This post at Verbum Ipsum (and the post it links to) reminded my somewhat distracted brain that I’d meant to give Hugo a fuller response to the debate we were having in this post. For those of you who don’t want to dig through the 50 other comments (and I don’t blame you) I wrote that my own idea of salvation was more “apocalyptic”, because I think it involves more than creating a good community here on earth. Hugo said that he believes in the afterlife but he’s not interested in offering his youth-group members “pie in the sky”, just love here on earth.
The phrase “pie in the sky”, from that old Woody Guthrie song, has a way of getting trotted out whenever you say to a certain type of Christian that the afterlife is important. It invokes the old Marxist belief that heaven is something the powerful promise to the oppressed so they’ll put up with suffering in life and not try to create a better world. So in order to show your solidarity with the workers, you need to downplay the importance of the afterlife.
I’ve been wondering for a while if this is really the attitude of oppressed people, or if it’s just the attitude of middle-class activists who purport to speak on their behalf. Because, in fact, it seems like the attitude of someone whose life is so cushy they’ve never met a problem that somebody couldn’t solve. Famine, plague, natural disaster, death — all these don’t really register on the radar. True, modern technology has given us the capability to alleviate a lot of these things, but there is much beyond our scope; and it must be acknowledged that all those come with costs. (I mean to write a post about the costs of modern medicine one of these days, but that’s another issue.) And speaking for myself, I think my own struggle with problems that even people of the best intentions seem incapable of solving (which I will not elaborate here) makes the promise of heaven all the more important.
But there are a few other points I want to make. One, it’s certainly not necessary to invoke heaven to keep the masses under your heel. In fact, some pagan empires did just that. My religion professor in college remarked that the ancient Egyptian view of the afterlife preserved the social structure on earth, thereby underscoring its inherent rightness. The theme of inversion in the Beatitudes — the exalted shall be humbled, and all that — may be somewhat blunted by being pushed off into the future, but it’s still radical.
For another thing, saying, “You’ll be rewarded for being good by going to heaven after you die,” is only a recipe for complacency if you subscribe to a certain idea of “being good.” Certainly the Mennonite concept of what it means to follow Jesus in this life is not simply to approve of the status quo. That’s why I don’t like the sort of either/or option that Hugo offered: either you believe kingdom is something we create here, or you believe it’s totally unrelated to anything going on here. This dichotomy does not make sense to me. All those Jesus parables about the kingdom being something that starts small and grows into magnificence suggest that regarding the kingdom as either fully here, or fully not here, is missing the point.
Tripp recently reprinted an essay by an Orthodox priest arguing that the Jesus-era belief in resurrection was not opposed to social justice, but was in fact its handmaiden. He uses the example of the Maccabean rebels:
The origins of that hope of the resurrection were probably varied and
complex, but at least one of its chief components was Israel’s inherited
sense of justice. Thus, they reasoned, “How could the just God permit the
continued persecution and slaying of His servants with no hope of matters
being set right in the future?” And they answered, “Well, no, it just isn’t
possible, so there certainly will be a resurrection in the future, at which
time the righteous God will adjust the accounts of history.” …
It is not difficult to trace in 2 Maccabees 7 the argument leading to that
conclusion. … Thus, their testimony, or martyria, commences with the
first brother’s assertion that the righteous man will die rather than be
unfaithful to God (7:2). But this willingness to die makes no coherent moral
sense if death has the last word on the subject. Therefore the second
brother affirms a final resurrection in which God will vindicate the moral
decision of the righteous (7:9).
The promise of heaven, then, affirms that working for justice in the present is the right thing to do even if you seem to be failing horribly. What does the kingdom-now vision have to offer along this line? It does not, it seems to me, make any allowance for failure. The people who are unfortunate enough to live now, in a time of social injustice, are either paying the penalty for not being perfect or are just out of luck. Those who die for the cause may tell themselves that future generations will yet see the kingdom: but even assuming that’s true, why all the luck to those born late?
All this about martyrdom and willingness to die is a long way from Hugo’s youth group, but that’s exactly the problem. Hugo may regard his kids as “saved” by the warm embrace of his agape love, but what if the authorities decided to come around and start hauling the teens off for torture, rape, and murder, and All Saints was unable to stop it? Would that unsave them? I think that the futurism of the New Testament, the sense that things were yet to come to fruition, wasn’t just from the fact they erroneously thought Jesus would come back very soon (as Hugo told me) but that they were facing persecution. Would it really have been sufficient for them to know that their deaths would eventually enable Hugo to create his loving youth group? I don’t know, but somehow I think they died for more than that.
And what of those dead martyrs? In The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, Robert Wilken writes that the Roman-era church considered its dead to be part of the congregation: “In the liturgy all the members of the church, past, present and future, were fused into a single community that included the patriarchs and prophets, the Virgin Mary and apostles, martyrs and saints, and those whose names are known only to God. … The company that celebrated the liturgy was not confined to this world.” I admit that the veneration of saints sometimes borders on ancestor worship, but any movement that expects people to be willing to die for it should not regard people as irrelevant once they pass from this world.
Finally, I agree with Lee’s point that regarding heaven as irrelevant elides the biblical connection between sin and death. Why are people so selfish — why do we serve our own interests at the cost of others’? In a world under the reign of death, it makes sense. Agape love may not, when it come to it, be fully possible until we are freed from the world where we survive at the expense of other living things.
Ed Schroeder helped articulate this point of view for me when he said that turning salvation into ethics makes the Gospel “small.” Although perhaps “small” is not the ideal word, since one wouldn’t want to belittle the “universal rule of love and justice in the world.” If such a thing were achieved, it would be huge. But it’s still smaller than what was promised, and that’s the thing. However big our social schemes are, God’s scheme is bigger.