The vocation of being an advocate for the dead

The vocation of being an advocate for the dead December 30, 2015

An article on the real-life doctor featured in the movie Concussion says quite a bit about the Nigerian Christian’s understanding of “calling”; that is, vocation.  (Did any of this come out in the movie?)

From Sean O’Neil, Christianity’s Concussion Crisis: Where Football and Faith Collide | Religion Dispatches:

A Nigerian-born Catholic has crashed the American wedding of faith and football by refusing to hold his peace. Bennet Omalu—who is played by Will Smith in the movie Concussion—believes that providence was at work in the series of serendipitous events that brought the bodies of former professional football players to his slab when he served as the Allegheny County medical examiner.

Mike Webster was a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who after his storied career lived an anguished life characterized by erratic and troubling behavior before his death in 2002 at age fifty. Omalu was initially shocked and puzzled when he found a peculiar tangle of tau proteins in Webster’s brain, a pattern of disease now referred to as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). After Omalu found abnormal protein patterns in the brains of other deceased players, he released research that had the potential to seriously undermine America’s most well-heeled national pastime, and which produced a firestorm of persistent opposition from the league’s medical consultants.

Beleaguered by the pushback, Omalu heard God in his sister’s insistent reply to his admission of weariness:

“I’m getting tired.” And she called me out immediately and said, “No, Bennet.” She is religious, too. She said: “You think it’s by chance that this is happening. Everybody has a calling, that the mighty God”—we are Christians—”doesn’t give you a cross to bear by reckless abandon. He gives you a cross to bear because he knows you can bear that cross. With your knowledge, you can help these people, and you’re even in a better position because you don’t have any direct or indirect emotional attachment to football.”

American Christians of various stripes, though, have long held an emotional attachment to football, and the claim that Omalu was divinely guided to expose the connection between concussions in football and brain damage potentially raises unsettling questions for those players and fans who have often uncritically used the sport as a vehicle for their religious messages. Omalu decries the damage done to bodies which in the world of professional sports are often treated as commodified weapons.

It is fitting then that Hollywood’s treatment of his harrowing story of the medical discovery and painstaking research that threatens a multi-billion dollar industry will be released on one of the most hallowed days in the Christian calendar, December 25.

For many Christians, Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation, the theological notion that God became flesh in the person of Jesus. Omalu is a man for whom flesh is at the heart of God’s work. Before his story had been scripted for film, in one of the first high-profile media pieces about his life, Jeanne Marie Laskas of GQ noted that Omalu

had always fancied himself an advocate for the dead. That’s how he viewed his job: a calling. A forensic pathologist was charged with defending and speaking for the departed—a translator for those still here. A corpse told a story, told in tissue, patterns of trauma, and secrets in cells.

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