I live in the poorest census tract in a poor city. The downtown area where I live is pretty nice, but just outside downtown the poverty is inescapable. As is often the case in poor neighborhoods, there is a noticeable abundance of churches.
I find the intersection of poverty and faith interesting, and on Sunday began what will be a series where I will explore a new church in the area every week. Last Sunday, I attended a small black church called New Hope, sandwiched between two industrial buildings in a mixed residential-business zoned neighborhood.
The New Hope pastor's sermon essentially raised the question, "Do gangsters go to Heaven?" She preached about how she recently presided over the funeral of a young murdered gang member. Her approach to the funeral was different than other pastors, who she says focus on consoling family members and extolling the better qualities of the deceased. Instead, she took the opportunity as a wake up call to the other gang members in attendance at the funeral. She told them that the deceased had lived an evil life, and surely was banished to Hell.
Now, my point here is not to debate the existence of Heaven and Hell, nor what the final resting place of the deceased is. But, I do see Heaven and Hell, at the very least, to be a useful rhetorical device and her point is well taken that telling people who engage in destructive anti-social behavior that they are guaranteed a spot in Heaven could create some moral hazard.
I think the pastor put it best when she said
When you get to Heaven, God's not gonna be sitting there with a six-pack and a blunt, wait'n for ya
She had worried about how the crowd would receive her message, but felt strongly in her faith that God would not allow her to lie to these gang members. Her message, she said, was in fact well received and many attendees thanked her afterward for her dark eulogy.
I had never thought about the possible negative consequences of teaching those who engage in destructive anti-social behavior that their spot in Heaven is guaranteed. Whether or not there is any real correlation between church message and gang involvement is unclear, but the pastor certainly did raise an interesting question.