the reason I was so interested in this question at all. There’s no way that Sid could ever be described as anything less than good to the heart. In fact, I could not think of a single soul whom I know for a fact to be completely evil, and could only think of one whom I consider to be almost certainly demonic and mostly evil. So, that surprised me some indeed. Although I might not often have a very high opinion of my own species, and although I had thought of myself as a misanthrope, I had to admit this new revelation to Sal, and to myself, when confronted with the question of whether or not all humans are sinners, basically evil:
“No,” I said thoughtfully, after a long moment of consideration, “I think some of them are very good hearted.”
Wow. This felt weird to admit. Already Sal’s ministration was revealing new insight. I would never have guessed that I secretly believe that people are basically good. I waited expectantly for his next revelation, already warming up to the idea that maybe he really could offer me some enlightenment after all.
But Sal turned out to be a little disappointing on this count. In fact, he turned out to be very much of a letdown. Much less inspiring in the role of spiritual teacher than I had hoped. It turns out, that the question of evil was for screening purposes only. A test. And I had not given Sal what he considered to be the correct answer. Far from moving on to teach me the wonders of heaven, his whole demeanor immediately darkened. His soft look of bafflement transformed into a derisive smirk. With a snort and a flick of his hand, he …he just summarily dismissed me.
“Awhp,” he clucked, “You can’t be saved.” And just like that, he turned his back and walked away.
What? That’s it? No God pamphlet? Not even a flowchart? What kind of a street preacher is THAT?! Where is the enlightenment that I was hoping for? That I was promised? There was some false advertising in that promise, it seemed, and I objected to this.
“Hey!” I called to Sal’s retreating form. “I thought you were gonna prove to me that there’s life after death?” (And I take this seriously, as I said. I have reason to.)
Sal seemed surprised that I would even question his departure. He stopped, at least, and briefly turned around. Cocking his head to the side as if he couldn’t believe he had to explain this to me, he elbowed out his arms in an awkward shrug.
“If you don’t believe people are sinners, then you can’t be saved,” he said, matter-of-factly. With furrowed brow, he squinted at me as if the plain truth of this should be self evident. Just to be clear, it wasn’t that I believed humans weren’t often sinners; I just didn’t believe they are all necessarily evil. But I was too astonished, honestly, to even argue this, to have any response at all. I just looked at Sal, waiting for something more. He shrugged again, then turned and walked away.
What Did That Mean?
So I’ve been mulling this over for months. Admittedly, this story did at least give me something to laugh about, even though it had a sharp edge. Shortly after Sal shrugged and walked away, my friend Aylon came walking up to my stoop, fresh from Brooklyn, all handsome and self assured and unconcerned about salvation. “‘Sup,” he grinned.
“Well I’m disconcerted,” I said. “It seems I can’t be saved.” And I told him the tale. Other friends came, and everybody laughed. But… something about the whole exchange stayed with me, and rankled.
It’s not like Sal gave any indication, in retrospect, that he might be qualified to pass such a judgment upon me – even less than I had thought, it turns out. When I told this story to my friend Jen, who used to work at the vegan coffee shop across the street, she informed me that this same man had been banned from the shop for being scary, rude, and potentially violent. He had been fantasizing online about killing them all. Doug, who also worked there, directed me to some of this man’s online ranting, and it reads like the journal of a mass shooter. Peppered with racial slurs, misogyny, and hatred, it’s a scary read. I didn’t see the piece that got him banned from Brakes, where he referred to the women there as “the three Jezebels” and suggested violence. But I did see a couple of other essays, where he hates everyone, calls all women Jezebels, and throws the N word around like an hors d’oeuvre. So, I’m in good company in his Hell, anyway.
What would he know about redemption, and why should I be taking this to heart. But I’ve had my own doubts about salvation, mine and the world’s, and something about this incident has been haunting me.
In part, the silly ridiculousness of it frustrated me in some kind of existential way. I mean, if one already has to be converted in order to be “saved,” then what is the point of being saved at all? If, by virtue of my not already being a Believer, I am beneath this person’s proselytizing ministrations, then what exactly is the point of him? Does the choir really want or need to be preached to in the streets? Spiritual exhibitionism. Wtf.
But it isn’t just that. I was silly for having expected any more from him than I got, but this whole thing just underlined my relentless fear that maybe no one has any answers. And how scary is THAT?
So these are the things I’ve been mulling over in the vastness of the green and silent void that is Wyoming. And suddenly, just now, as the fingers of God reach down through the clouds and touch the hills with rays of glorious light, igniting my already caffeine-inspired mindscape, a spark of enlightenment is revealed.
“If you don’t believe people are sinners, then you can’t be saved,” he had said. I ponder this a moment. And then it dawns upon me… If you don’t believe people are sinners, then maybe you don’t need to be saved.
I mean, it must really hurt to believe we’re all just evil. It was, in fact, a revelation to me to realize I don’t really hate us after all. And maybe that revelation is all I really needed? Maybe that’s the secret. Maybe it’s the people who hate themselves and their reflection in everyone else who require salvation. Maybe whatever speech Sal was about to give was meant to be a word map out of that particular funk, and I don’t need that map. Or maybe that was my salvation… a gentle bump to show me we’re not so bad after all. Maybe, by virtue of this recognition, I’m already living in a state of grace, and that’s why he couldn’t save me. I am saved!
It still doesn’t say much about an afterlife, but possibly Salvation is within my grasp anyway.
I laugh. Full of relief and joy in this green and gold expanse, “at play in the fields of the Lord.” I do not think it’s what Sal meant. (Surely a guy who got ejected from a vegan coffee shop for scaring everyone and calling women Jezebels isn’t going to have a grasp of nuance that goes that far.) But maybe that’s what God means at least. Whoever that is. I think maybe God, The Universe, whatever that is that I feel here, running along with me in these rolling fields, has a sense of humor. And maybe that’s why she sent that strange messenger to be the teacher of this lesson. A wink and a nudge to a pilgrim on the journey.
And that would have been the end of the story. Except….
(This story got a whole lot more interesting when I reached Minneapolis. Click here to read Part II, “Me and Saint Paul on the Road.”)