The Death of Death and a Culture That Likes Dying

The Death of Death and a Culture That Likes Dying May 29, 2011

Memorial Day Ceremony - North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial - May 31, 2010photo © 2010 US Army Africa | more info (via: Wylio)
Death.  I hate the word.

Death is a demonic power in the cosmos that holds all things subject to its lordship.  Its dominion is inescapable.  Many say death is a part of life or death begins at birth.  Others remind us of the totality of existence: your born, you suffer, you die.

Yet we evade death, denying its existence we attempt damn it to hell (where it ultimately belongs).  We buy fancy cars, houses, boats, and clothes; we get enraptured in the latest romantic book or movie; we invest our whole selves into careers to the neglect of our families; we party and play, betting all we have on red; we distract ourselves from the reality that a day is coming when our shallow lives will consummate six feet under.  How can the thought of death so easily be avoided?

Death’s distance from our day to day derives from a denial of the desolation depicted daily to the disenfranchised who are dominated by our delegation of such a demise, as we devour their due by unduly indulging in the demon of the American dream

For the marginalized of this world, death is a “d-word” that cannot be separated from reality.  Preventable disease, unsafe work conditions, violence waged over resources, and hunger are some examples of why death is hard to avoid in other parts of the world or in the margins of our society.  Wake up calls such as the surprise of a family member suddenly dying in a car accident, the onset of cancer, or a natural disaster, rudely remind us that death is still our overlord no matter the methods we employ to usurp its power.

But, as Christians, we believe in the death of death.  Death’s defeat came at the hands of its own doing.  The Prince of Death, the Demon of all demons, plotted to conquer Life.  However, Death could not hold Life down and as a result, death’s plot to annihilate Life led to its own reversal: death died.  Christ passed away under the curse of the power of death but rose to resurrected Life, and in so doing, overcame that which attempted to destroy him.  Christ was first and on an unknown day in the future, Christians and the cosmos will experience the same triumph of Life.

We are a culture that likes dying.  We affirm this in the US of A each time we send our children off to war.  Young women and men go oversees to places where death is indisputable (often partially because of our over-indulgence) with a mission to secure the very resources that help us to feel like we can flee from facing fatality.  So, to ensure we can “live it up” we invite our young to risk “dying it up” to stabilize the inflow of goods.  Sadly, the church has bought into this death-cycle and often gives soldiers the status of Christian martyrdom.  Ironically, the only martyrs in the early church had no swords in their hands.

On Memorial Day 2011, may we mourn that good women and men have died for things other than the cross of Christ and allow this truth to break our hearts as this may be the greatest form of honor we can bestow.  May we proclaim in a unified and amplified voice that we believe in the death of death!  Not through methods of consumerist evacuations, but through the upside-down power of the resurrected Christ.  May Memorial Day invite us to ask: What’s worth dying for? And may Jesus nudge us toward one of few answers to that question: the weak and powerless of the world who couldn’t aim for the American Dream even if they wanted to.

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  • Thank you so much for this post. I am a Desert Storm vet who constantly struggles with the fact that I loaded bombs on F-16’s that killed other humans. A lot of my friends are military or former military or sending their kids into the military. It is hard being a seemingly lone voice for non-violence. 

    • David, thank you for your comment here.  Grace and peace to you and your family, and be strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit to carry on in teaching people the good news of the kingdom of peace.

    • David, it is my honor to have a brave nonviolent example like you on this blog.  May you grow in the grace of Christ Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

  • And yet…

    St. Paul shared with the Philippian church that “to live is Christ, to die is gain,” and David sang in Psalm 116 “precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints,” even as earlier in the same Psalm he rejoices that “you have delivered my soul from death.”

    I wonder if perhaps death is not the enemy itself, but rather that when Satan and his powers seized the world, they turned death into a force that separates us from God, rather than re-uniting us with him.  Maybe Tolkein had it right in “The Silmarillion” when he spoke of death as the Creator’s gift to man…before it was perverted by man’s quest for immortality on his own terms.

    Death has become the enemy…this is absolutely Biblical.  Death will one day be destroyed and no longer a part of the eternal order of God’s creation.  This, too, is Biblical.  But was it always thus?  I wonder…

    • I’d say that death is the “last enemy to be defeated” which Paul says in the letter to Corinth.  This is very significant.  In fact, in the first century world, death was considered a cosmic power, not just an inevitability.  IMO, the whole atonement centers around the defeat of death, sin, and satan. 

