America’s Culture of Death

When you live long enough, a certain world-weariness sets in. You grow tired of a culture’s persistent pursuit of ways that lead to the destruction of life rather than it’s nurture. In fact of course, we have in America two very different cultures vying for supremacy– a culture of life and a culture of death. And death seems to be winning.

On the one side of the ring is the whole health and medical industry, mostly doing everything it can to prop up life, cure disease, lengthen life, protect life, except of course when it comes to abortion where it is the very same industry that is called upon to provide clinical and safe and antiseptic death for the unborn. And there is as well the pharmaceutical industry which for the sake of profits regularly puts products on the market that are not merely dangerous, they are often deadly, and lots of people have to die before they are taken off the market.

The motto ‘do no harm’ seems to have been allowed to drop below the ‘make some money’ priority on the depth chart. And this of course is one of the endemic problems with ‘for profit’ private health care which above all else seeks to stay in business and make money. Even in the midst of a whole industry meant to promote life, somehow death becomes a part of the equation that is taken for granted with a shrug of a shoulder and a ‘well, you can’t save everyone’. And John Donne’s words are no longer listened to– “any man’s death diminishes me, for I am a part of mankind…”

But the death industry doesn’t just show up in the midst of the life industry, it has its own more obvious contributors. On the other side of the ring, and wearing a black sooty hat is the cigarette industry, the pollution (i.e fossil fuels) industry, the hazardous waste industry, the gun industry, the unhealthy food industry, the dangerous vehicles industry, the violent film and video game industry. It is not hard to find ways to poison your mind, ruin your health or kill yourself and others in America. You can even do it by the apparently pleasant means of eating yourself to death.

It has been said that you can learn a lot about a nation by analyzing what the top value is in its ethical hierarchy. The usual big three are: 1) honor and shame; 2) truth vs. lies; 3) life and death. In America it’s pretty clear that the third of these is the top value in the value hierarchy. Thus we have cliches like ‘it’s not a matter of life and death…’ People will lie in order to go on living, or making money, or stay in office. They lie and behave shamelessly.

Why should we be surprised about cheating in sports when the motto of the sports industry is ‘at all costs, just win baby.’ And so paradoxically, by making winning a more important value than honesty or truth or personal integrity or sportsmanship or fairness or justice….we destroy the whole point of playing, which is meant to teach us how to share, how to be part of a team, how to live within the boundaries, the rules, the fences, how to strength our bodies and our communities without destroying our morals (see now my little book The Rest of Life which deals with a theology of play).

And when a country loses its sense of honor, it also loses its sense of shame. In such a culture sins just become errors of judgment, mistakes, boo boos. And God is entirely taken out of the equation, because make no mistake, sins are always against God, whoever else they may also be against or do harm to.

When a culture replaces the value of everlasting life, with the value of this life extended as far as possible, the culture has become totally myopic, unable to see beyond the immediate, the tangible, the empirical. And oddly enough when the lie that ‘this life is all there is’ is believed, it makes it much easier to allow death to rule one’s mind, one’s fears, one’s behavior. Death simply becomes the price of doing business, or surviving. A culture becomes fear based and makes decisions on the basis of fear, rather than faith and a belief in the life to come.

Take for example America since 9/11. The goal of terrorism is of course to create terror in the heart of an enemy so the enemy will colossally over-react (think billions and billions spent on TSA security even in Chitlin Switch airport in the middle of nowhere America). The goal of terrorism, since the terrorists cannot win a normal war against a country with a gigantic military industrial complex is to so strike terror into the heart of the enemy that they will destroy themselves with fear and over-reaction. They will begin to believe that the answer to foreign or even domestic violence (think Newtown Conn.) is more guns, more violence, more death. Think of how the Roman Empire came to fall. It died not so much because of the enemy without, but because of the enemy within.

It’s no good singing Blue Oyster Cult’s classic hit ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ when in fact, if there is no God and no everlasting life, then death does have the last word about all of us. All of this is why I have dedicated my life to the full-fledged culture of life, both this life and the life to come, with the former seen in the light of the latter, and the latter being far more important than the former.

This is precisely why I oppose the whole rationalizing of deliberate killing of other humans beings— whether by war, or capital punishment or abortion. It is why I am totally pro-life. As Jesus said ‘I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly’.

At the end of the day, the only person who can real cure our deadly diseases permanently is a death-defying God, a God who overcomes death, with life, everlasting life, resurrection life. God’s yes to life is louder than death’s no, and trust me, death’s NO gets louder and louder, the older you get.

