Sweetness and cruelty; or, the Christian religion


I recently picked up a translation of a sixteenth-century Catholic treatise on “Christian tortures,” mostly concerning the various ways in which the martyrs died. There’s a modern (illustrated) appendix explaining how crucifixion works. A Protestant version of the same book – the famous “Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,” narrating the tortures and deaths of the early Lutherans and Calvinists at the hands of the Papists – was very popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Before you say “Ugh!” and turn away, ask yourself: why were these books so popular? And why do we continue to be so morbidly fascinated with pain and torture and death?

Let’s look at it more closely. Saint Lawrence (my name saint!) died on a barbecue grille, and is often depicted holding the instrument of his death (see the above image). Barbara was thrown from a high tower by her own father. Catherine was broken on a wheel. Many early martyrs were thrown to wild animals, or torn apart. The Protestant martyrs were mostly burnt or hanged, but often suffered horrible tortures beforehand.

Again: why do we read about these things, over and over again?

Maybe it’s the same reason we enjoy picking at a scab: it’s a mild agony, a remote pain. It reminds us that we’re alive.

Also we seem to like gruesome stories, up to a point.

However: religion – and in particular the Christian religion – seems to like to tell us that pain and suffering and death are a positive experience. We will get there sooner and more smoothly, we’re told, if we accept and even welcome suffering into our lives.

(A co-worker spoke to me once, with great feeling, about her experience in Catholic school back in the 1950s and 1960s. She was taught about Maria Goretti, the twelve-year-old who’d been raped and murdered, and later made a saint (mostly through the agency of her very aggressive mother). She was, therefore, for some perverse reason, presented as a model of Catholic girlhood: suffer, and you’ll go to Heaven.

(My friend said that, even as a child, she was horrified by this.

(I don’t blame her one tiny bit.)

We need to remind ourselves – we, who are comfortable in our lives – that human suffering is very real. But we should not revel in it, or reassure ourselves that it’s the summit of the human condition. And we should not in any way make it a religious trial, as if suffering were a prerequisite for happiness.

This is a poem by Stevie Smith. I’ve quoted it before. It’s her response to the doctrine of Eternal Hell. It’s the most eloquent rejection of suffering in the name of religion that I’ve ever read.

Is it not interesting to see
How the Christians continually
Try to separate themselves in vain
From the doctrine of eternal pain

They cannot do it,
They are committed to it,
Their Lord said it,
They must believe it.

So the vulnerable body is stretched without pity
On flames forever. Is this not pretty?

The religion of Christianity
Is mixed of sweetness and cruelty
Reject this Sweetness, for she wears
A smoky dress out of Hell fires.

Who makes a God? Who shows him thus?
It is the Christian religion does.
Oh, oh, have none of it,
Blow it away, have done with it,

This god the Christians show
Out with him, out with him, let him go.


About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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