If Ferguson Has Taught us Anything it is that We are Our Deeds

If Ferguson Has Taught us Anything it is that We are Our Deeds

ferguson police line
So there on a urinal in a tollway oasis overlooking I-90 in Chicago, is a Jesus tract. In fact, Jesus tracts sit atop each and every urinal in that men’s’ room.

Interesting timing, I think. It is the day after Thanksgiving. These might have been placed on Thanksgiving itself.

I am a long way from Ferguson, Missouri and all that has transpired there. A long way from that community’s fear and anger and anguish. A long way from the pain of a Thanksgiving spent with an empty seat instead of a son.

Here, the sun is shining. The air is cool and clear. My thoughts are not centered on justice as I walk with my family into the waiting oasis. My thoughts are centered around my next Starbucks and the caffeine that will keep me awake long enough to get us all home hale and whole.

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I try to put myself in the mind of the person who placed these 3.5 x 6 inch tracts: Thank you God, for all this bounty. Now let me put your name on a urinal. Amen.

I don’t laugh. In fact, I think it’s offensive. It strikes me as disrespectful. That is my gut-level, emotional response upon seeing it: I would not put Odin there, where men urinate.

I shrug and am going to walk away. But as I stand there, curiosity gets the better of me and I read what the tract says, a stanza from a poem by CT Studd:

Just One Life
’twill soon be past
Only what’s Done
For Christ Will Last

I am being told that only things done for Jesus matter. We can disagree with that (as I do) but miraculously, this is actually kind of close to what Jesus actually said, that nothing matters but getting yourself right before God, because the kingdom of God is imminent. And you don’t have a day to waste.

I mean, it doesn’t get any clearer than this: “The time is filled up and the Kingdom of God is almost here; repent and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).

The age in which Jesus and all his contemporaries lived was at an end, he was saying. Remember, Jesus was alive when he said this. He wasn’t talking about his self-sacrifice: his death and resurrection. That’s a whole ‘nother gospel (and a later one). No, he was talking about God’s imminent intervention, God’s “coming in power” and a dramatic change in earth’s management.

I can sympathize with him now. I am sure I am not alone there. Certainly, those people in Ferguson could do with a change of management.

Think about it: this was huge. Jesus was promising Utopia. He was promising the fall of, as Bart Ehrman puts it, “the present evil kingdoms to which God’s people are now subjected, kingdoms of hatred, want, and oppression” (Ehrman, 1999: 143).

Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t jump at that now?

It never came about. But to Jesus, it was very real, and about to happen. While his own generation was alive. There was no time for business as usual. “Truly I tell you, some of those who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the Kingdom of God has come in power” (Mark :38-9:1).

Again, we can argue that this imperative is no longer relevant, given that the kingdom of God did not actually come about as expected: Jesus died, and hatred, want, and oppression have continued down to our own time. This is the reality for millions and the rich find it ever harder to contemplate slipping through the eye of a needle even as they recast Jesus’ appeal to the poor as a paean of praise to themselves.

So here we are, back to the urinal in the men’s room.

I contrast the words on this tract with what Heathens believe, have always believed, that each day, in and of itself, is important, but more important yet are our deeds.

In the Hávamál, the Words of the High One (Odin) we find,

Cattle die,
kinsmen die,
oneself dies likewise,
but good renown
will never die
for him who earns it.

– Hávamál, 76

It isn’t, as the tract says, “what’s done for Christ” that will last, but “good renown” and it is not a god doing the reckoning but your fellow humans who will remember, or not remember, what you have done.

In Ásatrú, what echoes through eternity is not just something done for a god, but something done for one’s fellow human beings, and when you get right down to it, for one’s self. What is important is leaving a list of deeds worthy of memory.

Certainly, in the days of my Norse ancestors, those fellow human beings would have been one’s family, clan, or community. In these days of globalism we can expand that list to include one’s country, or even all humanity. We care now as much about starving children on another continent as we do about our own.

Personally, I think the world could do with a bit more focus on people rather than on worries about what a god none of us can see might do to us after we are dead because we didn’t believe what people who say they speak for him say we should have been believing.

The enlightened self-interest described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America seems just what the doctor ordered:

The Americans, on the other hand, are fond of explaining almost all the actions of their lives by the principle of self-interest rightly understood; they show with complacency how an enlightened regard for themselves constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state. In this respect I think they frequently fail to do themselves justice, for in the United States as well as elsewhere people are sometimes seen to give way to those disinterested and spontaneous impulses that are natural to man; but the Americans seldom admit that they yield to emotions of this kind; they are more anxious to do honor to their philosophy than to themselves.

I mean, sure, we can worry about the Abrahamic god killing birds when he gets torqued, or flooding cities like New Orleans over gay rights or using volcanoes and various other natural disasters to punish us for this or that infraction, but that does not seem to me time well spent.

While it is certainly time spent focusing on god-stuff, it doesn’t do the starving family down the street any good, or put clothes on kids who need them, or food in their bellies, or protect the air we breathe and the water we drink from out-of-control pollution.

As events in Ferguson prove, we need less getting right with god and more getting right with each other.

In the end, there can be only one outcome. The tract has left me unmoved, my religion un-changed, and the round file beckons.

Putting Jesus tracts on urinals may be gauche, but they’re also money, and it’s money, if you’ll pardon the expression, pissed away.

This may sound counter-intuitive, coming from somebody who writes for a living, but we need less talk and more deeds, and that is the Heathen in me speaking: we are, at the end of all things, not our words but our deeds.

All that I write, and all that you read, all that we say to each other, mean nothing if we do not act upon those words. We cannot let acts of injustice done in our name speak for us instead.

We do not need to act according to a belief in God, as the tract demands, for we do not have that in common. But, rather, according to our belief in each other, for that is something we do have in common: our humanity.


Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford, 1999.

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