How many stones would it take to kill somebody?
There’s a story in the Old Testament about a man named Achan who helped invade Jericho. In case you don’t remember (or never heard of it), Jericho was the city that Israel circled seven times for seven days, causing everyone inside to become completely neurotic. On the seventh day, the priests blew the trumpets, the people of Israel shouted, and that city wall fell down like it was made of Papier-mâché. Achan wasn’t necessarily one of the trumpet blowers, but he was there to help finish the job. While they’re going through the booty, he takes a few coins and some clothes (being out in the desert for 40 years, no one had done any recent shopping)—nothing too extreme. But Joshua, the leader of the Israelites, had warned them that the city was cursed by God, doomed to be completely destroyed. Achan disobeyed this warning, not only disobeyed, but hid the accursed thing, causing Israel to lose its next battle. There was no three strike rule back then, so once Joshua found out, there was little else to do but stone the entire family and burn them.
It’s a brutal passage and I’m not quite sure why my mother had us looking at it one Saturday afternoon. “How many stones would it actually take to make a person keel over dead? Must take a while,” I say, because even at twelve, I have a dark sense of humor. It’s the genetic code I share with my mother, but our shared DNA had been questioned lately and was quickly being dismantled, disintegrating with every interrogation about my possible participation in the occult.
“What if everyone wanted it to last longer and used only small rocks?” Mom says, with a slight grin. “Who knows how often they had a good execution?”
“To be pummeled to death with pebbles. No dignity,” our friend Jim adds. He’s been staying with us since Christmas Eve, since his wife told him not to come home. He’s been staying with us as our protector.
We’re all laughing now, and I think I am in the clear, that this was just a Bible study about disobedience. But then Mom’s eyes narrow, “Let me ask you a question. Have you recently touched something unclean?”
So much for Old Testament death penalties. I know better than to say why yes I have Mom, let me just go and get it. No, I’m afraid because even if I don’t remember taking or touching anything, Mom thinks that I have. And she has already proven that I don’t really love her when I thought I did. We went over I Corinthians 13 verse by verse, and I had to answer whether I had ever been angry or resentful of her, whether I had ever been impatient and unkind in our daily interactions. I failed that test miserably and was now no longer allowed to say that I loved her. I am slipping away so quickly from her, and it feels like there is nothing I can do to stop it. But she is my everything, and nothing terrifies me so much as losing her. “What makes you ask me that?”
“It is the Holy Spirit who leads me in all of these questions, little one. Remember not to lie to the Spirit either. Let’s go to Acts and see what happens to people who lie to the Spirit of God.”
Jim reads the story about Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who lied to the Apostle Peter about money they were supposed to share with everyone. Peter tells them they’ve really lied to the Holy Spirit, so poof, they die. There wasn’t even time to cry out, the way Achan’s family must have done, begging for people to stop, to at least let their children live.
Jim looks at me. “Don’t lie to God,” he says, very serious. “You see how he takes care of that kind of sin. Now, have you touched something unclean?”
“I don’t know, or at least, don’t know for certain,” I say, because they asked me this question for a reason, so obviously they believe I have done it. And recently I have confessed to being so many things: a priestess in the occult as well as an assassin out to kill them. There have been so many questions thrown at me over the past two months, I am no longer sure of my own answers.
“What do you mean, you don’t know? Either you did, or you didn’t. How could you not know?” My mother’s voice is measured, hitting every syllable equally.
My palms are sweaty. I am scared of angering the Holy Spirit. I don’t want to lie, and yet what is the truth at this point? “Could I have touched it,” I suggest, “and then repressed the memory? Couldn’t I have willed myself to forget it?”
“Now how could you have done that?” Jim asks, leaning forward as if I had just hit on a really interesting point.
“My alter ego, my other self, the one that really wants to kill you. Perhaps that part of me touched something unclean, like a weapon.”
“Did you touch it or pick it up?” Jim asks. There were levels of damnation. Picking up the weapon meant you were ready to kill. Touching it only meant you were defiled.
“I’m not sure. I think I only touched it.” I begin to see myself splitting into three parts: the good girl I try to be, the girl who thinks about sex too much, and the one we are creating together. I don’t know which one is real, which one is saved, and which one is going to burn in hell. While I am thinking, the conversation magically switches to our plans for lunch. It’s like a switch has been flipped. I think I am off the hook and so wisely ask to be excused from the table, my Cookie Crisp cereal having turned soggy and anyway, any hunger I had felt now melted into fear.
“Put your dishes in the sink,” Mom says, “But remember everything we talked about earlier. You’d best have a talk with that other self, and get your stories straight. Because if you’ve been touching an unclean object that is to be used for evil, we can’t protect you from the consequences. We follow his Word.” Jim nods his head in approval of Mom’s wisdom.
It is terrifying enough when your classmates tease you at school about something perceived as a flaw: your teeth, hair, weight, clothes, walk—anything is up for grabs but your soul. When your parents begin to chip away at that, you begin to slowly unravel, worried that at the end there might be nothing left. I pray at night for God to save me. I pray for forgiveness, to make me clean again.
