Lately many people’s minds have been focused on the terrible events unfolding this past month: in Charlottesville, in Texas, in Florida, and others besides. Fires, floods, and terrible criminal acts have some of us feeling like we’re lurching from one piece of bad news to the next. And I’m sure this news cycle suits some Christians to their fingertips because it all plays into a very peculiar part of the Religious Right’s psyche: their love of being heroes and their dislike of one particular very important detail that gets in the way of dramatic heroics. I’ll tell you what that dislike is about today–and how that worldview is keeping the rest of us from moving ahead as effectively as we could otherwise.
Big Damn Heroes.
Mal: Well, look at this. ‘Pears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
Zoë: Big damn heroes, sir.
Mal: Ain’t we just.
There’s a funny exchange in the Firefly episode “Safe” that seems to have entered the internet’s universal lexicon. In the episode, two of the ship’s crew members, Simon and River Tam, have been kidnapped by some primitive villagers on a border planet. The siblings are about to be burned at the stake. The villagers, it seems, are completely freaked out about River Tam’s psionics because they think that she’s a witch–and they recite a Christian Bible verse as justification for their attempt to murder her.
The rest of the ship’s crew arrives just in time to rescue the pair, and as Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds surveys the situation, he asks his second-in-command Zoë what the situation makes them. She replies, “Big damn heroes, sir.” He grins and replies, “Ain’t we just.”
It’s one hell of a turnaround in an already great episode of an already great program. Oh, and the Firefly Mourning Support Group will be meeting at 7pm in the basement. There will be baked goods.
Of course, he’s being a bit sarcastic here. The crew of the Good Ship Serenity are a lot of things, but “intentionally heroic” isn’t really one of them. They’re happy to smuggle stuff, rob people, and consort with the lowest of lowlifes all around the Verse. But they were once heroes, and they tend to get dragged into doing heroic things more often than one would predict considering their anything-goes motto: “Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying.” Or, more succinctly in Mal’s unique vernacular, “You got a job, we can do it. Don’t much care what it is.” Heroics is in their blood, though the captain’s enthusiasm for it ebbs and flows.
And oh, I simply thrilled at the show, following the captain and crew’s adventures with a breathlessness once reserved for my favorite Saturday morning cartoon as a kid and for much the same reasons.
Now that I’m an adult, I still thrill at the sight of true heroics. Fictional stories are great, don’t get me wrong, but seeing them in real life is even better. The bravery of so many people is awe-inspiring to me.
It’s just that sometimes, I wish that we could put into motion the one thing that could make heroics just a little less necessary.
That one thing is prevention.
Worth a Pound of Cure.
An old saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Benjamin Franklin once famously used the phrase in a letter regarding fire prevention in Philadelphia:
In the first Place, as an Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure, I would advise ’em to take care how they suffer living Coals in a full Shovel, to be carried out of one Room into another, or up or down Stairs, unless in a Warmingpan shut; for Scraps of Fire may fall into Chinks and make no Appearance until Midnight; when your Stairs being in Flames, you may be forced, (as I once was) to leap out of your Windows, and hazard your Necks to avoid being oven-roasted.
As he’d discovered personally, fires were a serious threat in the increasingly growing cities across the young nation. The laws that protect us from the worst of those dangers today didn’t exist then, nor the extensive programs that are available to teach citizens how to prevent fires both in the home and outdoors. Instead, builders hastily erected structures that were veritable firetraps, and citizens took their chances in near-total ignorance of the risks they assumed in living there.
Most people think of those inspectors as adversaries nowadays, if they think of them at all. I’ve known many people building houses who dreaded their numerous inspections–and who gloated about getting one over on an inspector somehow. I’ve known others who expressed anger over being forced to spend money on safety features for their new homes that those owners felt were unattractive or overly fussy–like one couple who accidentally made their balcony wall about 6″ too short, and had to pay to erect a second little wall right on top of the first one; they felt it seriously messed up their glorious view from the balcony, and yeah, it kinda did, but I didn’t ever tell them that I preferred that obstruction to the alternative–a balcony that was way too easy to fall from.
