Chapter 6: A Nation’s Oppressive Death: The Question of the End of the World

When A Person Dies: Pastoral Theology in Death Experiences
by Robert L. Kinast

Chapter 6: A Nation’s Oppressive Death: The Question of the End of the World


The speaker had just finished a lecture on the Christian meaning of death. She was a theology student in a nearby seminary and worked in this parish for her field placement. She had agreed to give a series of talks during Lent on the theology of suffering and death. In this particular presentation she described the stages a person typically goes through when anticipating death. She related these to a growing, honest affirmation of belief in Jesus and acceptance of the power of his resurrection. She had prepared well and prayed over her material so that it would be sincere and personal. She felt good about her presentation as she ended. A question period followed.

At first, no one asked any questions. It seemed like everyone was caught up in the faith-witness and openness of this obviously Christian woman. Then someone raised his hand. He was a refugee who had recently come to the U.S. and who had been attending the parish church for about a month. Although he was unfamiliar with many American customs, he handled English quite will. He began to speak carefully and calmly.

He thanked the speaker for her beautiful and encouraging talk. It was clear to him that she believed what she had spoken, but he wanted to make one observation. In his experience, most of the people in the world do not die as she had described, thinking through the meaning of their death in relation to a reasonably good life they had enjoyed and don’t want to let go of. Most people die because they starve or have no medical help or are killed in war or simply cannot escape persecution, oppression, neglect, or abuse. He just wanted everyone to remember how these people die and how many of them there are.

The man knew what he was talking about. He had been raised in extreme poverty. He was one of six children, only three of whom survived infancy. His father died at the age of forty; his mother had been living with his sister for the last ten years. She had worked in the fields all her life to provide what she could for her children. Now she too was in poor health, although she had not reached fifty. She had done everything possible to give her children a good education because she believed that might help them escape the life they had been born into.

The man who had spoken at the parish meeting was the most successful in taking advantage of his mother’s efforts. He had done well enough in school to qualify for a scholarship to college, where he excelled. From there, he won another scholarship to study in Europe and earned a doctorate in economics. His goal throughout was to return to his native land, try to give his mother and family a better life, and educate his own people in economics and how they might improve their own security. He held a teaching position at a state university and had begun to realize his goals. He also married and started his own family. Then a new government came into power.

The new regime was much more restrictive and extremely suspicious. One of its targets was the university system. Anyone teaching in a way considered dangerous or subversive to the government was removed and either imprisoned or exiled. This economics professor got word that he was being investigated. His encouragement of economic reform and suggestions for reorganizing labor and the use of profits was considered very dangerous. He had never thought of himself as undermining his government or being anything but a patriot, but it was obvious that someone else was defining the terms. The risk was increasing daily.

Anticipating his fate, he had arranged for his wife and their infant son to leave the country, ostensibly to visit relatives on a holiday. His plan was more secretive. He was going to escape with several others who were hoping to get to the United States and be admitted as refugees. He felt he might be able to locate there for a time, maybe even permanently, and be reunited with his family.

After a perilous escape and difficult crossing, he and his friends managed to get to the U.S. His case was taken over by a church social-welfare agency, and one of the local congregations began sponsoring him. He was living temporarily with one of the families in the congregation. They had helped him obtain a job as a waiter in a restaurant that served his native food. Working nights, he was able to use mornings and his day off in the library, reading journals and trying to keep abreast of his field. The agency was trying to arrange for his family to enter the U.S.

All the help he had received was not able to offset his deep feeling of loneliness and alienation. He also had to cope (again) with the sharp contrast between the poverty and repression in his own country and the affluence and freedom in the U.S. It made him realize the disparities that fill the world. He was not exactly bitter or angry. He just felt victimized and wondered whether there was a justice he could rely on, whether the abuses he and his family and country had suffered would ever be righted.

Generally, he had kept these feelings to himself. Until tonight. As he heard the speaker describe the anxiety and resistance of basically affluent people facing death after a comfortable life, he could think only of the many people he knew, like his parents and relatives, who suffer so much so unjustly. In their name, if nothing else, he had to speak, not to refute what was being said but to put it in a larger context. His brief comment elicited some striking reactions.

