Preparing for Hell

It is easier to prepare for the advent of hell than to do the work of welcoming heaven.

If the government shutdown (re)teaches us nothing else, it certainly demonstrates that we — humans in general, Americans in particular — find it easier, in fact more palatable, to prepare for worst case scenarios than to work hard for optimal solutions. When hell threatens life or life perspective, we rush to secure our ways of being — filling our arms up with every ideology, financial advantage, and social capital within reach — rather than investing our energies and lending our hands to transform that coming hell into heaven: to do the hard work of imagining cooperation, embodying reconciliation, and birthing justice.

But we consider this transformative work to be far more difficult (it is), and therefore untenable. Thus when doom is on the horizon, we scurry to make last-minute preparations for the sake of ourselves, rather than pausing to consider long-term alternatives for the sake of the whole.

This preference for “girding our loins” to meet hell rather than bothering to don a pair of shoes for the sake of walking toward peace (Ephesians 6) — that is, our fondness for short-term stopgaps to the neglect of long-term courage — is both political and theological.

The shutdown of the federal government provides an immediate example of our limited political vision. While Congress pondered and posed in these past weeks, government organizations invested millions as they diverted time and energy into planning for the shutdown. Last-minute “compromises” (a false word) proposed between the houses of Congress in order to stall the federal shutdown offered only a short-term federal budget — a quick fix to stave off the coming hell — with no imaginative long-term vision for repairing the damage that brinkmanship continues to have on the nation nor for taking courageous steps toward the “heaven” of political cooperation and other-mindedness.

Sadly, our hell-bent political posture mirrors a longtime, much beloved theological posture.

The theological idea of preparing for hell (by which I mean the American Christian conviction that the world needs to be saved from eternal fire) also lacks imagination and courage. It is easier to preach damnation, easier to shout Jesus’ name for salvation, easier to prophesy about moralization than it is to reconcile with one’s brother, to listen to the perspective of a neighbor, or to love the life of a stranger. Theology that shapes its faith according to the threat of hell misses — or more accurately, begs off from — the responsibility to do the heaven-on-earth work of reconciliation and justice.

Of course, the Christian penchant for arming ourselves against hell isn’t limited to a conservative theological niche. It also finds expression in denominations and congregations across the theological spectrum that defend themselves against decline with a patchwork of band-aids: from sequestered endowments to vitality programs to young male pastors to outright carved-in-stone stubbornness — most of which have the potential to be good & enlivening, except for the frequency with which they represent a church’s lack of vision and courage. And each scurried preparation hides us from our fear of hell for one more day. Each short-term fix saves us momentarily from the hard work of envisioning new possibilities for heaven through our ministries, so long as we have them.

All of this is rather sweeping and grandiose, borne of my frustration with the collective “us” — especially and particularly this week, the “us” that works in Congress. But it’s abundantly clear that all of us need to reexamine this collective posturing toward hell. The collective “us” that is Church and the collective “us” that is Government and even the collective “us” that vainly imagines it can abstain from institutions altogether (Spiritual-But-Not-religious, meet the Tea Party . . . Tea Party, meet the Spiritual-But-Not-Religious), all of us have serious soul-searching to do in the upcoming days, weeks and years. Which means that I have soul-searching to do, and so do you. Will you and I gird our lives against hell, spending and saving and voting and praying and preaching and loving as though the only & most important thing we can do with this life is prepare ourselves for hell?

Or will we preach and pray and spend and save and vote and love as though the only & most important thing we can do with this life is the hard work of welcoming heaven?