by Karl W. Lampley, guest contributor
Photo by Ibrahim Iujazen/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0
In his Time magazine article, "Heaven Can’t Wait," Jon Meacham contrasts two seemingly competing visions of heaven in contemporary Christianity. One prominent view envisions heaven as the ethereal place one goes when one dies. Images of winged angels, celestial music, golden thrones, pearly gates, and streets of gold variously occupy this vision of the hereafter. Heaven is conceived of as a future paradise of eternal rest filled with peace, light, and love. Everlasting life is seen as an eternal abode in the heavenly realm with God and the angels.
A second well-known view envisions heaven as how you live your life. This standpoint appeals to a younger generation motivated by causes and inspired by heaven to make a positive difference in the world. Guided by this outlook, these young evangelical Christians see themselves as agents of heaven on earth engaged in social justice and peacemaking. For this activist generation, heaven demands stewardship on earth in daily living.
According to New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, heaven is not a future destination but rather God’s dimension in our ordinary life on the earth. For Wright, the hope of a new heaven and a new earth along with the New Jerusalem coming from God in the Book of Revelation should invite work in the world for justice. Wright emphasizes the biblical hope of the bodily resurrection and new creation in the New Testament.
Meacham asserts that early Christians did not understand heaven in the same way as those who now envision a heavenly paradise after death but rather envisioned heaven as a two-step process. First, the soul left the body to a place of rest and peace. Second, a bodily resurrection into a new heaven and a new earth would bring God’s kingdom to earth. Meacham concludes that Christians have largely departed from these concrete beliefs about heaven by Jesus and his contemporaries. For Meacham, Wright and others are bringing this emphasis on the bodily resurrection and the New Jerusalem back to contemporary Christianity. The implication is an active Christianity bringing the Kingdom to earth.
Yet, these two competing visions of heaven and the hereafter need not be mutually exclusive. A vision of heavenly bliss and celestial paradise after death is a compelling way to describe what early Christians saw as the first — temporary — stage of heaven. Immediately after death one returns to God and enters paradise. Notwithstanding, the entire biblical account points to hope in a bodily resurrection and a new eternal life with God in the New Jerusalem. Life with God on earth will be exalted. According to the New Testament, heaven is not the final destination but rather a temporary holding place before the end of the world. One can easily hold these two visions of heaven in tension in one’s faith.
Meacham implies, however, that one cannot believe in heaven as the eternal place of rest and vindication and also work for social justice as an imperative. Thus, according to some, the image of heaven as a future paradise pacifies Christians, most especially the poor and marginalized.
Critics of African American slave religion, for instance, argue that it was otherworldly, escapist, and compensatory. The black spirituals demonstrate the rich imagery of heaven and the hereafter in slave religion as release and vindication in another life. These images of heaven no doubt enabled black slaves to endure hardship and dehumanization. Yet, black slaves also believed in imminent liberation on earth as in the biblical Exodus. They hoped for concrete material and spiritual liberation from bondage in the now.
Rebellious black slave insurrectionist Nat Turner, for example, asserted that blacks should fight for the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth through revolt. African American Christian slaves held in balance the hope of paradise in another life and the equally significant hope of heaven on earth. They were able to resist slavery in myriad ways by believing in the God of both the hereafter and the present. Thus, black slave religion was both otherworldly and this-worldly. Slaves embraced the hope of a heavenly paradise after death that would vindicate them and erase the pain of the present life. Yet, they also hoped in imminent liberation on earth and the belief that God would initiate a new era of peace and freedom for blacks here in America.
Karl W. Lampley is Martin Marty Junior fellow and a doctoral candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.Comments
by Altaf Husain, guest contributor
As Americans pause today, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, it is worthwhile to reflect on the culture of service and social justice that were part of his teachings.
While the values King espoused could be internalised by anyone who is passionate about improving the human condition, his teachings resonate especially with faith-inspired people. Muslim Americans, for example, have a profound appreciation for King because he dedicated his life to addressing societal injustices — a central tenet of the Islamic tradition.