A few people responded rather defensively, saying that they knew others are oppressed, but that they didn’t feel responsible for that. They didn’t think of themselves as oppressing the rest of the world. They worked hard and did the best they could, right at home. Some of them let it be known they had never been to Europe. They barely even got a two-week vacation each year.

Others said they didn’t feel guilty either, but they did admit there is some responsibility to do what they could to help those who are oppressed. The problem often is knowing what to do. On a global scale, the issues were so many and so complex. That’s why many of the parishioners liked the idea of sponsoring one person whom they could get to know and help. That may not be much but it is something. Many people agreed with this.

But one person stated honestly that when the idea of sponsorship was first proposed, it wasn’t too appealing. It felt like one more request on an overcrowded agenda. The parish was already active in several social projects, not to mention the involvement of individuals on their own. There was only so much one person or one parish could take on.

Time for discussion was drawing to a close. The speaker politely thanked everyone and acknowledged that there had certainly been a lively discussion. Privately, she realized she had been thinking of death too narrowly and had not even considered the questions implied in the refugee’s comment. Why do so many people live and die in oppressed conditions? What can we do about it? Does our theology have anything to say about this?

Theological Question

Lying behind the discussion after the speaker’s lecture on death is the question of social responsibility. This question is posed by the fact of social injustice, oppression, and violence. What can we do? What does our Christian faith expect us to do?

The three basic reactions in the discussion typify the feelings of Christians toward these questions. There are some who feel no responsibility. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are indifferent or callused toward those who suffer. But mere awareness of social injustice does not bring with it any felt urgency to act to change the conditions that produce injustice. Unless we are directly responsible, many of us don’t feel responsible at all. The question is: Are we responsible for the suffering of others in the world?

Even those who do feel some responsibility and want to do something about injustice don’t always know what to do or how to do it. This is especially true if the problem is focused in another part of the world, but it can be in this country, or city, or community and the same question arises. Sometimes the question is just a way of avoiding responsibility, but most of the time it is a genuine concern. It is especially pressing if established channels for effecting change, like the legislative and judicial process, have been used and yielded meager or no results. Compared to the scope of the problem, small victories sometimes intensify the frustration and almost taunt continuing efforts. So the question is: What to do?

When something is done, it leads to other related problems and demands. Very quickly, those who accept and act on a social responsibility feel responsible for other problems and want to address them. As a result, they can be overwhelmed in no time with the relentless demands of social justice on their resources. In any event, to respond adequately to any social issue requires a person to be informed, to consider alternatives, to work with others, and to refrain from imposing judgments/stereotypes on those presumed to be the oppressors. In short, to respond to social injustice is a demanding and tiring and often futile task. And so the question arises: Why bother?

These three questions are tied together and related theologically to the question about God’s response to social injustice and oppression and violence. God’s response is God’s judgment, and that has to do with the future. The future as the realm of God’s judgment may be understood in two senses. One is a historical sense; the other is a final sense. In the historical sense, the future is the time still to come and what may happen in it. God’s judgment is indeed an evaluation of the past, but it is also a projection of the future, a vision of what could be and from God’s point of view what should be (if the future is to be all God sees it can be and wants it to be). In the final sense, the future is the end of time. It is the decisive event in which God’s judgment on the whole of history is rendered with the corresponding outcome, customarily described as reward and punishment.

The hope that theology articulates is that the historical future really will contain a change from our present and past experience of injustice. It is an energizing impulse to work for that future and not to grow weary or abandon it altogether. The hope that theology articulates is also that the final future will at last redress the injustices that have been perpetrated throughout history. Even if the wrongdoers are not punished, the innocent sufferers will at least be rewarded. But prior to that, hope in the historical future is stressed because that is the realm where we can still do what God expects.

The task then for theology is to respond to the questions: Are we responsible? What do we do? Why bother? Theology’s response comes from dwelling on God’s response to social injustice. This means exploring the meaning of the twofold future and the hope it generates. Is hope in the historical future sufficient to preclude a final future of punishment for social injustice?

Theological Reflection

A typical theology of the future embraces two broad approaches. Each one relates differently to our social responsibility and identifies the object or goal of hope differently. One theological understanding of the future is "the last things." These are not really things, of course, but events. They are the final, definitive events in the life of an individual or of the whole world. Up to now our attention has been focused on the last things in the lives of individuals: personal death, particular judgment, immortality, an interim state, heaven/hell, and bodily resurrection.

