Destroying the sacred

This past week, I read a distressing article on my news app. The article recounted that a right-wing pastor in Tennessee declared to his congregation that God had told him to burn “evil books,” after which the pastor led his congregants outside, where they burned books together, in a huge bonfire. In his mind, these books are a threat to his religious rights, freedoms, and belief system. Apparently this is not the first time the young man has caused a stir, as over the past 2 years – when the country and the world have been dealing with the COVID pandemic, and over 900,000 Americans have died of the disease – he has denied the pandemic.

I’m reminded of Bob Dylan’s words: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord… But you’re gonna have to serve somebody
…” And John Lennon, reacting to those words, wrote: You gotta serve yourself… Ain’t nobody gonna do it for you

Book burning refers to the ritual destruction by fire of books or other written materials. Usually carried out in a public context, the burning of books represents an element of censorship and usually proceeds from a cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question. The burning of books under the Nazi regime on May 10, 1933, is perhaps the most famous book burning in history.” (credit to: encyclopedia.ushmm.org; Holocaust Encyclopedia).

Every day, the great divide in the United States grows, right and left separated from one another, malice for the other accelerating on both sides. Many people in this country are armed, some with assault weapons, a testament to their “Second Amendment Rights.” In their ignorance, they will not travel to other places – where they could see the vast diversity of how human beings live.

I won’t say that this is dangerous; that is obvious. What I want to say is that I grieve for this country. We have gutted our educational system, and in its place are dangerous ideologies that rely on the ignorance of those who hold them. I grieve for the children of this country, in particular the children who will be educated in public schools, children who are not privileged, children whose lives could be opened and enlightened by an education that teaches them to think for themselves, to hold the common good, to be kind to one another, even those who are different. I am fearful for them, and I am fearful for the future that this lack of education will mean to this country, and to the world.

Apparently, the United States, this “great” country, will be empowered by refusing to educate its young, by refusing to to send them into the world as world citizens, as people with respect – for themselves, and for other human beings, whoever they are, however different they may be.

I like to say: “your God is too small.” A small God is a dangerous God, undoubtedly a God who takes orders from the ego, that small part, that fearful part, that wounded part of each one of us, the part we grew from our wounds. This small God is the God of ideologies.

And those who choose this God will be those who hurt other human beings, other living things. Wounded people – hurt people – hurt other people.

You can’t argue with someone whose “God is too small.” There is no room for compassion, for growth, for understanding. There is no room for difference, diversity.

As I get older, I am more and more aware that my life has been shaped, has been formed, has been gifted by, and has been empowered by the education I received in the 50’s and 60’s in the public schools. I am ever grateful for the teachers I had: several were Jews, professional teachers who loved their subject, who loved their work, who wanted to give to the children who were entrusted to them. Several had fled Europe during the Holocaust – and spent their lives giving to the next generation. I am grateful for teachers who taught us to think, to consider, to open our minds, our thinking by reading, learning, and discerning. They taught us by who they were, by their example, by their choice to take on an important profession. They taught us by by their willingness to teach us how to think – to think for ourselves. And in their teaching, they gifted us their longing for a just, kind, and peaceful world. By example, they taught us that there was a way to live with one another.

Through their teaching, and through the example of our elders – even those who were not educated, as in my family – they taught us that we could be citizens who could think, who had historical memory that would continue to teach us, that even those of us who came from poor, working class families could be educated. The public schools taught us this.

And now, every year, the schools in this country are at the bottom of what is deemed important. Instead of being highly regarded for teaching students how to think, they are required to teach students what to think. The best people will not want to be part of that legacy. We will assure that by our actions as a country.

We are all suffering from this world view. We will continue to suffer. We will continue to raise up children – young people – who cannot think for themselves, and because they cannot think for themselves, can be led by damaged, dangerous people – even people who claim to speak for “God.” And we, then, will be responsible for the injustices, for the damage done to other human beings, whoever they are. We will be responsible.

When I was young, my having teachers who opened my mind and experience, gave me the gift of thinking that I could serve, too, that maybe I could leave something of value for the world when it came time for me to leave. Now, in the Wisdom Years, I am less certain.

“The Path,” photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 10/2021

6 thoughts on “Destroying the sacred”

  1. Thank you, Mary Elyn, for this very thoughtful profound statement, with which I fully agree. With you I grieve for our country right now, and for the next generation. May we, in our “Wisdom Years” continue to communicate and share as you have in this fine piece, together with those younger than we are to hold, gratefully, to all the diverse persons who inspire and teach us.


  2. I had a good education in the 70s in OKANADA and learned to love books early. I still think reading is the ticket to everything, and you can still read ANYTHING for nothing, or next to nothing. I wouldn’t have a clue about what was happening if it wasn’t for books. Not reading is like deciding to be blind


  3. These deeply disturbing trends need our awareness and engagement. Thank you for taking the time to write about difficult topics. That’s what we need to counter the frightening trend to ban information and burn books.


  4. Wow! Thank you , Mary Elyn for this piece of writing and the depth and breadth it reaches. A powerful analysis and disturbingly true. One bright place to look is to the young people who’ve managed to move beyond the oppressive and contracted systems you describe and who have somehow managed to escape with their minds and souls in tact. May the y keep activating for justice and peace and a planet which can sustain life. Thank you for your thoughtful and soulful writing!


  5. Thank you for speaking out about this, Mary Elyn. This pastor is very dangerous. To whip people up in so much hate and saying God has inspired him is antithetical to the teachings of every religion, that our Higher Power is love and compassion. I have some choice words in mind for what I think of that preacher and I can’t say it here.


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