The man sitting next to me on a United Airlines flight to Denver was on a mission from God. A bumper sticker stuck to the side of his brief case said so. As we settled into our seats the flight attendant came on the overly loud loud speaker to remind us that, “If Denver is not your destination, now would be a good time to get off the aircraft.”
“I guess I should get off the plane then,” my neighbor said, making no move to do so.
I knew what was coming. Two years ago I attended a seminar on the art of evangelizing sponsored by a local Baptist church. There were about 25 people enrolled in the class, and the gist of what we learned was how to find openings in otherwise banal conversations that would allow us to shift the conversation toward the topic of salvation through Jesus Christ. Curious as to whether or not the man had heard the opening and was about to finesse it into a proselytizing moment, I said: “You’re not going to Denver, then?”
“Oh, Denver is on my way, but my final destination is heaven.”
There it was! Of course now I had to deal with the opening gambit. So, I smiled, maintained eye contact, and raised my eyebrows in feigned curiosity.
“You know there is only one way to heaven, and that’s through faith in Jesus Christ. Are you saved? Do you know Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
So clumsy! He shouldn’t have hit me with a declarative statement like that. He should have engaged me a bit more in actual dialogue. Amateur.
“I wouldn’t presume to say I am saved,” I said. “In fact I suspect that those who are certain of their personal salvation are actually falling victim to the sin of spiritual pride. I leave salvation up to God. But I do agree there is only one way to heaven. I just don’t think faith in Jesus is it.”
Having taken the proselytizing class I knew I was pushing every spiritual hot button my seatmate had. He reached for his Bible and was, no doubt, about to quote from the Gospel According to John. I could feel him girdling his loins that he might defeat me in spiritual combat, but I wasn’t looking for a fight. I laid my hand on his for a moment and said softly, “Jesus says, ‘Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.’ That’s Matthew 3:36, right? Compassion is the way to heaven. To mistake the messenger for the message is like mistaking the menu for the meal. You will never taste the truth of what God’s offers. I don’t want to argue with you about Jesus, I want to walk with you on his path.”
This line from Matthew should be the hallmark of Christian teaching, just as it is the hallmark of Jesus’ message. The reason it isn’t is that you can’t build a religion around it. You don’t need priests, pastors, rabbis, gurus, imams, or any other clergy person to practice loving-kindness. You don’t need churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, altars, or sacrificial cults to practice loving-kindness. All you need is loving-kindness. This is what makes the way of loving-kindness so frightening to so many religious people.
Religion gives lip service to loving-kindness, but in the end the final arbiter of your fate is not kindness but loyalty to this or that tribe, denomination, ritual, creed, etc. And do not think I am talking only about western religion. The history of every religion is riddled with violence, sexism, jingoism, and xenophobia. No organized religion is free from violence, because violence is intrinsic to the nature of organized religion.
As long as there is a hierarchy to maintain, a power-elite to support, and a populace to control, the propensity for violence— physical, psychological, political— is always going to be present. But none of this pertains to the way of loving-kindness. There is no hierarchy, no privileged elite, no one to keep in line. There is only you and the world you encounter moment to moment. Will you engage this moment with kindness or with cruelty, with love or with fear, with generosity or scarcity, with a joyous heart or an embittered one? This is your choice and no one can make it for you. If you choose kindness, love, generosity, and joy then you will discover in that choice the Kingdom of God, nirvana, this-worldly salvation. If you choose cruelty, fear, scarcity, and bitterness then you will discover in that choice the hellish states of which so many religions speak. These are not ontological realities tucked away somewhere in space, these are psychological realities playing out in your own mind. Heaven and hell are both inside of you. It is your choice that determines just where you will reside.
"You are going to hell,” my seatmate said flatly after I had shared with him the thoughts I have just shared with you, his voice cracking just enough to let me know this is not the fate he would wish for me.
“I know," I said just as flatly, "but without loving-kindness we are in hell already.” Then I smiled, powered up my PowerBook, and quickly typed out the conversation you have just read.