Recently I was listening to Krista Tippett’s On Being (a favorite public radio show of mine); her guest Kate Braestrup (a chaplain to the game wardens in the parks and forests of Maine) made a comment about Christianity that had me first a bit angry and then a bit sad. Here’s what she had to say:
Krista Tippett: You point something out that’s very simple, but really striking and unsettling in good way and bad. That even when the miracle . . . is of a life restored that is always a temporary restoration and you say that most of the time, perhaps, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”
Kate Braestrup: “This is an argument I have, probably a continuous argument that I have with Christianity, I always felt that it was answering a question I wasn’t asking. . . . .If you decide that the most important thing, the highest possible value is life, that is breath in the body and walking and around and eating sandwiches whatever, then you’ve lost . . . because we’re all going to die. Then you have to posit this whole other set of things that you can’t see and can’t connect with. . . . If I posit instead that the most important thing is love—then what i have is, yes I have a world that is full of suffering and evil and pain, and I have something to do. I have something to look for and I have something to do. To me that works better, that is of more practical value, than fretting about, okay “Is death real? do we live forever? what does eternal life mean? would I want eternal life? if there’s a hell doesn’t everybody get eternal life, just some of us in hell and some of us in heaven? . . . You can still talk about it but it becomes less of a pressing issue.”
What Braestrup said had me a bit angry because, in my mind, it’s a blatant misinterpretation of Christianity. I think it’s fairly impossible to read the New Testament as the foundational record of Christianity and not understand that the gospel of Jesus is a gospel of love first and foremost. The two great commandments he gave are both entirely caught up in love–love God, love self, love neighbor. His actions almost always demonstrate love and compassion. It seems undeniable to me that Christianity is about nothing if it is not first about love.
After re-listening and thinking about why it is that Braestrup may have concluded that Christianity values life more highly than love, my anger turned into sadness. Thinking about what Christianity has to say about eternal life, I can understand her perspective. Some versions of Christianity have become so obsessed with the notion of eternal life, that they hang their doctrines on the binary of heaven and hell. Those who are saved and come to Jesus are rewarded with eternal life; those who either refuse to come to Jesus or who are so misfortunate as to never hear of Jesus are condemned to eternal death in hell. And to deny the existence of that eternal death in favor of the loving inclusion of all mankind is to brand oneself a heretic, as Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson discovered the hard way.
Other versions of Christianity are perhaps less strident on the topic of burning in hell, but still emphasize the notion of Christ as the bread of life, the living waters. This Jesus is the savior not because he suffered or because he knows each of us intimately, but because he overcame death making living forever possible. I understand why Christianity so often emphasizes life as the highest value. Jesus promised life. The whole notion of the atonement, when understood as the betrayal, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is about robbing death of its human victims and instead giving humans eternal life, both spiritual and physical. And that eternal life is the promised reward: be good, do good, and you’ll live forever just like Jesus.
And this is where my anger turned to sadness. Because I think that this emphasis on life, especially the after life, is misguided. The way I read the message of Jesus is this: Love everyone. Period. In my mind the two great commandments must be conflated. The only way I know to love God is to love the people I encounter (you know, that whole “inasmuch as ye do it unto the least of these my brethren, ye do it unto me” thing). Even the line “if ye love me, keep my commandments” is about love, not obedience. So often Mormons argue that we show our love through unwavering obedience to all of God’s commandments; I simply do not agree. Jesus gave this particular instruction as part of his final evening spent with his disciples and it is squarely situated between multiple iterations of his new commandment: “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, love one another. By this shall all people know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” in the previous chapter and “This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you” in the following chapter. It is clear to me that Jesus’ primary concern is not life, nor is it obeying various and sundry commandments–it is loving each other. I love God when I love people. And the only thing life has to do with that is as a reward for fulfilling that commandment.
And that, right there, is the problem and the source of my sadness. That Christians have allowed their attention to shift away from Jesus’s essential message–love each other–to the promised reward. And that this focus on the promised reward so often prevents us from living the essence of the message, that in the name of giving others access to Jesus as the bread of life and the living water we fail to first know and love them. I would even argue that the failure to know and love others equates to a failure to gain the reward of life, no matter how diligently someone lives every other commandment or how dedicated one is to saving others by spreading the good word. After all, eternal life is to know God and Jesus (fn. 1), and we know God by virtue of loving others (fn. 2).
And that is why I do not care what happens after I die. It is why I care very little about the nature of God. I am Christian and I am Mormon insofar as those philosophies have shaped my life and how I think about things. And they have led me to one very simple conclusion: the only thing that matters is love. If that makes me sound like a hokie hippie, I suppose I’m okay with that.
1 John 17:3
2 1 John 4:7-8