I’m not a religious person. The only time I’m inside a church these days is for weddings or funerals. The only time I pray is when someone close to me – who was religious – dies. I don’t believe it’ll do anything, but it doesn’t hurt me and it would’ve been important to them.
So naturally I don’t take a lot of stock in the Bible, but I do believe there is a certain universality to stories. Whether you believe in the Bible literally, figuratively, or not at all it still represents a collection of stories, and stories tell us things about our shared existence.
News of the terrorist attacks in Paris is still coming in, but as I write this the estimated death toll is over 100. It’s horrifying, tragic, and numbing to all but the most vile and heartless of people (namely terrorists and apparently Donald Trump). There’s plenty of think-pieces that can be (and will be and have been) written about public outcries of sympathy like #PrayForParis, but this isn’t going to be one of them. I choose to believe that the majority of people expressing themselves on social media don’t know what else to do. They’re seeking a community out there in the vast emptiness of the universe; reaching out for anyone else.
That’s the terrible power of terrorism: it unmoors us from our casual existence and sends us off into the horrifying reality that no one is ever really safe from death, or from the unpredictability and unfathomable evil of their fellow man. We can beat our chests and say we won’t “let the terrorists win,” but they’ve already won. It’s a fixed game and we aren’t the ones stacking the deck.
Getting back to the Bible, there’s a story I remember from growing up Catholic about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is standing with Abraham and tells him that he plans to smite Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham challenges God saying “will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Abraham bargains with God that if He can find 50 righteous people in the city, He will spare it. Abraham – apparently never one to turn down a good deal – continues to push God and bargains Him down to 45, then 40, then 30, then 20, then 10. Basically, if you’re trying to buy a new car, Abraham is the guy you want to go shopping with you because this is a killer deal. God just has to find 10 people amidst two massive cities and He’ll spare everyone.
If you’re a pessimist (or Catholic) I don’t think I need to tell you how the story ends.
I’ve never really been able to suss out the lesson of Sodom and Gomorrah, besides the overly simplistic “be good or God will smite you,” because there’s more to it than that. Abraham’s brother, Lot, flees Sodom and is spared by God, but his wife – who looks back at the cities as they’re being destroyed – is turned to a pillar of salt. Vaporized for looking back. There’s not a great deal of context to sort out what Lot’s wife was thinking (in fact her name in the Bible is simply “Lot’s wife”), but I always thought her death was odd. That she was being punished for pitying the wicked as they suffered.
I’m sure there’re Biblical scholars that could do a better job of explaining this story and “what it means,” and my intention in bringing it up isn’t to shit on anyone’s beliefs, but there’s a certain finality without clarity to the story that I get reminded of whenever I’m faced with death. As human beings we’re naturally inquisitive and we seek to understand things – like death – that are beyond our ability to comprehend (beyond reductionist notions of “worm meat”).
Religion, from my perspective, is an attempt to explain these things (as is, of course, science). And I guess that’s why Sodom and Gomorrah is such a befuddling story to me, because it does a shit job of explaining anything. There’s a painful lack of control. Abraham literally talks to God about not destroying these cities, and the next day they’re gone. He’s seemingly in a better position than all the well-meaning people tweeting #PrayForParis, but if the end result is still destruction* it just reinforces that sense of powerlessness, that unmooring from every day existence.
* It’s worth noting that the people of Sodom and Gomorrah are described as wicked, and I do not in any way mean to imply that the people of Paris are analogous to them in any way beyond their shared mortality and lack of omnipotence.
I don’t have any sort of neat bow to tie these thoughts together. I write them in an attempt to tether myself back to the dock, to fix that unmooring. Because the waters are dark, and the world is a scary place.