Those laws probably have saved a lot more lives than all the heroes of our favorite movies and TV shows combined. But I sure can’t think of any movies or TV shows featuring a zoning-law or building-codes inspector as a heroic figure. Usually when one shows up at all, it’s someone like Walter Peck, who–as a stuffy, prudish antagonist–shows up to advise the Ghostbusters (of the 1984 movie of the same name) that their ghost-containment unit violates pretty much all the environmental and hazardous-waste laws.
Big Damn Safety Inspectors.
It’s a signal mark of our culture that Walter Peck is treated very much as a villain.
As it happens, though, he’s not one. Not really, anyway.
Walter Peck was actually totally correct in his suspicion that the Ghostbusters’ system was deeply unsafe.
The building was already suffering serious flaws in its wiring, as Egon Spengler was kind enough to inform us when the group bought it. He already knew that it was “completely inadequate for our power needs.” He knew that its infrastructure was weak and decrepit. He knew that the neighborhood was violent and unstable. Almost immediately after they became successful, Egon knew that the Ghostbusters’ setup had become overloaded to the point of Twinkie-flavored crisis.
Walter Peck shouldn’t have been telling the Ghostbusters a thing they didn’t already know. And indeed he wasn’t. Had his concerns been acted upon earlier, maybe the Ghostbusters wouldn’t even have had to go be Big Damn Heroes later.
But where’s the fun movie in that scenario?
Big Damn Scars.
Scars heal, glory fades
And all we’re left with are the memories made
Pain hurts, but only for a minute
Yeah, life is short so go on and live it
‘Cause the chicks dig it
“Chicks Dig It,” Chris Cagle
A Chris Cagle song, “Chicks Dig It,” concerns the various misadventures the singer goes through in his quest to impress girls. He jumps off a shed roof while wearing a cape when he’s a little boy; later, as a teen, he crashes into a farmer’s barn while driving with his new learner’s permit (putting him at 14-16 years old, for the non-Americans out there; farmers’ kids can sometimes get those permits much earlier than suburban/urban kids do). The clear implication is that if he’d been worried about safety, he sure wouldn’t have done that stuff–and thus he wouldn’t have impressed “the neighborhood girl” or “the farmer’s daughter.”
The military often has a very similar attitude: It’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission. That phrase was used by a Navy officer, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, in one of their magazines in 1986. The phrase stuck and migrated to Christianity. It basically meant, to my crowd at least, that they should go ahead and do the thing they wanted to do anyway, and repair any damage done afterward. If the action was successful, nobody’d be angry with them anyway.
This philosophy unfortunately describes quite a bit of Christians’ antics these past few years. The problem is that they literally can’t imagine not being successful at their various religious tasks–and consider themselves way above earthly rules and politeness.
Here, for example, are a whole bunch of Christians arguing about whether it is indeed better to ask forgiveness than permission. The first Christian declares boldly that he thinks that Christians should never ask for permission because lookit all these Bible heroes who didn’t! Because this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ thinks his god is a much higher authority than his country’s government, he concludes that he shouldn’t need to worry about asking first. (We’ll ignore, because he definitely is, that his Bible repeatedly actually tells him to obey earthly governments’ laws.) It’s not hard to find dozens of other Christian forums and blog posts that take much the same tack, with some acknowledging that yes, “permission” should be sought–from their god, of course, not from the people Christians importune or the law enforcement officers who will eventually need to sort out the offenses these Christians commit in their zeal.
