Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's in a Fine?

As far away as I feel from God these days, everything engenders an internal theological debate. God is ever-present in my thoughts.

Yesterday, I brought back four DVDs to the Minneapolis public library. I knew they were overdue. It was the first time I had checked out anything from the library here, and of course there would be fines. I just didn't think the fine would be $20.00. I asked that my fines might be reduced, since it was a first offense and I genuinely had no idea they charged $1.00 per day per item fine. But no deal. Their backs were against the wall, and they were not able to dispense any library-fine grace. The law was the law, and they had to enforce it. Fine. (Sorry, no pun intended here, but I'll get one in later on.)

So, since I cannot be reliable in returning the DVDs on time, and don't want another $20.00 fine, I told the folks at the library that I would certainly pay the fine, but that I wouldn't be checking out any more DVDs. Somehow I would subvert their very reason for having their holdings, by not availing myself of them. If people followed the categorical imperative on this one, they’d go under. Woah, a little vindictive?

Where does this get theological?

Sometimes it seems to me that people reject God because the cost of the penalties God seems to impose—e.g., hell—is too high, whether it be one's own prospect of going to hell, or the prospect of God damning even one person to an eternity of suffering and separation from God. My rightful, though exorbitant, $20.00 in library fines pales by comparison.

But I think this happens. I think people do throw away God because they believe that God would throw us away.

And that makes me sad. And I think, if God can be sad, it makes God sad too.

Perhaps it's a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater: just be more timely in returning DVDs. Just be more careful in the way that you understand eternal damnation, adopt another view of God's role in it (i.e., that it's our own damn fault, pun intended, if we're damned), or disbelieve it entirely, i.e., don’t believe in hell. But really, something is there. A loving God and a loving person are separated because of someone's impossibly high expectations, perhaps those of both parties.

I could give a little. The Minneapolis public library could as well. And, I daresay, God and those who oppose God on account of fear could give a little. The Israelis could give a little, and Hamas could give a little. Those who oppose my full civil rights could give a little, and perhaps I could lighten up a bit as well.

I'm reminded of that scene from "On Golden Pond" when Chelsea asks Norman if they can be friends, after a lifetime of separation, enmity, anger, and confusion. "Does that mean you'll come around more often? It'd mean a lot to your mother," Norman replies, meaning it would mean a lot to him.

Reconciliation always means a lot. My prayer is that it might happen on all levels, from the mundane to the national, to those who have been disenfranchised into the franchise, to families set apart by disagreements and betrayals, from us to God, who has paid our existential fine in full.