Of particular relevance from King’s teachings is the concept of a “world house,” comprised of peoples of different faith traditions. He wrote, “We have inherited a large house, a great world house in which we have to live together — black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu — a family unduly separated in ideas, culture and interest, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
The concept of a world house is especially relevant when applied to interfaith collaboration on social justice initiatives today. Such interfaith collaboration is an American tradition, and Muslim Americans are integral to it. In fact, social activism among Muslim Americans is at an all-time high.
Inspired by their own faith tradition and responding to invitations from other traditions, Muslim Americans have been noticeably advancing the concept of a world house, especially by focusing people’s attention on hunger in America.
Consider the Interfaith Hunger Initiative (IHI) in Indianapolis, of which the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) is a partner. The IHI reports that 16,000 children die from hunger each day throughout the world. In Indianapolis alone, a total of 18,000 children are frequently hungry. With the active involvement of Muslim Americans, IHI aims to end child and family hunger both at the domestic level in Indianapolis, and internationally in Kenya.
While hunger is an issue nationwide, in inner-city neighbourhoods, a related issue is the disproportionately large number of unhealthy food options being sold in stores. This issue, conceptualised as food justice, is being addressed head on by a Chicago-based organisation, Inner-city Muslim Action Network (IMAN). IMAN is located in Chicago’s south side and was founded by young Muslim Americans. IMAN is unabashedly targeting “food and liquor” stores (including ones owned by Muslims) in inner-city black neighbourhoods, challenging them to take responsibility for the food options they offer. IMAN recently sponsored a forum entitled “Food For Life, A Human Right: Food Justice, Corner Stores & Race Relations in the ‘Hood.”
Muslim Americans are also represented both by ISNA and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) in the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), an American membership organisation of 300 religious communities. NRCAT asserts that “torture is a moral issue” and aims to end torture in our own backyard. A declaration regarding prisoner treatment, torture, and cruelty states that NRCAT members “agree that the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against prisoners is immoral, unwise, and un-American.” As active and vocal partners in NRCAT, Muslim Americans are exerting tremendous energy in organising campaigns to educate community members about the adverse psychological and physical impact of current practices on prisoners, such as 23-hour solitary confinement; they advocate prohibiting torture outright for mentally ill prisoners, as well as certain interrogation techniques.
As these examples indicate, there are sufficient members of the world house, among them Muslim Americans, who are not only putting into practice the teachings of their own faith and cultural traditions but also exemplifying the continuing relevance of King’s teachings to contemporary social issues. King’s life was cut short nearly 45 years ago; however, his teachings remain relevant today, inspiring Muslim Americans and others to uphold social justice through interfaith collaborations.
Altaf Husain is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Society of North America. He is a Fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Assistant Professor of Social Work at Howard University in Washington, DC.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on April 3, 2012. Copyright permission is granted for publication.Comments
by Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman, special contributor
More than 80 participants attended the second northern women’s security shura on Monday in Mazar-e Sharif at Camp Marmal in Balk province, Afghanistan to discuss women’s roles in governance transition. (photo: DEU Capt. Jennifer Ruge)
As an imam at a mosque in the Jordanian capital Amman, I have been following the dramatic developments across North Africa and the Middle East with a combination of high hopes and grave concern. The phenomenon of young people organizing peacefully to demand political reform, economic opportunity, and human rights is a source of pride for me; numerous worshippers in my mosque are among them. On the other hand, the mounting lethality of conflict between state and society in so many Arab countries is terrible to behold. So is the tragedy of burgeoning crime, economic struggles, and insecurity in countries such as Egypt that are undergoing dramatic transformations.
In these riveting times, the role of Islam is essential and Arab societies seem to know it. I can tell just from the growing number of worshippers in my mosque, which overflows every Friday during weekly prayers. Young people draw comfort and inspiration from Islam as they face an uncertain future.
At the same time, political analysts — both within Arab societies and in the world at large — are raising concerns about the role of so-called “Islamist” groups in the on-going political transitions. Members of my own congregation often ask me for counsel on this issue. In response, through sermons every Friday as well as more intimate conversations, I have been trying to articulate the distinctions that will be necessary to ensure that the tenets of Islam are properly applied — and that the language of Islam is not co-opted by opportunistic political movements.
