Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.
- Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom
Stuffed and satisfied, Dan and Bill drove to the attorney's office on Lancaster Avenue, near the corner of Sterley Street across the street from Dan's old elementary school, which was now an office building. Dan parked on North Sterley and walked around the corner to Jim Anwalt's office. It was a plain, unassuming brick building and they found the office easily. Dan had expected to be the only one there but there was a minister also there who he didn't recognize.
Jim asked them both back to his office, introducing them. The minister was Reverend Matthew Dreher, the new guy at Grace Lutheran, Dan's old church. They shook hands and tooks seats in front of Jim's desk. "Call me Matt." The reverend said, amicably.
"I don't mean to be rude." Dan began. "But I don't understand why you're here." He said to Reverend Dreher.
"I think I can answer that one." Jim Anwalt interrupted. "Apparently there was a new will."
Dan wheeled around, facing the attorney. "What! "And that has something to do with the church?"
Matt continued. "Your grandmother asked us to help her with her will, and we did."
"Why wouldn't she ask you, Jim? You've been the family attorney since you took over for your father when I was a kid." Dan asked.
Jim shook his head. "I don't know, Jim said. "I only found about this yesterday. According to Reverend Dreher."
"Matt." Reverend Dreher corrected.
"Matt." Jim continued. "According to Matt, your grandmother asked him for help with a new will and in the new will, the church gets 10% of her estate."
"Excuse me?" Dan said, incredulously. "Why would she do that? Why would you do that? She hasn't been in herself in over a decade, longer probably."
"Please, Dan." Matt oozed. "Let's stay calm."
"Believe me, Matt." Dan said through clenched teeth. "This is me being calm. I hope you have some good answers because you don't want to see me come unglued. Believe me, you don't. Jim, have you looked at the new will? What else has changed? And who did the will?"
"An attorney in Reading did the will. An attorney, that is, who does work regularly for the church. Matt here says he'll testify that your grandmother was lucid when she signed it. The only other change, apart from the 10% to the church, is a specific bequeathment to the Hemigs, your grandmother's neighbors."
"Yeah, I know them. I don't have a problem with them. They treated my grandmother well; helped her out a lot. That makes sense." Dan acquiesced. "What I don't get is this ten percent shit."
"Please, Dan." Matt soothed. "Can't we stay civil."
"You tell me, Matt." Dan demanded. "Why would by grandmother do that. Hasn't my family done enough for the church over the years? My grandfather paid to have built and shipped from Europe the hand carved wooden altarpiece you stand in front of every Sunday. And that lectern you stand at to preach your hypocrisies, that was a gift from my family, as well."
"That's enough." The Reverend snapped. "I will not be insulted."
"Oh, so you don't think that bilking a feeble old woman out of her money isn't against christian ideals? That's perfectly consistent with what your church teaches, is it?" Dan shot back, his anger peaking.
"That's not the way it was." Matt replied defensively.
"Really. Well suppose you tell me what way it was." Dan said furiously.
Jim intervened, trying to get on with things. "Look, let's take a minute, here. Let's read the will then we can figure out what to do next."
"But which will?" Dan asked. "I don't accept the church will, which was made without my knowledge or consent at a time when my grandmother was clearly unable to decide for herself."
"We didn't need your consent." Matt countered smugly.
"Oh, really?" Dan shot back. "Did you know that I've had power of attorney over her affairs for the last fifteen years specifically because she didn't have all her faculties. You may pretend to have caught her on one of her good days, but who do you think a court would believe? Her loving grandson, practically her only living relative, with a signed power of attorney or you? I've got to tell, it's not about the money. I could care less about it. You can believe that or not, I don't really give a shit. But for you to pull this kind of crap is exactly the reason I hate the church, hate what it stands for today. You claim to be a Lutheran? Martin Luther would be spinning in his grave if he knew the perversities you were conducting in his name. This is about greed, pure and simple. You, of all people, should know that you shouldn't steal and you shouldn't covet your neighbor's house or anything else. That's in the ten commandments. Now try and tell me this is anything different?"
