It was, after all, the Sunday before Christmas. A day to be joyous, right? But there was this hulking black SUV in front of me, its two bumper stickers blasting me with: Jesus said, “Ye must be born again” (John 3:7).
Yes, Jesus did say that, at least according to some translations. But Jesus said many things, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19) and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37). So why is “born again” used to badger all and sundry into accepting one particular view of salvation?
Because it is easier to turn Jesus into a dogma that must be believed, than it is to follow him as a man who invites us to love as he loves.
There are many loving people who say, “I was born again when I accepted the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior.”
Others use the formulaic “I’m a born-again believer” as their guarantee of accommodation in heaven. Also, they use the born-again mantra as, in the words of Frank Bruni, “a fig leaf for intolerance” – intolerance of different religions, races, and sexual orientations.
R.S. Thomas responded as a poet-theologian to those who think they hold e-tickets on the only flight to God:
There was part of the parish that few knew.
They lived in houses on the main road
To God, as they thought, managing primly
The day’s dirt, bottling talk
Of birth and marriage in cold eyes;
Nothing to tell in their spick rooms’
Discipline how with its old violence
Grass raged under the floor.
But you knew it, farmer; your hand
Had felt its power, if not your heart
Its loveliness. . . .
This poem speaks to me of God’s green grass and man’s stone structures. How divine freshness rages under the seemingly solid ideas that humans form about pious behavior.
In RS’s poem, men and women who think they live on the main road to God, also suppose that their spick rooms reflect the spick-ness of their lives. That their squeaky clean floors provide a solid foundation for their judgments. That they are speaking for God when they declare what is ‘dirty’ in the sex lives of their neighbors.
Much that they deplore is simply ‘natural’ in the Green Book of God’s revelation. Fresh life rages under the stony doctrines of those who thumb the Black Book of God’s revelation, looking for passages to buttress their prejudices.
There are many roads to God other than the one marked with the sign “Born Again Believer.” There are many ways of expressing true love other than the one marked “Heterosexual Marriage.” No matter what the law says or prudes declare, every child is a legitimate child of God.
RS’s farmer feels the power – and, perhaps, the loveliness – of the grass raging under the floors of those who think they live on the main road to God.
Poems of R. S. Thomas used in this post:
“There was part of the parish” – “The Parish,” Tares (1961), 15.