If there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the most important thing in the world.
Thus speaks Angel, Ensouled vampire, former lover of Buffy (and they totally belong together forever, you will not convince me otherwise!), Champion of the Powers, helper of the helpless.
He’s a hero. But he’d been on a rough road. He’s been derailed for a time. In his friend and ally Wesley’s words, he had his head firmly up the place not on top of his neck for a while there.
Because he was so focused on the Big Picture, the End Goal, on “beating the bad guy”, that he forgot that his mission here was to help the hopeless. He forgot that as a “champion” it was others he was meant to serve, save and soothe. Instead, for a while, his mind was focused on his own redemption, on seeking to make up for his own sins, to aim for the promise of a prophecy that rewards him after his many battles. It often feels like you’re being the good guy when you’re doing that stuff, even though you might be “doing good things”, almost incidentally and, on occasion “beating the bad guy”. But what it often means is the ones who really need your help, the ones who might normally be part of your community, the ones you’re called to build up, encourage, include and feed get forgotten or left behind or hurt in the wake of your Crusade.
Sound familiar? No? Let me help you.
A group of people, essentially good people, focused on their big picture idea. Their idea that it’s all about the next life; that it’s all about their (and sometimes your) personal individual salvation; that the creator of the universe bothered to inhabit a human body to facilitate your eternal fire insurance. But I’ve found, sadly, that this group is so focused on the “good place”, so concerned for their “personal salvation”, so zoned in on individuals getting tickets outta here that they miss the point of the mission in the first place. On top of that, they miss the good stuff that is already here around us. They miss the wonder and beauty that the Creator themselves declared was good. And most tragically, they miss the good they can do that’s right in front of their faces. They miss the opportunity to be Champions (the bible might call it being Salt & Light) not for the sake of earning goody points with scary daddy (because that’s who they seem to think God is), but for the sake of the hopeless and hurting person in front of them.
They often miss genuine opportunities to serve and save and soothe because they’re focusing so much on the rewards they’ll get for “good works” or rather , the appearance of good. And their language is all about the mansions they’ll get and the feast they will share and the crowns they’ll be given. They miss those in front of them without a home, let alone a mansion; without breakfast, let alone a feast; without hope, let alone a crown.
I was familiar with this language, I used it, I lived it. Thank God for Epiphanies.
And because it’s all about Heaven and the next life, why bother looking out for this planet and it’s environment that will only pass away? Meanwhile the trees, animals and birds that God declared as good are neglected and murdered; the air and water itself are poisoned and people are perishing because of it. I don’t recall disdain being listed as a fruit of the spirit. Do you?
And because it’s all about heaven and the next life, poor people should just be thankful they don’t have the distraction of riches to drag them down. They should be grateful that their Faith is being formed by their circumstances and that they’re going to get front row seats in heaven, so just stop complaining now, because you’ll get your chips later. Meanwhile backs are turned in apathy, ignorance and indifference. I don’t recall any of those being listed as fruits of the spirit either.
And because it’s all about heaven an the next life, there also has to be a “bad place” that we’re being saved from. So no-one needs to be saved from systemic injustice here and now. Meanwhile black, brown, poor, female, trans, disabled and “foreign” bodies are being crushed under Capitalism, Racism, Authoritarianism, White Supremacy, Privilege, Patriarchy and Empire – but these aren’t the things Jesus came to save us from, are they? They couldn’t be, the whole point is to save us from Hell… isn’t it? And there’s nothing we can do about any of those things anyway and it’s all so ephemeral and going to pass away. And so there is silence and apathy and no-one going to rescue those going through an every day hell here and now – because it’s not something even acknowledged as hell. Deliberate obtuseness? Complicity with oppression? Nope, not fruits of the spirit.
