by Rev. Irene Monroe
The belief in an afterlife can create complacency and indifference to present social justice issues and past crimes against humanity—the Holocaust, American slavery, lynching, the current immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border.
There are several noticeable signs of the pall that has hung over many Americans since President Donald Trump took office. One indicator of the dark cloud has been an uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels, with classics such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and my personal favorite, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is also now a hit drama on Hulu. They’re all horrifyingly prescient, our devouring of these tomes a search for answers to questions posed by this frightening new normal.
Just as there has been an uptick in the reading of those classics, there has also been a steady stream of queries about what is commonly referred to as the afterlife. The afterlife refers to an individual’s soul or spirit living beyond the life of their physical body. Also, there is the belief that 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. Interestingly, religious and nonreligious people alike seem to feel that if there is indeed a hell, Trump is unquestionably headed there. However, thoughts about the afterlife can be a search for answers to potentially a frightening new normal as well.
Considering that Trump appears to be invincible—in his erosion of fundamental freedoms and protections to various disenfranchised, vulnerable, and historically marginalized populations including immigrants, plus in his nativist spirit and isolationist rhetoric that may soon be further emboldened by another conservative SCOTUS justice who will shape legal precedents for future generations—it seems like these all these questions speak to a collective social anxiety, and also to a hopelessness.
As a minister in the Trump era, I’ve been receiving lots of queries about the afterlife: 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 you’re 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.
Many religions create theologies with elaborative and fictive narratives of reward and punishment systems as 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, that means Trump gets off the hook.
I do, however, believe that crushing setbacks, from grinding poverty to racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious profiling, will spur many Americans, like myself, to confront and navigate an unquestionable living hell daily.
The belief in an afterlife can create complacency and indifference to present social justice issues and past crimes against humanity—the Holocaust, American slavery, lynching, the current immigration crisis at the US-Mexico border. In the case of enslaved Africans, the belief in an afterlife was passed on to my ancestors as an intentionally Christian theological concept. A form of social control to maintain the status quo of perpetual servitude, the indoctrination around an overjoyed and jubilant afterlife wasn’t to make them better Christians, but rather obedient, subservient, and God-fearing slaves.
For African-American slaves, the afterlife was a coded critique of an unfulfilled life that denied them liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The belief in an afterlife functioned as an eschatological hope and aspiration that their future progenies would indeed have the kind of existence they could only purportedly experience in death.
Meanwhile, on earth, people all across the world have taken to the streets in protest, with tens of thousands tailing Trump around Europe last week. Social justice and pro-democracy organizations are employing intersectional approaches to stem the deleterious and regressive laws of this administration.
Locally, Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, recently updated the famous quote by Rev. Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken foe of Adolf Hitler: “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist. …” Writing in the 2018 Boston Pride Guide, he brought to the fore the urgent need to speak up, like Niemoller, against the normalization of hate and prejudice.
“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.”
There are now a plethora of books about the afterlife, like the New York Times bestseller Proof of Heaven by Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, MD. I feel that the concept—real or imagined—can potentially deprive us of being fully present in this life, making us miss small miracles and random acts of kindness, even the beauty of a sunrise and sunset.
While many Americans may feel fatigued from the daily dramas emerging from the White House and might feel hopeless in thinking about an afterlife, we can alter the dystopian pall Trump has cast by living in the moment and fighting back optimistically. You can start by voting.
Published in DigBoston.com on July 11, 2018.