When the last things refer to the life of the world or history as a whole, they customarily include the second coming of Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, general judgment (eliminating an interim state and resulting in heaven or hell), and the consummation of the world. The same parallel observed in previous chapters between philosophical and biblical sources appears here also. It is the parallel between individual and social, private and public, specific and general concerns. In terms of this chapter, the interest is in the end of the world. On this point a typical theology of the last things is extremely speculative. Speculation is inevitable, as has been pointed out above, for any reflection on death. But at least in the case of personal death, we have observed people dying and we can anticipate our own death by certain vicarious experiences (like sleep, trance, ecstasy, etc.). This isn’t true for the end of the world. Individual existences end; the world does not, at least not in our experience of it.

At the same time, the biblical imagery associated with the end of the world is not very helpful. It strikes many people as fanciful and not very likely to be the way things will end (as was already noted in chapter five regarding the general resurrection). Even if this imagery is explained as a description suited to its own times, there isn’t anything comparable to put in its place. And to the degree people do accept it as a revealed account of how the world will end, it tends to draw attention to the details of these events (feeding curiosity and missing the deeper meaning).

The result of an emphasis on the last things is that social responsibility is easily avoided or put off to the absolute end. This corresponds to the attitude of those who responded to the refugee by saying they felt no responsibility for social injustice because they were not directly oppressing others. We have a tendency to leap over everything between us and the last things. The time question that arises is, when will it occur, instead of, what can we do until then to improve the world and prepare for the last things? And when preparation for the last things is addressed, it is usually in terms of personal preparation for individual salvation. The last things provide the public context in which hope for personal salvation is located.

Even the biblical account of the last judgment can be used to feed into this preoccupation with personal salvation. The decisive issue appears to be how each individual deals with other individuals who are in need, not why there are still individuals in need at the end time. The hope associated with the last things is not primarily a social hope but a private hope that is guaranteed by personal action in a setting that is somewhat social. The deeper, original social dimensions of the biblical view are eclipsed when the last things are interpreted in such a highly individualistic way.

A second theological understanding of the future tries to be more integrally social. In this approach, the future is used to interpret the present. The future is not concentrated at the end, as with the last things, waiting to happen. Rather, the future is active; it exerts a genuine influence on the present. The future that does this is the future God has allowed us to glimpse in the divine activity in our previous history. Those events in which God gives us this glimpse form the core of salvation history from its origins down to the present day.

Thus, the future as interpretation is a collective vision, drawn from certain privileged experiences in the past. This vision is not just a memory of what has been. It is a view of what can be. This view is realistic (rather than utopian or illusory) because it is based on what actually has happened, but the future viewed in this way is not intended to be a repetition of what has happened. It is that privileged past projected beyond the particular factors and limitations of the past. Because the future does not have such limitations, it frees the experience of the past to become a new vision for the present. In this sense, the future interprets the present; it sketches the favored possibilities that the present can enact.

There are important implications in this view for social responsibility. The past events that are favored or privileged glimpses into God’s vision of the future are usually events of liberation from various forms of oppression, injustice, violence. These events give rise to a future permeated by God’s social concern and social commitment. That awareness alone underscores the value and necessity of social engagement, thereby reinforcing those who feel some social responsibility.

In addition, the vision of God projected into the future may also shed light on what can or should be done to alleviate current social problems. Both of these aspects were expressed by the second group of parishioners who responded to the refugee; they felt their social responsibility (and maybe needed that feeling reinforced) but didn’t know what to do. The future as interpretation of the present aims at addressing both concerns.

But there are difficulties with this approach. The concrete meaning of "future" in this case is hard to specify, at least in a way that can be translated into social programs and action. It all remains fairly nebulous and perhaps not very useable practically. Partly for this reason a second difficulty arises. The specific content of the future that interprets the present is drawn from events of the past (whether the recent or the remote past). But these events must be interpreted too; indeed, a decision must be made about which are the privileged events. The glimpse of God’s activity in these past events is just that, a glimpse. It needs elaboration, and the elaboration is prey to some infiltration of our own biases and preferences. This often means that our contentment with the status quo (especially if we benefit from it) takes over and interprets the future in such a way that it will confirm the present. Sometimes, too, it happens that people try to do all at once everything that the future holds out. This can give rise to the attitude described by some as being saturated, overworked, burned out. So even if the general account of this understanding of the future is accurate, it is very difficult to make that account more specific and to keep our own prejudices out when doing so.

