The following is a guest post by Michael Hunt, Pastor at The Open Church of Maryland and 2018 Imagining Justice in Baltimore Fellow. Learn more about the Imagining Justice in Baltimore series.
As a college administrator, I often have conversations with my students about the goals they seek to achieve and the process they must employ in order to reach those goals. When I was an undergraduate student, one of my mentors, the late LaMont Tolliver, would often quote Steven Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.” I didn’t grasp the fullness of this quote until recently as I reflected over my own life while advising students in achieving their life and academic goals. The thought is that you should start with a goal and then work backward to figure out what you need to do to achieve that goal. This idea has become one of my personal mottos as I advise and mentor others.
As I reflect on my personal faith journey, I was taught early on as a Christian to begin with the end in mind — that my earthly death would lead to my heavenly reward which must be my focus. My Christian living was centered around the fact that my actions must be righteous and lead me closer to being physically at the feet of Jesus. It was clear that I must live holy so I can be with Jesus when I die. There was the litany of actions that would lead to righteous living: do’s and don’ts outlined in the Bible, the ten commandments to follow, attending church multiple times a week, tithing ten percent of my income to the church, while also evangelizing the good news to everyone, especially to the non-believers, that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again”. The focus was accepting Jesus as Lord so that when my physical death comes, Jesus would accept me into the kingdom of God where, “the wicked shall cease from troubling, and our wearied souls will be at rest”. The end had been sold as the saved vs. the unsaved, those who have accepted Jesus vs. those who have not, simply put, us vs. them.
At some point in my life’s journey, I began questioning my ending and found myself asking, have I been so heavenly minded that I have become no earthly good? In other words, have I focused so intensely on loving Jesus that I have missed the call to extend that same love to others who are our kinfolks because we are all children of God? Has my life been so focused on worshiping Jesus that I have neglected his earthly ministry which met the needs of those who had been cast away and marginalized? And have I downplayed his unwavering stance against worshipping and idolizing political and religious powers?
Since my own spiritual awakening, I have sought to build relationships with those who are religiously different than me, and now I can declare that I am open to a new possibility, a new ending. I believe that God created everything and everyone, and God loves all Her creation. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to me that Creator God would deny His creation the opportunity to be in Her presence simply because the creation chose, for whatever reason, not to believe in a biblical interpretation of God. I honestly can’t, better yet, I refuse to serve a God who will cast Her creation to hell because of this. If that is God’s character, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but go ahead and damn me to hell because I want no part of that kind of God.
Moreover, there are so many non-religious and non-Christian people who have taken on the mantle of living a morally righteous life that doesn’t include accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of their lives. Do they not have the right to an afterlife experience that honors their earthly righteous living? Can they not be respected and accepted if they don’t believe there is life after death? Maybe they have begun with their end in mind.
We must reexamine what constitutes righteous living. Righteous living is feeding and clothing those who do not have the means to do so on their own. Righteous living is listening to others and finding commonality rather than seeking areas of conflict and war. Righteous living is challenging the religious and political leaders whose focus has been lining the pockets of the rich while neglecting the needs and desires of the poor. Righteous living is being a vocal advocate for those seeking a better life no matter what country they are coming from or their personal life circumstances. In fact, the more I contemplate the values of righteous living, the more I see the faces and hear the voices of my non-Christian brothers and sisters who are pillars of living righteously.
Many of us, self-proclaimed Christians and religious zealots, have unintentionally taken on the intentional xenophobia (fear of others) perpetuated by those who desire to conquer and control all as they choose to love only those who will abide by their way of living and being. This has been purposely done to keep power in the hands of those who have a stake in maintaining the status quo and defining the normative way of living. Some reading this may declare, “No, I love everyone!”, yet in their hearts and through their actions they have said, “I am going to heaven to be with Jesus and sadly others will be doomed to hell.” Is this really love?
I’m not saying I have it all figured out, nor am I saying that I do not appreciate my religious upbringing. What I am saying is that my worldview has expanded, and I will continue to seek to live a life that welcomes all to God’s family reunion, not when we all get to heaven, but today. The end has become my beginning. Why focus on an eternal coming together of the kin-dom, when we can experience such unity and joy on earth, today! Yes, I’ve rethought my ending. No longer am I focused on getting into heaven. Instead, I am focusing on how my actions towards others can give them “strength for today and bright hopes for tomorrow.” Let us all begin with the end in mind!
The city of Baltimore is part of a national conversation around questions of justice, race, and community. In the initiative Imagining Justice in Baltimore, the ICJS will contribute the perspectives of local Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the public conversation about justice, and injustice, in Baltimore. Each contributor represents her or his own opinion. We welcome this diversity of perspective and are not seeking a single definition of justice between traditions, nor denying the multivocal nature of justice within traditions.