I Peter 1:3-9
Passages like this one from I Peter that speak about heaven have been misused by Christianity’s critics for a long time. I’m thinking especially of those who declare that the Christian faith is a smokescreen for keeping oppressed people quiet by promising a reward in the world to come. In fact, the expression “pie in the sky” comes from a song by Joe Hill that parodies the gospel tune
“In the sweet bye-and-bye
we will meet on that beautiful shore.”
Joe Hill’s song is called “The Preacher and the Slave”, and you can guess which one of them is speaking in the chorus when it says,
“You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.”
Another heavyweight, though one without a sense of tune or rhythm, started but didn’t finish writing a little piece called A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. It had a catchy little phrase that goes,
“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
The writer of that one was Karl Marx.
What I find interesting is that I don’t have a problem with at least the first two parts of that, and I don’t think that the writer of I Peter would, either. Religion may very well be the heart of a heartless world. I look at places where there has been an effort to eradicate religion, sometimes in the name of Karl Marx’s ideas, and “heartless” is a kind word for the world that produces.
I know a woman who survived the “killing fields” of Cambodia, when the Khmer Rouge brutalized their own people in ways that were totally inhuman. One story she told me was about how they outlawed salt. To possess it was a sign of ties to the outside world and brought you under suspicion of treason. Suspicion alone was enough to have someone killed. Without some salt, though, especially in the tropics, people also die. Her family had one jar of salt, which they had to keep buried, and from time to time they would be given a small pinch. It was never put on food because there was little or no food to put it onto. In a situation like that, how would someone hear Jesus’ words telling people that they are “the salt of the earth”? Wouldn’t that tell them that, far from being the expendable units that the government said they were, they were something precious and worthy of protection? They are themselves God’s treasure,
“who are being protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, even if now for a little while you have had to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith—being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” [I Peter 3:5-7]
As to being the “soul of a soulless world”, again I would say, “Yes. That is exactly what religion often is. And what, exactly, is wrong with that?” Great art, great music, incredible architecture have been inspired by religion. Yes, there is a problem when those things are created at the expense of the poor. I agree that there is something obscene about a cathedral covered in gold and silver that sits in the middle of a slum. On the other hand, human beings have souls that need beauty the way that their bodies need food. Yes, God provides that for us in a dandelion that pushes up between the cracks of a sidewalk or the sound of rain in the leaves. He also provides it in the sense of color that comes alive when the sunlight passes through stained glass or the excitement expressed by a tambourine, whether it’s the one that Miriam played by the Red Sea where she led the women of Israel in a dance to celebrate their freedom [Exodus 15:20] or one that is played in the fourth pew from the front on the right at a Pentecostal church in Tennessee.
When Marx calls religion “the opium of the people” or “the opiate of the masses”, however, he implies that it is merely (and I emphasize that word “merely”) a means of escaping harsh realities. Frankly, that’s a little condescending. Just because people find comfort in their faith does not mean it’s an escape. In fact, it often is a means of confronting and bearing up under conditions that cannot be changed. To give him his due, Marx had some compassion for the workers of his day who lived and worked in demeaning and grinding poverty without much real chance of escape, no matter how hard or how long they worked. What he missed is that God is the guarantor of all that is good. Take away what you will from people now, God will restore it one way or another, and there are some things that you will never be able to take from them, because they are in God’s own care.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by the power of God through faith…” [I Peter 3:3-5]
One of the things we see in the resurrection is exactly the promise that there are things that cannot be taken away. An innocent man is innocent, even if Pilate declares him guilty. Someone who dies with words of forgiveness on his lips is someone whose holiness has been untouched by the cruelty to which he has been exposed. The highest and most Christlike traits in anyone are honored, too, by God. It doesn’t matter what anyone else says, because in the end our most important relationship is not with any human being, no matter how rightly and how deeply we love them or are loved by them, but with God as revealed to us in Jesus, crucified and risen.
“Although you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, for you are receiving the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” [I Peter 3:8-9]