Meghan O’Gieblyn, easily one of the finest essayists of our time, writes extensively and sensitively of her conservative evangelical upbringing. Her first book includes the essay “Hell,” a rich combination of biblical exegesis, historical theology, cultural analysis, and a personal memoir on how the lake of fire influenced her young psyche. Homeschooled in an exclusively Christian subculture as a child, O’Gieblyn certainly fretted over her own salvation (had she somehow botched the Sinner’s Prayer?) but only rarely thought of evangelism, as she didn’t actually know any non-believers. This changed when she began attending a public high school:
“In my mind, the “lost” consisted of a motley minority of animal-worshiping tribesmen, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and our Catholic neighbors. It wasn’t until I started going to public high school that I began to feel a gnawing guilt, spurred by the realization that my evolution-touting biology teacher, or the girl who sat next to me in study hall reading The Satanic Bible, was going to spend eternity suffering.”
Anyone with a remotely similar upbringing will likely recognize this guilt. Perhaps it spurs us to evangelistic efforts: O’Gieblyn tells of her efforts at street evangelism in Chicago that invariably ended in miserable failure. To be absolutely frank, I would imagine that the best part of leaving the Christian faith (as O’Gieblyn herself eventually did) is that this incredible cosmic pressure is finally off. Contra C.S. Lewis, you can now go about your day dealing with ordinary human beings, not with immortal creatures bound for either eternal bliss or misery.
On the other hand, the absence of God does not translate cleanly into the absence of guilt. Indeed, we are now responsible for saving other people from a temporal hell by making better personal choices. Highly secular Sweden, for instance, has coined the term flygskam (literally, “flight shame”) to describe moral unease over the environmental impacts of commercial aviation. In our own country, a great deal of contemporary political discourse revolves around the existence of unjust power structures. Those who benefit from such structures are inherently complicit in oppression and, therefore, rightfully subject to feelings of guilt.
So, where can we find absolution? This problem features prominently in Ernest Hemingway’s masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, set at the height of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). The institutional church in Spain has sided with Franco’s fascist regime, prompting the Republican* side to solemnly swear off Catholicism and its God altogether. Even so, several of the novel’s Republican characters continue to struggle with a profound sense of sin, especially as the very nature of war requires terrible actions for the sake of victory or even of mere survival.
Early in the novel, a seasoned veteran named Anselmo expresses guilt over killing anyone, even his Fascist enemies. He hopes that he will be forgiven. “By whom?” asks a comrade. Anselmo replies, “Who knows? Since we do not have God here anymore, neither his Son nor his Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.”
Perhaps the answer is, “No one.” At the moment, forgiveness is not trading very high on the contemporary moral exchange, with younger denizens of the internet, in particular, counseling each other to cut people out of their lives at the first signs of “toxicity.” Increasingly, to forgive is seen as winking at evil, as shrugging one’s moral shoulders, and as being complicit. Moral debts must be collected. Anything else is simply irresponsible.
We need our toxicity, our complicity – our sin – taken with the utmost moral seriousness it deserves. And we simultaneously need forgiveness. To this dilemma, Christianity offers the cross of Jesus Christ;
Which, perhaps, explains the attitude of many white South Africans captured in Eve Fairbanks’s remarkable piece for the Atlantic, “When Racial Progress Comes for White Liberals.” For a half-century, the apartheid government in South Africa imposed a policy of racial segregation even more thorough and harsher than anything in the Southern United States during the Jim Crow era. The government carefully ensured that the best jobs, healthcare, and housing went to white people, who were a definite minority. When apartheid ended in the 1990s, the new black-majority government under Nelson Mandela responded to these decades of injustice and violence with…forgiveness. Amnesty was granted to even the worst apartheid-era offenders. There were no mass campaigns of retribution against white people.
And a lot of white South Africans, including those who had vouched for racial equality during apartheid, find this intolerable. One former journalist, who had been an avowed opponent of apartheid, tells Fairbanks that his comfortable retirement is “unbearable.” He realizes now that he had benefited from unjust social arrangements. He knows full well that he should have paid for this, but he hasn’t. He is now condemned to an eternity of getting away with it. Fairbanks remarks that the journalist “just couldn’t forgive Black people for forgiving him.”
We’re no different. We need our toxicity, our complicity – our sin – taken with the utmost moral seriousness it deserves. And we simultaneously need forgiveness. To this dilemma, Christianity offers the cross of Jesus Christ; to my mind, no other solution has ever come close. To accept this solution is to accept living with incredibly uncomfortable realities like hell and the need for salvation from it. But it’s also highly doubtful that living without this solution is, in the long run, more bearable.
* In the Spanish Civil War, the “Republicans” were a loose alliance of communists, centrists, anarchists, Basque separatists —- really, anyone who opposed Franco.