Creating hell in the name of heaven

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
– John Lennon

The bombs were heard in my living room last night.

The echoes of last Sunday’s suicide bombing of a church in Pakistan that killed 80 people sounded in the voices of two Pakistani members of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota where I serve as pastor. Twelve members of the church had gathered to talk about something totally unrelated to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Christianity and Islam. We were there to share. The quiet horror of Samuel and Nasrin – “I was sad all day.” – was like a bomb going off in the living room. I ask myself, why? What is happening?

I am a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Strange as it may seem, I often feel the way John Lennon did. I dream of a different kind of world where there are no more bombings or shootings in a Kenyan mall, in Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan, in Baghdad, Damascus, or Boston in the name of God. I am tired of all claims to righteousness, whether professedly religious or professedly secular. I would like to wipe the human GPS of its magnetic field between due North heaven) and due South (hell) and re-orient us all toward the rising sun.

The voices that fight for heaven to erase hell do not all sound the same. They speak Urdu, Parsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and English. They claim different names: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and sometimes secular. They live in different parts of the planet in different time zones and different climates. But if you listen, they all sound alike and they do the same thing.

They do not look up at the sky. They look down. They march in lockstep rhythm because the Quran or the Bible or nationalism tells them to. They live for tomorrow – for heaven or some version of it – not for today. One doesn’t have to strain to see what’s happening, and, when anyone sees it, how can one help but imagine a different world, a different kind of humanity: one without religion?

The bombing in Peshawar last Sunday is said to have been a payback for American drone strikes that had killed innocent civilians in Pakistan. For the suicide bombers, the Cross was the emblem on the shields and helmets of Christian Crusaders. Back then the Knights Templar of Holy War killed with swords. Today the suicide bombers associate the Cross with the drone attacks of the Christian West.

Religion is with us and, depending on how one defines it, always will be. A wise elder statesman, Elliot Richardson, observed toward the end of his life that religion is the problem, but that if we erased all of the religions were erased from the face of the Earth, they would re-invent themselves in a heartbeat. Why? Because that’s how we’re made. As defined by the likes of Emile Durkheim, Margaret Meade and Paul Tillich, religion spans a much wider terrain than the belief systems for which heaven and hell are essential. Furthermore, whether or not we are professedly religious, each of us has some kind of inner GPS, some version of a societal ideal (heaven) and a social and personal horror (hell).

What’s happening across the world is profoundly and earth-shakingly religious. Though our languages are as different as Arabic is from English, and as far from each other as Peshawar and a mall in Kenya are from a Quran-burning church in Florida, the voices of Abraham’s three children (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all sound the same whenever we create hell on Earth in the name of heaven.

For the Pakistani friends in my living room last night the Cross stands for a divine interruption of the cycle of violence and all claims to righteousness. In the crucifixion of a Palestinian Jew of the First Century C.E. what we see is anything but the excuse for a crusade to eliminate hell in the name of heaven.
The Jesus we seek to follow threw his life into the spokes of the wheel of violence to stop it, and we must do the same.

Every Sunday worship service concludes with a “Charge” – an instruction in how to live.

Go forth into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Hold on to that which is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Support the weak.

When the bombs tear through a church or a mosque or a neighborhood in the name of our imagined heaven for the righteous, we need to remember that there are Muslims, Jews, secularists, and other religious practitioners who seek to practice the way of peace…”living for today” throwing themselves into the spokes of the wheel of violence.