Of rats and men: What the 'Michigan Squirrel Club' shows us about God's grace
(photo courtesy of http://www.metro.co.uk)
Nothing infuriates me more as a New Yorker than seeing my peers on the diag, on their stomachs, making friends with local squirrels. Every time I see someone making nice with a squirrel, feeding it, talking to it, I’m tempted to pick them up by their plaid collar and say, “You traitor! Don’t you know that squirrel is a parasite, and he’s just using you? He doesn’t think you’re nature lover. He thinks you’re an idiot!”
I’ll let you know right now, I don’t exactly do nature. I hate hiking. I hate camping. I hate sleeping outside. I hate bugs. As an 8-year-old, I got to the edge of the Grand Canyon and said to my poor parents: “You just look at it?” So perhaps I’m not an authority on anything to do with wilderness.
You don’t need to point out to me how out of touch my viewpoint towards nature is — especially compared to what most people my age think. I absolutely think the environment is important and am not saying that animosity towards living things is at all rational. But there were certain facts about certain parts of nature that I grew up reciting, and when they’re contradicted I get confused.
To quote my father: “Squirrels are rats with better agents.” Squirrels are pests in New York City, and I’ve actually heard of instances when they’ve gotten into people’s apartments, not to mention trash, and done serious, expensive damage.
When you jump and yell at a squirrel in New York, it knows to scurry away and panic, but, when you do the same thing in Ann Arbor, the squirrel looks at you momentarily and just carries on about its business. Squirrels here are insulated from what I call “the fear.” All they’ve ever known are hands full of food and the faces of smiling foreign kids. They have no reason to fear a human, and, initially, this strikes me as a failure on the part of those humans.
“Squirrels carry rabies.” This was literally the first thing I learned about the connivers when I was little. I learned this axiom before I knew what rabies was. It was just a fact. “Squirrels carry rabies.” Implied was that squirrels wanted to attack, bite and give rabies (whatever that was) to me!
I’ll admit, by now I have a slightly more nuanced view of squirrels — albeit that’s exactly what they’d want me to say — but I can’t help but see the ways in which my first encounters with squirrels mirror the ways I first learned about God.
If the thing I knew about squirrels was that they were out to get me, and what I thought about nature was how terrifying and underwhelming (see: “You just look at it?”) it was, then the first thing I thought about God was that He wasn’t necessarily that good.
In fact, God once seemed like the most evil thing someone could believe in.
I now realize I was not as down on God as much as I was judging the people I thought represented Him. That is, I can’t quite say there was ever a moment where I wholeheartedly embraced atheism, but, frankly, if God existed, I wanted no part of Him because I believed God was as out-to-get-me as anything else in nature.
Based on who I saw openly expressing a belief in God — God’s agents, if you will — I made my mind up about Him before meeting Him myself. In high school, I thought believing in God meant you had to be a Republican from then on. I thought it meant you had to support the Iraq War. You had to talk with a southern accent. Burn Korans. Hate gays. Yell on street corners about how everyone was going to Hell. Get a cross tattooed on your bicep. Molest children. Play in the NFL.
Not all of these things are bad, but none of them fit with who I knew I was.
I was judging God by the character of his earthly representatives, a small segment of them at that, much like I’d judged squirrels. I’d essentially believed the notion that squirrels were evil and wanted to hurt me, and that was that. There could be no compromise because any debate I entered I entered with clenched fists.
But if the only thing I’d ever done towards squirrels was fearfully stomp my feet, why was I surprised that every squirrel looked like it was going to attack me? The truth is, New York City squirrels mostly know mean, competitive and rushed humans, so they have no reason to think humans mean anything but death.
And, growing up, I stomped my feet at God in a similar fashion. “Get away!” I thought. “You’re that thing that awful people hide behind!”
What I failed to see was that it was not the people I was judging who were ignorant to the truth about squirrels, or God. The ignorance was mine. I kept the same distance from God that squirrels kept from me and thought anyone who did otherwise was stupid. It took a humble God willing to lie on His stomach and hand-feed me tiny pieces of His truth before I thought, "Maybe this guy infects people with exactly what they need."
Ben Verdi is a man with a Bible and a laptop and a nasty curveball. He can be reached at email@example.com.