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Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

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Should Donald Rumsfeld Go to Hell?

Posted: 03/ 4/11 12:00 AM ET

Jon Stewart made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to get former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to admit the Iraq War was a colossal mistake sold by lies. Unlike Robert McNamara who offered a too-little, too-late mea culpa about Vietnam, Rumsfeld did his best to dodge all culpability for a bad war. He claimed, instead, that he was a victim of "overwhelming success." If Saddam had not fallen so overwhelmingly fast and our military had been better prepared to take over, he asserted, things would have gone better for us.

Many believe Rumsfeld is a war criminal and ought to be tried as such. The absence of sorrow or regret for the hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed by his decisions makes one wonder about Rumsfeld's basic humanity. I know veterans of this war who have a better sense of personal responsibility for moral culpability and are clearly better human beings than the civilian leaders who ordered them to sacrifice their lives.

Like McNamara, I think Rumsfeld and the rest of the administration that mired us in Iraq will live out their lives in rich comfort, protected from prosecution and surrounded by like-minded supporters. They will never, in this life, suffer the legal consequences of having launched an illegal, immoral, unjust and unwise war, which is what most religious leaders, including the last Pope, called it.

It's really, really tempting to want to believe in hell for Rumsfeld and his ilk, whether we're religious or not. It can be comforting to believe that these men will suffer the moral consequences of their behavior at some point.

Actually, the idea of hell emerged via Zoroastrianism about three millennia ago, for exactly this purpose: to assert that the politically rich and powerful were judged by a moral authority higher than their political might. Hell affirmed that power does not decide what is right, only justice and love are right. The kings and emperors might get away with inflicting horrors on their own people and behaving abominably, but they would pay eventually, and they would pay forever. Christianity inherited the idea of hell via post-Babylonian Exile Judaism, when the Zoroastrian Persian King Cyrus liberated the captives in 538 B.C.E. and funded the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its Temple. He's the first person in the Bible to be called a Messiah, and the first biblical reference to an afterlife and judgment occurs after that time in the book of Daniel.

The New Testament has a scant half dozen references to similar ideas, all in the context of moral judgments. My favorite is this one from Luke 16:19-31:

"There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. ... The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish...' He said, 'Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father's house [to warn my five brothers] so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets; ...If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

The rich man remains in torment because he remains clueless as to why he is there. He remains so hard-hearted that he treats poor Lazarus as a lackey for his comfort and for the salvation of his rich brothers, not as someone he should respect and treat justly.

Hell actually doesn't play much of a role in Christian thinking for a millennium. Instead, early Christians tended to think in terms of restorative justice. They expected people to be generous so churches could take care of everyone, even the poor who did not belong to them. Those who committed major sins -- even emperors -- like killing another human being or betraying the faith and who still wanted to stay in the church were required to confess to the whole community so everyone could pray for them, support them in making amends, hold them accountable for getting better and encourage their change of heart. They called this system of therapy and rehabilitation "penance," and penitents were allowed to be in the community in a limited way, like a group under quarantine, because their broken souls needed repair and they required special attention from the community. When it seemed they were ready, penitents were welcomed back. This process restored people to just and moral relationships, and the support of the community was crucial to their success.

A major role for hell emerged in tandem with the idea of holy war during the time of the first Crusades in the 11th century. I suggest in my book Saving Paradise that, in this era, Christian leaders betrayed the church's core teachings about divine love and redemption. Pope Urban II launched the first Crusade in 1095; in his inaugural sermon for holy war, he promised people who took up the cross and went to Jerusalem to kill infidels that, if they died, their sins would be instantly forgiven. He said they would go directly to heaven and bypass purgatory. In effect, the Pope changed killing from a mortal sin that required penance into the best form of penance to avoid hell. People were taught a piety of intense fear of hell and of self-punishment as a way to avoid it. What is most interesting about hell in this period is that it expands from being a moral judgment about the behavior of people who share a common tradition, as in Luke, to being a place where nonbelievers also go, moral or not.

Most progressive Christians don't believe in hell. Christian Universalism in the 19th century believed that Jesus came to save the whole world. We were all going to be in heaven together and we should learn to get along now so it would be better in heaven. Universalism was quite popular then, and its ideas still have a lot of influence. They are grounded in the belief that love is more powerful than fear, and a God of love can transform even the most evil person. Evangelical leader Rob Bell, in a forthcoming book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived, has already begun to be excoriated as a heretic by hard-right Christians. Evidently, he wants to see Gandhi in heaven and his opponents do not.

So, as much as it might make emotional sense to want Rumsfeld punished for all eternity in hell, I think, if we can imagine an afterlife at all, he, especially, should be in heaven. He will have all eternity to meet every man, woman and child he has harmed, face to face, to hear their stories, and to feel the anguish he caused. He will face an accurate mirror that shows him who he truly was. And the love of God, which I believe is the power that sustains and restores our humanity, will give us all an indefinite amount of time to repair his broken soul and melt his hard heart.

As a Christian, I'm an agnostic about the afterlife. I think something of us might endure after physical death, but I don't spend any time worrying about it. However, how we imagine the afterlife says something about our values and how we live in this life. Fear is not my reason for being a Christian. Neither do I want bad people punished--held accountable for their behavior and expected to make amends, but not punished for the sake of punishment. For example, I'd like to see all the bandits on Wall Street forced to pay back the money they made so it can go to the poor. The formerly obscenely wealthy might find it transformative to live the rest of their lives on minimum wage.

If there is a heaven, I think we'll all be there. I'm not looking forward to the hard emotional work restorative justice requires of all of us, since I will also have to face those I have wronged in my life. But I'm looking forward to talking to Gandhi.