Thou Shalt Not

(Quick note: I usually post late enough in the week that it’s basically the next week anyway, so I’m going to draw some from our final week’s reading in this post too. Hopefully by the time you read this, you’ve finished the book anyway in preparation for the last round of scheduled posts going up.)

My sister was born when my mom was 21. She was dangerously premature, born around 32 weeks, if I remember right; once she was allowed to come home, my parents dressed her in doll clothes—as in outfits sold for actual dolls—because she was too small for baby clothes. While my mom was still in the hospital, recovering from giving birth, her pastor’s wife came to visit. More specifically, she came to ask my mother “What sin is in your life?” that would explain my sister’s struggle to survive being born.

That was the end of my family’s attendance at that church, but not of our being Southern Baptists generally. We had to come to that point individually, each of us, whether through reasoning, unsatisfied questioning, or simple recoiling from the multitude of restrictions and cruelties and constant browbeating that suffering was inflicted out of love. (This last, of course, was my aunt’s rationale for getting down on her knees every night and praying that my husband and I would be unhappy together, so that we would be nudged into correct, acceptable, heterosexual lives. Sin is a nonsense idea, a means of installing the surveillance camera inside your head and abdicating the responsibilities you have toward anyone who might be able to confront you with choosing to fail them—but if there is such a thing, surely willing for a fellow human being any more misery than whatever they might already be carrying counts.)

One of the great contrasts Butler gives us between Earthseed and Christian America is in the ways the two beliefs treat people’s humanity. In all that we see of people living Earthseed, there’s a great focus on your responsibilities to the larger community and to yourself. You work, you share, you learn, you teach, you make your own decisions. You’re answerable to the community in terms of whether you try to be of benefit to it, and if you’re harmful to the community, they expel you. (We hear about that, right? At least one case?) But you decide how much you believe, on your own timeline, and as long as you’re willing to pitch in, you don’t even have to believe. You are a person, whom Olamina and much of the rest of Acorn hope to convince that their way of doing things makes the most sense. (There’s an extraordinary bit in Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay where a golem gains the ability to make his own decisions rather than merely follow his programming. His moral manifesto makes me cry every time: “NOT THOU SHALT NOT. SAY I WILL NOT.”)

Then there’s Christian America, where all the decisions have already been made for you, including what you will and won’t believe, and your options are to conform or be forced to. And unlike Earthseed—whose god is understood as a force and a process and a truth and an inevitability, but offers no comfort—CA refers all its issues upward, to a god who will love you, you’re told, and will stop punishing you, if you’ll just decide to be good enough. If you still require correction, well, whose fault is that?

The evil of Jarret’s Crusaders is plain, even (as Daryl pointed out) melodramatic. And for Jarret and the rest of CA, it’s useful in multiple ways. On the one hand, it gets the results they want: subjugation. “Cleansing.” Impunity. Marc even calls them “courageous” in his note to Olamina: “misguided, but courageous,” and there’s another way they’re useful. They’re the bad apples. As long as the Crusaders are around, everyone else in CA can point to them and say, “There are your bad guys.”

But there are lots of kinds of zealots, and they don’t all wear big white crosses on their chests and enslave heathens “for their own good” and rape them and torture them to death. It was the Alexanders who tipped me off to what Butler is doing. At first I was a little disappointed with Asha’s stories of growing up: the evils of adoptive parents, right? That old trope. But what Butler’s showing us is how water flows downhill. This is the whole model of god as the abusive parent, reproduced on every scale in a person’s life, because that’s how totalitarian ideology functions. The differences between how Olamina is treated at Camp Christian (her home, before it was taken) and how Asha is treated in her home are only in degree. (“Even in the homes, there were no collars except as punishment for the older children, and then only after warnings and lesser punishments had failed.” Oh well in that case.) “Quiet was good. Questioning was bad,” Asha says. At three or four, she’s slapped and screamed at and made to burn herself, and then told she’s going to hell where it’ll be worse. She’s sexually assaulted by a man the church has put in authority over her. She’s forbidden to write and forced to confess publicly. She says herself about rank-and-file Christian Americans: “They were so certain that they were right that, like medieval inquisitors, they would kill you, even torture you to death, to save your soul.” There’s not a good wing and a bad wing of CA, just the difference between a factory and an Etsy shop.