Part of the problem with asking permission before doing something evangelistic is that in doing so, the Christian is taking a chance of refusal, obviously. The person being asked, in their Bizarro topsy-turvy world, becomes a bigger authority figure than the Christian’s imaginary friend, and obviously that’s simply unacceptable. So if some nutbar’s imaginary friend tells him to build a church on his property, why, he’s going to do it without honestly telling the authorities what he’s up to–and then he will get enraged and petulant about being reined in, claiming persecution when he’s the one breaking the law that is there to protect him and everyone else. (And there’ll be absolutely no shortage of Christians who believe these outraged claims of persecution, if this archived The Blaze is any indication.1)
Christians’ dislike of “asking permission” also goes hand in hand with a general dislike of taking precautions and encouraging prevention of future problems. Asking permission itself, after all, is a form of preparation for a task, not much different from getting one’s passport in order before an overseas trip. That makes it one more step that can go pear-shaped, aborting the mission. Long ago I wrote about how Biff got mad at me for suggesting that we have a backup plan in place in case our trip to Japan failed. It blew my mind that he didn’t want to take any precautions in case of failure, but he saw those precautions as an expression of lack of faith and wanted no part of them. The magic spells he’d laboriously cast wouldn’t work if “God” suspected that one of us didn’t really, truly trust that “he” would take care of us. So yes, I absolutely got blamed for our failure to convert the whole country.
Biff’s vision of us as dashing, super-successful missionaries simply did not have room in it for precautions of any kind. Our future success would be all the more noteworthy and remarkable for our complete lack of preparedness. In fact, the more he sabotaged my efforts to prevent mishaps and prepare in case of failure, the less he even tried to prepare for the trip himself, the more miraculous our success would seem. So really, Biff was walking in total faith, he thought, and surely that faith would be rewarded commensurate to the risks he’d knowingly taken.
Except it wasn’t.
(I would eventually meet Christians in even worse situations who’d done even less preparation for their chosen tasks, but that’s a tale for another time. This is me doing a teaser. How’d it work?)
Big Damn Rescues.
In much the same way, I see that Christians do love them some heroics. They love heroics far more than they love preparation and prevention.
And that love of heroics produces some downright infuriating gaps in their understanding. For example, there’s a terrible Christian movie out about sex trafficking called Priceless. (Get it? GET IT?) In the movie, a handsome, rugged white TRUE CHRISTIAN™ “risks it all” when he’s faced with the dreadful decision of whether or not to save a couple of young brown women from a sex trafficking ring. (Obviously, he decides to save them. I’d have used spoiler alerts if this hadn’t been a Christian movie.)
Fighting sex trafficking rings has been an official cause for Christians–fundagelicals particularly–for a while. They think that their groups’ activities are both very heroic and also reflective of the great value they put on women’s lives.
But these same groups also fight tooth and nail against measures that give women access to equal rights, bodily sovereignty, and an end to the stigmatization of sex–which causes many of the exact ills that bring about the trafficking they claim to oppose.
Human Rights Watch considers abortion rights as a sort of indicator-light revealing a country’s general attitudes regarding both women’s rights and general human rights. When abortion rights are curtailed in any way, so are a host of other rights. Even trying to limit abortion access, like to the so-called “health/rape/incest” exceptions that even many anti-abortion people feel less squeamish about, still somehow manages to flat-out murder women who need therapeutic abortions even when/where therapeutic abortions are technically perfectly legal (not for nothing is it said that “pro-life” means “dead women”).
And it ain’t hard to draw a solid line between the most misogynistic and paternalistic cultures, the ones that are least supportive of women’s rights, and sex trafficking.
So when a Christian group proudly displays pictures of the women they say they’ve totally freed from sexual servitude, but is also ferociously anti-abortion and advocates a strictly patriarchal social structure, they are basically telling the world that they love the heroics of rescue, but hate the preventive measures that would render those heroics much less necessary. This weird doublethink has prompted a lot of criticism regarding both these groups’ out-of-whack paternalistic guiding principles and their ineffective methods. Given how effective fundraising for these groups can be, I doubt their leaders care how much outsiders criticize them.
Big Damn Miracles.
