Confessions of a Former Christian Gangster
I was in a small Christian gang at my elementary school. At first glance, you might not have believed we were gang members, but if you looked closely at the twinkle in our eyes, you would have read the message, “We can die at any time. Jesus will catch us. How about you? Do you know who’s catching you?”
That’s a lot to read in a set of eyes. But you could, because we were looking at you for a very long time, staring, willing your salvation. We stared because Christian culture never taught us the rules of eye contact, the laws of social interaction. We were above the law, people united by our defiance of death, and our sense that there isn’t time for social niceties, not when you’re in the game of saving souls.
Now do you believe we were a gang? Of course you do. Only people in a gang would be tough enough to shout with their eyes at strangers, saying, “Do you know where you’re going when you die?”
We were training to ask this question with our mouths too, and in the meantime, we were wearing jean jackets and owning off-brand Trapper Keepers like bad asses. We didn’t need brand names. Our names were branded in the Book of Life.
We quietly celebrated the fact that our true hearts were buried in the beyond: God’s country. It made us light on our feet. The school and playground could fall away beneath us, collapsing in atomic fire, and we would simply lift off as gently as kids on cables in a swanky Peter Pan production. Then the winds of the world’s burning would sail us all the way to Jesus’s Neverland.
One year, a new girl came to school. Amelia MacArthur. She lived in a lonely old farmhouse, and she told me a wonderful story about it. A little farm girl died long ago, and for some reason the farmers buried her beneath one of the flagstone steps leading to the front door.
I thought about that little dead girl all the time. I imagined you would know which stone was hers because you’d feel coldness reaching up into your foot, climbing the marrow tunnels of your bones higher and higher, heading for your heart like snake poison.
Lift the stone and see the girl lying there in the dark dirt, her white dress glowing like a grub, her dead eyes open, her smile full of earth.
I liked Amelia MacArthur. I’m a friend to anyone who gives me the gift of gruesomeness.
The other Christians liked her too. She was new and unaffiliated and might join our gang. We only had to learn the state of her soul.
We learned it. I don’t remember how, but we discovered Amelia didn’t believe in God.
We’ll see about that.
We the Christians found Amelia in the library sitting alone at a long table, drawing farm animals. We advanced. One by one, we filled the chairs around the table. With every blink, another Christian appeared. Blink. Another. Then another.
Soon we were all there.
“Hey, Amelia,” we said.
“Hi,” said Amelia, unfazed by our incremental arrival. She thought we were here to be friendly. We were, but the focus wasn’t on her, not the flesh and blood Amelia. We were here to be friendly to her soul.
We asked her, “What are you drawing?” so she tried to show us, but then, in our zealousness, we interrupted her: “We heard you don’t believe in God.”
Before she could answer, we asked her the big one: “Do you know where you’re going when you die?”
You could tell by the pleasant look on her face that she hadn’t done any serious thinking about death.
We interrupted her again, this time with the biggest question of all: “Do you believe in Jesus?”
“Yes,” she said.
Did her answer fill us with tremendous relief? Did we immediately celebrate with a gang initiation ceremony?
There was something wrong with her Yes, something too light about it, too easy. After you publicly declare your allegiance to Jesus, you can’t just go right back to sketching a goat. It’s like swimming after eating. First wait a while, digest, then you may goat.
“You do?” we said. “What do you mean?”
“What do you mean what do I mean?”
She had us there. We were new at this, new at having speaking parts in the war for souls. Up to this point, we’d only ever shared the good news with our dogs and dolls and action figures, and they were easy converts, born to be saved.
“You believe in him… how?”
“Yeah, how?” Then one of us figured out how to say it: “Do you believe Jesus was God?”
“Is God,” a gang member corrected, “not was God.”
The heretic winced then tried again: “Do you believe Jesus is God?”
Amelia thought about it, then she said, “My sister told me he was just a man.”
Our Christian eyes fired a web of invisible lasers, connecting us, heating the air, making escape impossible for any unbeliever in our midst. The fight was on.
I imagine my friends were trying to think of Bible verses to use against Amelia’s argument. If I had been doing that, I would have failed. I didn’t know verses, only stories, and the only stories I cared about were the violent ones, because they made me laugh. The rock hitting Goliath in the face. The fat king’s belly swallowing Ehud’s knife. The “she bears” who maimed children.
