I’ve spent a considerable amount of time thinking about hell. Hell is the place God is not. I cannot conceive a world without hope or light and saturated in despair. But often I cannot abide my own company. I writhe in shame. In Hell I’d lose the luxury afforded here, the luxury of avoiding the real. Hell is when I am eternally faced with myself without mitigation.
My mother is in that condition now. Hell is self-imposed; people are there because they choose it. A realm without God is not God’s idea. A realm without God is the unavoidable consequence of choice. The fullest extent of what free will produces hell. It produces my mother. She constructed my world so that I would be dizzily trapped and in the right condition for sexual slavery. I was unable to write my letters d and b properly when I lived in New York. I do not know my left from my right. If you spin my body around one time slowly, I get so dizzy I’m sick.
During the day my mother called herself a twisted version of her beautiful Jewish surname Baruch. In daytime my mother was my pal, Barchie, a manifestly ugly name. During the day I was Eemia: my name backwards. Eemia sounded like the name of a disease. In daylight Eemia and Barchie were two girls at play. She often dressed us alike. At night, when she held me down and lowered herself onto my face to force oral sex, she was Mommy. I was Aimee. At night she began our sessions by telling me what I would be doing, reminding me that I was not to move, speak, or stop. This construct was convenient; it offered two lives partitioned from one another.
When my heart acknowledged what my body always remembered, I asked the same question incessantly, trying desperately to stop only to find myself asking an instant later. “Why would you do that?” I know the answer. Because she wanted to. That’s the power of choice.
In public school on Long Island I carried a lunchbox. I wanted a trite metal one with a flimsy latch and a matching plastic thermos with a cartoon character. My mother made my lunchbox out of an old domed metal toolbox. She pasted snippings from magazines onto the black toolbox and varnished it to seal the surface. I was terrorized by that lunchbox. I remember only two of the snippings. Along the spine of the toolbox, the part I saw daily when the box was snapped shut, was a community service warning from the State of New York. It read, “It is after dark, do you know where your children are?” Along the front rim, just below the latch, my mother made a sentence by clipping out these words, “Anything can happen…..after midnight.”
Hell is the place where nothing can happen. There are no possibilities in Hell; choices are fixed, alternatives gone. Always and never are only actually reasonable to use when speaking of God. God will always be prepared to tolerate, forgive, and love me. God will never leave me though I leave God. Permanence isn’t an option in this life. I’m not stuck. I can choose. I’m not in the place of impossibilities, but my mother is.
God cannot make me good, but God can make me free. God cannot make me right, but God can make me true. That’s what choice is for.
Here in Tanzania when a woman gets engaged her betrothed has to pay a bride price. My housekeeper Olipa just got engaged. Her family is charging 1,500,000 TZ shillings for her ($652.17). The ransom for a human being is the death of God. No atonement satisfies God in any religion I’ve studied. The lottery win of free will makes human beings staggeringly expensive to recover. And if I ask God the same inane question I’d ask my mother, “Why do that?” The answer is the same: God wants to. That’s the terrible power of choice.
Writer Jose Saramago says, “Strictly speaking, we do not make decisions. Decisions make us.” My mother’s decisions make her what she now is. I am grateful that she exists, and that there are no more secrets for her. God’s decisions tell me that God is catastrophically, unilaterally invested in me and in you. God confers on us a value I cannot appreciate or understand. I can wallow in it, though, roll around in all of that gorgeous love, all of that glorious mercy. I can accept that if one end of the spectrum is my mother, the other end is a merciful God.
In Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in one of the poorest cities on the planet, I can walk through the endless slums (with my driver and a neighborhood boss). Not a single inhabitant of that place is forgotten by God. God knows every hair on every head, every name. God endures to reach through to us, the beloved children of God. Everyone occupies a royal position in God’s scarcity-free economy. In God’s opinion, no one deserves hell. But if someone disagrees, God allows them. I have done nothing to earn God’s love, and I can do nothing to forfeit it. A critical part of redemption is stepping into that truth and acknowledging that I matter not because of what I have done, but because of what I am. I am a child of God. You are a child of God. Here on earth we pave our streets with men. In heaven the streets are paved with gold. That’s God’s economy. That truth makes the abominable truths of my life endurable.