Live in this life, not in a belief of afterlife

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood
A frightening Handmaid’s Tale with Trump as President

A pall hangs over many Americans since Donald Trump has taken office. One sign of this dark cloud has been an uptick in sales of dystopian novels. Classics like George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, and my favorite, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, made into a drama web television hit on Hulu, are now all horrifyingly prescient. Our devouring of these tomes is a search for answers to potentially a frightening new normal.

For example, Kellyanne Conway’s use of the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts.” Used by Conway to corroborate with former White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s fallacious claims about Trump’s crowd size at his inauguration, it signaled to Americans that facts and the truth are inconsequential in this administration.

In addition to book sales, there has also been a steady stream of queries about the afterlife. The afterlife refers to an individual’s soul or spirit living beyond the life of their physical body. Many believe that in the afterlife one’s moral choices and actions in life can result in their soul residing—based on divine judgment—in a place of reward or punishment, known as Heaven or Hell, respectively. Many folks feel if there is indeed a Hell, Trump will unquestionably be going there directly. However, thoughts about the afterlife can be a search for answers to potentially a frightening new normal, too.

I’ve been receiving lots of queries about the afterlife

Trump appears to be both unstoppable and invincible in his erosion of fundamental freedoms and protections to various disenfranchised, vulnerable, and historically marginalized populations in the country. The nativist spirit of patriotism and isolationist rhetoric to “Make America Great Again,” and now his latest Supreme Court nominee who can potentially shape future generations, makes many feel hopeless. Questions about the afterlife not only speak about social anxiety but, sadly, it also speaks about hopelessness. As a minister in this Trump era, I’ve been receiving lots of these queries.

For example: “I want to ask you, what do you believe will happen in the afterlife? Are we as the human race going to be okay? Should I worry about what’s going to happen to me after death? My girlfriend, who believes in God, but struggles with what to believe in exactly, is she going to be okay? I’m terrified right now, and as one of the very few looking past religious dogma, I need your help, or at least some insight into what I should be doing, praying for, anything.”

What do I believe?

Many religions create theologies with elaborate and fictive narratives of reward and punishment systems. It is a form of social control, like the Christian concept of Heaven and Hell. I don’t think after death one is likely to go to Heaven or Hell in an afterlife. Sadly, Trump gets off the hook of going to Hell.

I do, however, believe that crushing setbacks can be our own hell. And I think grinding poverty, as well as racial, gender, sexual orientation and religious profiling, to name just a few, that many Americans confront and navigate through daily, is unquestionably a living hell.

The belief in an afterlife, in my opinion, can create complacency and indifference. It shouldn’t make social justice issues and crimes against humanity like the Holocaust, American slavery, lynching, and the immigration crisis presently at the U.S.-Mexico border ever okay. In the case of enslaved Africans, the belief in an afterlife was passed on to my ancestors as an intentionally Christian theological concept. It was a form of social control to maintain the status quo of perpetual servitude. The indoctrination of an overjoyed and jubilant afterlife wasn’t to make them better Christians but instead obedient, subservient and God-fearing slaves.

For African-American slaves the belief in an afterlife was a coded critique of an unfulfilled life. It denied them liberty and the pursuit of happiness in this life. The belief in an afterlife functioned as an eschatological hope and aspiration that their progeny would indeed have a fulfilled life that they could only purportedly experience in death.

People across the country have taken to the streets in protest. Social justice and pro-democracy organizations now employ intersecting approaches to stem the deleterious and regressive laws of this administration.

There is an urgent need to speak up
Janson Wu is the Executive Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders in Boston
Janson Wu is the Executive Director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders in Boston

And it brings to the fore the now urgent need to speak up, as has Rev. Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. Many know his world-renowned quote that begins: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist….”

Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders (GLAD), wrote in his article “Resistance and Solidarity in the Era Trump” in Boston Pride Guide 2017 a remake of Niemoller’s famous verse. In speaking out against the normalization of hate and prejudice, Wu, like Niemoller, is letting us know who are today’s targets:

“When they come for immigrants, they come for LGBTQ people. When they come for women, they come for LGBTQ people. When they come for Muslims, they come for LGBTQ people. And the inverse is true: when they come for LGBTQ people, they come for everyone.”

We can alter the dystopian pall

Many Americans might feel fatigued from the daily dramas emerging from the White House. Many feel hopeless with thoughts of an afterlife. But we can alter the dystopian pall Trump has cast by living in the present moment and fighting back optimistically. One way is to vote in November, and to help register others to vote as well.

Moreover, while there are now a plethora of materials evident of the afterlife, like the New York Times bestseller Proof of Heaven by Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, M.D., I say this: Don’t be complacent.  I feel the afterlife—real or imagined—can potentially deprive us of living fully present in this life. We will miss small miracles, random acts of kindness, and the beauty of a sunrise and sunset in a single day.

Rev. Irene Monroe
Rev. Irene Monroe

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