Before the City Hall of New York City turned 42nd Street and Broadway into the glitzy, blinding neon showplace it is today, it used to be a totally different place. I had seen both the movie and the musical called “42nd Street,” and read books about its heyday. So, on a trip to New York, I decided to check out the venerable site myself. I wanted to see the glitter, glamour and glitz with my own eyes.
When I came up from the subway to the street, however, there were no neon lights, no dazzling marquees. There was darkness silvered by only a few streetlights. 42nd Street and Broadway had clearly fallen onto hard times.
As I walked down the street, thinking that maybe I had come to the wrong exit looking for the expected dazzle, I saw instead such human degradation that I could hardly believe my eyes. Drug dealers were on every corner, heroin and crack-cocaine users lying in every gutter, needles and spoons at their side. Drunks were sprawled everywhere under boarded-up theaters with letters hanging precariously off their damaged marquees.
But as I moved toward the nearest subway entrance, which I calculated to be only a block away, I suddenly saw a strange neon blue glow peeping out from behind a tall building. With every step I took the glow grew brighter, until it began to come into view. Rising high above the end of the street, a bright neon sign! I first saw the word “Jesus” made of blue light. But as I continued to walk, another word began to come into focus. And I did not see what I expected, the ubiquitous “Jesus saves” sign. Instead I saw this phrase: “Jesus knows.”
Whoever commissioned the sign, I figured, was a realist. I reasoned that whatever church official created that sign took one look at 42nd Street and realized that even the other-worldly salvation of the Christ they preach about would have little meaning to people already living in Hell, a Hell that would have shocked Dante himself.
“Jesus knows,” the sign said. In other words, “Let’s not even talk about saving anybody from this present Hell, because we can’t imagine how that could be done. All we can honestly say is that Jesus must know and he simply weeps with you.”
You have to give them points for a certain amount of humility.
Visiting 42nd Street in 1990 was hardly the first time I have visited Hell. I have been there a few times in my life—to hospital rooms where those I love are dying by inches, to neighborhoods where gangs and poverty rule like tyrants, and hard drugs destroy families and nearby lives. Sometimes even sitting in the comfort of my office I hear stories on the phone that sound as if they are coming up straight from Hell, so horrible and impossible are the circumstances these callers describe to me. And whenever I visit these hellish places I find myself thinking about the possible meanings of the word “salvation.” After all, the idea of leaving people to suffer and die in their own misery sounds completely heartless, and I have to wonder what might save them.
Now, some of us who were raised in conservative Christian traditions will surely feel some discomfort even hearing the tainted word “salvation.” Some of you were taught that Hell comes after death, and that salvation has to do with Jesus saving people later, not now, and you gave up believing such nonsense long ago, and are not so sure you want to even hear the word “salvation” talked about at all.
But I assure you that the Christian tradition that taught you such things was not the tradition out of which this church grew. All the way back in 1828 the Unitarian Christian, William Ellery Channing, the so-called Father of North American Unitarianism, wrote the following amazing words:
Human ignorance is seen in the low ideas attached to the word “salvation.” People think that salvation is something which another may achieve for them. The word Hell, which all persons acquainted with Jewish geography know to be a metaphor…this word has done unspeakable injury. It has possessed the diseased human imagination with thoughts of torture, and turned their thoughts to Jesus as someone outside them who will deliver them. But the salvation which humanity needs is not from outside things, but is from the evil within the mind, which hardens itself against love, which makes gain its god, which shuts itself up in a dungeon of self-interest, which consents to be a slave, and which allows itself to be formed by custom, opinion and changing events. To save, in the highest sense of that word, is to heal the diseased mind, and restore it to freedom of thought, conscience and love.
Now, Channing was a man relatively at ease. He lived in a nice house, had national fame, was esteemed even by his enemies as a good and gracious man. He lived in a time and in a city where poverty and degradation were not as exorbitant as they are in the cities of our own age. He did not trip over drug users on his way to the church. He did not often have to witness Hell on Charles Street. So, unexposed to great doses of Hell on earth, and having already decided that “salvation” was a this-worldly event, Channing tried to make it psychological.
