When the Man comes around


There's a man going around taking names
And he decides who to free and who to blame
Everybody won't be treated all the same
There'll be a golden ladder reaching down
When the Man comes around

-Johnny Cash

I know many of my readers don't believe in Hell. And neither do I, to be fair. But, for the sake of a thought experiment, pretend you do for a minute. Who gets in?

Say there is a God, a Johnny Cash-style all-knowing all-judging God. How are our lives measured, when we die, to decide who goes to Heaven and who burns? What are the criteria?

The reason this comes up is Robert McNamara. Upon hearing that he'd died, I said something to the effect of "if there is a Hell, he can see LBJ there." I was corrected, numerous times, by people who insisted that McNamara repented for his mistakes and would be forgiven.

Would he? How does one repent for a body count that size? Is being sorry enough, or do you have to save as many lives as you cost to even your balance sheet?

Repentance, as an idea, is interesting to me. It's the subject of some pretty great art and music and literature. It's something we've been obsessed with for centuries. Why? Is it really even possible to repent? And if it is, does that really just mean ask forgiveness/buy masses/do penitence, or is there more?

To add another pop culture reference to this already muddled train of thought, Joss Whedon's work is often about repentance, particularly in the character of Angel. For those who aren't in the Joss-know, Angel is a centuries old sadist vampire who is cursed with a soul so he is keenly aware of all the harm he's caused. In Joss' universe, he spends the majority of his time repenting (well, and brooding). His life is about repentance. This doesn't go too deep in Buffy, but once Joss made Angel's spin-off show, repentance was the overarching theme, not just for Angel, but for other characters as well. And the bottom line always seemed to be that it's never enough. That you have a responsibility to try to repent, but that you never really even your score, not even if you save the world. Pretty bleak, maybe, but ultimately true?

While I don't believe in Hell, or in a judgmental God who is up there keeping score, I do believe in trying to atone. Not to save a spot in Heaven, but to keep some sort of vague Karmic balance. It's not about paying off in the end, but more about getting back what you put out. And maybe that's what I really meant about Robert McNamara. He was personally responsible, more or less, for hundreds of thousands of deaths. Judging by the evidence he left, that weighed on him, and he did spend the rest of his life, after leaving Johnson's White House, trying to do good in the world. Is that atonement? Is there really anything he could have done to balance that kind of Karmic debt? Given that regular old dudes don't usually get the opportunity for Angel-sized world saving, I don't really think there is. He may be sorry, but, on a national level, if not a celestial one, he's not forgiven.

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April 2012

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