The Raving Theist

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God Squad Review CLXVI (Memorials and Curses)

April 10, 2006 | 7 Comments

Aren’t you always touched by those flowery roadside memorials at fatal accident sites? The Squad isn’t:

There’s nothing sacred about where people die. These are often places of blood and gore, pain and sorrow. Most dramatically, they are solitary places. Cemeteries, by contrast, are places of communal grief, where we’re reminded and comforted in the knowledge that death is a part of life, and that even though we’re taken from those who loved us, we’re joined after death with the souls of those who reached heaven before us.

Makeshift memorials, often along busy highways or lonely, dangerous lanes, are not places where we should convene to mourn our dead. The ancient wisdom of our inherited religious traditions points beyond death, while roadside memorials point only to death.

But what if you die in an accident at a cemetery? And how about all those expensive memorials at places like the World Trade Center, Auschwitz and Hiroshima? Those are the ultimate death sites, and nobody ever refers to them as anything but “sacred ground.” Apparently God feels the same way:

The only exceptions are places of mass death. Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the site of the World Trade Center all demand spiritual markers.

We were asked by New York Gov. George Pataki to participate in a memorial service for victims of TWA Flight 800 that crashed in the waters off Long Island in 1996. There was a need for those families to gather, walk to the shore and touch the water that was touching the bodies of their loved ones.

But don’t families have an equal need to touch the utility pole that junior wrapped his car around? How many drunken classmates does he have to take down with him before he qualifies for burial on the exit ramp?

If anything, I’d think that sites of mass murder are less inviting as memorials. I doubt they’ve built any kind of shrine at Jeffrey Dahmer’s old apartment. And why did they include Hiroshima in that list? They deserved it.

In any event, the Squad does concludes that not every sort of mass grave makes an appropriate memorial:

However, the problem with communal monuments, even at places of mass death, is that there’s no ancient wisdom guiding us as to what kind of memorial to erect.

There’s now a stone memorial wall in Smith Point Park on Long Island with the names of all those who died on Flight 800. It’s a respectful monument, but it misses something. That something is the hope, the belief, the certain spiritual knowledge that death is not the end of us, and that we will not be separated forever from those we love.

In other words, the memorial doesn’t have “God” written all over it (or a twisted, crucifix-shaped fragment of the aircraft’s tail) because some cranky atheist complained.

* * *

Does asking God to harm people work? In the second letter, a Squad reader is afraid that his ailing mom will curse him for not taking care of her 24/7. The Squad explains that talking to God is futile:

Every religion has superstitious elements and lofty ethical elements and elements that fall somewhere in between. Curses are superstitions that have been co-opted by some organized religions, not always to their benefit.

The belief that people can cause harm to others by cursing them is a form of magical thinking, and, as such, is classic idolatry. It imagines that the curser can control God’s power or direct that power to hurt someone whom God did not intend to hurt had the curse not been cast. Imagining that we can control God is absurd and sinful. It also imagines that God is our agent in addressing our grievances and grudges. Still, we both honor the superstitions of our grandparents, despite our theological objections.

It’s both charming and unfortunate that our fears of loss and disappointment have carried over from pagan practices into our wisdom traditions.

The wisdom tradition of believing you can control God’s actions through prayer, of course, is not superstition or magical thinking. But you’re in a bit of a spot if you want to pray that the SWAT team blows the terrorists away before they kill you and your fellow hostage. After all, wishing death on your tormentors is essentially cursing them.

To be fair, the Squad’s position (sometimes) on prayer isn’t that God directly intervenes on command, but that He gives you the strength to deal with your problem or cope with the pain. So maybe while you’re not allowed to wish death directly on your enemies, you can ask God to give them the weakness to collapse and die.


7 Responses to “God Squad Review CLXVI (Memorials and Curses)”

  1. Mookie
    April 10th, 2006 @ 3:49 am

    “And why did they include Hiroshima in that list? They deserved it.”

    Tsk tsk, RA. I’m sure a few of those vapourised were innocent.

  2. sternwallow
    April 10th, 2006 @ 6:34 am

    Is there a great big monument honoring those thousands more than at Hiroshima who died in the fire-bombing of Tokyo?

    Quoting Twain “there is not a square yard of land on the planet that is in the hands of its original owner.” Given that, we could pave Europe end-to-end with memorial stones.

    Concerning memorials of places where single, bloody, horrific deaths occurred, I guess we should forget about Golgotha.

  3. seldom scene
    April 10th, 2006 @ 7:21 am

    Oh I see. They don’t like public memorials because they have to obey the Constitution there. They have to share them with – yuck – us.

  4. Los Pepes
    April 10th, 2006 @ 8:57 am

    We have a lot of those highway memorials out here in Maryland (some of the worst, most screwed-up traffic in the U.S). It seems to me that if your loved-one died along a familiar stretch of road that you have to look at every day for the rest of your life, putting a memorial there might make you feel a little better over time.

    At least if there is an adhoc memorial you can look at that as you drive by, and not just picture your loved-one all mangled-up in a car wreck.

    I don’t know, it’s not something that I’ve had to deal with…

  5. Tenspace
    April 10th, 2006 @ 10:19 am

    In Florida, self-inflicted roadside memorials are removed and replaced with a round sign that says, “Drive Safely” and has the name of the deceased.

  6. Tom
    April 10th, 2006 @ 11:49 am

    God Squad said: “It’s both charming and unfortunate that our fears of loss and disappointment have carried over from pagan practices into our wisdom traditions.”

    Eh? “Carried over FROM pagan practices INTO wisdom traditions?” So, they’re admitting that the Judeo-Christian religions are an outspring from earlier, original pagan religions?

  7. Oz
    April 10th, 2006 @ 7:28 pm

    Kinda like the opposite of Stalin’s line “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.”

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