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Monday, March 2, 2015

Heaven Is Irrelevant – Making Heaven on Earth

In his 1969 book Black Theology & Black Power, James H. Cone made a powerful and provocative statement that I’m sure many of my colleagues and fellow Salvationists would find shocking – though we should not.

Cone wrote: “The idea of heaven is irrelevant for Black Theology (125).” This must buck against many years of ingrained teaching. Christians talk all the time about heaven, and especially about going to heaven someday, after we die.

And this, for Cone, is where Christian theology has gone wrong – to use heaven someday as the reward for a submissive, docile life in the here and now. “Be good,” we are told.  “Accept the trouble of this world, for there is heaven to look forward to.” But Cone will have nothing to do with that ‘pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by” kind of theology. “Radical obedience to Christ means that reward cannot be the motive for action. It is a denial of faith to insist on the relevance of the reward” (Cone 125).

For Cone, and his theology of black power, eschatology cannot be concerned merely with the salvation of the soul, for individual rescue from this evil world but must be about turning our future expectations into present realities (126).  And as a member of The Salvation Army, I don’t find this shocking at all. Our founder and first General, William Booth said, “Making heaven on earth is our business.”

In 1909 he wrote To My Officers: A Letter from The General on His Eightieth Birthday, in which he wrote the following:

I want you to stand up more boldly and firmly than you ever have done for the great object for which God has made you Salvation Army Officers…it consists in any intelligent, practical partnership with God in the great business of saving the world.
This you may take to be:
1 The putting down of the rebellion of man against the Divine government.
2 The expulsion of all wrongdoing from the earth.
3 The dethronement of the devils that now occupy the hearts of men.
4 The universal acceptance of men of Jesus Christ as their sovereign Lord.
5 The bringing about of the reign of righteousness, and the obedience of the entire race to the law of love.
There can be no possible room for doubt in your minds, as to the object being the Divinely appointed end at which as Salvation Army Officers, you are to aim (Green 64).

For Booth, as for Cone, there can be no acquiescence to “the way things are” in Christianity.  If the systems and structures of this world oppress and degrade human beings, they are to be torn down and replaced with something new, something better. Oppressive systems are to be dethroned, and the rule of love to be established in their place.

I am not interested in “going to heaven” when I die. That heaven is irrelevant. I want to see heaven made in the here and now in this present world. That is my business as a Salvation Army officer.  That is my business as a follower of Christ.

Cone, James H. Black Theology & Black Power San Francisco.  Harper San Francisco, 1969.
Green, Roger J. War on Two Fronts: The Redemptive Theology of William Booth. Atlanta, Georgia.  The Salvation Army Supplies, 1989.

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