So my daughter comes to me and asks, “Mommy, what happens to people who don’t accept Jesus? Do they go to Hell forever? What if someone is really bad?” This makes me sad. This is not the foundation of the kinder, gentler world I want for her.
The first thing you should know before I even set foot on my soapbox is that I am not what you would call a bible-thumpy sort at all. By bible-thumpy I mean the sort of hellfire and brimstone fervor that insists “my-way-or-the-highway”. This sort of thing typically gives me a rash severe enough to require diphenhydramine and steriods to get it under control. We’re talking a skin-peeling, full-on allergic reaction bordering on anaphylaxis. The term may be applied to religious extremism of any type whether what you’re thumping is a Koran, a Torah, or whatever-all else you wish to choose. Including a djimbe if that’s your thing.
I do consider myself a deeply spiritual person. I’ve chosen–as an adult–to associate strongly with a fairly progressive Presbyterian Church near my home. I’ve even found myself the most unlikely of candidates to sit on the governing board, known as the Board of Elders. (Don’t be deceived by the poetically antiquated term. Presbyterianism in the United States has deep roots back into the early 1700’s and we’re not quick to change our language. Tevye is not the only one out there bellowing “Tradition!”)
I grew up Catholic, and remember a remarkably different Catholic Church to the one that emerged under the very conservative John Paul II. I was taught for my entire K-12 education by nuns, first, by the School Sisters of Notre Dame and later by the Felician Sisters. You might think this is also rather poetically antiquated. Let me swiftly disabuse you of that notion too. These women were progressive.
They were leaders of religious communities in their own right. They may have been teaching Catholicism, but they never, ever excluded anyone. They held a seder for us kids in conjuction with the celebration of Easter, stressing that we should learn from and be aware of Jewish tradition. Their logic was that Judaism was the foundation of Christianity, as Jesus was Jewish. He attended synogogue, went through the usual ceremonies of childhood, and was sometimes referred to as Rabbi. They talked about Saint Francis of Assisi in ways I would later remember when studying comparative religion. For that matter, the stories of Siddhartha (the Buddha) are not so very unlike the stories of Jesus in that they are tales of travail, suffering, death, spiritual rebirth. The Sisters taught us to honor the Judeo-Christian roots of the Muslim faith. Not once did they ever say that those who were different from us in the specifics of their faith were going to burn in hell. Rather, they gently reminded us to be aware of Jesus’s “new commandment” to love one another. (John 13: 34, for those who may not already know.) For if God could be so loving as to extend that love among all people, who were we mere humans to do otherwise?
So as my daughter comes to me I don’t blame her for the concern and fear etched on her sweet face. I teach her to be inclusive in a world that seems to grow ever more divisive. Across Europe the stories are chilling. Anti-semitism is on the rise once again, and Gypsies are making headlines as trouble-makers and outcasts–in my mind, echoing memories of the Holocaust. It’s not that I had relatives who fell victim to it; rather, it’s that people from many different groups who were marked by it have touched my life, continually reminding me that mine is but a narrow window onto the world.
When I was small, the Gypsy children in Ireland were mysterious and enviable for their roving and unstructured ways in the brightly adorned caravans that traveled the roads. They were pitiable for their extreme poverty, which reduced children my age to threadbare clothing and begging in the streets. In later years, one of my dearest friends–now deceased–was Jewish, as was a favorite patient who taught me the wonderful Yiddish word messhuggener. I found we had more in common that we suspected. After the birth of my son, I still remember the tenderest caregiver I had was the Muslim night nurse. She was like an angel in her white hijab with her gentle ways. I am sad because it seems that so little is learned from the human tragedies that plague this world again and again. My life has been enriched by the willingness to sincerely learn from others.
Gypsies, Jews, Christians of various stripes were all victims of the Holocaust together. The victims of 9-11 were not limited to any single ethnic or religious group. Time after time, people young and old across the face of the earth have fallen victim to war–a thought worth remembering as this column will go up on Veteran’s Day. Yet here we are today with hate speech, extremism, exclusionary language seeping from every corner of the globe. It feels sometimes as if one thing improves only to have the dam leak somewhere else.
So to answer my daughter’s question: I say that if Jesus could say that the greatest commandment of all is to love one another, then no I don’t believe anyone is going to “burn in hell forever”. If I in my weakness can find it in my heart to forgive, I do not doubt that the One who is greater than all can do far, far better than I. To put a more modern tune on it, maybe we should follow Darius Rucker’s lines and exercise a little more love and tenderness to rise above the mess.