Christmas might not be the best time to talk about disbelief, but here goes: Borrowing language from Pete Rollins, I consider myself a ‘Christian atheist,’ in that anything I believe, I must simultaneously disbelieve, in light of my limited capacity to be certain of anything in the realm of metaphysics. One thing I have been increasingly disbelieving, to the point of dogmatism, is in the notion of afterlife – heaven or hell being a place where we go when we die. If religion is not about the transformation of our (often hellish) human communities in the here and now into environments of heavenly justice and peace, then I have a harder and harder time seeing the point.
Theologian Willie James Jennings has been helping me to come to grips with this intuition as I struggle through his very dense book The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race. What he says about the 18th-century slave-turned-autobiographer Olaudah Equiano might well apply to all of us, as long as we’re careful to acknowledge the vastness of difference between the true horrors of bodily slavery and the milder forms of bondage we might endure.
“How does one articulate the coming to faith, a life saved by God, in light of having been made a slave and then being set free from human slavery, that is, in light of a far more determinative transformation of one’s life?” Jennings asks.
One might ask a similar, though more modest question about women freed to pursue vocational dreams previously denied or about gay men no longer having to hide their identities. Trying to make sense of what Jennings is saying, I can offer a feeble analogy: Divorce from a bad marriage and entrance into a good marriage has been “a far more determinative transformation” in my life than the vague and uncertain hope for the Kingdom of God. I live the difference every, single, solitary day.
What is the point of salvation, Jennings seems to be asking, if it does not involve bodies being freed from chains, torture and rape, if the fruits of one’s labor are perpetually stolen? What is the point, he seems to be asking, if shit happens; it is what it is; people suffer; end of story; come, Lord?
“[We’ve] inherited a vision of salvation,” Jennings writes, “evacuated of material consequences for identity and for patterns of human belonging.”
Was King Herod frightened enough to turn genocidal because the Jewish Messiah might have come to make sure people would go to heaven when we die? No. The little baby Jesus was a threat to the violent reign of the Roman Empire. His method was nonviolent resistance to the point of self-sacrifice of his own body. He did not take up arms as the Zealots wanted. But his aims were no less physical, and therefore, no less political. Let us hear Mother Mary’s words in response to the Archangel Gabriel’s Annunciation:
Mary’s vision of salvation is full of what Jennings calls “material consequences for identity and human belonging.”
My soul doth magnify the Lord …
he hath scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat:
and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things:
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
What if the hard work of knowing, really knowing, in their truest identities, the people we love, and giving them gifts that affirm their individual worth as one-of-a-kind creatures, what if that is salvation?
What if volunteering to serve meals to hungry people on Christmas Day, what if that is salvation?
What if showing up at a Black Lives Matter rally, lending your voice to the cause, what if that is salvation?
There it is, in the great Christmas carol, “O Holy Night,” shaking us from our sentimentality: “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.”
Chains shall he break, for the Mexican immigrant is our mother. And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Chains shall he break, for the Muslim is our sister. And in his name all oppression shall case.
Chains shall he break, for Freddie Gray is our father. And in his name all oppression shall cease.
Chains shall he break. Chains shall he break. Chains shall he break.