How would a relational approach view our social responsibility and what sort of theological understanding of the future does it provide? In a thoroughly relational view, everything is related to everything else, and these relations are established through actual experiences or events. These two aspects contain important implications for social responsibility that may be stated as: There are no purely private acts, and nothing is determined until it is determined. The first point underlines our inescapable social responsibility; the second point emphasizes our power of freedom.

To say there are no purely private acts may seem to contradict our own experience. There are many things we do or think or feel that no one else knows about. And to some degree we can keep such things secret or withhold any public expression of them. Everything we do, however, is actual and has some effect outside of ourselves. In chapters one and two this was explained In terms of God’s fully experiencing our experience and drawing from it all the possibilities for continued experience that each event generates. These possibilities are then offered to us by God as the continuum from which we create our next experience. This is already a public carry-over of our every private act. God’s involvement guarantees that nothing remains entirely enclosed within our own world of experience.

The way this activity of God is communicated and experienced in the public realm will vary quite a bit. In general, what happens is that everything that actually constitutes a person’s experience generates an influence that may be compared to a field or environment. We can often feel or sense this about another person without knowing very much specifically. We speak of "picking up the vibes," or gauging "the climate" of a meeting or encounter, or sensing "the mood" of a group, etc. All these expressions reflect the fact that something is being generated by and among people.

That something is not necessarily an intentional sharing of a person’s ideas or feelings or experiences. For example, after the speaker finished her lecture, there was a certain mood in the group. That mood was the result of all the feelings and reactions and thoughts that the lecture had generated in the people present. Their reactions may have been private, but they were not purely private.

Likewise, when the refugee spoke, there were responses, even though at first they were not verbalized or clearly expressed in any other way. The spoken reactions sharpened and perhaps intensified the mood of the group, but the mood was already there before the words were spoken. And that is the point. Whatever we feel, it inevitably extends beyond our innermost selves no matter how hard we try to keep it suppressed. This does not mean that our private acts are always clearly and fully perceived by others. In fact, quite the opposite is the case.

It requires a good bit of attention usually to pick up, to sense, to enter into the environment generated by others. This is due to many factors. Sometimes we’re more attentive to our own feelings and just aren’t open to what others are generating. Sometimes we expect one kind of feeling (because of previous experience or biases or preconditioning) and don’t sense what is really there. Sometimes the others are repressing or faking or distorting their private experiences. They may do this for all kinds of reasons, in all kinds of ways, and with all degrees of success. So we may not perceive accurately the environment that others’ private experiences generate, but those experiences do generate an environment and it does influence us in one way or another. This is because everything is related to everything else in a relational view.

From this point of view, our social responsibility is inescapable. Everything we experience inevitably contributes to a social environment, i.e., to our feeling about the larger world we inhabit. And this feeling-for the larger world is the indispensable foundation for any eventual social action. This point overlaps with the explanation of original and social sin in chapter two. Negative, defensive, resistant feelings, like those expressed by some of the parishioners, contribute in that way to the environment that we inhabit and live in together. Even if those feelings are not expressed in some obvious, overt way, they are there and their influence is felt, and that is what social responsibility is about at its most primal level.

The other side of this, of course, is the environment generated by feelings of concern, compassion, justice, involvement, change, etc., like those expressed by some of the other parishioners. These feelings have their influence too, whether expressed explicitly or not. In fact, these feelings have an intrinsically greater influence because they are more like the feelings of God disclosed in the privileged events that give us a glimpse into God’s future. Thus, they have a higher valuation in God’s scheme of things and allow God to draw out more of the best possibilities for future enactment.

But because all of this is at a rather nebulous level of experience, it seems to many people to be either wishful, romantic thinking or weak by comparison with the tough, pragmatic, hard-nosed realism of action. There is a point here. To concentrate exclusively on being in touch with the mood or climate or feeling-for the world in any given situation is not yet relating to that world in a full, actual sense. This is where the power of freedom enters in.