And because it’s all about heaven and getting saved from a post mortem bad place, then suddenly the end can justify the means. I can treat you however I want as long as I think it will “save” you. We can exclude, punish and bully LGBT people, all in the name of “saving them from hell”. All the while creating the living hell that many LGBT people live in with harmful theology and hurtful actions. All the while rejoicing in denying the humanity and equality of LGBT people, women, people of colour, the neuro-diverse and the less physically able. All the while sending women back into the arms of their abusers because “God hates divorce”. All the while sacrificing other people on the altar of unity in a faith based on the sacrifice of self. Bullying, abuse, harm. Not. Good. Fruit.
They’ve taken the words of the Lord’s Prayer and inverted them.
“May you let us into your Kingdom when the time comes; May our interpretation of Your Will be enforced violently, as it never is in Heaven.”
“Help for the Hopeless”? More like, “We hope you’re helpless”.
I’m not saying I don’t believe in the glorious hope that there’s a place with no pain or rejection or injustice that some would call heaven, because I absolutely do. But from what I read of Jesus’ story, that’s not really what the good news of Jesus is all about. The words of that prayer are “Your Kingdom come”. Make this world as it should be and if it’s your will, use me to do that. In my experience, those who only focus on the gospel being all about being saved from Eternal Conscious Torment (an idea I’m very much rejecting these days) and about “getting in to Heaven” as the whole point then tend to trample and hurt others in their race towards it. The fruit of their stunted theology turns out to not be very good news at all to the hurting, marginalised and broken of this world.
Just as Angel, even while remaining a good man (or rather, Vampire) did questionable and damaging things whilst focusing on his “big win”, so we all are capable of the same. Look at the fruit of your beliefs and actions – if the fruit is poisonous, maybe those theologies need re-examining.
And so comes Angel’s epiphany. A moment of victory is turned sour and sends him into a spiral of despair. A despair so deep that he tries to take comfort in Darla, the monster who made him a vampire in the first place – and don’t we all jsut go back to what we know? Didn’t Peter just go back to fishing, even after seeing the risen Jesus, because of despair? I’ve been “fishing” a few times and slept with my “Darla” more than once. It’s coming face to face with his monstrous maker, who assumes that for Angel it was a night of perfect bliss, that brings his epiphany. He had wanted to lose his soul, to effectively commit suicide and bring the return of his evil alter-ego Angelus. But a night of despair only brought an absolute moment of clarity. A ringing bell; the ultimate wake-up call.
A wake-up call that shouted the fact that the big win wasn’t his calling. That to serve the Powers That Be you help the person in front of you. That the end never, ever justifies the means. That even when the world is dark, that’s why there are Champions, to live as if the world is as it should be and take action when it isn’t.
The good news in Angel’s story is that he does have this moment of clarity and (mostly) stops being such a jerk. He saves a friend from suicide, saves his team from death by scary demon and humbles himself to them to work for them, going from one time team leader to bottom of the rung. And three more great seasons of TV that followed unpacked this theme (among others) over and again.
The good news for us? Isn’t singularly about having to wait our time here to receive crowns and robes in a gold paved city.
It’s Freedom here and now. It’s Community here and now. It’s Justice here and now. It’s us praying “Your Kingdom Come” in word, them praying “Your Kingdom Come” in deeds. It’s us behaving as if the world is as it should be and when it isn’t, standing and drawing a line to say “here and no further”.
Maybe if we just forget about “getting into heaven” for a moment and concentrate on helping one person in front of us, then the next, then the next. Perhaps in doing this we might get a handle on the Good News.
Maybe if we’re kind to that one girl, if we’re gentle to that guy, if we share around some honest to God goodness. Maybe if we could control ourselves and not interrupt someone, if we sought shalom for those on the edge, if we were known for our devotion. Maybe if we brought a fraction of joy to that person right there and shared our own joy, or just waited our turn, or just loved all out. All of this without an eye on what we might get out of it, or on winning, or on putting bums on seats, or on getting someone to believe exactly as I do, maybe, just maybe we might be Preaching the Good News.
I guess I kinda worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if nothing we do matters… , then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long, for redemption, for a reward, and finally just to beat the other guy, but I never got it.
All I wanna do is help. I wanna help because, I don’t think people should suffer as they do. Because, if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.