A few days ago, I got a pretty strong inkling that a person who’s known me since birth likely believes I am going to hell. That concept didn’t enter the conversation in so many words, but it’s safe to say that there were some sandals and some dust sprinkling. As far as I’m aware, this is a new achievement I’ve reached. And I’ve won it, I suppose, through my mouthy evangelism on social media and elsewhere. I use that word advisedly, because in certain respects, evangelism is what I see most of my serious writing to be—including my 900 (sigh, now it’s 1000)-page novel*. It’s okay—the damnation. Many of you have come under the same attack, and you are some of the finest people I know. In other words—and all jokes aside—if you’re going to hell, then I want to go with you.
Now it’s true that, these days, condemnation of all sorts occurs on both sides of the political spectrum. It is, I think, what our enemies have stoked and exploited. In fact, I believe, now more than ever, that the most difficult and patriotic thing that any of us can do is offer civility to one another, whenever possible**. On Facebook, I have unfollowed some liberals for their hateful incivility. Some other liberals have unfollowed me. I shed conservative followers faster than Trump loses Republicans. But here’s the thing: By and large, the difference between liberal and conservative condemnation is that liberals rarely put their enemies in hell.
It’s mostly because we don’t believe so much in hell. Damnation is a vindictive concept; it builds a religion on fear instead of love—and as an idea, I don’t find it so biblically sound. I can think of no one in either history or imagination who deserves eternal torture. And that includes Dumbass Trump. But if you believe in hell and all of its menace, then something frequently happens to your concept of your enemy: At best, you pity them. You seek to correct them, because you love them and because you fear for their souls. At second best, you fear them. You cease your association with them, because they might threaten your soul. And at worst, you damn them. Because, boy they’re gonna get it, and that makes you sort of glad.
In this whole post, I’m speaking in broad strokes–and I could probably face some correction on nuance. But the bottom line is that when hell enters the picture, you frequently degrade your fellow man. Something happens when you believe that another person at least risks the Universe’s doing worse than throwing them away. Something happens when you believe Absolute Justice will torture them while they scream—and while likely their mothers scream—for so many centuries. When you suspect people are damned, they become less worthy; in fact, they become less than worthless. And that makes it so easy to neglect them on the grounds that they’re already lost. Oh, sure, you can point to the Penitent Thief and say you make room for deathbed conversions. You can try to love your enemy, but you’ve aligned her with the Eternal Enemy. And I’m sorry, but you’re just not that compassionate. History shows that you aren’t. Tell me there isn’t a soupcon of she-had-it-coming, when you don’t make room for safe abortions. Tell me that there isn’t part of you that thinks a Muslim refugee is better off dying in Syria than spreading his faith over here. Tell me you’ wouldn’t rather back a president you know to be a maniac if he can make inroads toward ending Marriage Equality.
In general, the Christian conservative both fears and wields the threat of damnation. In fact, they wield it to keep one another in line. It is why the facts themselves don’t always stick to them. Nothing is more important than the safety of the soul. Nothing is more real. And that, actually, is the Christian conservative’s greatest downfall: By their own rules, they would rather abandon me to my condemnation than risk their own salvation to help me–or you, or the boy starving in Aleppo. At best, they’ll give us their thoughts and prayers, but little else. That isn’t faith. In fact, it’s the opposite. And it’s parsimony to boot. But you know what? None of it is damnable. That’s the thing. Grace won’t send these guys to hell either. And that’s because paradise will never be so tawdry. And it will never be that easy.
*Evangelism, in this sense, means an attempt to point to all-inclusive love, redemption, compassion, and eventual justice; the need for biblical and historical accuracy; and the absolute sin of both using divinity to oppress anybody else, and not using divinity to oppose that oppression.
**No, it isn’t always possible. But if we are civil in the meantime, we might reduce the number of occasions when all we have left to do is fight.
(Originally posted November 16, 2017)