Fresh off the presses, this “heretical” piece will appear in the October issue of Reality Magazine. Enjoy!
We recently marked the 8th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and predictably, churches all over the country had prayers for world peace and healing. We are quick to endorse the idea of world peace, but often fail to recognize our role in helping to create it. Creating peace is not something we attain merely by wishing for it, by pretending to be at peace with ourselves when we are not, nor by speaking words of peace when our beliefs lead to actions of hate.
I used to think that our personal beliefs had little bearing on anything: you were free to believe whatever you wanted, and I was free to do the same, as long as neither of us was trying to compel the other into his way of thinking. As in so many other areas of my life, I have come to a different and, hopefully, more enlightened viewpoint.. I now contend that our beliefs have everything to do with who we are, who we are capable of becoming, and ultimately will determine the future of the planet.
Students are always asking me religious questions, not because they know I am a priest (most don’t know that), but because I have distinguished myself as a teacher who doesn’t lie to them or espouse opinions because I am required to. If a school policy doesn’t make sense to me and they ask me about it, I agree with them. They learn early on that I am honest with them, so when they ask me things like, “Are you saved?” or “Do you believe in hell?”, I try to be honest. I don’t want to offend them or their parents’ views, even as I want them to critically examine everything in their world, including religion. Hell is, for whatever reason, a popular question already this school year, and it’s got me thinking.
The question about being saved is an easy one to answer: I believe that salvation has nothing to do with what happens to us after we die, and everything to do with the movement of grace in our hearts, when we finally wake up to the fact that God loves us just the way we are. It’s not an event, it’s a process that happens in the here and now. Even students can appreciate the simplicity and elegance of my response.
The issue of hell, on the other hand, requires more processing, and I usually end up turning the question back on them, followed by questions about God’s grace and love, hopefully leaving them wondering more about what they themselves believe than about what I believe. The truth is that there is no hell, nor can there be a hell if one truly believes in the all-encompassing power of God’s love. God is love—we say the words all the time—and everything God does is out of love. This love is lavished on the rich and the poor, the gay and the straight, the good and the bad, the compliant and the rebellious—in other words, on you and me–in equal doses and at all times. God’s love won’t allow us to be abandoned or given up on; the divine project of redeeming and restoring us is eternal because that is what God wants for each of us.
Jesus came to bring us Good News, to draw all people to God, to set aside judgment and violence in the name of religion and the state. He insisted that there were no barriers to God’s love, that it wasn’t about salvation for a chosen few. The cross and resurrection is God’s final word of victory over the power of Empire and the power of religion. I believe absolutely that God will effect the salvation of every person, in this life or the next, no matter how we resist, no matter how much we struggle against it. And since I believe this to be true, my whole attitude changes and suddenly there is no “us” and “them” in my world.
I no longer believe in a dualistic reality, a universe where some people are saved and some are damned. In fact, I believe that a great deal of human suffering is the direct result of those who do believe this. It’s easy to apply harsh standards on others when I believe that my way is right and theirs is wrong, knowing I am saved and they are damned.. Although I might admit theoretically that “only God can judge”, I will be quite comfortable making predictions about who is saved and who isn’t.
In his book, When Religion Becomes Evil, author Charles Kimball writes, “Many religious people see religion as the problem. By religion, they invariably mean other people’s false religion. A substantial number of Christians, for example, embrace some form of exclusivism that says, ‘My understanding and experience of Jesus is the only way to God. Any other form of human religious understanding or behavior is nothing more than a vain attempt by sinful people on a fast track to hell’.”
It’s the idea of dual destinies that is dangerous and leads to violence. Muslims declare jihad; Hindus kill Muslims in order to purify a contested temple site. Israelis demolish Palestinian homes and Arabs bomb Israeli settlers’ homes. It can all be justified because, they argue, God loves some people and hates others. It’s the classic belief that there’s an “us” and a “them”, and it’s wrong. It undergirds and motivates violence and killing worldwide and undermines peace at every turn.
There are still people who believe that peace is the special preserve of a person’s private spiritual life, requiring no involvment in the real world. This is somewhat understandable since it’s easier to meditate in our room and feel good about ourselves than it is to sit by the side of a young man dying of AIDS. It’s more comfortable to make entries in our gratitude journals at the end of the day than to speak peace to a world at war. It’s more satisfying to fast and pray than to be patient with a rude neighbor, and so much easier to hug our church friends on Sundays than to speak gentle words to our own families. At all times, our task is to be rooted in the real world, not withdrawn from it, and our core beliefs have everything to do with how we involve ourselves.
If we really want the peace we say we want, we should reevaluate our belief in a universe where some are destined for hell. It will change the way we see everything and everyone—for the better. We will be able to live in the present, instead of pining for a different set of circumstances. It may be that the neighborhood we live in, rather than the one we want, will really help transform us into authentic peace-loving human beings. It may be the job we have rather than the position we are selling our souls to obtain that will finally liberate us from our egos. It may be the power of our private beliefs and the actions that follow logically from them that will finally be the measure of who we really are.
God is calling us to more than our perceptions, waiting to bring us the peace we say we want. We need to be attentive to Spirit within, to release beliefs that have brought nothing but misery to the human family, and step out into the light. This will require the efforts of our hearts, souls and bodies. We have spent endless millenia trying military might, violence and revenge, persecution and isolation, hatred and killing as paths to peace. None has worked. It’s time to try the only path left open to us. It’s time to love each other, to value each other as companions on the same path. As long as our private beliefs include our religion competing for the keys to the kingdom of God, we will continue to spread harm and division. As long as we are comfortable damning others, our words of love, peace and tolerance will remain illusions because killing our enemies, not loving them, becomes the Divine mandate. I believe it is time, finally, to tear down our bloody altars and make peace a reality.