Nelson Mandela died recently and every news network and program has rightly devoted a good deal of time to remembering his legacy. By plain fact he did good as he lead his people. He was a flawed man, but those flaws reveal a complexity of character that should be an assurance to anyone that their failures and their weaknesses are no death blow to accomplishing real good, nor are they an excuse for failing to do so. I don’t know every nuance of his biography, but I know that the story of a young, frustrated man passing through such a crucible as 27 years in prison to be poured out as a humble leader of inexorable strength pushing to end apartheid is a beautiful story. Nelson Mandela’s legacy of justice matters.
One news program, though, made an odd choice in its coverage. 20/20 ended an hour-long special with a pair of children’s choirs singing “Imagine” by John Lennon. Nelson Mandela had the courage to imagine a world without apartheid and so children, our hope for the future, should honor his legacy with this inspiring song. But the message of Lennon’s song totally undercuts any talk of legacy, of lasting good, so an hour of tribute to Mandela’s courage and meaningful conviction ended with this weird moment of meaninglessness, albeit cut with wistfully diluting sentiment.
Lennon opens with an altar call of sorts, a hymn of invitation to “imagine there’s no heaven/it’s easy if you try/no hell below us/above us only sky.” His song preaches that people only kill and starve each other to serve religion or government. Whether The Man or The Man Upstairs, any such authority ends in abuse. Therefore, Lennon prefers to imagine the end of such authority. God is greater than government, so he ultimately envisions a cosmic power vacuum. What if join him in this? No devils, no angels, just dirt below and clouds above. With no heaven and therefore no hell, the sky will indeed be empty. Will we find people living for today, eruptions of benevolence and brotherhood? Or will we lose more than we might imagine by tossing heaven and hell onto the trash pile of ideas we’ve outgrown?
In our modern age, the afterlife is heated and hammered, like iron in a blacksmith’s tongs, into all sorts of shapes to serve all sorts of masters. Even as it changes shape, the theme of ultimate justice endures. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell—that dichotomy pervades vast swaths of human culture across time and place. How the sheep and goats get sorted is a real source of contention, but the winnowing is nearly universal. Perhaps from boredom with all the variations on this theme or perhaps from irritation at a continual vague sense of guilt, it’s become fashionable to throw out the idea of hell altogether (maybe people just don’t want to think about going there). But then you get into trouble.
Not so deep down, we all know there is evil in the world that doesn’t always meet its proper end in this life—neither redemption nor justice. Hell would certainly make sense, but we’ve imagined that away. If you believe in a heaven without a hell, though, you have to get cozy with the idea of bunking next to Hitler in the sweet by and by. That won’t do, so Lennon rightly realizes he must dismiss the afterlife completely—no heaven, no hell, just nothing everlasting I guess. Setting aside the idea that being unmade in such way sounds more like hell for everyone, it remains that life and doing—good or evil—become pointless. You either wind up in the same place as everyone else no matter what so who cares, or you cease as though you never were and what matters then?
When Lennon tosses heaven and hell he loses two things he probably wishes he’d kept: the ability to tell whether anything is good or bad and any real motivation for self-sacrifice. On the point of good and bad: without an outside vantage point life spirals down into a relativistic cesspool. In the parable of the blind men encountering the strange beast and making claims based on what they felt with their hands, they’d all be correct without an outside observer to say the perceived snake, rope, and tree trunk actually added up to an elephant. Of course, the sightless men would all be wrong, too. It’s the problem of polytheism: without one God to set the standard by which good and evil take weight, you have many gods and many standards and no way to weigh any one against the other (at least no peaceful way). They all weigh the same and they all might as well weigh nothing. Morality is unmade and a great darkness awakens.
What happens when two gods and their two truths come into conflict? Which will sacrifice for the other? Which could? Each must certainly want the most pleasure and power in this life because each faces death, the absolute end with no beyond and no hope for reward or dread of justice. Why on earth choose weakness and risk death or discomfort with the strength to avoid both? In a world of nothing and unto nothing, that is an unanswerable question.
Even if, if one of those gods, John Lennon perhaps, chose a noble sacrifice, how could he ever reasonably expect others to follow suit having imagined no heaven, no hell? His plea could only come from arrogance, from the untethered conviction that his desire for lower, broader prosperity is better than their desire for higher and more narrow. A weightless request easily ignored.
