How and When – If Ever – Will the Lives We Lead Be Judged?

Today’s post was prompted by a lengthy article titled “A Theology of the Present Moment,” by novelist Marilynne Robinson.  It appeared in the December 22, 2022 issue of the New York Review of Books. Her piece is an intellectually challenging discussion of the interplay between science and religion; I had to read it at least twice in order to begin to understand what she was getting at. It’s been worth the effort.

Marilynne Robinson

But here’s the part that jumped out at me. She sets the stage for it by recounting, from Genesis, the story of Joseph. He is sold into slavery by his brothers, but later on he comes to great power in Egypt and forgives them. They had evil intent. God turned it around and made it good. Robinson sums it up by saying “One cruel prank opened into a major event in the history of the world.”

She goes on to make some grim observations that everybody might do well to keep in mind today:

“Most people in the world would say their lives are insignificant, historically speaking, but it might be prudent to consider whether the relative blamelessness that is assumed to come with insignificance can be relied upon. We are not competent to decide how much we matter in the long term.

“One of my favorite Puritans – the seventeenth-century divine John Flavel – said that we will be judged twice, once when we die and once when everything we have said or done has had its final effect. Whisper a cruel rumor – who knows what force it will acquire if it lives.”

A little later, she quotes the apostle James: “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.”

And from there, she recounts “Over centuries slanders have burned heretics and witches, launched pogroms and inquisitions, inspired lynchings and purges. Now we have grown used to hearing Americans calling Americans demons, Satanists, and pedophiles – utterly damning language, abetted by the Internet but not qualitatively different from the language that fueled the great fires of hatred and fear that mar and disgrace Western history.”

“We can see with our own eyes how exciting this conflagration is to many people in this country, even while it threatens to consume democracy, root and branch. Our children and their children will grow up in a country much changed by this, not for the better. The most effective polemicist of the day is legislating for our descendants. And anyone who gives force to his or her word will be liable to that second judgment. These crimes are collective, and a nod or silence is complicity.”

Whew! There’s a good deal of truthful insight here, and as I noted above it’s good to keep these observations in mind. But talk about a worst-case scenario. Is this the whole story?

Thankfully, it’s not the whole story.

We can’t summarily dismiss Marilynne’s dark vision. She’s right in saying that, while we might think our own lives are insignificant, we just don’t know what effects even our seemingly small deeds and casually-spoken words can have in the immediate moment and very far into the future.  She also seems to be right that we’ll all be liable to that “second judgment.” But that second judgment won’t inevitably damn us all to hell. In fact, the perpetually-revising second judgments will continually boost many of us to ever-higher places in the heavenly spheres. 

I state this with confidence, for two reasons: my work as a Holocaust educator, and my wife Mary Ellen’s work as an elementary school teacher.

Let’s take the more complex one first, the Holocaust. My research for Mary Wygodski’s biography, Evil Must Not Have the Last Word,  led me to develop an adult-education course that I’ve delivered at least a dozen times over the past four years or so. In that course, I devote considerable time to stories of The Righteous Gentiles, those people who risked all they had to shield and save Jewish victims of the Nazis.

The Holocaust, the organized murder of six million Jews, was one of those great fires of hatred and fear that Marilynne Robinson speaks of. But not everyone in the countries where it happened was a participant; not everyone was silently complicit. As of January, 2022, Israel’s Yad Vashem Remembrance Center had identified and documented 28,217 individuals who saved the life of at least one Jewish person. In most cases, it was more than one Jew whose life was saved by each of those righteous folks.

Just think about it. Here we are, three generations later. The descendants of those who were saved now number in the hundreds of thousands. The “second judgment meter” is still running for the rescuers. It will never stop, really. And I can only imagine that it’s running in a positive direction.

There’s one more point to be made about these rescuers and righteous: they were all so ordinary, so unimpressive by any earthly measure.  As Marilynne might describe them, they were “insignificant.”

Here’s just one example.  Poland, the country that lost three million of its 3.3 million Jews, can also claim 7,232 righteous gentiles. That’s more than any other country, by far. Yad Vashem was able to document the professions of around 2,000 of them. The largest category? Peasants and foresters, numbering 1,266. None of the fourteen other categories even had 100 members.

It was the poor, property-less people in Poland who saved at least ten thousand lives, and probably more. Maybe they, too, thought their own lives were insignificant. How wrong they would be to think that.

The other thing that came to mind, the life and 30+-year teaching career of Mary Ellen, brought back a glow of pride in what my son Matthew wrote about her when she died three years ago. I posted the full text on this blog site, and you can read it here.

Matt’s mention of a Buddhist religious belief was very close to Marilynne Robinson’s point about the two judgments.   He wrote, “…this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.”

Matt wasn’t talking solely about us, the members of the immediate family and Mary Ellen’s close friends. He also wrote of some 770 former grade-school children.  They’re all adults now, or close to adulthood. It will be at least 60 years before the last of them passes away. Probably longer.

So, my beloved wife will be alive in the Buddhist tradition for decades to come. And I’m further comforted in knowing that the second judgment she will face will not come for many years after that, if ever. I know how she shaped so many lives for the better, how she launched innumerable careers in the best way imaginable. That second judgment will be a joyous coronation for her.

Where am I going with all this? I’m finished, so it’s better to ask where I’ve been. I guess I’m happy with the way this piece turned out. I found a silver lining in the dark storm clouds that Marilynne Robinson’s perceptive assessment pointed out. And she wasn’t entirely negative in that assessment. She does point out that “the beauty of this view of things [the idea of two judgments] is that it acknowledges the reach and potency of our lives, for good or for ill.” She’s right in the points she makes. So, I think, am I, in seeking that silver lining.

All those little things that we say and do every day will be echoing down through the years.  Let’s do our best to assure that those echoes are sweet and pleasant ones, and that the second judgment we face will be a favorable one

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