The salvation humanity needs, he said, is not from outside things, but from the evil within the mind which hardens against love and shuts itself up in a dungeon of self-interest. This is all well and good, I suppose. Learning to love better, to be more generous of spirit, is for the best, I would agree.
But my life has not convinced me that Hell consists of simply bad intentions in the mind, selfishness and a hard heart. I am sure that some of these problems contribute to the building up of Hells on this earth, but in my experience people don’t just need to be saved from their minds, but from their conditions and situations.
How will this kind of salvation happen? Well, the blue sign I saw in New York was not all wrong. “Jesus knows,” the sign said. This is a touching statement. The gospels, after all, go out of their way to tell us that the human teacher Jesus made it his goal to spend time with the sick, the poor, the downtrodden and the scapegoats of his society. He did not shield his eyes from the tears of the world. He actually knew something about the hard conditions of life. He seems to have had a knack for helping people get better, to become more healthy and sound of body.
But the Teacher is dead now and has no power to save anybody on this side of death or on any other side. So what then is to be done by those of us who live? Is it possible that the work of salvation, of abolishing Hell on earth as we have abolished Hell after death, is something that belongs to us?
Genna Rae McNeil certainly thinks so. In the reading which appears to the right she says that, for her kind of African American religion, “the nature of salvation is to provide space…physical and spiritual…in which to function as a human being.” She reminds us that to be saved is to be “responsible for human nurture.” To be saved, therefore, is to participate in tearing down the structures imprisoning those who cannot save themselves. To be saved, says McNeil so elegantly, is “to invalidate the reality of dead-ends” in the world. It’s “to have engaged in dissent and resistance.” It’s to promote the “inexhaustibility of hope.”
These are great lines, in line with what the Western Scriptures actually say. They are very inspiring to me. But, unlike Channing, I think that these words need to apply to real Hells on earth, not mere psychological ones. And remember, one of the definitions of Hell is that it’s a place you can’t just leave on your own accord.
So, for me, to be saved is to not just tell those lying in their vomit on the street to pick themselves up by their own bootstraps and start dancing. Instead, to be saved is to work together to build up the best possible treatment programs for people so broken. To be saved is to never preach little homilies on love to abusive husbands. It’s to pack up the abused wife and move her out pronto.
To be saved is not to preach to a mother in the fourth generation of poverty to just get up and go to work at McDonald’s for minimum wage, a salary with which she cannot even pay the sitter. It’s to work with social agencies, and in the realm of politics, long and hard enough to slowly change the whole situation and “invalidate the dead end.”
To be saved is not to tell a person with brain chemistry out of whack that they just can go it alone without their expensive medication because the insurance industries will not pay for such medications. To be saved is to begin to work to transform the American healthcare system into something humane.
To be saved is to be a real Universalist, to say that safety, soundness and ease—i.e., salvation—belong to everyone equally. It’s to not only preach against the concept of torture in the next world, but also to work to stop torture, and a lack of safety, soundness and ease in this world. To be saved is to understand the power of mutuality.
So from now on, if someone buttonholes you to ask if you are “saved,” don’t get indignant. Say: “No, not yet, but I am working on it, both for me and for the people with whom I share this planet. Would you like to join me in being a savior?”
That’s right, there is no arrogance at all in choosing to call oneself a savior. It’s arrogance, rather, to refuse to be a savior. It’s arrogance to refuse to do the work that calls all religious people of good will: to douse Hell here on earth, and let the garden of paradise grow once again under our feet: safe, secure, sound, spacious, resistant, and free.
Like the Jesus in that sign on 42nd Street, we have to know these things deep inside us, and then we can begin to be saved by the ways in which we let that knowledge transform us and our ways in the world. Sure, it will take time, and lots of creativity we don’t know we have yet, but really, can you imagine a better use of your time, your life, and your love?