What the Church Can Learn from 'The Good Place' | Sojourners

What the Church Can Learn from 'The Good Place'

Actress and long-time activist Jane Fonda has moved to Washington, D.C., with the explicit intention of getting arrested every Friday protesting federal apathy toward the climate crisis. Last week, she was joined by leading man Ted Danson, who you may recognize from Cheers, Becker, or most recently NBC’s The Good Place.

In a simultaneously earnest and satirical take on life after death, The Good Place features a character named Michael (Ted Danson) who takes four humans into his “care” after they have died. An Arizona party girl, an ethical philosophy professor, a vapid heiress, and an aspiring DJ from Jacksonville become an inseparable foursome. Along with Michael and his anthropomorphized database, Janet, they wrestle through a bevy of ethical and philosophical quandaries in an effort to prove these humans deserve to be in heaven.

Warning: spoilers follow.

By the third season, the redeemed demon, Michael, has become increasingly desperate in leading the charge against what he sees as a rigged system. For over 500 years, even the best people on earth haven’t accrued enough points to reach “the good place.” Well-intended actions, like giving someone flowers, can’t avoid our current extractive means of production (sweatshops, toxic pesticides, exploited migrant laborers, carbon emissions, and concentrating wealth for evil men), and produce enough unintended consequences to create a net-negative result. In a system this broken, being good is impossible.

As the group faces the banal evil of pursuing demons and the incredulity of the cosmic judge, the most striking contrast to the protagonists is revealed in the nauseating niceness of the “good place’s” emergency appeals committee. As Michael petitions the committee on behalf of the people in his charge, we catch a glimpse of their differences. Michael’s squad of misfits have chosen authentic relationships of mutuality and solidarity above the trappings of politeness and proceduralism. “We’re the good guys, remember. We have rules. We can’t just do stuff,” says one of the committee members. But being nice no longer matters and is, in fact, digging the humans a bigger hole. Michael, the demon-turned-freedom fighter, boils over in frustration at the amiable yet bureaucratic response from the committee: “The Titanic is sinking, and they're writing a strongly worded letter to the iceberg.”

I think it is time for the church to do some serious thinking about our place in this cosmic drama. We seem to get caught up in the rules themselves when we should be paying attention to the power they order and obfuscate. The accountants and appeals committees in our churches [may] be damned, because of all they do to prevent “good and necessary trouble,” as John Lewis said Dr. King inspired him to make. Even if there is no such possibility as ethical consumption today, we have a choice about what we do with our material existence. Organizing our communities and churches into cruciformity means God bidding us to come and die, as Bonhoeffer presciently wrote, and it sure isn’t concerned with formal legalisms.

Our churches were originally called the ekklesia, an overtly political name, because the followers of Christ sought to birth a new politic: love-of-neighbor and a material mutuality that lifted up the broken and dismantled society’s hierarchies. Our proximity to the pain in the world is directly correlated to how we experience these issues. Michael, the now-good demon, was enraged that people who he had learned to love, were destined for torture in “the bad place,” due to a system that was rigged against them from the beginning.

The appeals committee sent memorandums to each other to perform their concern, while Michael risked his very existence to confront the injustice. Will our relationships with the suffering around us likewise spark our urgency and agency? Will we be honored to join a long and proud history of the prophets and disruptors, or will we wash our hands like Pontious Pilate, pretending we have no power to do right by our neighbor? An exploratory committee isn’t going to cut it.

There is no such thing as staying out of politics. To be clear: we have neighbors in hell, dying in the streets, right now. If you are more concerned about punishing toddlers over an arbitrary border, the patent rights for insulin, or “working within the system” than getting people saved from that, then you are part of the problem. How I use my body is a reflection of Christ in me, my Imago Dei. Maybe, as Daniel Berrigan used to say, that means prison clothes are the new vestments of the church. If a demon recognizes that, why can’t we?

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