Imagine Kurt Vonnegut telling anyone to go to church. I confess to having not read Slaughterhouse Five. But, I should. And may. The sale table at Barnes and Noble offered a buy on Armageddon In Retrospect, a collection of unpublished short pieces on war and peace by the late Kurt Vonnegut. The Introduction is written by his son Mark. The first chapter is a presentation written by Kurt and delivered by Mark in Indianapolis in 2007.
Provocatively Vonnegut throws “spaghetti on the wall” emphasizing what “sticks.” To my surprise he spent a moment re-framing a quote often attributed to Karl Marx – religion is the opiate of the masses. Too often I have heard the remark relayed in a negative context. It would be as if Marx were suggesting the world would be a better place without it. Religion that is. But, Vonnegut considers this a mis-read and contends today Marx might say, “Religion can be Tylenol for a lot of unhappy people, and I’m so glad it works.” (p.24)
Vonnegut told a soon to be released convicted felon to “Go to church,” when the man asked him what he should do when he was released from prison. In Marxian fashion, according to Vonnegut’s read, the man would represent those who would be discarded by the wealthy and their systems. The structure of the African-American church held out the only hope for such a person to find dignity and respect. He noted,
The most spiritually splendid American phenomenon of my lifetime is how African-American citizens have maintained their dignity and self-respect, despite being treated by white Americans both in and out of government, and simply because of their skin color, as though they were contemptible and loathsome, and even diseased
Their churches have surely helped them to do that. So there’s Karl Marx again. There’s Jesus again.
Vonnegut’s interpretation rests on an understanding of Jesus’ life being for the marginalized which for Marx was the lower classes. He did not address methodology but theology. I know that may not fit your perception of God-talk, but the section of the presentation containing Vonnegut’s reflections on Marx and Jesus addresses an understanding of humanity that does not privilege one over another but instead looks for ways to help those whose needs would have normally been addressed by social structures now disrupted by the Industrial Revolution. Now fragmented, Marx believed governmental structures should bear the burden of elevating people rather than feeding on them. If government would not then maybe religion would – the opiate, the means to bear the human inequities foisted on people by the elite.
Quibble with Vonnegut’s theological reformulations of Marx all you care to. And I am confident he was not intending to “do theology.” However, he stirs us to provocatively think beyond mere methodology. And, that is chiefly where we are stuck today. We tend to spend more time in our religious cloisters looking for new improved ways to “do church” and less time forging and ecclesiology based on the mission of God in the world. The one is sexy and sells books and gets you speaking gigs. The other binds you to a local community intent to see the Good News of Jesus be for people what it was intended. Not a means to pack more people in on Sunday. But a community of Jesus-y people declaring liberation and reconciliation in the life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus – the person of Jesus, the Liberating King.