This last one was my favorite. Here’s the story in a nutshell. Children were teasing the prophet Elisha until he decided enough is enough:
“He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two she bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the children” 2 Kings 2:24
For some reason, “she bears” in combination with children getting mauled was comedy gold to me. At weddings and funerals I would challenge myself by flipping through the Bible until I found the story, and then I would try to keep from laughing to death.
I didn’t tell Amelia about the she bears, and no one quoted verses. Instead, we talked about hell. The place she was going if she didn’t climb aboard the Jesus train, and fast.
We started with unquenchable fire. Moved on to the worm that dieth not. The burning lake. The weeping and gnashing of teeth. The eternity. All this without breaking a sweat.
Then we flexed.
We church children had been dreaming about hell all our lives, coming up with newer, bigger, badder versions, outdoing one another with more exquisite tortures. Each of us had at least 10 hells. Some of our ideas overlapped, but repetition is a big part of learning in elementary school, so Amelia began to learn. She learned about hell’s washing machines, the “people washers,” machines with knives for walls and salt in the water; she learned about tumors that grow all over your body, growing and bursting and regrowing as fast as boiling water; and she learned about the giant carnivorous worms, creatures that are worms all the way up to their heads, but their heads are your mother’s head.
“So it’s your mother who eats you alive!”
My friends and I morphed into a pack of ravenous puritans. We assaulted the walls of Amelia’s unbelief with all our might, and with delight. It was a chance to show off our hells for a new audience, and the effect was wonderful to behold. We watched Amelia’s eyes go wide, watched her face turn pale.
When she asked us how we knew the things we knew about hell, we answered by telling her other things we knew about hell.
We were all speaking quickly, interrupting one another, the sound switching from mouth to mouth, making it difficult for Amelia to know where to look. Which face was talking? It was this one then that one. All the faces. Her eyes flashed back and forth. It’s the way Moses must have felt while talking to the burning bush. Did he dare say, “Bush, where do I look? I want to make sure I’m looking at your eyes.” You don’t want to have a conversation with God and realize you’re staring at his navel, for the navel of God will swallow you whole.
On and on we talked, our words becoming a whirlwind encircling Amelia, a whirlpool in the lake of fire pulling her down and down until it happened….
She spontaneously burst into tears.
We all shut our mouths. Our teeth snapped like traps. We stared at her.
I was terrified.
If you make a kid cry like Amelia was crying — she was sobbing — you might get in trouble, and I feared trouble above all things. A harsh word from an adult unmade me, reduced me to the dirt behind my ears. Also, I was shocked. I didn’t expect her to cry. After all, my friends and I had long ago lost the ability to scare each other with hell. We appreciated the place, but it didn’t move us. It was nothing but a fun challenge, a chance to be the one who painted a picture of Godly wrath so inventive that it became the official hell of the American church.
Once we got over our surprise, we tried to comfort Amelia, to quiet her. We glanced at the librarian, wondering if she would notice and punish us for what we’d done. But it seemed the librarian was a veteran when it came to spontaneous crying. If she was paying attention to the sobbing, she gave no sign.
Those who were less surprised by Amelia’s response knew what to do next:
“Now,” said one of us, “all you have to do is ask Jesus into your heart. Ask forgiveness for your sins, and you will be saved. You’ll get to go to heaven!”
We said this over and over until the words began to sink in, and gradually Amelia’s storm of bawling stopped. She wiped her eyes. She listened carefully. Was she about to say it, to say the words we wanted to hear? We hoped so. Because that would mean we had done it. Saved someone.
I would be able to run home and shout at my parents, “I led someone to the Lord today!”
Mom and dad would cheer for me. If they asked how I went about delivering the good news, I would say, “I just told the truth. Again and again. She even cried!”
Amelia wiped her nose and eyes and looked around gratefully at her friends. Then she did it. She prayed the prayer.
Did this immediately grant her membership in our gang? I don’t remember. Actually, I think Amelia remained mostly unaffiliated at our little country school. There are always kids like her, the ones who never quite fit. But that didn’t matter to us. She was saved. Even if this world rejected her, even if we did, Jesus would catch her in the end.
What I wonder now is this: how would we have answered if Amelia had asked, “What’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Heaven.” I imagine her looking around at our blank faces. “What’s heaven like?”
I imagine our silence. A few of us lamely throw an image or two her way. Clouds. A gate. People in robes. Lots of light everywhere. Scandinavian angels. Then it’s back to silence. What could we say about heaven? Anything else? Nothing?
Honestly, we’d never really thought about it.