But if you believe all of this about ‘I am the Life’, then you have to stand for life in all of its God-given manifestations no matter what the world tells you, no matter what the prevailing culture is in your own country.

As Jim Elliott once put it “he is no fool, who gives up what he cannot keep (namely physical existence), to gain what he cannot lose (everlasting life). And so, ironically it precisely a strong and passionate belief in everlasting life that allows a person to loosen the death-grip he has on this physical life, and even be able to lay down that life on behalf of others. ‘Greater love has no one, than they lay down their lives for others’. Life is not too short when its everlasting, and when its everlasting, you realize that this life is not all there is.

  • Merv Olsen

    Thanks Dr Ben for the simple but eloquent way you define `life` as it is in the western world at present … and then for reminding us of the power of the LIFE that Jesus came to bring into our lives to change them for the better both now and for eternity.

    John 10.10 has been my `motto` since coming to know Christ as a 19 year old back in 1965.

    I love your forthright but kind honesty in the way you address all sorts of issues . You have a wonderful knack of getting to the core of things. Your blogging efforts are much appreciated!

  • anton

    Well said. Amen.

  • Ed Beedle

    Thanks Dr. Ben. A wonderfully written post (as usual). You bring it all into focus in such a concise yet powerful way. My goal in all I do is to help,people into LIFE, the life Jeaus gives. You are an inspiration. Never give up. You are making a mark in the lives of everyone who reads and listens to you teach.

  • Oscar

    In case you haven’t noticed, Ben, the whole world celebrates death, NOT just the USA. Sure, we may lead the world in many respects, but that is only because we are bigger and richer than most, NOT because we are more evil. There is plenty of death affirming, life denying, Christ ignoring (or HATING), self serving behavior going on in ALL governments and cultures, its just that we are HERE, and we can see what is right in front of us. Just because we here in the USA are more religious than many other countries does not mean we will be judged more harshly. I mean, what is harsher than eternal damnation, after all?

    I hope you have a good day, despite the dark tone of your blog entry.

  • Patrick

    I’ve never read of the evil that’s ongoing in British public hospitals in the “for profit” USA. The only comparable thing I ever read like this are the USA federal government owned, not for profit veterans hospitals, which came under fire in the early 2000 era for negligence of our wounded soldiers.

    I’ll take the money grubbers over the “we’re here to serve you types” myself.

  • Julianna G.

    I believe it is Jane Austen who uses the phrase “nibbling after blood” to indicate our fascination with violence and death.
    Yet, we still use phrases like “pass on”…or anything to avoid saying “died.” How many ways can we deny reality?!?
    Just last Sunday, 2nd/3rd grade SS kids asked about “the Day of the Dead.” I referred them to the Pentateuch, where–as you have affirmed above–is all about celebrating life and not death! Thank you for this post. :)

  • Dan

    Dr. Witherington never said anything about the rest of the world. As an American, this is the culture he lives in, it’s the culture he knows best, and it’s the culture he’s most qualified to critique. I’m sure Dr. Witherington doesn’t think the rest of the world is a bed of roses, but you don’t have to critique everything in order to critique one thing.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thank you Dan. Of course Oscar is partially correct, but only partially. When Scotland went through the horrors of a massacre of children in a school in a small Scottish village where now famous tennis player Andy Murray hails from, they did something about it. They had a huge buy back of guns, and they made much stiffer laws against any sort of gun possession that was not a handgun or a shotgun (or shooting rifle). The result? Gun violence went dramatically down for the last several decades. Apparently, they believed that life was more important than gun rights. Apparently they were not naive about fallen human beings and their potential for evil when they have a gun at their disposal, especially a weapon only suitable for use in the military. As it happens, I have lived in various places, and I’ve taught and preached all over the world. And honestly, places like Scotland and New Zealand and Australia are far safer places to live, far more life affirming places to live for one simple reason— not being naive about what happens when all sorts of guns are freely available to almost everyone. I agree, this is only one small way to lessen the darkness in the world. But I also will say that anyone with common sense will not say silly things like “the best protection against more gun violence is more guns in the hands of good law abiding people”. And who exactly has the wisdom to read human hearts and figure out who counts as good people? No one. And certainly not the NRA. BW3

  • Oscar

    For the record, I’ve never suggested that more guns is the answer, but I HAVE stated that the human heart is indescribably bound with death, and there is NOTHING we can do by means of government to change that fact. Without Christ a person is bound for eternal punishment, personal good intentions notwithstanding. In the same manner, governments, and societies, cannot legislate righteousness to the fallen human nature. All they can do is to restrain the worst of impulses. Natural “goodness” is highly subjective when considering the eternal consequences of a Christless life. Christ did not come to redeem government or societies, He can to redeem individual human spirits, and in so doing partially redeem the circles in which those who are redeemed have influence. Only upon His return will we see “all things made new”.