The most free acts and the most powerful are those that actualize the aim which God offers as the best in any situation. How do we know what the best aim is? Ordinarily, it requires some real attending to the mood or climate of the situation. The feelings generated by the immediate, just-now-completed events are the best indicator of what God sees as the next best possibility. This may seem to undercut the value of objective norms and principles for right conduct. It is not intended to do that.

Stated principles and norms, what we call objective truth or morality, are an expression of the very feelings described above. These are privileged articulations, on a general level, of what we may expect to be in touch with concretely when we are in an actual, "live" situation. Put the other way around, our discernment of God’s view in the concrete is experienced as feeling-for God’s aim in the midst of all the variable factors and messages and possibilities in the same concrete situation. It is not a question of clear, objective norms versus ambiguous, experiential feeling, but rather a question of the interplay between the two. Both are allies working for the sake of the best, as God sees it, in every case. Together they can shape actiondecisions that more closely approximate God’s vision.

This is power -- the power to enter a situation openly, assuming as little as possible in this actual circumstance but grasping, sensing, feeling-for what God offers as the best possibility. This is free be-cause it is not predetermined; it is powerful because it leads to actiondecisions that define this experience and thereby generate new possibilities for the future. These possibilities are more or less what they could be in God’s view, depending on our actual decisions. Thus, we have power regarding the future; we decide what kind of environment we shall fashion and move into.

The ultimate failure of social responsibility is not to believe in our power and not to act on our freedom. That disbelief is made easier when we don’t attend very carefully or regularly to the environment being generated all around us. Admittedly, this presentation gives us no concrete suggestions for how to discern more accurately God’s vision, or how to spell out more strategically the steps to be taken to enact that vision. These are indispensable follow-on moments. The point of the discussion here is that a relational view affirms and explains both our social responsibility and the power we have to choose freely how we shall shape the social environment that we inhabit. There are no purely private acts, and nothing is determined until it is determined. How we determine/actualize the possibilities that our social responsibility generates depends in part on how we view the future.

In a relational approach, our understanding of the future as "the last things" is virtually impossible. This is because of the essential conviction that whatever is actual is in relationship, and relationship is understood as event, occurrence, making definite what is possible. So it is a contradiction in terms for a relational world to cease being in relation, i.e., to cease becoming altogether. This does not rule out the possibility, however, that the type of relationships we now experience could reach the level of a new type of relationship. What that may be we cannot say. What we can say is that any such development would have to be a true development, an outgrowth that is in real continuity with the nature of relating as we now experience it. Otherwise, we would be talking about a new kind of reality that relational categories would be inappropriate or inadequate to explain.

From a consistently relational point of view, even if there are radical developments and variations, there is no absolute end, no last things in the sense of a complete halt to relational experience. There is rather an indefinite continuing of the relational world that has been described up to this point. This leads to a very open-ended notion of the future. In fact, the only end point would seem to be our concept of the future itself. That is, we are bounded by or are heading toward that future which our experience of the past enables us to foresee. This is very compatible with the second theological understanding of the future described above.

One of the things a relational view would stress about the future seen in this way is that it is determined by the interaction of many forces. The future of just a single event is all the possibilities that event generates. These are perceived differently by all those in touch with that event and therefore enacted differently. The variety of perceptions and enactments means that the future of this one event is never a single, controlling, exclusive possibility. When this fact is extended to all the events that comprise our actual existence until now, the complexity of the future is staggering. To be sure, most of us tend to identify one or two strands of experience that we use to envision our future and enact our present. But if we take into account the total picture, it leads to a proliferation of possible futures, all of which coexist both in vision and in action.

This reinforces the importance of our freedom and the decisiveness of our choices. We are free to see what the future can be and therefore what the present can contribute to it. Our vision is not entirely left up to our own imagination. It is conditioned by the actual past, and that includes God’s part in the past. All the possible futures are included in God’s perfect knowledge of the past, but not all possible futures are equally desirable or valuable. God will not, however, force the divine vision on us or force us to enact it. Our freedom is real and God’s commitment to relationship consistent.

