Take a Bite and See the Light

According to Pope Francis, fake news, rather than a recent phenomenon, has plagued society since the beginning of the human race.  In a World Communications Day message on “Fake news and journalism for peace,” Francis states that “the first fake news” was “employed by the ‘crafty serpent’ in the Book of Genesis . . . at the dawn of humanity . . . (cf. Gen. 3: 1-15),” marking the beginning of “the tragic history of human sin . . . against God, neighbor, society and creation.” (‘MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS FOR WORLD COMMUNICATIONS DAY,’ w2.vatican.va, Jan. 24, 2018)

In the Genesis creation story, the first human being, Adam, had a good deal in the Garden of Eden paradise God created for him..  He was provided with “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food,” with a flowing river to water the Garden.  God also made “every animal of the field and every bird of the air,” and even allowed Adam to name “every living creature.”   And to top it off: so that Adam would not be alone,  God made a woman – from Adam’s own rib – as a partner, and also allowed Adam to name her, which he did, calling her “Woman, because she was taken out of “Man.”  There was only one catch: God told Adam, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die.” (Genesis 2: 15-25)

As Pope Francis tells the creation story, fake news started with the serpent enticing the first woman, Eve, to commit the first sin, which is disobedience to God.  Francis says the original sin is about “the tempter” setting up Eve with, “Did God really say you were not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?”  Eve allows herself to engage his “provocation,” explaining that God said she and Adam could eat the fruit of any tree, except “the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden,” which they are not even to ”touch under . . .  pain of death.”  The serpent leads her on with the reassurance, “ ‘You will not die!’ (Gen 3: 4)”  He then adds this enticement: “ ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.’ (Gen. 3: 5)” (‘MESSAGE OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS FOR WORLD COMMUNICATIOND DAY,’ Ibid)

Pope Francis automatically gives credence to the Genesis creation story’s lesson on disobedience as the cardinal sin of humankind.  He moralizes:  “God’s paternal command, meant for their good, is discredited by the seductive enticement of the enemy: ‘The woman saw the tree was good to eat and pleasing to the eye and desirable.’(Gen 3: 6)”  Francis omits the Genesis story’s next phrase:  . . . “ ‘and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise.’(Gen 3: 6).”  Instead, he continues to moralize: “This biblical episode brings to light an essential element for our reflection: there is no such thing as harmless disinformation; on the contrary, trusting in falsehood can have dire consequences.” (Ibid)

How, as Pope Francis presumes, is “God’s paternal command meant for their good” and why is “the seductive enticement” of the serpent bad?  What is so sinful about wanting to take a bite and see the light?  Where is the falsehood in desiring to open one’s eyes and become wise, knowing the difference between good and evil, like God?  What is wrong about the wish to move from a womb-like-Garden-of-Eden- dependency on God — or Church or State — to moral clarity and self-determination and solidarity with others?  What is so evil about saying no to obedience to a religious or political status quo and yes to inquisitiveness, which is the avenue of self-development and the inspiration for community building?    Adam and Eve model the rise, not the fall, of humankind.  Any questioning that enables people to open their eyes and become wise enough to know the difference between good and evil is to be encouraged, not moralized as evil.  Desperately needed today is moral clarity, not conformity to biblically-interpreted beliefs.

Not that Pope Francis’s message on fake news contains no moral clarity.  He offers telling advice.  Like, fake news “thrives in the absence of healthy confrontation with other sources of information that could effectively challenge prejudices and generate constructive dialogue.”  Similarly, “The tragedy of disinformation is that it discredits others, presenting them as enemies, to the point of demonizing them and fomenting conflict . . . spread[ing] arrogance and hatred.”  Also, “The best antidotes to falsehoods are not strategies, but people: people who are not greedy but ready to listen; people who make the effort to engage in sincere dialogue so that the truth can emerge.”  And this much needed wisdom:  “I would like, then, to invite everyone to promote a journalism of peace . . . a journalism less concentrated on breaking news than on exploring the underlying causes of conflicts, in order to promote deeper understanding and contribute to their resolution by setting in place virtuous processes.” (Ibid)

But Pope Francis flirts with fake news himself in identifying truth with “the living God” and the Bible – and by extension Christianity.  He states that “the most radical antidote to the virus of falsehood is purification by the truth.  In Christianity,” he continues, “ truth is not just a conceptual reality that regards how we judge things . . . as true or false.”  Nor is truth “just bringing to light things that are concealed.  . . .   Truth,” Francis explains, “involves our whole life.”  He then equates truth with the Bible – and by inference with the Church, saying, “In the Bible, it [truth] carries with it the sense of support, solidarity, and trust, as implied by the root ‘aman, the source of our liturgical expression Amen.” (Ibid)

Pope Francis then binds truth, the Bible and God together into a trinity: “Truth is something you can lean on, so as not to fall.  In this relational sense,” Francis explains, “the only truly reliable trustworthy One – the One on whom we can count – is the living God.  Hence, Jesus can say, ‘I am the truth.’ (Jn 14: 6)”  Thus for Francis, “This alone can liberate us: ‘The truth will set you free.’ (Jn 8: 32)” (Ibid)  The message: truth comes from God, is contained in the Bible, revealed by Jesus, and preserved and perpetuated by The Church.