    Maybe my theology is slightly askew, but railing against the society in which we live is like saying that our version of black is darker than another. Black is black, death is still death, and if I want to hear more slamming of our particular society, well then, I’ll tune into MSNBC or FOX News, or Al Jazeera. In the mean time I’ll concentrate on making my own social circle a better place in whatever way I can. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Each of us has that same task, and in so doing we can make a difference.

    Sorry Ben, I do not mean to denigrate you message, its just that I tire of hearing people ragging on the unchangeable without offering a real solution and without comparing vastly different cultures by way of example. Maybe I’m just a pessimist at heart…

  • Tom Schuessler

    Yes, this brings to mind David Bowie’s great song of hopelessness..”All the Young Dudes” (made a hit by mott the hoople).. another culture of death praise song. Why do burned out hippies play this at their funerals?.

  • Lewis

    There is a fallacy discussed by Schaeffer that we Christians tend to think that simply because this world is not everything that is it therefore nothing. He used the ugliness of a church he visited versus the beauty of a Buddhist temple nearby. I don’t think that we can get off the hook by simply saying that Jesus is returning therefore I am not to shine a light on the larger culture and even issues and even political struggles of our day.
    That being said, it is hard when I hear such anathemas pronounced by those on left and right claiming that Jesus is a supply-sider or a Keynesian. Pretended certainty about disputable matters is not desirable. Thanks for your stance for life Ben!

  • Scott Caulley

    Thanks for that post, Prof. Witherington. I appreciate you standing up for the values of life, esp. in a time of renewed polarization over guns (our rights, their efficacy). It’s a hard message to communicate, esp. in conservative Christian America. Of course we here in NE Kentucky are envious of your airport there in Chitlin Switch….

  • Mark

    Ben, I agree in principle with most of your comments. There is, however, a big difference between individual morality and the greater reality of political power, meaning; how much power should the state have in order to mediate the moral choices and the economic well-being of its citizens? A second and third question would be; what is the best way to resolve the rising cost of healthcare—and, why are healthcare costs rising well beyond the rate of inflation, when other for profit industries like; food and housing, which are even more immediate and necessary, aren’t? The simple assumption that greed is the primary motive is simple indeed.
    Both questions have political and economic components with long term ramifications that go well beyond the healthcare debate.

    The morality of “For profit healthcare” vs. “socialized healthcare” would depend on which system delivered the best healthcare for the largest number of people, at the most efficient cost. Since there is no “free lunch” arguing for socialized healthcare as being “non-profit” only tells us about the rhetoric being used, not the reality, since both have costs and no one is working for free.

    I would suggest that speaking about these things as though they were issues of death vs. life, and therefore, a question of basic moral choices, or, good and evil, is a case of the theologian stepping beyond the bounds of theology and into the realm of the economist and political scientist.

    No offense intended, you are among my favorite biblical scholars and obviously a man with a social conscience. But, if you’ve never really studied economics, politics or law, it would be little different than a banker arguing well outside his field of endeavor. Believe me, I’m guilty of doing exactly that, so, you’re not alone.

    Here is a simple question; is there any example of a centralized or command economy producing a better product at a better price, I mean any product; the military, public schools, cars, food, housing, the internet, etc., than a free market economy? If you say “Healthcare” American healthcare is already substantially subsidized, including the prescription drug industry. It is the socialized aspect of American healthcare that drives the cost well beyond the rate of inflation, not market forces. Why? Because that is the net effect of all subsidies, they skewer markets and prices.

  • Mike

    Dr. W.

    The title of this Post made me think of Physician Assistant Death (PAD). However, you didn’t mention it. Do you have any thoughts on it? Or, any recommended reading?

  • David Cornwell

    It dosn’t seem to me that Ben’s piece is necessarily in support of “socialized medicine.” There are many non-profit private organizations that provide excellent medical care and do it better than for-profit organizations. They include hospitals, medical practices, insurance providers, and others.

    And he is spot on– we have become a fearful nation advocating violence at every level as a solution. It permeates politics, foreign policy, entertainment, and personal safety.