What this all means is that relational theology orients us to review again and again God’s vision of the future, to become so familiar with is that it hones our instincts and sensitivities and feelings for what God sees as our best future. That future is not our only option, but it is our best option. It opens our eyes to what can be done in the present and where those decisions will lead. It puts into our hands once more the power to determine how extensive or how narrow, how inclusive or how exclusive, how free or how limited the future is.

In order to stay in touch with the privileged expressions of God’s view of the future, Christians return to the life of Jesus. Given the particular focus of this book, that means looking in a relational way at the death of Jesus and trying to see in that event the future that God prizes most of all. This will be done in the next chapter. If that vision can be made clear, then the possibility for enacting that future may be more attractive and the ultimate meaning of death may be seen.

Practical Implication

The observations of the refugee after the speaker’s talk brought home the reality of our social responsibility. The reactions of the parishioners highlighted three further questions: Are we responsible? What can we do? Why bother? The relational view presented here responds to those questions by showing the inherent social responsibility all our experiences carry with them and by urging that careful attention be given to cultivating our feeling-for the future that God envisions, given the actual events of the past. In such a view, the typical theology of the last things virtually disappears, and the future appears as an ongoing, open-ended perception of what can actually be.

There are two practical implications of this view that need to be addressed. If there are no last things, no definitive conclusion to the world-history process, what happens to the conviction that justice will finally be done at the end and that all wrongs will be righted? Doesn’t an open-ended view also increase the sense of futility in trying to change things for the better? Our efforts seem so ineffective, so incapable of reversing the magnitude of social suffering in the world. Both questions are serious challenges to the relational view described here.

There is no doubt that the prospect of a final day of reckoning has sustained many persons in the midst of unjust suffering and persecution. The sustenance has come from the belief that ultimately there is a God in control who will vindicate the innocent and requite the guilty, who will redress the wrongs and punish wrongdoers, who will restore justice and wipe away every tear. Is all of this discarded? Not really.

The significant difference in a relational view is that God alone is not ultimately in control. God-with-us, God-in-relation to us is ultimately in control. God can do only what can be done with us. God will not do what we will not do with God. God simply doesn’t act unilaterally in a relational world. At the same time, God cannot be overcome by any contrary force because God draws whatever good there is from every situation. This is the relational understanding of what it means that God is "in control." God’s control is not to impose or dictate or usurp or destroy. God’s control is to keep relationships happening and to keep offering the best possibility for every relationship. The control is persuasive, luring, suggestive, visionary, creative.

Where does that leave the innocent victims of injustice? It leaves them, by virtue of their innocent suffering, closer to the heart of God’s deepest relationship to the world. This will be explained in the next chapter in connection with Jesus’ death. The same point is affirmed in Scripture regarding the privileged position of the poor, and it has been reaffirmed forcefully in recent liberation theology. This claim for the privileged status of the poor is sometimes connected with the vindication at the end of the world as customarily understood.

The same privileged status of the oppressed can be explained relationally apart from the end of the world, in terms of the congruence of their experience and God’s. The degree of congruence between their experience and God’s means, in a relational view, that God draws the best possibilities for the future from their experience more than from the experience of others. And in light of the previous discussions of immortality, resurrection, and judgment, their sense of being for the world with God may be greater than that of most of us. In a way, this could be interpreted as a kind of vindication or reward at the end of their lives, even if it is not the end of the world as such, If taken this way, their reward does not mean a separation from the world but a more God-like relation to the world. And that is the ultimate reward that God can and wants to give in a relational perspective.

This brief discussion touches on the relational response to the other question about the success or futility of efforts to change the world. It is understandable that we measure our efforts in terms of discernible success. But in a relational view, this is a secondary criterion. The primary criterion is the intrinsic quality of one’s experience in trying to improve the world. This means the degree of unity with God’s priorities in every situation, whether or not the outcome is "successful" in terms of limited, specific results. Being-with God and freely feeling the future as God does is never futile or unsuccessful.

This is another instance of trying to maintain the correct priority. God is primary. Our identification with God’s relationship to the world is primary. All else is secondary -- not insignificant nor worthless nor negligible. As secondary, all else flows from and is enacted in order to make complete God’s vision of the future. No enactment is futile if it flows in this way from an actual union with God. And that is why we should bother.