Pope Francis treats the Genesis creation story as though it were true, when, in fact, the story itself is used by Christians to spread fake news.   Consider the story: all human beings are born with an hereditarily sinful nature because Adan and Eve, the presumed first parents of the human race, disobeyed God by eating the forbidden fruit so that they could become wise, like God, and know the difference between good and evil.  This fake news provides the foundation for another Christian falsehood: that God sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, into the world and allowed him to be crucified on the cross as atonement for sinful humanity.  Thus, for all people, being saved from eternal damnation in hell requires believing that Jesus died for their sins and confessing him as their savior.  This is the doorway to salvation from everlasting punishment, and Christianity holds the key.

Consider the spiritual catch 22 facing Christians in certain denominations.  The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” puts it this way: “389 The doctrine of original sin is, so to speak, the ‘reverse side’ of the Good News that Jesus is the Savior of all men, that all need salvation and that salvation is offered to all through Christ.”  And, “The Church, which has the mind of Christ, knows very well that we cannot tamper with the revelation of original sin without undermining the mystery of Christ.”  (www.vatican.va)

Here the truth is a matter of divine revelation that is surrounded by “mystery” and not to be “tampered with.”

The United Methodist Church has a similar view of human sinfulness and salvation.  ”Yes, we do believe that babies, at birth, are contaminated with sin,” writes the Rev. Dan Benedict of the Church’s General Board of Discipleship.  He then quotes the Church’s Book of Discipline’s Articles of Religion: “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam . . . but it is the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered in the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually.”  There is not even a “tiny spark of goodness at our core . . . we are without merit or claim upon God on our own.”  Salvation is about “simply accept[ing] the deepest need we are in from the beginning” and being washed “in baptism where God claims us as God’s own in union with Christ.” (“Does The United Methodist Church believe that babies are born in sin?,” www.umc.org)

Anglican/Episcopal, Assembly of God, Baptist, Presbyterian and Lutheran Churches also believe that “all men are sinners already at birth.” (“Compare the Beliefs of Christian Denominations,” by Mary Fairchild, www.thoughtco.com, Sept. 25, 2017)  These Christian denominations’ repeated use of the word “man” in referencing the Bible’s creation story betrays an embedded patriarchy, which is an insidious form of fake news that makes women and girls invisible – and vulnerable.

Being punished for wanting to become wise and know the difference between good and evil.  The Christian interpretation of the creation story is about right belief, not just behavior.  It is about the exclusivity of faith, not the inclusivity of love.  It is about evangelism, not empathy.  It is about obedience to the biblical Word of God as interpreted by priests, pastors and evangelists.  Foremost, it is about gaining power over and controlling believers.

Thus President Donald Trump, a serial sexual abuser of women, pathological liar and warmonger, gets a “mulligan” from white evangelical Christian leaders.  Why?   Because he accommodates their biblically-based beliefs: appointing a pro-life Supreme Court justice, promising them the “religious freedom” to discriminate against LGBTQ persons, and hyping the return of America to its white-perceived biblical “city set on a hill.” (See “Tony Perkins: Trump Gets “a Mulligan” on Life, Stormy Daniels,” By Edward-Isaac Dovere, POLITICO, Jan. 234, 2018)

“Babies are contaminated with sin?”  All children are born human, predisposed to respond to nurture and love with trust and love in return.  What is sinful is a gospel of self-hatred that makes them feel unworthy and in need of a church’s biblical dispensation to alleviate their guilt and make them feel acceptable.  Babies can, however, be contaminated by religious belief.

While countless people find security in believing that Christ died for their sins, countless others live life and face death fearing that divine retribution hangs over their heads.  Like the patient I visited while a hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center.  An older, terminally ill black man, he said that he was going to be “shoveling a lot of coal” when he died.  Why?  “Because of a number of bad things I have done in my life,”  he said.  I did not pursue the “bad things” he had done because of his weakened condition and difficulty in speaking..  Instead, I asked if anyone had ever done any “bad things” to him, “growing up and in your life?”  “Yes, a lot,” he said.

