A woman died and could not go to Heaven because she had been mean and cruel to everyone all her life. She went to Hell, and from there she prayed for mercy. Was there no way she could be admitted to Heaven?
The angel who guards the gates looked around and asked all the souls in Heaven, "Is there anyone here who has ever had a kind word or an act of generosity from this woman?" Only one stepped forth. He said that in life he had been a starving beggar, and one time this woman had given him an onion. The angel told him, “Bring me the onion.” It wasn’t much of an onion—small and shriveled—a pretty poor meal even for a beggar. Would it be enough of an act of kindness to raise the old woman out of Hell?
The angel took the onion and reached down with it into Hell. The old woman grasped it and the angel began to pull her up. The thin dry stalk seemed like it might snap at any minute, but as she held onto it, her feet were lifted from the ground. The other damned souls around her saw her beginning to rise Heavenward and they grabbed at her skirts and her feet, hoping to be pulled up with her. The onion stalk was so spindly. Would it hold?
The old woman looked down at the other damned souls clinging to her and yelled, “Let go! It’s my onion!”
And with that, the onion broke.
I have always taken that as a cautionary tale aimed at those who would make their religion into an exclusive club. But the new insight this week is that hollering at the Christians to stop consigning the rest of us to Hell might not be something we do just for our sake, but for theirs as well. That perhaps those who want to slam the door to salvation shut behind them and then stand there demanding the password before letting anyone else in—that they might be in the same position as the old woman shouting “Let go! It’s my savior!” and that confrontation from a place of compassion (as one might do for an alcoholic) is more appropriate than simple, reactive rage.
Of course, the only way to do that kind of confrontation is to be very secure oneself. You can't be effective if you've got something you’re still trying to prove to yourself about your own relationship with alcohol (or with God, as the case may be). Having once believed, myself, that the only way to satisfy God is to believe in Our Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as one’s personal Lord and Savior, …
Hmm. Where was I going with that sentence?
1) The reason it is so difficult for me to hear and work with Christian vocabulary in a universalist context is that I was once so fluent in its other, more literal uses. I have read the Bible with the eyes of a fundamentalist, and when I hear Jesus say “None may approach the Father save through me,” it always feels like a cop-out not to take him at his word.
2) The loving confrontation is really with myself. The old woman with the onion will go wherever her own higher self and deeper nature discerns that she needs to go. My issue isn’t with her. My issue is with the angel, because when I meet him, the reason he isn’t going to let me into Heaven is that I’ll spit in his eye. And I’ll do that because I believe that he will consign me to Hell if I don’t give him the right password (“I believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and accept Him as my personal Savior and I promise to make everybody else do the same and if they don’t I will help you stoke the fires of Hell.”) And this isn’t really about the angel, is it? It’s about me, having internalized that message.
3) Except it isn’t. It's also out in the world. I had a student last year who was a skinhead neo-Nazi. (No exaggeration. This kid had a shrine to Hitler in his basement.) And he was always looking for ways to justify hating—not hating anybody in particular, just hate all by itself as a way of being. And the only remotely Christian thing I ever heard him say was once when he made the comment “Homosexuality is wrong because it’s against God’s laws.” Now, liberal theologians can pontificate all they want about how Christ’s message is really about love, but they are never going to be able to say it loud enough that a kid with a shrine to Hitler in his basement will hear them. But our Christian heritage, the religion that conquered the Holy Land, supported colonialism, justified the enslavement of Africans and the extermination of native Americans and the forced conversion of Jews and the burning of Witches and…and…and… you get the idea. That is loud enough for this skinhead punk to hear, even down in his basement.
So I really want the Christian church to STOP USING LANGUAGE THAT IS IN ANY WAY AMBIGUOUS ABOUT REPUDIATING HATE.
Which, of course, is a pretty tall order. “Don’t say anything that could possibly be misunderstood by anyone.” Sounds simple enough. Why can’t people just do it?
So what do I do, given that there are no words that will bear the weight of what I want to say? What I took away from this past week at Yearly Meeting is not that the Christian vocabulary is OK; it’s that the words—any words—are not the thing that’s carrying the message in a Quaker setting.
Maybe not in any setting.
Quakers do not just listen to the silence; they speak the silence. I don’t mean they speak from the silence (though they do that too). I mean that Quakers, besides listening for the Spirit behind whatever words might be said, also carry the Spirit and live out the Spirit and hold the Spirit so that it is there to be discerned.