"I can see this is getting us nowhere." Reverend Dreher said, standing up. "I'll have our lawyer get in touch with you." He said to Jim as he started to leave.
As he reached the door, Dan added. "By the way, Matt. I hope you'll understand when I ask you not to come to my grandmother's funeral."
Matt looked like he'd been shot with a dart. "You can't be serious." He said. "This has nothing to do with your grandmother's religious wishes. She would have wanted a minister to preside over her funeral."
"It has everything to do with them." Dan disagreed. "She didn't know you like I do. Her funeral is going to be about family and saying goodbye. It's not going to be about religion and sure as hell isn't going to be about greed."
"Suit yourself." Matt said shaking his head, and huffed out of the room.
Once they were alone, Dan turned to Jim. "What the hell is going on. That's the guy who runs my old church now? What an asshole."
"I know you're pissed off." Jim began. "I can't really blame you. I was as surprised as you were when he told me. But I think we're in pretty good shape to fight it. There are plenty of people who can attest to her mental state. And you do have power of attorney and have had it for a long time. Also, it's very fishy that the lawyer who did the will also has the church as a client and they're named as a beneficiary. That's not illegal per se but I think with the other facts it calls the church's motives into question. We can make a reasonable argument that if she were lucid, your grandmother would have come to me, since my father and I have been your family's attorneys for decades."
"So what's next?" Dan sighed.
"We'll file the will your grandmother executed with me in probate and they'll contest the will, trying to assert the newer one should be controlling." Jim replied.
"How long will that take?" Dan asked.
"Several months, easy. Maybe a year." Jim answered. "And it's going to cost you to fight it."
"I don't care about the cost." Dan assured him. "The money really isn't important. I'd spend the other 90% to make sure they don't get the 10% they're trying to steal. That is easily the most un-christian maneuver I've ever heard of. I can't even believe it. And I'm willing to bet it's not the only scam they've pulled. Can we force them to disclose who else they're beneficiaries of, and how many of those their attorney prepared?"
"Hey, that's not bad. That might be useful. If we can show they are preying on others ... well, that would definitely help your case." Jim claimed. "Not to change the subject, but when is the funeral? I'd like to be there. I knew your grandmother as long as I can remember."
"Friday or Saturday. Probably Saturday. I have a meeting at the funeral home after this. I should now after that." Dan said. "I'll let you know. It's good to see you, Jim; I just wish it were under different circumstances. But I guess it was inevitable. Nobody lives forever, do they?"
Jim stood and Dan followed suit. The two old acquaintances shook hands and Dan left the office with Bill in tow. When they got outside, Bill began clapping. "Wow." He said. "You really let that guy have it."
"I just couldn't believe the unmitigated gall of that so-called christian. What an asshole! I mean, that used to be my church. What a fucking hypocrite!" Dan quietly screamed, so as not to arouse suspicion that he was talking to a ghost, or whatever Bill was. "You know, when I first moved west, they used to send me a year's worth of 'giving' envelopes with one for every Sunday and extras for holidays, pipe organ funds, all kinds of shit. The special envelopes all had full color art and the regular Sunday ones were numbered with the date and all of them had my unique church number in the corner to make it easier to keep track of how much I gave. How much did it cost to make those for every person? And they sent them every year for a long time. I kept moving and they kept finding me. It was a little creepy. I don't know how many years of getting zero on their investment it took before they finally gave up. It was so much of a business that if I wasn't already soured on the whole thing, that would have done it."
"Yeah, the money side of it gets me, too." Bill agreed. "But I don't think I've heard anyone quite so angry, at least not in person."
"So you're still a believer, eh?" Dan chided.
"Yeah." Bill confessed. "I do believe in god, but what god or is there just one god, I don't know. When did you stop believing?"