      And yes Dan, I think that dying in the Lord, in the world as it presently is, is also biblical… but not the ideal 🙂

    • Thanks for you thoughts on this Dan. I hope I am not getting too off topic here in stating that I have wondered if death was a part of the original creation. It seems to be the consensus view among scientists. The possibility that Satan co-opted death as a tool to separate us from God is one I would like to pursue further.

      • We’re on the same wavelength, Amory.  I don’t have answers, only questions.  But my questions are similar to yours.

        • “Death, where is thy sting?  Grave, where is thy victory?”  A lot to ponder there…

  • Hey Kurt.  Mixed thoughts on this.  On the one hand, Death is clearly the last enemy and will be defeated at the Resurrection.  But, on the other, our most sacred practices (baptism and eucharist) are training in how to die early and well.  I guess I’d just add the nuance that it’s not dying that our culture likes (though it may pretend to), but killing.  I think it was Patton via Hauerwas that said, “No one ever won a war by dying for his country.  He won it by making the other dumb bastard die for his country first.”  No one, that is, except Jesus, dying for the heavenly country to win against the powers of this dark world.

    Grace and peace to you…and prayers that we will one day beat our drones into tractors and our tanks into playgrounds.

    • Joey, I get what you are saying.  Let me add that “death” has multiple functions in the New Testament.  “To die is gain” says Paul for instance, but this is a death “in the Lord” and thus functions as a desire to be as connected to Jesus as possible.  We are also to “die to ourselves” and to deny ourselves.  This is also biblical…

      On your point about killing… you are technically correct in many ways.  My contrast here assumes that fact.  My juxtaposition was dying for country (since this is a day we recognize that) and christian martyrdom… which is often driven by our lust for “lust” for distractions from the reality of a lifeless existance.  Anyway, grace and peace to you my friend.  I love this: “prayers that we will one day beat our drones into tractors and our tanks into playgrounds.”

      • Thanks for your kind response.

        I think the fear of death plays a bigger part in our militarism, rather than our love for it.  The fear of death is what makes us spend so much on celebrity culture, pornography, militarism, and plastic surgery.  That’s what makes military deaths “the ultimate sacrifice” in the language of the national liturgy.

        I’ve heard it said, and I agree, that what freaks western liberals out about 9/11 (and terrorism in general) is that there are people that are willing to die for their god.  The separation of church and state is, in our national soteriology, the triumph of liberal democracy over religious violence.  Christians like us have the opportunity to remind people that people dying for their god isn’t the problem…it’s the KILLING for their god that is so disgusting. 

        Likewise the state.  If you are willing to die for your nation-state, that’s one thing.  If you want to sacrifice OTHER’S lives for your nation-state, that’s where those of us who follow a God who would rather suffer violence than cause it have a problem. 

        And when the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword, the thing to remember isn’t that theirs is the ultimate sacrifice–that language is reserved for Jesus–but how easy it is for us to be swept up into the powers of this world to our own judgment, even to death.

  • I have a thousand books inside of me and one of them is on Death.  After my tragic summer of 07 where I attended four funerals in one month including my dad, my best friend and her toddler and a 12-year old girl who passed away from cancer, Death suddenly became an intimate part of life. I have much to say and since that summer the words have been brewing. Your post here reminds me that it’s a writing project that I don’t want to put off for too long. It is a worthy subject, especially as a Christ follower, and just the handful of comments here indicate even the tension within our family of faith on the relationship of life, death and faith.

    Thanks for posting Kurt!

    • Pam, please write it!!!!!  Sounds fascinating 🙂

  • Anonymous

    Isaiah 11: – 6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
 in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD 
as the waters cover the sea.
    *Sigh*   Someday….

  • Anonymous

    Death!   You hate it!   I have to ask, why?   Are you so enamored with this world that you prefer it to the place where Jesus – “… has prepared for you.”?
    I am in my 80’s, a believer for over 36 years that I often describe – using the words of St. Peter, as being…”joy inexpressible and full of glory.”
    A couple of years ago they discovered I had a couple of non-functioning, properly, heart valves that needed to be replaced and so an operation was scheduled.  People often die from this operation and my greatest concern was for my “bride” of only three years who might suddenly be losing yet another husband, the one she married so that we might share our “golden years” together.   And so it was as they wheeled me into the operating area, I suddenly realized – this might be the end of my days.  I began to thank God for this “adventure” and shared my conviction that I might soon be with Him.  Peace came over me like a flood and then, I opened my eyes to see my bride, her sister and husband, standing by my bed side, hoping – as they said, to see me open my eyes and tell them, all is well.
    All is still well as Horatio Spafford taught us years ago – with these precious words – “My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!  My sin, not in part but the whole,  Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!