by Raven Burnes
The hymn ended and the preacher launched into a highly emotional and symbolic sermon, recounting how our mothers had given birth to us, how they had nursed us from infancy, how they had tended us when we were sick, how they had seen us grow up, how they had watched over us, how they had always known what was best for us. He then called for yet another hymn, which was hummed. He chanted above it in a melancholy tone:
“Now, I’m asking the first mother who really loves her son to bring him to me for baptism!”
Goddam, I thought. It had happened quicker than I had expected. My mother was looking steadily at me.
“Come, son, let your old mother take you to God,” she begged. “I brought you into the world, now let me help to save you.”
She caught my hand and I held back.
“I’ve been as good a mother as I could,” she whispered through her tears.
“God is hearing every word,” the preacher underscored her plea.
This business of saving souls had no ethics; every human relationship was shamelessly exploited. In essence, the tribe was asking us whether we shared its feelings; if we refused to join the church, it was equivalent to saying no, to placing ourselves in the position of moral monsters. One mother led her beaten and frightened son to the preacher amid shouts of amen and hallelujah.
“Don’t you love your old crippled mother, Richard?” my mother asked. “Don’t leave me standing here with my empty hands, she said, afraid that I would humiliate her in public.
It was no longer a question of my believing in God; it was no longer a matter of whether I would steal or lie or murder; it was a simple, urgent matter of public pride, a matter of how much I had in common with other people. If I refused, it meant that I did not love my mother, and no man in that tight little black community had ever been crazy enough to let himself be placed in such a position. My mother pulled my arm and I walked with her to the preacher and shook his hand, a gesture that made me a candidate for baptism. There were more songs and prayers; it lasted until well after midnight. I walked home limp as a rag; I had not felt anything except sullen anger and a crushing sense of shame. Yet I was somehow glad that I had got it over with; no barriers now stood between me and the community.
“Mama, I don’t feel a thing,” I told her truthfully.
“Don’t you worry; you’ll grow into feeling it,” she assured me.
And when I confessed to the other boys that I felt nothing, they too admitted that they felt nothing.
“But the main thing is to be a member of the church,” they said (Wright 154-155).
I am currently reading Richard Wright’s autobiography Black Boy, and scenes like the one above are plentiful. Religion and “faith” are waved around like a spiked billy club designed to usher all wayward freethinkers into submission. I was struck by how little has changed in terms of how much pressure is put on people to make a “decision” for God – a decision that seems to be more about other people – and their power and reputation – than it is about you.
I realize that this pressure probably has evolutionary origins. We are a social species. Family/tribe membership has always been essential for our survival. Nevertheless, as we continue to evolve as a species, our concept of “the tribe” is necessarily expanding. With this expansion, I am hopeful that the outdated emotional blackmail used to bully children – and anyone who thinks differently – into religion will fall away as well.
Wright, Richard. Black Boy (American Hunger): A Record of Childhood and Youth. New York: Perennial Classics, 1998. 154-155. Print.