In the present state of flux in North Africa and the Middle East, there is robust competition for political popularity in a new marketplace of ideas. When assessing any political figure or movement claiming to draw legitimacy from Islam, one should pose several questions and demand unambiguous answers.
The first question is: do you support equal political, social, and economic rights for all citizens of your country, regardless of ethnicity, gender, or sect?
The answer should be yes. The Qur’an and prophetic traditions present a vision of social justice in all its forms — not only for men but also for women; not only for Arabs but also for other ethnic groups; and not only for Muslims but for all humankind. This is my conviction as a lifelong student of Islam. The texts that prove this are many, but suffice it to say that the Qur’an’s vision of equity and justice is addressed not to any subset of humankind but to all “Children of Adam” (7:26).
Over the centuries, interpretations of Qur’an and prophetic tradition have varied, and some of these interpretations have been incompatible with essential Qur’anic values. The most accurate interpretation would never differ with the principle of universal equity and justice — nor deny political or economic opportunity to anyone. Such an interpretation can and should be achieved by the principal of ijtihad, the practical application of the human mind to the world’s ever-changing circumstances.
The second question is: do you believe that Islam is compatible with a definition of the rule of law that transcends a particular religion’s jurisprudential precepts?
The answer should be yes. From a contemporary Islamic perspective, sharia is not a document that supplants the legal system of a given country. To the contrary, it is a set of principles that demand of believing Muslims that they respect the laws of the country in which they live, provided that the laws are compatible with the universal values of social equity and human rights. Moreover, in the event that a given law is inequitable or unjust, sharia demands that believing Muslims work within a legal and democratic framework to amend the law. Islam stresses the principle of shura, or consultation, as a means of reaching decisions that affect the body politic. Those “whose affairs are a matter of counsel” (42:38) are considered to be worthy of a divine reward.
Finally, the third question is: do you maintain that your political platform is a flawless rendering of the precepts of Islam?
The answer should be no. The Qur’an attests to the fact that humankind, granted worldly power, is prone to error and corruption: “[Humankind is liable to] break the covenant of God after ratifying it, and sever that which God ordered to be joined, and make mischief in the earth” (2:27). Islam, for its part, is innocent of the errors of those who presume to interpret or apply it. Because it is hubristic and suspect to suggest that someone is without flaw, it is equally hubristic and suspect to claim to speak in the name of Islam.
Moreover, to claim to speak in the name of Islam is to assert superiority over other political platforms — a position that leads to totalitarianism.
Islam, as I understand it, demands that humankind negotiate over difference and govern consensually. There are no modern-day prophets or rightly-guided caliphs. We must endeavour to collaborate in healing our region and the world as best we can.
Mustafa Husayn Abu Rumman is the imam of the Ibn Sinan mosque in Amman, Jordan.
A version of this article was published by the Common Ground News Service on September 20, 2011. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
by Cary Gibson, guest contributor
During the last week of August, 20,000 sojourners gathered at the 37thGreenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, England. Greenbelt’s identity as a social justice and arts festival has always been firmly rooted within a Christian tradition that is world-affirming, politically and culturally engaged, seeking embrace over exclusion.
The program is so vast and diverse it’s impossible to encounter more than a fraction of what is on offer. There’s no single Greenbelt experience; there are 20,000 Greenbelt stories. This is just a thin slice of mine.
"GB10" marked my 18th year at the festival, so it’s fair to call it something of a pilgrimage — to a sacred space that exists amongst the people in an atmosphere of intentional, mutual welcome. These four days each year have often been the closest thing I’ve had to church. And, for the friends with whom I make the pilgrimage, Greenbelt has an important role in our community: we gather from around the world to embrace togetherness, share meals that anchor our days, and have our ongoing conversations woven with new threads.
This year’s festival held personal significance for me. As I prepare to marry and immigrate to the United States, my best friend Jayne and I were on perhaps our last Greenbelt road trip together. This end of an era was salved with celebration of new beginnings ahead and the gratitude for all we’ve shared thus far. In recent years we’ve been attending as contributors with Ikon, an experimental arts collective from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Our summers are usually busy with creative planning for our festival events. Free of any such logistical responsibilities this year, I found myself looking to be provoked by others.
