Saturday, April 20, 2024

Donald Trump campaigns for president in 2015. (Original photo: John Rothwell via Flickr)

One sign of the pall hanging over America since President Donald Trump took office is an uptick in the reading of dystopian novels. Classics such as George Orwell’s “1984,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here” and my favorite, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (also adapted into a hit show on Hulu) are all horrifyingly prescient of an era in which Trump aide Kellyanne Conway uses the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts” to signal the inconsequentiality of truth.

Our devouring of these tomes is a search for answers to a frightening new normal – and so is a steady stream of queries about the afterlife.

The afterlife refers to a soul or spirit living beyond their physical body. There is also the belief that choices and actions can result in a soul residing – based on divine judgment – in heaven or hell, places of reward or punishment. Many folks, religious and nonreligious, feel that if there is indeed a hell, Trump will unquestionably be going there.

With Trump appearing to be invincible and unstoppable in eroding fundamental freedoms and protections for disenfranchised, vulnerable and historically marginalized populations, his nativist spirit of patriotism and isolationist rhetoric to “Make America Great Again” and now in nominating a Supreme Court justice who could shape the law for generations, questions about the afterlife speak not only about social anxiety but, sadly, about hopelessness.

As a minister in this Trump era, I’ve been receiving lots of queries about the afterlife.

What do you believe will happen in the afterlife? Are we as the human race going to be okay? Should I worry about what’s going to happen to me after death? My girlfriend who believes in god but struggles with what to believe in exactly, is she going to be okay? I need your help, or at least some insight into what I should be doing, praying for, anything.

Many religions create theologies with elaborative and fictive narratives of reward and punishment systems as a form of social control, including the Christian concept of heaven and hell. I don’t think after death one is likely to go to heaven or hell. Sadly, Trump gets off the hook. 

I do, however, believe in a living hell: The crushing setbacks, grinding poverty, racial, gender, sexual orientation and religious profiling that many Americans such as myself confront and navigate daily.

Belief in an afterlife can create complacency and indifference to present social justice issues and crimes against humanity such as the Holocaust, slavery, lynching and the immigration crisis at the border between Mexico and the United States. 

The belief in a Christian afterlife was passed on to my enslaved African ancestors as a form of social control to maintain the status quo of perpetual servitude. The indoctrination of a joyous and jubilant afterlife wasn’t to make them better Christians, but obedient, subservient slaves.

For the slaves, though, the concept functioned as an eschatological hope and aspiration that future generations would have a fulfilled life that current generations could purportedly experience only in death. Belief in an afterlife was a coded critique of the denial of liberty and pursuit of happiness they faced.

Today, people across the country and world have taken to the streets in protest, with social justice and pro-democracy organizations employing intersectional approaches to stem the regressive laws of the administration and highlighting an urgent need to speak up like the Rev. Martin Niemöller, a Protestant pastor who was an outspoken public foe of Adolf Hitler. Many know his world-renowned quote: “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out – Because I was not a socialist …”

Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders, remade Niemoller’s famous verse in “Resistance and Solidarity in the Era Trump” in the Boston Pride Guide 2017. In speaking out against the normalization of hate and prejudice, Wu, like Niemöller, points out today’s targets:

“When they come for immigrants, they come for LGBTQ people. When they come for women, they come for LGBTQ people. When they come for Muslims, they come for LGBTQ people. And the inverse is true: when they come for LGBTQ people, they come for everyone.”

While many Americans might feel fatigued from the dramas emerging daily from the White House and turn without hope to thoughts of an afterlife, we can alter the dystopia Trump is imposing by living in the moment, and fighting back optimistically. One way is to vote in November.

There are materials presenting evidence of an afterlife, such as the New York Times best-seller “Proof of Heaven” by Harvard-trained neurosurgeon Eben Alexander. But the concept – real or imagined – can deprive us of living fully present in this life, missing its small miracles, random acts of kindness and the beauty of a sunrise and sunset in a single day.

The Rev. Irene Monroe is a speaker, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.