Never mind him being born with a sinful nature.  Having researched and written about America’s white-controlled hierarchy of access to economic, political and legal power, I assumed he probably had two racial strikes waiting for him when he was born.  One invisible strike could be seen in a study that found, “Blacks Suffer Heart Failure More Than Whites . . . at a rate 20 times higher than did whites, even dying of it decades before the condition typically strikes whites . . . researchers reported.” (The New York Times, Mar. 19, 2009) The second unseen strike against this patient may be found in another study that showed:  “Chronic distress from growing up poor appears to have a direct impact on the brain, leaving children with impairment in at least one key area – working memory.”  The “bad things” here:  “Children raised in poverty suffer many ill effects: they often have health problems and tend to struggle in school, which can create a cycle of poverty across generations.” (“Data tie stress of poverty to brain,” By Rob Stein, The Boston Globe, April 7, 2009)

Sadly the patient had a self-loathing heart.  A white-dominated hierarchy with him at the bottom where “bad” economic political and legal “things” happen to poor people of color especially — and also to economically strapped white persons.  “Bad things” legitimized by a theology of self-hated, which was the third strike that apparently led this patient to believe he would be “shoveling coal” when he died.

What seemed to especially reassure this patient was not so much my saying that Jesus revealed a “God of love” who loved him.  Nor the prayer that I offered, though prayer to a loving god is often a powerful way to affirm and reassure a patient.  What seemed to especially connect with this patient was my telling him, “Wherever you are I will see you there.”  “You will?,” he asked.  “Yes, I’ll be there.  And neither of us will be shoveling coal.”  “I hope you’re right,” he said.  Before his discharge to a hospice, I saw him again and repeated, “Wherever you go, I’ll be there.  I’ll look for you until I find you.”  “Okay,” he replied.  “That’s a promise.”  “That’s a promise,” I said.  The patient seemed to find reassurance in hearing someone not only voice caring about whether he lived or died but caring about him even after he died.” (See Alberts, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity)  The humanness i

Pope Francis did not “tamper with” the complexity of what people are born into in his message on fake news..   Nor did he reference an important part of the Bible’s creation story.

The God of the Garden of Eden comes across as jealous and vindictive.  When God found out that Adam and Eve disobeyed him, he said to Adam, “Have you eaten of the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?  Adam passed the buck, saying, “The woman you put here with me- she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”  God turned to Eve and demanded, “What is this that you have done?”  Eve passed the buck to the serpent, saying, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”  And the poor serpent couldn’t wiggle of it because he didn’t have a leg to stand on.  So, God cursed the serpent and condemned him to snakehood, and from that day on the serpent has received bad press. (Genesis 3: 8-15)

Eve fared far worse.  God sentenced her — and all women thereafter — to pain in childbearing, putting her in a catch 22 with: “I will make your pangs in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children.”  And then this catch 22: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3: 16)  Thus the veneration of patriarchy: with men biblically licensed to rule over women in the family and Church – with the sexual abuse of women – and children – encouraged by patriarchally-controlled relationships

Then it was Adam’s turn.  God condemned him – and the human race thereafter – “cursing the ground” because of Adam, filling it with “thorns and thistles,” and requiring him to toil for food by “the sweat of your brow.”  Never mind that Adam was supposedly created in the image of God.  His unpardonable sin was wanting to become like God.  As “the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.   He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”  Evidently only one person can be god.  Or were there two?  Or more?  The thirst for personal knowledge of good and evil is indispensable for human development.  But that thirst got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3: 17-24)

Actually, in eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve cut the “umbiblical” cord of a god created in the image of man and gave birth to themselves.  They represent, not a theology of self-hatred, but one of self-empowerment and moral sensitivity.

What is the difference between good and evil?  Good is whatever makes life more human for people.  Evil is whatever diminishes and destroys people’s lives.  Good is recognizing that people themselves have the capacity and the right to decide what makes life more human for them.  Evil is sitting in the shade of one’s own tree of the knowledge of good and evil and deciding what is right and wrong for everyone else.  Good is being secure enough in one’s own identity to affirm and protect the right of others to be different.  Evil is the failure to recognize that to be different is not to be evil but merely to be different.  Good is the attempt to use democracy to secure life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people.  Evil is the attempt to capitalize on democracy to secure more power, privilege and profit at the expense of the common good of all people.

Living in community and in peace with others depends on knowing the difference between good and evil – and acting on the basis of that difference.  Take a bite and see the light.


Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His newly published book, The Minister who Could Not Be “preyed” Away is available Amazon.com. Alberts is also author of The Counterpunching Minister and of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review of the book in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.