A couple months ago, I sat through a religious service as part of my family obligations. You know, one of those things I go to because the vast majority of my family is Christian and being part of the family sometimes involves participating in their observances to some level. Fortunately, it’s not something that I have to do very often and I’m able to manage through with ample amounts of patience and graciousness. This particular service was particularly difficult for me, however, as it included a sermon that was hypothetically geared toward evangelism1.
One of the stories that the minister told was about an exchange between a couple of people during a lunch break. He talks about one person who says that it’s not possible to be “make up for all the wrong we’ve done,” only to have another person, a woman, respond with “Well, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.” The minister told the story from the point of view that found the woman’s response mystifying.
I didn’t find the comment mystifying at all. In fact, I found myself in total agreement with the woman’s sentiments — or at least what I perceived them to be. I do believe in doing everything I can to make up for whatever wrong I have done. This is because justice is a central theme of my understanding of morality for me. If I have done something wrong, then I have hurt another person. It is my duty to do what I can to if not completely undo that damage, at least mitigate it to the best of my ability. That is the moral thing to do.
I also consider it my duty to do what I can to help mitigate and even undo the damage that other people have done. That’s another part of justice. I do this kind of justice and seek to act morally because I believe that by doing so, I am helping to make this world a better place a little bit at a time. Quite frankly, I want to live in a better world than we currently have, so I do what I can.
No, I can’t make everything perfect. Some scars I’ve created will always be there, even if I help make them fainter than they originally were. And being a fallible human, I’m still going to screw up from time to time and cause more wounds. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t keep trying, just like that woman in the minister’s story. If I stop just because I can never get it perfectly right, then I have “made perfection the enemy of good.” And neither my sense of justice nor my sense of morality will allow me to do that.
The reason the minister found the woman’s statement mystifying and confusing is that he was looking at the statement in a different context. He heard the original statement as “we can never make up for all the wrong we’ve done well enough so that we can go to heaven.” He assumed the woman’s statement was her way of saying she was going to try to do enough good to cancel out the bad she’s done so she can earn her way into heaven. Now, I don’t know if the woman meant it that way or was more thinking along the same lines I was when I heard her statement. I’m not sure the minister really knows. The point here, though, is that the minister — and at least some of the “unsaved” people he doesn’t understand — are coming from completely different contexts and understandings and that the minister doesn’t even seem to realize that.
For me at least — and I suspect for many others — acting morally and making up for those times our actions hurt others have nothing to do with trying to “earn” their way into an afterlife. My understanding of the afterlife doesn’t work that way. Morality is about the here an now. Justice is about the here and now, not some future judgement with pie for the moral (and/or pardoned) people and whippings galore for the immoral people2. While I believe in an afterlife, I do not believe its nature is determined by how moral or immoral I was in this life3.
In effect, the minister’s story looked completely different to me than it did to him. And his failure to understand how and why it looked differently to me is the reason it didn’t have the “desired” effect on me.
1I say “hypothetically” because (1) I find it hard to imagine that anyone attending the service beside myself actually needed to be “evangelized4” and (2) as part of the alleged “target audience” of the sermon, I found it hard to believe that the arguments had actually been successfully tried out on anyone who either wasn’t already “saved” or at least highly sympathetic to evangelical thinking and theology anyway.
2One of the things I’ve noticed about many — though not all — evangelicals is that their idea of justice differs in mine int hat they seem focused almost solely on a system of justice in which the righteous (and/or pardoned) are rewarded and the unrighteous are punished. To me, justice is about restoring dignity and well-being for all. I don’t care that they person hurt someone else is punished. I care that the person who got hurt is restored and the person that hurt them is prevent from hurting them again.
3In fairness, I tend to think we’re reincarnated and that this reincarnation is a desirable outcome, not something to be escaped. I will also admit that one of the reasons I believe in making the world a better place is so that it’s a much more enjoyable place to celebrate the cycle of life in my future incarnations.
4Well, barring that whole thing that a lot of evangelical churches and ministers tend to think that half the people in their pews aren’t really “saved” and are just “going through the motions” of being a Christian.