Greenbelt marks something of a New Year moment — an opportunity to reflect on the year since the last festival, to have one’s mindfulness reawakened, to be reinvigorated for the year to come. Contemplating the theme of “the art of looking sideways,” I found myself wondering, ‘Looking sideways at what?’
An art workshop, “I Draw To Know Myself Better,” opened with a brief reflection on the creativity all humans share: we create to know ourselves, our world, and our place in it. Making art is a constant process of asking: Who am I? Where am I? Why am I here?
Perhaps as a response, some words of the late John O’Donohue kept coming to mind:
"A review of life usually considers the facts of experience, the thresholds, the situations and the people who participated with us along the way. We take this to be the real material of our lives; it becomes the mirror that allows us to glimpse who we are and what meaning our lives have. The facts of what we have lived stand out. We take them as given and real. Yet all these facts have issued from that huge adjacency of possibility, that neighboring world that shimmers invisibly behind all that we take to be real."
—The Poetics of Possibility
That adjacent realm is perhaps what lies close when one is in what the Celtic tradition calls “a thin place.” That neighboring world is one pregnant with possibility, and it is calling us to remember to look sideways. Looking askance, we might find a world of possibilities inviting us, and discover that maybe the stories we haven’t (yet) lived are the ones we haven’t (yet) heard telling themselves to us. If there is possibility that wants us to hear its invitation, tapping our shoulder so that we might notice and bring it into the visible world, to breathe its life, then maybe our alternative futures are with us all the time, walking beside us.
Greenbelt is a space in which people gather to think critically and its long tradition of social justice theology is rooted both in the realities of human experience and the hopeful possibilities of just peace. As the festival approached, I was troubled by ensuing religious controversies denying the freedom and dignity of the LGBTQ and Islamic communities. I’d been thinking a lot about Jesus’ parable of The Good Samaritan, conscious of how easy it is to walk on by in silence rather than serving those suffering on the roadside. The theme of the festival for me became one of living intentionally, mindful of possibility, seeking to turn and see the stranger in need who is my neighbor at my side. What alternative ways of being and action might I better embody? I found myself, once again, challenged to think through my own privileges — particularly of economic class, nationality, race, and education — but also inspired.
Dave Andrews stridently challenged the festival, and me, on the vital gospel response to poverty and injustice here on Earth with Jesus’ words in "The Be-Attitude Revolution." My dear friend Pádraig O Tuama also explored “incarnational theology” in "How Do You Spell Hell?" — a mirthful, moving, and characteristically poetic sharing of real stories, which express what it means to be present to one another and recover our personhood in life’s most broken experiences.
In a thought-provoking panel discussion on musicians and artists as social activists, Dan Haseltine, founder of blood:water mission said, “Activism is in the DNA of the artist” — the artist’s prophetic role is to tell real stories that expose the beauty and life that persists in the midst of horror. I’ve been thinking a lot about his comment that any act of service done for another, however small, is a counter cultural act, because our culture isolates us. When we tell of the hell experienced by our neighbor-in-need, prophetic voices are not called to provoke paralysis. For even though so many of us in the Western church are living in the persistent contradiction of our prosperity, when we choose to think critically about the impact of our actions, he added, “It’s not everything. It’s not nothing. And that’s something.”
Greenbelt 2011’s theme is Dreaming of Home. There’s a tender kind of irony to think that I’ll be living far from many of these friends I love. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Greenbelt, it’s this: There are thin places everywhere, where the unseen is palpably present, ripe with possibility and therefore hope. I can’t do everything but I won’t do nothing. If one remembers to look sideways and be wholly present to our neighbor-in-need and welcome the possibilities for alternative peaceful & just futures we might share, then this life can be it’s own kind of pilgrimage: an everyday act of something.
Peace be with you, neighbor.
The images above from the Greenbelt Festival are used with permission of Colin Fraser Wishart.
Cary Gibson currently lives in Dublin, Ireland. She explores theology through the arts and recently completed an MA in Women’s Studies at University College Dublin. She has a habit of blogging and tweeting.
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