And then there’s Marc. He’s horrified by what Olamina tells him about Camp Christian (and even just reading her recital again, I can feel my own anxiety start squeezing)—so horrified that he tells her again and again that she’s mistaken (because what she was put through is so mistakable, and of course she couldn’t know her own home that she built when she’s interned there), that he doesn’t believe her, that it’s not true, because he knows the people of CA and they’re good people. So horrified that he punches her for telling him the truth about what he’s chosen to be a part of.

And what kind of bullshit offer is it that he makes to her, that if she joins CA, maybe she’ll find out where her daughter is? That’s the same paragraph where he says, “Some of our people have relative or friends who are Crusaders.” Only a few paragraphs after conceding that “if Acorn was attacked” (my emphasis; the cognitive dissonance of granting Olamina a shred of credence would destroy his beliefs, so she must be the one who’s wrong) it was by Crusaders, he tells her to embed herself among people he knows has intimate ties to them. Surely if he’s done the research he says he has, he’d know how unlikely the Crusaders would be to let an escapee from Camp Christian walk free if they were alerted to her location.

He actually has more good to say about the Crusaders in his letter than bad—because he agrees with them. As far as I can tell, he finds his niece within a couple years, but she doesn’t meet Olamina for another 30 years, and that’s only after discovering his lie that Olamina and Bankole are both dead. (The woman who bought him out of slavery.) It’s like Olamina says in the Epilogue: “How completely, how thoroughly he has stolen my child.” He’s just the beautiful face of eliminationism, even within his own family. I’m genuinely sitting here at my desk seething from thinking so much about him. It’s breathtaking what some people will do in their zealotry, in far more insidious ways than the “simple” brutality of Camp Christian. That insidiousness, that awareness of the different and subtler forms of interpersonal violence that moral certitude licenses just as much as the grosser forms, is one of the lessons of this parable.

5 thoughts on “Thou Shalt Not

  1. Paul Debraski May 3, 2021 / 1:47 pm

    I love Terry Pratchett. Nice to see his name here!

  2. Paul Debraski May 3, 2021 / 1:51 pm

    Marc is such a breathtakingly evil character. And the way he is written, combined with Butler’s matter of fact style really lays that gut punch out there.

    It’s interesting that even though Marc is saved by his sister he still betrays her because he can’t turn away from the person (Jarret) who he can’t stop thinking about.

    Similarly, Asha says that Marc is bad, but somehow Olamina is worse, because she can’t betray the “only person” who loved her (Marc).

    They both wind up betraying the only person who care about them with no ulterior motive.

    That’s some psychological pain, right there.

  3. Daryl L. L. Houston May 5, 2021 / 10:55 pm

    Screw Marc and — with apologies if this is an overstep — screw your aunt.

    One thing that stuck out to me as I read this was that Olamina, for all her positive intent, let her zealotry shit flow downhill too. If she hadn’t been so bent on purveying her silly (if at least basically humanist) religion, she might’ve gone with Bankole and set up a family in a safer town, avoiding all the anguish her zealotry caused Bankole, Larkin, and herself, not to mention others who might’ve left Earthseed behind without its leader seducing them. Is she really much better than Marc, I wonder, her harm relative to that of Marc and Jarret being a matter in part of degree as well?

    • Jeff Anderson May 8, 2021 / 5:52 pm

      No apologies necessary, heh.

      I’m curious to hear more about what you see of zealotry in Olamina. She’s definitely convinced that she has a truth that will help people improve the world; but my impression is that she’s pretty committed to giving folks reasons to choose to believe along with her, which is the opposite of the kind of thing I usually associate with fanaticism. I’m totally open to the idea that I’m forgetting (or missed) stuff, though!

      • Daryl L. L. Houston May 12, 2021 / 9:40 pm

        Maybe zealotry isn’t the right word. I think I picked it up from Asha herself. Doesn’t she say at some point that both Marc and Olamina were zealouts? But just because she says it doesn’t mean it’s true. Maybe I mean something more like “evangelical.” But then she does cling to her views strongly enough that she won’t move to comparative safety with Bankole. So if zealotry is (as an online Oxford dictionary has it) “a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals,” maybe she qualifies?

        I definitely agree that she’s about choice and that doesn’t really square with fanaticism.

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