"I don't think I ever really did, believe that is, but I pretended to for a while, a long while. Until I was out of high school and left home, and even then I kept it to myself as far as my family was concerned. But the first time I questioned god out loud was in second grade, in Sunday school. The teacher was talking about Jesus doing something or other, I don't remember what. But whatever it was, it didn't sit well with me. At that time I was precocious enough to think of myself as a scientist. I had this Gilbert chemistry set and I mixed up chemicals for fun. Oh, and I studied birds. I could name dozens of them. Anyway, I started asking questions, doubting what she was telling me. She whisked me out of that class like I was a bomb about to go off. They called in my parents, and then they brought in a christian scientist to explain how religion and science could co-exist. But they never would address any of my questions. Even at age six, it pissed me off to be condescended to like that. And I never forgot it. I bided my time, accepted that they'd keep lying to me. And I kept wondering what else I was being lied to about. But I had to do what my parents said, so I kept going to church and going through the motions. After a few years, I began to think it was me, that if everybody else believed, then maybe it was my problem. So I kept trying to figure it out their way. Even after confirmation, when Sunday school was no longer 'mandatory,' I kept going for another four years. That's how I knew Ed, that big guy we met at the Giant this morning. I gave myself until I graduated from high school to try it my parents' way. I tried to be the good church boy. I was active in the youth organization; hell I was president of it one year in junior high. I went to church camp four years in a row."
"Then, after high school, I declared myself an agnostic, albeit only to myself and some close friends. And I started searching for answers in other places. I started reading a lot of philosophy at that time. The classic guys, Greeks, Germans, Brits and even some existentialists. Then alternative religions, mostly eastern stuff like the Upanishads, Buddhism, Taoism, stuff like that. And while I felt like they all had something interesting to say, none seemed to have the solution I was looking for. But perhaps that's because I still believed there was a solution to be found. I definitely don't believe that anymore."
"What do you mean?" Bill asked. "That there's no answer?"
"No. Yes. Sort of." Dan searched for how to say what he was thinking. "It's just that religion isn't about solutions, it's about how you live your life. All religions have more in common than most people realize. So much blood and anger has been spent over the differences that it makes me sick. What a waste of life. Religion was created simply to provide a blueprint for living, to give a legitimacy to morals, to put a stamp of authority on society. I used to think religion could and should be private. But it turns out one of its defining characteristics is its social aspects. A religion has to be social. One person doesn't make a religion."
"So do think they're all right or all wrong?" Bill asked.
"Both. Or would that be neither? I'm not sure." Dan continued. "They're all correct in trying to determine a moral structure for society. It's good that we all agree we shouldn't kill one another. We can all agree murder is bad, right?"
"Sure." Bill agreed. "But what about the death penalty, or abortion, or pro-life activists who kill abortion doctors?"
"Well, that's where they're all wrong, in a sense. People can't help themselves. They use these constructs to determine the morals of others because that was religion's original purpose. You have to admit that in a society who has a shared set of morals it's easier to function smoothly. There's less friction if everybody understands their responsibilities and obligations the same way. In fact, I'd argue that you'd need fewer laws in such a nation because a mono-moral society would have aspects that make it self-governing. In other words, you'd have less need to spell things out the way a legal code does. How you're expected to behave in a given situation would simply be part of the culture, you wouldn't need the law to tell you what to do or impose penalties for not doing something. There would be societal punishments that would be worse than jail or a fine that would keep people upright."
"The problem today is no society can really be mono-moral anymore and every moral system or religion still thinks there's is the right way and tries to impose their way on thinking on everybody else. It's anachronistic thinking. And it simply can't work, especially as the world has been getting smaller and smaller in terms of ease of travel and communication for centuries. Before that, people kept pretty much to themselves, except for trade and diplomacy and the like. Then societies functioned fairly well in isolation. Consistently, at any rate. We either need a common, secular moral code and virtually every religion will never submit to that. In effect, communism proved a secular code will have a hard time replacing a religious one. So that probably won't work. The other possibility I can see is we all become more tolerant and there's no evidence that's possible either. So, for now, it's a dead end as far as can tell."
