JT Eberhard recently wrote a post about an atheist activist who was made to say grace during the holidays by her family. It made me think of my own holiday grace story.
The day after Christmas, my husband and I drove to his uncle’s country cabin by the lake for the in-laws’ holiday dinner. I never had much in common with my in-laws, but I tried to be friendly. Toasty garage, toasty food, a toast to gathering with family. Halfway into my third glass of wine, Uncle Keith offered grace.
“We thank you for your scripture, and for the history you gave us . . . and I know it brings controversy, but we know it also brings PEACE.”
Wait, what? I tried to process this turn of events in my wine-soaked head. Prior holidays featured my uncles- and father-in-law thanking Jesus for food, family, and safe travel. Controversy? What controversy? This was supposed to be a time of fellowship, of clan gathering, of inclusion. Was this about me? If it wasn’t, then Uncle Keith was being awfully insensitive. Did he expect me to sit as a captive audience to this?
Fuck that noise.
I got up and used the bathroom, not for its usual function, but as a pretense to leave the room. Through two doors, I could still hear him speech make for what seemed like two or three minutes. I got up from the toilet, washed my hands, and went back to the garage. We all acted as if nothing happened and ate our dinner.
This episode does not have a happy ending. I blew off my steam on my facebook page, and after thinking it through with my friends, decided to ask Uncle Keith for an apology the next time I saw him. My sister-in-law stumbled across the conversation and was of the opinion that since I offended everyone in the room by walking out in the middle of their sacred prayer, I was not entitled to an apology. A few days later, Uncle Keith called and angrily told me that I was reading too much into things, he didn’t even know who Glenn Beck was, and if I didn’t want him to be a part of my life, that was just fine with him.
Uncle Keith does not have a facebook account. He heard about my gripe through the family rumor mill. Nobody apologized to me. Nobody told me they could see why I’d be upset. Nobody stood up for me. Nobody from that family took my side except my husband, who agreed that it sounded like that “prayer” was meant for me. He said that he didn’t like to see me picked on like that. I told him that I wasn’t going to any more gatherings on his dad’s side of the family.
It broke my heart to realize how dispensable I was to that family. At that point, I had sat through seven and a half years of family gatherings. Other than some qualms about having the bible read at my wedding, I had never made an issue of our differences in religion. When the subject came up in conversation, I simply stated what I thought and the reasons I thought that way. I never asked them to not pray, or tell them they were stupid for praying, or disrupt their prayers in any way. Never in seven and a half years.
In fact, if you had asked me before that day, I would have said that the holiday prayers were an endearing tradition, a way to communally express hope and gratitude. Even if no ghost was listening, the family was. To my way of thinking, Uncle Keith had disrespected that tradition, not me.
After December 26, 2010, though, that quaint view of the true value of prayer unravelled. As I told my indignant sister-in-law, “If you guys are going to use your rituals to pick fights with people who aren’t like you, do your rituals really deserve my respect?” And the more stories I hear from other non-believers, the more I think that this is the true intention of communal prayer. If praying in front of the atheist doesn’t make her uncomfortable enough to either convert or go away, then insist she act like she’s praying too, or pass the prayer around the table, or ask that she lead the prayer, or pray something she really really can’t keep silent about. Up the ante until you get some reaction from her, then play the religious persecution card when the shit hits the fan.
Fuck that noise.
I need some cheering up. Take it away, Tim!