A few weeks later, after more late night sessions, after they question me relentlessly about where their real daughter is, after making me search again and again for the weapon they think I am hiding, they sit me down on the couch. “You say you want to be in God’s will and you want to do good, and then you turn right around and say you’re supposed to kill us. You pray that God will protect you, and yet you still claim to get secret messages. You can’t have it both ways. You must choose a side and believe in it fully. Go pray and see if you make up your mind.”
I go into my bedroom, and sit on the floor without turning on my TV. I’m tired and can’t think straight. Dear God. Take me back take me back. I’m sorry. I know I’m not good, but you can make me good yes? Make me pure like I’ve always wanted to be. I have never felt pure. Not once. Not even when I was little. Then again, I don’t think purity is something that you feel. You simply are pure (isn’t that why they are blessed?). You can only feel purity when you’re its opposite.
When I come out, they are both still sitting at the table. “Well?”
“I asked God to forgive me of all my sins, and told him I wanted to be good.”
Jim’s sagging face is sad, yet still stern. “What deal did you make?”
I wait for more information while my legs no longer feel like they will support me. “What deal?” I am terrified of his answer.
“That is just what I asked. What deal did you make with the enemy?” Jim asks again, more slowly this time but watching my every move because right now, I was the enemy.
“I didn’t make any deal. I asked Jesus to forgive me and to make me a good person again and…” my words trail off because what else was there to want? How could I ask for one thing while really wanting the complete opposite? But then, people do that all the time, think they want this or that while denying their true desires. That was psychological truth. Perhaps, then, it is truly a sign of my badness–to deceive myself into thinking I wanted goodness when really, all the time, I was still taking orders, hiding it from my conscious mind to keep up the act.
“We can’t help you get better unless you’re honest with us,” Mom says. “I would really sit for a while and think about what it is you desire—to be powerful or to be saved.”
I wish them a goodnight, which for some reason causes them to exchange meaningful glances I can’t discern. Neither gets up to hug me or wish me a good night. Instead, they say they are going for a walk while they have a cigarette. I go back into my room and sit on the floor and stare into space for a little while. I am nowhere in my thoughts, I am barely here. It seems like they have been gone a long time when I hear the door open and close again. My mother calls for me to come into the living room.
“Where were you just now?” she asks as I walk in. They are both sitting down at the table.
I am confused by the question, since I just came out of my room. “You saw me just come from my room.”
“Now you are here. But we were just walking around the apartment building and tapped on your window, and you didn’t even blink an eye. We saw your body through the blinds, but where was your soul? Were you doing astral projection?”
If I had gone somewhere, wouldn’t I have known it? Seen some cool scenery at least? Then again, I can barely remember myself in my own room just now, which scares me. “I really don’t believe I went anywhere.” I don’t say anymore, since I have learned by now that saying more usually gets me in trouble.
“If that were the case,” Jim said. “you would have heard your mother knocking on the window. It was a loud knock. You didn’t even turn your head. It looked like you were barely breathing.”
“I don’t know.” I starting to cry. “Could I have blocked it out? I don’t want to be out of my body.” I knew that was a very bad thing to do, but apparently my soul wanted all sorts of things my body wasn’t fit for. What these things were remained a mystery, but I bet I was up to no good.
“You’d best keep control of your spirit, little one,” Mom says. “We have the authority to command any spirit not in a body to go back into the abyss. So make sure your soul is housed at all times. Otherwise, you could be lost forever.”
Lost forever. I walked back to my room, holding back tears. Tears mean nothing now, and even I don’t trust them. I don’t realize that already my gaze is hardening, a gaze that someday will intimidate students, friends, even my professors. My pilgrimage to holiness thus far has been the short walk between my bedroom and the dining room table, so I decided to write a letter. A confession. Achan confessed. Granted, he was stoned to death, but I’m hoping for a less drastic outcome. Once I am done, I quickly dash out and put it on the table. This is what I am, and before either can say a word, I dash back to my room and crawl into bed. Sleep won’t come for a long time, but I close my eyes anyway.
The next few days blend into weeks. There’s an escape trip to Arkansas, aliens, and my own exorcism to live through, but it ends. Not soon enough, but it ends, and that’s all that matters, right? That you survive. My mother suddenly sends me back to live with my father and his soon to be wife, a broken rescue in its own right, but I will survive what is coming with them, too.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. There’s more. Years and years worth of more that eventually, even had me damning other people—whether homosexual, bisexual, heterosexual, atheist, Muslim, wiccan—it didn’t matter because the bandwidth for being considered holy or good had grown so narrow that almost everyone was outside of it. Today there are many Christians, who think this way—that every sexuality outside of married heterosexuality is sinful, that other religions are damned, that women who have abortions are murderers and only they know the right actions that can help everyone become saved. Because becoming saved, at all other costs—to our sanity, our health, our friendships, and our economic stability—is the most important goal. But tell me, what good is saving our souls, if you have to destroy the world and trample upon the bodies of others in the process?