Death As a Power
Some of you who read this will have heard my sermon at Bob Almquist’s memorial service.
In it I said that in the Bible death is understood in two different ways. On one hand, it is a natural process and part of life. I imagine that when Paul writes in Romans 14, “Whether we live or whether we die, we belong to the Lord,” he has death as a part of life in mind.
But for the most part Scripture and particularly the New Testament view death in a different way. Death is a power (hence the capitalization). Death, along with Sin, are the ruling powers that disfigure, distort and degrade life as God created and intends it.
When Paul shouts out in I Corinthians 15, “O Death, where is your sting? O Death, where is your victory?” it is this understanding of Death as an enslaving power, which has humanity in its grip, that is meant. It is Death in this sense that Christians confess and proclaim to have been met and defeated in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is Death as a power that Jesus confronts and with which he does battle in his healing acts, his exorcisms and his preaching.
Readers of C. S. Lewis’ children’s classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe will recognize Lewis’s way of depicting Death as a power. He uses the metaphor of never-ending winter which holds humanity in its icy grasp.
It is surprising to me that this second understanding of Death as an enslaving and crippling power is not more readily understood and employed today. The evidence of Death and Sin as enslaving powers is manifold. Horrific mass shootings, endemic racism, grinding poverty alongside obscene and heedless wealth, an epidemic of addiction — all are evidence of Death’s rule and dominion.
I brought this up in the context of Bob’s service for several reasons, not least that Bob’s death had not been of natural causes. He was murdered.
But I also brought it up because Bob’s life, like that other faithful followers of Jesus, can be characterized as a life-long battled against Death as a crippling, degrading Power.
Rabbi Jeffrey Sulkin comes at these same issues, in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, in a similar if somewhat different way. Here’s a bit from that Sulkin’s essay:
“I ask my seventh grade students: ‘Are there evil people?’
“’No,’ they say. ‘There are people who do evil things, but they are not necessarily evil people.’
“’OK,’ I ask. ‘Are there good people?’
“’Oh, yes!’ they say. Then, they proceed to name as many as they could.
“Get it? Here is the problem. Our young people — and a large chunk of our larger culture, believe that there are good people.
“But, when it comes to naming evil people, they are far more reticent. They unwittingly quote John Martyn, who sang: ‘I don’t wanna know about evil. I only want to know about love.'”
As Sulkin notes one needs to be very careful about naming evil and about becoming blind to one’s own capacity for evil.
Still, the larger point, mine and Sulkin’s, is taking the power of evil, or as the New Testament frames it, of Death and Sin seriously. And for Christians taking seriously Christ’s victory over Death in its manifold forms.
In his book The Great Code the eminent Canadian literary scholar and critic, Northrup Frye, observes, “The style [of the Bible] is of the battlefield rather than the cloister.” That has been forgotten particularly in the liberal church, partly because we don’t want to embrace military or war-like language. Also because we like to believe that the main human problem is ignorance. With more and better education all problems will be solved. This I would call “naive.”
As to the language thing, I agree with Fleming Rutledge who writes, “The language of struggle and combat is not incompatible with a commitment to non-violence.”
She continues, in her magisterial 2017 work, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ,
“Most biblical interpretation in the modern age has been done as though there were only two dramatis personae, God and humanity — thereby demystifying the New Testament, which presents three.
“The Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf has written of these matters with arresting authority, out of his experience of the Balkan conflicts. He has emphasized the presence of the Powers and the creation as occupied territory:
‘Jesus’ public ministry . . . was not a drama played out on an empty stage . . . Especially in a creation infested with sin, the proclamation and enactment of the kingdom of truth and justice is never an act of pure positing, but always already a transgression into spaces occupied by others.'”
In other words, Jesus life and ministry are an invasion of occupied territory and a confrontation with the occupying powers, Sin and Death.
To proclaim, as we shall again in a couple weeks that “Christ is Risen,” is not mainly about our individual and personal immortality, life after death. It is much larger, more cosmic. It is the announcement and faith that Death and Sin’s rule and power have been broken in Jesus Christ.
As such we Christians live awake and alert to the crippling and enslaving Powers of Death and Sin. We ought not be naive. But we do not worship these powers or cower before them. We serve, as our friend Bob did, and worship the Lord of Life.