In Praise of Guilt: Reflections on ‘Wise Blood’ and ‘Mexican Bus Ride’

I was once in an unpleasant game of pool when my then-girlfriend’s older sister felt compelled to grill me on the fact that I, like her sister, was a Christian. More specifically, the sort of Christian who goes out of their way to get a degree in Religion – to plumb the depths of what, in her estimation, is an embodied absurdism, an intellectual suicide and, worse, an antiquated bit of heavy-handed social control, which, by now, ought to have done us all a favor and withered away.

This one-time potential in-law had not, evidently, been made aware of the debt that the best of modern civilization – East and West alike – owes to ‘Religion’ as such; be it Christendom’s faithful preservation of the ‘humanities’ through the inevitable ‘dark ages’ following the Empire’s long-approaching collapse, or the Islamic world’s insatiable appetite for what has, today, blossomed into the ‘STEM’ fields, or Medieval occultism’s paramount role in laying the groundwork for modern medicine – if you’re glad there’s a cure for polio, hug the reanimated corpse of an Alchemist.

Even more specifically, it grated her that I, like her sister, was the sort of Christian who found it necessary to visit a local neighborhood regularly, holding Bible study groups in the home of a resident, mobilizing the attendees to live Christianly and share their faith with the folks down the street. Like her sister, I was a modern-day colonialist.

More than anything, it seemed, she had serious concerns about what she assumed to be the cavernous guilt brought about by certain doctrines, such as Original Sin, and so on. “It can’t be healthy to teach people that they’re guilty.” She said. “How do you live like that?” I began to answer, but she continued. “Especially children! They don’t know any better, but if you raise them religiously, they learn to hate themselves before they can walk!”

I asked if she knew of a culture where guilt was nonexistent. Naturally, she did not. But she pressed on. “When you tell a kid, who’s never done anything wrong, that they were ‘born into sin’ – whatever you mean by it – they just learn, right there, that there’s something wrong with them.”

It reminded me of something filmmaker Luis Bu​ñuel once said: “​In 1951, I made a small film called ‘Mexican Bus Ride’, about a village too poor to support a church and a priest,” He continued, “The place was serene, because no one suffered from guilt. It’s guilt we must escape.”

When I was younger, it struck me as an odd thing to say. I was, to put it lightly, religiously inconsistent as a youth. Like nearly everyone born in the South, I was baptized before I ever learned how to speak complex sentences and identified more-or-less as a Christian throughout my earliest years. Not because I was even remotely devout, but because I was born in America, and, as those of us from the Bible Belt knew well, America was God’s turf. Or, at least, this God’s turf. Jesus was our territorial spirit, our demiurge. And we knew this because it’d always been so – our mamas had told us.

When you’re a teenager in the Bible Belt, you perennially convert. That is, you get religion every year or three until graduating from high school, at which point you put it away until you’ve got kids of your own, and need an omnipresent Babysitter. It’s quite the well-oiled machine.

But no one feels particularly guilty when the organ isn’t playing, and there’s the rub.

Bu​ñuel thought we’d all feel better if we did away with the Daemons that haunted us – that we’d love each other better, and sleep more soundly. Evidently, the very fact that some folks are religious and guilty is sufficient cause to roll the two strange phenomena together, indict the former of inciting the latter, and the latter of spoiling the ones enrapt by it.

This would make for strange court proceedings – calling Southern Baptists and unlapsed Catholics to the stand to account for why they’re so gosh dang guilty all the time and then trying to theorize around the stultifying numbness that the vast majority of them feel regarding the horrible crimes perpetuated by their forerunners and the blind eyes they turn to the freshly picked skeletons in their own church closets. And, for that matter, how remarkably few of them have any serious qualms about jettisoning the rather undesirable bits of their religion’s moral philosophies.

In other words, religious folks feel about as guilty as everyone. Which is to say, only vaguely so, and hardly in a way that’s quantifiable. Or even noteworthy.

