More Than One Prodigal Son 

An Antinomian Christmas

The first few years I taught undergraduates, I kept a box of tissues in my office in case of office-hour tears. A box would last a semester, particularly when the tears flowed because I had flunked a bunch of students for plagiarism. When tear-stained plagiarists showed up in my office, waving their F papers, tearing their hair and rending their garments, I told them to buy their own damned tissues. They had already ruined one of my days when I had caught them, and by showing up for office hours and begging forgiveness, they were in the process of ruining another.

Later in my career, plagiarists in my classes received an even worse punishment. If I caught someone handing in a story or essay that had been written by someone else, they would get an A. "You're a lot smarter than I thought you were," I'd say. "You should consider a professional career as a writer. Or a politician."

Such cheerful sadism didn't last. For one thing, the punishment was worse than the crime. And any human who judges another is subject to self-induced blindness, at least if I interpret the Sermon on the Mount correctly.

So I began to call plagiarists into my office to explain that claiming someone else's work as their own hurt their families, their teachers, the college and the whole concept of education. It was academia's version of Original Sin.

"Only it's not," I would say. "It's Unoriginal Sin." Then, in a Go and Sin No More moment, I would tell them they had a clean slate in my classes. I would give them a grade if and when they actually wrote a paper.

On a related note, a flashing sign between Boise and Caldwell was, at the time, announcing: "The Wages of Sin Is Death." The sign had caused me to wonder, every time I passed it, what The Wages of Bad Grammar Is.

Apocryphal stories were circulating around campus about students from fundamentalist backgrounds becoming suicidal whenever they passed that sign. Many of them were struggling with sexual orientation or the loss of a naïve childhood faith. All of them were struggling with the gulf between the fallible people they were and the perfect people their families thought they should be.

Some of them had gone hog-wild in college. Some of them, God forbid, had engaged in plagiarism, which suggested morally faulty software on the home-school websites.

These students came from parents and churches who had sheltered them, made them date within their congregations and, from the time they were children, threatened their misbehavior with hellfire. It's not a nice thing to do to little kids, but it happens.

I decided the sign was darker when it had electricity than when it didn't, and that Satan would always find warm and comfortable lodgings in the hearts of judgmental humans.

These thoughts greased the doctrinal slope I stood on. Although their Christianity was causing my students a great deal of pain, I began to think that if Christ stands for anything in this world of strife and cruelty, he stands for forgiveness, and being Christ, He doesn't do anything halfway. If He knows He exists, he's not going to let a little thing like whether or not you think He exists keep you out of the Kingdom of God, especially if that kingdom is right inside you to begin with.

He's not going to let your Bambi-like sins stop His Godzilla-like forgiveness. All the fire-and-brimstone ministers who terrorize their flocks with threats of eternal torment are going to feel pretty silly when they find out that a couple of thousand years ago, God cashed out of vengeance and punishment and invested everything He had in love and generosity.

I hate to admit it, but it means that Dick Cheney, a man who traded the lives of young Americans for oil futures, is going to get into Heaven before I do. So are all the drug dealers, shoplifters, welfare cheats, pimps, whores, usurers, child abusers, industrial polluters, domestic batterers, murderers, rapists, derivatives traders, congresspersons, corrupt judges, Medicare frauds, plagiarists--they're all out there and they have even worse friends. All of them get to cut in front of the line to St. Peter, who will shake their hands one by one and wave them on in. The rest of us are stuck in our tents and sleeping bags on the cold sidewalk outside, waiting for the VIP party to end.

It doesn't mean that there isn't a Hell. Hell is what happens when you get to Heaven, and from that great and conscious perspective, you look back at your life on Earth, with its anger and its material greed, its jealousies and lusts, its mean little victories--and realize you have all of Eternity to forgive yourself.

I should tell you that I've borrowed some of these ideas about Heaven and Hell and sin and forgiveness from a doctrine called Antinomianism. Religious authorities don't like it much. They've burned Antinomians at the stake. They've kicked them out of church and even once forced some of them to move to Rhode Island.

But I find Antinomianism way more convincing than the tortured theologies dedicated to preserving God's Law in the face of God's Grace. Christ was and is a Prodigal Son. He's given away the store as far as Judgment Day is concerned, and, like it or not, we're all bound for glory.

So this holiday season, don't worry about that paper you plagiarized in college or high school. You might have ruined your teacher's day. Maybe he still remembers your name and where you live. That doesn't mean you can't forgive yourself this Christmas. It will be excellent preparation for Heaven.

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