By MARLIN JESCHKE Columnist
---- — For some reason American Christianity seems to keep having some believers who hanker after miracles, who count upon divine healing or protection, but their faith (or should we call it folly?) ends in tragedy. I’m referring to parents in Philadelphia who were recently sent to prison for third-degree homicide in the death of their 7-month-old son, and a Kentucky preacher dying of snake bite when he and his family refused medical care.
In the case of the Philadelphia parents found guilty of the death of their 7-month-old child — they were members of a Pentecostal church that believed in divine healing. The tragedy in this case is compounded in that it was the second time these parents had refused to take a child for medical care, resulting in that child’s death. The first case involved their 2-year-old son, and the parents were on probation for that death when their 7-month-old second son died of treatable pneumonia.
According to the Christianity Today news report, the judge lectured the defendants sternly before sentencing them to prison. He said, “You’ve killed two of your children …. Not God. Not the church. Not religious devotion. You.” Adding to this sad news, reportedly 38 percent of American adults believe a parent has the right to refuse treatment for an infant with a life-threatening diagnosis. That sounds foreboding for a great many innocent kids across this land.
In the case of the Kentucky minister dying of snake bite, this involves an Appalachian snake-handling sect that takes very literally the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark 16:18 that speak of signs accompanying those who believe, saying: “They shall take up serpents in their hands, and … it will not hurt them …” (KJV). These people seem to take the words in this text, “they shall take up serpents …” as indicative or predictive or even as a command.
In the snake-handling case, the Kentucky minister got bitten by a rattlesnake but refused to be taken to a hospital, where emergency room treatment would most likely have saved his life. The minister had earlier been convicted on a charge of illegal wildlife possession of 50 venomous snakes and put on probation. It didn’t deter him from continuing the snake handling practice of his congregation.
His death of snake bite is open to several possible interpretations. One is that God didn’t keep his promise that persons who picked up venomous snakes would not be hurt. (Or did the promise apply to only nonvenomous snakes?) Another interpretation is that this Kentucky minister did not have the requisite faith, which raises questions about his eternal destiny. The opposite interpretation would, of course, be that his picking up snakes and then refusing all medical aid after getting bitten was the ultimate expression of faith, assuring him of salvation in the hereafter.
Believers in divine healing and snake handling have one thing in common, the idea that a sensational and miraculous intervention of God, or a daring risk, is a sign of superior spirituality. It reminds me of the story of a man stranded on the roof of his house during a flood. He prayed to God to save him. A boat came by and offered to save him, but he turned it down. Then a helicopter came by, but he turned it down too, expecting a more spectacular divine rescue. So he drowned. When he appeared before God he asked God why he hadn’t been rescued. God said, “I tried twice. Didn’t you see the boat and the helicopter?”
We seem to keep getting too many people like this in our society.
Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. In 1968-69 he received a Fellowship in Asian Religions, spending five months at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School and five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. His “The American Religious Landscape” broadcast can be heard every Sunday at noon on FM 91.1.