I noticed as much when I was younger, weaving in and out of my grandma‘s religion, trying half-heartedly to piece together something like a narrative to live by. Like everyone else, I had a bit of an inkling that something was wrong – that the world was not, as they say, ‘the way it ought to be’, that Republicans were mean, or something, and that someone, somewhere, ought to do something, probably. But that was the closest I got to serious guilt when the organs weren’t playing “Just as I am” as travelling evangelists shouted something out of Matthew’s gospel.

But this was something different than guilt. Guilt was what you were supposed to feel when you did something wrong, and breaking religious rules, as far as I could reckon, wasn’t actually wrong. How could it be? How could a ‘text’ be determinative over what I could and couldn’t do? It’s how we all felt, really, when it came down to the brass tacks. Especially when it had to do with sex. And it always had to do with sex.

Because, of course, that’s all that anything had to do with, at least, when I was that age. It’s when we all began to seriously doubt the authenticity of the Bible, or the possibility that there’s only one God, or one ‘true religion’, and so on and so forth. Our teenage faith crises always coincided – coincidentally, of course – with our sexual awakenings. We realized that we could more or less put our genitals wherever we wanted and nothing visibly apocalyptic would happen. How, then, could it be ‘wrong’ to enjoy oneself? So we did what we liked, nearly all of us, and we didn’t sweat much over what the omnipresent Babysitter thought about it.

And then, of course, the organ would play, and the preacher would invite us down the aisle, and we’d walk, because that’s what you do when you live in the Bible Belt. We’d sob, and repent in dust and ashes, and swear off whatever grave, unspoken sin we had nailed (literally, on a sticky-note) to the wooden cross that was placed at the foot of the altar (it was always sex). But, naturally, we knew what we meant. We’d be back at it in a few weeks, but ‘repentance’ was euphoric, in its own way, and we’d ride the perennial train until religious devotion got boring again (and it always did) and then pick up wherever we had left off.

All of which makes Bu​ñuel’s suggestion seem rather like a disingenuous bit of Hazel Motesing. He is convinced, or is determined to be convinced, that the solution to the ‘problem of guilt’ is to recognize, as Motes said, that “there ain’t no guilt and there ain’t no Cross. ‘Cause there ain’t no Law. ‘Cause there ain’t no God and there weren’t no Jesus, so there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no guilt and there ain’t no redemption. ‘Cause you don’t need it.”

But in reality, as I mentioned earlier, religious folks are only as vaguely guilt-ridden in orientation as the rest of the populace, so its disappearance, either gradual or abrupt, would hardly cure our ills. Nor, one might add, would its never having existed. We’re all just vaguely guilty because we’re vaguely guilty.

If anything, we’re insufficiently so.

Why, for example, is it so blisteringly difficult to get the average person to admit to their wrongdoings? Why do we dig our heels in more often than not? It certainly isn’t because we’re haunted by unshakable guilts, imposed upon us by phantom priests and spectral Lawgivers.

And why, one might ask, are most white men, for example, thoroughly convinced that ‘the patriarchy’ doesn’t exist? And, too, that there is no ‘institutionalized racism’ enfleshed upon the bones of Western society, governing quietly, though decisively, toward a further reification of Caucasian dominance in the public square? I’ll venture to guess that it isn’t because we all feel so dang guilty about everything.

I’ll go just a bit further and hypothesize that it might be that we’re drunk on an imagined guilelessness, which blinds us to the wheels turning in plain sight and the fact that we’re the ones turning them.

So we are plagued, perhaps, by a deficit in guilt – and one so consequential that it has accrued a rather sizable body count. Good religion, one might say, is a balm for the wounded, sure, but is hardly an opiate for the bourgeoisie. As I have written elsewhere, it is, if anything, a merciful buzzkill, jostling us awake and demanding our submission to the strange moral vision of the gospel of grace. What we need, then, is not less guilt, nor less religion. What we need, rather, is better religion, better guilt.

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