"The other interesting thing about what Gore Vidal calls the 'sky gods,' by which he means judaism, christianity and islam, is that they're all chronological. What I mean is they have a definite beginning and definite end. They're all waiting for something to happen. A messiah, the end of the world, whatever. I find that a little scary. If you're waiting for some cataclysm to happen, and you really believe it's going to happen the way so many fundamentalist movements these days do, then it's not to much of a stretch to envision of the faithful taking matters into his or her own hands. We have a fundamentalist president in the white house controlled by the religious right, who think judgment day could happen any moment."
"If that don't keep y'all up at night, what will? I know I used to be worried about that during the Reagan/Bush years." Bill laughed.
"By contrast, many other religions, like buddhism, hinduism, taosim, many Native American religions are all cyclical. They follow the patterns of nature and are continuously moving and changing like the seasons. I find that much more comforting somehow; and more natural."
"But I think what bothers me the most about religion and in particular christianity is that it's used in perverted ways. For example, instead of using it to guide your behavior, many people use it as a crutch to allow themselves to do just the opposite. Under christianity you can do pretty much whatever you like; rape, murder, steal, screw your neighbor, vote republican, whatever and not worry about the consequences because you can always ask to be forgiven. And, apparently, you'll always get it. I say that's bullshit. Actions should have consequences. And religion shouldn't offer 'get out of eternal damnation cards' quite so easily. There's no real incentive to act morally if you can always repent later. Sometimes saying your sorry isn't enough in this life and I don't think it should be enough in the next, either."
"And the way power structures have been using religion to keep people down for centuries is just unreservedly evil. If you can tell people to sacrifice themselves now because they'll be rewarded in the next life well then you can get a lot of people to get killed or do whatever you want on your behalf. And you don't even have to be right. You just have to get them to believe you or that you have a pipeline to god, like so many of civilization's rulers used to claim. Hell, the pope still does claim it. But I think it's a little too convenient that the meek should stay meek and shut the fuck up now. Teaching people to be humble before god, that is power, just teaches them to be docile in the face of any power. So they learn obedience to authority and end up unhappy and wasting their lives without ever realizing they don't have to be. It's just so devious, it makes my skin crawl. I think that's why I'm never surprised when a preacher gets caught with his pants down or acting immoral while telling others to act morally. It's not just that they're hypocrites, it's that they're the ones who know it's just the biggest scam in history."
"So what now, Moses?" Bill joked.
"Let my people go." Dan joined in. "It's like that joke you used to do about Jesus looking down and saying people didn't get it because they were still wearing crosses. That they missed the point and he wasn't coming back until they started wearing fishes. Remember that bit?"
"I'm dead, I'm don't have amnesia. Yeah, what about it." Bill replied.
"Well in way that really is the problem as I see it. People have missed the point. Christianity, like any religion, teaches people the morals they need to live a good life, but almost nobody does that, and especially not the organized church. People pick and choose what parts of their religion they'll follow and which they'll ignore. And then they act pious, and claim to be good christians, whatever that means. It's like a gangster who kills, steals, etc. all week but come Sunday is a good catholic. That kind of character is always portrayed as believing that they're a moral person. Why? Because they went to church, prayed, went to confession, followed four out of the ten commandments and asked for forgiveness for the other six? Bullshit. It's all or nothing. It's like this new rising tide of fundamentalism in America. These people really get me going. They claim every word of the bible should be taken literally, despite huge, glaring inconsistencies and no dinosaurs. Their political agenda is to make the United States a christian nation, to make us 'moral.' In the last election, the bible belt all went for gaga for morals, saying that was the most important factor in their voting choice, more important than killing people needlessly in Iraq, legal theft of the poor and more handouts to the rich. And are those states more moral than us sinners in the blue states? No. Turns out in virtually every expression of morals that you can track from teenage pregnancy to divorce rates that the red states are actually less moral by their own standards. They're just a bunch of greedy hypocrites. It would be hilarious if I didn't think they were actually ruining this country. I've even thought about leaving, but fuck that. My family has been here since before the revolution so I'm staying. Damn, I'm hungry, let's get this funeral thing out of the way and get some food. Sound good?"
"Works for me there, sunshine." Bill said.
They drove around the corner to the funeral home, which was also on Lancaster Avenue across from the town hall building in the dead center of town.