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Undelivered Messages, Ineffective Inoculation



In accordance with the jail's regulations, I snail-mailed Wally several postcards with messages of varying importance. I started sending them out on October 17th. They started coming back to me this past Friday, November 4. Why? Not for lack of a return address -- I'm glad I put one of those on each card; otherwise, I'd never have known they were rejected.

Why were they rejected? Because the return address I included was on a pre-printed label (with a heart). "NO LABELS" said the, um, label that the jail-snail-mail guardian affixed to the card. So I can expect the other half-dozen or so cards to make their way back to me as well. Fortunately, there is now a public defender in the mix. We have spoken and exchanged emails. He seems like he knows his stuff and has demonstrated a willingness to convey urgent messages that can't wait for postcards. But, because mail is likely to be a vital morale-booster, I've started cranking them out again, without labels this time. Oh, and blue or black ink only... [eyeroll].

I've had several conversations about Wally's situation with friends and family members. One of the family members is Carl's sister Melanie. Melanie is the religious one in the family. She was quite supportive over the phone, having been through something similar with a nephew. Inevitably, though, she had to ask me "the question."  "Is Wally saved? Does he have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?"
I gave her the best non-answer I could possibly muster. Fact is, I seriously doubt it. Wally was born two years after I entered my born-again Christian phase and left home about two months before I abandoned Christianity completely. I had made sure he got his "churchin'" because I believed that children needed it, but could never really immerse myself in the uber-Christianity I saw being practiced by some of my pew-mates. I kept us at a distance, making sure to embrace the positive aspects (friends, caring adults, community, charity) and tactfully avoiding the heavier stuff, which basically boiled down to a bunch of people trying to outdo one another in the fundie department. However, I never felt that Wally got any kind of toxic dose when it came to religion. While he did claim to have been "saved" at a camp event when he was 11, he always demonstrated a very healthy skepticism from an early age, even when I didn't. He gravitated toward people at church who were friendly -- not those who demanded respect and threw their weight around. He's an astute judge of character (for better or for worse) and probably always will be. Like me, he had parents who came from two different traditions, and was exposed to both. Like me, he equates religious fervor with intellectual blindness. But we all come to our own conclusions, and my close interactions with Wally have been scant for the last nine years. So I have no way to measure or even estimate his spiritual condition. Nor am I inclined to -- I'm much more concerned about his physical, mental and emotional state, not how much he believes in imaginary beings.

I know Melanie quite well. She's not at all difficult to read. I also follow her on the most popular social network and get lots of forwarded emails from her. It's clear that she believes everyone "needs Jesus." Here are two of the most common themes I get from her:

  1. People should "get Jesus" early in their lives, because people with Jesus are protected from the world's problems. 
  2. If someone "got Jesus" and is still having trouble in their lives, they need "more Jesus."
Um, so let's take a look at this. The first notion suggests that Jesus is something like a vaccine. You get it while you're healthy, and then if you catch a sickness, the vaccine works to deflect the sickness from you, or greatly minimize the effects.

Now, I know some vaccinations require booster shots. Like many people who were born before 1978 or so, I have a dime-sized whitish scar in my upper arm. It's a smallpox vaccination, or just "my vaccination" as we all called it as kids. After 9/11, when everyone feared that terrorists would snatch the remaining beaker of smallpox pathogen from a lab and unleash it on the world, there was a lot of discussion about whether our vaccinations would still be effective if we got them during the 1950s or 1960s. Booster shots were proposed, but the idea didn't really catch on. However, I've gotten plenty of tetanus boosters, and am open to any other boosters that may become widely recommended in the coming years.

Is "Jesus" the kind of "vaccine" that needs a booster? In my churchgoing years, I was often assured that "Once you're saved, you're always saved. You can't become unsaved."  This, in my opinion, was the god-squad's attempt to lock you in to belief. They were trying to say that if you lose faith, you can't "become a better Christian" by attending church more often or tithing more or attending more bible studies. It was an intangible, spiritual type of thing. Only "an offense against the holy spirit" could point you back toward hell, they said -- but I don't recall any of the many evangelists I caught on the radio or in books explaining what constituted an offense against the holy spirit. So you still get to linger in uncertainty. Did that string of uncensored cuss-words you uttered when you dropped a pan of lasagna all over the kitchen floor offend the h.s. enough to scare the be-Jesus out of you? Was it that moment of vain enjoyment when someone other than your spouse told you you looked really hot with your new haircut? Or perhaps, defecting to the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?

It appears, in the final analysis, that "getting more Jesus" involves thinking happy thoughts and casting aside any expectation that anyone (the lawyers, the judges, the jury, the witnesses, counselors, family or friends) can influence the outcome. It is certainly true that legal cases quite often take unexpected turns, for better or for worse. Is this a sign that Jesus is involved? If the outcome favors the prosecution in one case and the defense in another, what might that mean? Wouldn't that make filing an appeal a form of blasphemy? If I were Jesus and I caused a case to come out with the defendant being found guilty, I'd be pretty pissed off if some attorney decided to second-guess me by going for a second opinion in an appeals court.

The legal system is complicated and often incomprehensible. I certainly understand the allure of giving your brain a rest, hoping that the random nature of human existence will kick in and defy the odds in your favor. I don't even doubt that a lot of things that happen in life follow that very course. I also believe, to a limited extent, that reaching out to the accumulated wisdom of the millennia and the collective ethos of most of humanity in order to improve your relationships with others and keep yourself free of incarceration is a pretty good idea.

If "get more Jesus" is shorthand for the above, then all righty. Sure, why not? But unfortunately, I suspect that Melanie's definition is a lot, um, narrower than any of that. There are plenty of areas where I will accept responsibility for incrementally contributing to Wally's deviation from the path of success, but religious upbringing (or lack thereof) is not one of them. I'm not about to do a 180 and start feeding him pre-digested scripture verses. I'm sure there's plenty of that to be had at the jail, along with refined carbs and empty calories that look tasty and filling but ultimately leave you malnourished.

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