Christians’ claims of miracles are one of the very worst examples I can name of their habit of ignoring prevention in favor of heroics. What else is a miracle but a heroic overcoming of reality in a Christian’s favor? And how often do critics push back against these claims by asking that most dangerous question of all about why the Christian god didn’t simply prevent the situation from coming up in the first place?
I still remember the Christian mother who breathlessly told a Facebook group I was in at the time about how her son, who she said had some terrible, typically progressive and fatal genetic disorder which we’ll say was cystic fibrosis because it was either that or something very similar, had been miraculously cured of it.
ZOMG ITZA MEERKUL Y’ALL!
Boy was she upset when a bunch of people in the group, which was a space where religious and non-religious people could mingle, pushed back (gently) on her claims: why was her son cured, when the thirty thousand other people in America alone still suffered with it and would die of it? Why did her god allow some ten million Americans alone to be carriers of the genes that caused this disorder instead of fixing the gene? Why didn’t her god tell doctors exactly how to cure the disorder instead of just healing it in that one kid?
She got super-touchy at these questions, though. Nor did she ever follow through with evidence: a) that her son had had the disorder claimed, and b) that he’d really and truly been permanently cured of that disorder. She’d fully expected that all she needed to do to convince every atheist there of the reality of her god was to announce this magic healing. She hadn’t expected us to suggest that a one-off healing claim actually did the dead opposite of what she had wanted to accomplish.
There’s a nauseating sameness to these miracle claims, though. For every Christian claiming to have been spared from a natural disaster (and oh dear, I expect we’ll be hearing a lot of these in the days to come), or a disease’s touch, or a vehicular accident, or acts of war, there are at least a few people hearing that claim who wonder why that person got spared when everyone else suffers, even Christians, and why the Christian god is capable of helping one person but not stopping all people everywhere from suffering similarly.
If it were truly possible, healings would be very nice indeed, but I’d really rather any divine beings capable of such things help everyone, not just one or two people, and prevent the problem instead of just dosing one person with the cure for it.
In the same way, I’d rather our earthly powers that be put our focus on improving the safety of our infrastructure than taking the dreadful risks they’re taking with citizens’ safety, forcing more and more of us to become Big Damn Heroes when simple prevention would have saved even more people than a few heroes could. I’d rather we raised our societal levels of education and family support across the board, rather than forcing one or two exceptionally lucky and intelligent kids to rise above their adverse conditions to become superstars in their various fields. And I’d rather see building-code and zoning-regulation inspectors be seen as helpers rather than villains that get their comeuppance with a few humiliating tons of
shaving cream marshmallow goo dumped on them at the end of the movie.
Benjamin Franklin’s evocative essay ages ago resulted in the formation of the Union Fire Company in 1736–and the establishment of an education system to teach the public about fire prevention.
But it seems like we are much slower to act regarding the ills that exist today in society.
We’d rather force heroes into action than dedicate the resources needed to prevent the need for some of them to be heroes. And heroes are wonderful people. I’ll never say they’re not. We’re lucky to have so many people willing to spring into action to put their own lives on the line for others’ sake. The coming days may call upon many of us to be heroes in our own little spaces. I just hope that in the few quiet moments we get, our leaders start allocating the resources needed to make heroism just a little less, well, necessary. I’ve seen enough Firefly to know that heroism can get a little stressful on a body.
Stay flying, friends, and we’ll see you this weekend.
1 In 2012, Michael Salman–still trying with all his might to be the Religious Right’s newest Persecution Poster Child, was photographed as an inmate who was boring inmates “to death” in his pal Joe Arpaio’s Tent City with his long-winded sermons–making sure to remind them all of his status as a persecuted martyr for Jesus as he served a 60-day sentence for the dozens of misdemeanor code violations he’d committed while trying to build a church in his backyard. The next year, he ended up convicted of felony fraud against the Arizona health insurance system. Seems he’d also been totally lying to the state about his income and his employment status to get insurance benefits for his family. What a TRUE CHRISTIAN™! I’m not kidding: who better to represent them than this blowhard liar-for-Jesus?