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Salvation for All

 

Are we “saved” together, or “saved” separately?

It is certainly a living question for Christians to ponder, but it is worth asking in the context of other religions – or in that of no religion at all.  Are we “all in the same boat”, or not?

If there is any lesson to draw from the Covid pandemic, it is this:  there’s no such thing as private health.  There is only public health.  I wear a mask in public to protect you.  You wear a mask in public to protect me.  The virus makes no distinction between my nasal passages and yours, between my breath and yours.  It’s a public disease, and public health measures must be taken to defeat it.  And the same is true for most other health conditions.

And Covid is but one illustration of the wider fact of our inter-relatedness with each other and the condition of the planet.  The air we breathe is public.  The water we drink is public.  There are very public consequences of private suffering:  just walk down the streets of any big city and you will find yourself walking over and around the tents and belongings of homeless people.  You’ll have a private experience of public smells and sounds.

The venerable process theologian, John Cobb, has just published a book entitled “Salvation”.  In it he writes:  “… Jesus’ message of salvation was about the basilea theou [kingdom of God or heaven]. For Jesus, the good news was that the basilea theou was at hand… the [Lord’s] prayer is emphatically not about one’s personal needs.  One does not pray to one’s personal Abba.  One does not pray for one’s individual food or forgiveness. We pray to Abba, and we ask for our bread and our forgiveness.  We might think that “we” are only believers, but the prayer is about global transformation.  We address the Abba of all.”

Years ago, I had a conversation with a young friend who had just spent her summer working at the Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts, an ongoing re-enactment of life in the 1620’s Pilgrim colony.  Her job was to play the part of the preacher’s daughter.  She found herself frustrated in this role, because evangelical Christian tourists constantly asked her if she had accepted Jesus as her personal Lord and Savior.  Her scripted answer had to be this:  “Of whatever do you speak?  We are the elect of God.”  The first Protestants to people America’s shores had no concept of “personal salvation”.  They did not ask each other the “evangelical question”.  They believed in a collective, communal salvation that they, as a faith community, had been predestined to receive by the grace of God.  Evangelical visitors to Plymouth Plantation could not grasp the fact that their religion was not the same as that of their Pilgrim forebearers.

Of course, each of us as individuals must take responsibility for our own lives, make our own choices, and deal forthrightly with our circumstances – whether or not those circumstances were self-inflicted. But indivisible from personal responsibility is social responsibility.  I have a personal responsibility to engage in public life, to strive for social and economic justice and peace and for preserving the planet.  Likewise, maintaining a discipline of spiritual practice is my personal responsibility – in the service of my social responsibility.

Right now, the United States is recovering from the hangover that followed our long binge of privatizing the consequences of public policy failure.  A long “personal responsibility crusade”, promoted by right-wing propaganda, crippled our ability to address problems that can only be rectified by collective action.  Climate change, health care, poverty, extreme income inequality, and weakened democratic institutions cannot be fixed by individuals acting on their own.  As in our prayers we address the Abba of all, so we must all work together in order for “thy kingdom” to come.

“I won’t be full till all are fed.”  This line in my communion song, Deeper Love, expresses a theology of communal salvation through collective action.  Jesus’ kingdom of heaven is not going to drop from the sky, nor are we going to be “raptured” upwards into it.  Salvation will come because, filled with the Spirit of divine Love, we will build a beloved community on earth – a sustainable, equitable way of life that integrates humanity with nature.

 

JIM BURKLO

Review & Commentary