True, some folks do make small sacrifices, but only in order to gain tangible benefit; we have tribes and nations, collections of people willing to give up some freedom for strength in numbers and reliable trade. (Funnily enough, it seems we desire the moral autonomy of gods and yet try to weasel out of total self-sufficiency that a god ought to possess. We want to live as though we have no limits, but we know to play society games in order for others to be willing to shore up our weaknesses. And how we seethe at having to stoop even a little to buy from the efforts of others who can do what we can’t, who have what we have not. We want godship, but we could never pull it off. Oh what fury, what frustration.) Some sacrifice serves self-interest, collective-interest. At some point, the sacrifice cuts too deep and instinct kicks in. This is it! THIS IS IT! There is nothing else coming. Survive as long as you can and drink deep cup of pleasure and power while it lasts. Be vicious if you have to. It’s not like you’ll ever have to pay for it. Even with small social sacrifices, eventually tribe will come against tribe and, absent the watchful eye of heaven and any ensuing restraint, one will force the other to bow or bleed.
Isn’t this exactly what happens, what happened in apartheid? Apartheid was actually good for a lot of people: the white people in power. One pale-skinned South African tribe beat down competition from the other tribes and so flourished. They served their truth like gods unaccountable as though there were not bigger truth that might condemn. Spooky. We imagined there was no heaven and we wound up with apartheid. It’s starting to come clear why ‘Imagine’ was such a strange choice to honor Nelson Mandela. It’s a lonely song.
‘Imagine’ is a paradox. Half of its aspirations create the very world that the other half longs to undo. Clearly, it’s not just that you imagine; what you imagine matters. John Lennon thought his misguided dreaming would help him find peace and equality, but he dreamt the very root of the war within himself and every self around him: the war between wanting to be God and longing for the world to be the way God made it. Imagine there’s no heaven? We already have and look where it got us. Alone and run amok.
How do you hope in Loneliness? If life came from nothing and ends in nothing, you simply can’t assign any enduring meaning to it. Without posterity, it just won’t matter if apartheid had crushed Mandela or if his noble struggle had slowly won over hearts and minds to bring the institution to its end. It won’t matter if you were at the bottom or the top of the ladder of cruelty if the human race is merely a chance eruption of consciousness and matter unheralded in its birth and unmourned by a void in its eventual death. Children would be no hope for the future, just a hope unto themselves to outwit or outfight, to be cruel in order to avoid cruelty, to deprive in order to prosper. Zoom out far enough and the sun explodes, burning up all our molecules, leaving nothing behind with no one to remember whether good or bad had transpired during the brief blip of time during which we lived. Will there even be time without anyone there to count it?
This is all silly. We know in our hearts that oppression is a great evil and men who fight oppression do good. We know in our hearts that children, new life among us, do bring hope. That’s why we do our best to raise them well, to pass along any wisdom we may have. Very few people tell their kids to go and take as much as they can by any means necessary, at least not outright. We teach our kids how to share because we know that sharing is a part of friendship, a part of being in the human community. And this isn’t some cold, calculated strategy to gain strength through tribalism. Not in our hearts it’s not, not in the moment of teaching our child. No, we don’t want our children to grow up alone because loneliness is pain and cruelty is evil. This is written deep, deep inside us. Eventually, yes we lose sight of it turn to injustice as we grow older and find our desires fast outpacing our resources. But, it wasn’t God or heaven or hell that changed us and that we need to unimagine. It was arrogance; we changed our own damn selves and twisted God into something that would justify our injustice.
That twisted image of God and its contemptible beneficiaries are what John Lennon really wants to toss onto the trash heap of ideas we’ve outgrown. I join with him. I long for the banishment of the awful so-called gods of injustice and tyranny that obscure the view of an actual God of justice and dignity. But you can’t fight subjectively from untethered conviction. That’s arrogance easily ignored. You must fight from humility, submitting to the strength of an objective authority greater than any of us that quite clearly declares us each of equal dignity, each debased or exploited only through evil. Suddenly, justice is back in town bringing with her motivation and endurance to resist tyranny. It’s a leap of faith, an act of imagination if you will, but the right response to the wrong God isn’t no gods, but the rediscovery of the right God to wage a war of conscience against all our false gods.
I don’t know what Nelson Mandela thought of heaven or hell or God, but I know that his long fight against apartheid bore many signs of submitting to an unarguable authority. Any long and arduous fight against injustice and tyranny, whether the fighter admits it or not, happens under heaven and by its guidance. There’s just no other way. To try to honor the legacy of such a dignified battle with a song that erases the very concept of justice, as 20/20 tried, rings dead and hollow. Heaven offers a far better legacy.