Hell is losing your job six months short of 30 years, with no parachute, no shiny new gold watch and not so much as a "thank you" as you walk out the door. It's payments you can't make on a house you can't sell, as your kids watch their parents split apart.
You don't have to die to go to hell.
That's one tale Brad Paisley tells in his newest album, "This is Country Music." It's his best work yet. When I first heard the song "A Man Don't Have to Die," it felt like a punch in the gut. Sometimes the best country music lyrics can do that.
It reminds me that my silence about the economic realities confronting working people is cowardly and my perspective on faith needs serious readjustment.
The song is written in reaction to the arrival of a new preacher who is warning people about hell. But Paisley counters, "We already know that hell exists."
It reminds me of John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, who preached in the streets as England industrialized in the 1700s. He went to working people -- miners in the coalfields of Newcastle and the desperately poor who were left out of the Industrial Revolution. They all lived below government-defined poverty levels.
He spoke to them of personal and social holiness. He told them personal faith and social responsibility cannot be separated. And he asked them to care for each other.
He did not point them to a better life afterward, but he pointed them toward making life better now. To Wesley, the gospel was not palliative; it was prophetic and down-to-earth practical.
As a result, the people called Methodist responded, perhaps because few others cared about them. Though they were cash poor, Wesley admonished every one of them to contribute at least a penny for the aid of others. And they did!
Over time, however, the hard edge of social responsibility got rounded off and smoothed down with preaching about individual piety and comfort. Methodists grew in wealth and status. Today, few -- including me -- in this faith community speak the language of working people and the poor or stand with them. We speak about the poor, but we are not of the poor as the early Methodists.
As for speaking the language of working people, seminary education took it away from me, and organizational minutiae turned my focus inward toward institutional concerns.
What is needed ...
Working people and the poor are among the hidden casualties of the global economic crisis. In the U.S., 28 million people are unemployed or forced into part-time jobs that don't pay enough to sustain them.
Paisley speaks to them, but not as Wesley did. This powerful song goes where country music has always gone when it comes to religion -- angels and the hereafter. And that's not what is needed.
What's needed is concern for the here and now. Wesley said everyone in every society is a child of God and deserves to be treated as such, according to United Methodist scholar Richard P. Heitzenrater.
Faith isn't about reaping rewards in the hereafter; it's about entering into the reign of God now.
God's love is for all
We are loved of God, and called by God to love and care for each other. This connects faith to justice and places on us responsibility to ensure that everyone is treated with the dignity Gods intends for us all.
Paisley drove me to Wesley. And Wesley helped me see the need to step out of my parochial, institutional concerns and broaden the definition of community to include everyone from the top to the bottom of the economic scale.
No one -- not the immigrant, chronically ill, unemployed, divorced, gay, straight, man, woman or child -- stands outside this all-encompassing love and claim of dignity.
If a man doesn't need to die to go to hell, it's also true that no one is left out of God's kingdom. It's already established. We simply must live so that our lives reveal it.
I am very interested in how people are living it today. If you have an example of living our lives with social responsibility -- or if you have experienced hell in some way -- please share your story with me by providing a comment.