Cultural Fear of Death, Part 4

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Cultural Fear of Death, Part 4

 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. John 15:13

I write this in the midst of Holy Week – the week between Palm Sunday and Easter. In the Christian story, Jesus enters Jerusalem as a hero, only to be mocked, beaten, flogged, and crucified as an insurrectionist criminal. The new week begins with Jesus being bodily raised as the Christ. We often hold up the horrific suffering of Jesus in his final hours as an example of the type of death none of us would choose to experience. And rightly so. As reasonable as that conclusion should be, it also misses the point. Jesus willingly suffered and died because he was committed to a purpose greater than himself. He understood that his life was just one life and that he could positively impact countless lives by living and dying as he did.

When our culture teaches us that we are the center of our universe, a death like Jesus’ makes no sense at all. Who would do that? If everyone values their own life above other lives, the answer is that no one would do it. The result? There would be no soldiers on the battlefields, no first responders ready and willing to respond to any disaster, and no Jesus hanging on the cross. As I have mentioned previously, our cultural fear of death corresponds to our cultural beliefs about the value of an individual life. The Bible, however, does not speak of the salvation of individuals but of groups of individuals, like nations. Of course we remember names like Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul, but it was the nations and the generations of believers to whom their lives and actions were directed, not their concern for self-preservation. We fear being on the suffering side of life because our culture does not teach us the larger view of having something bigger than ourselves to live and die for. My friend, Stan Hughes, writes, “Sometimes when confronted with the choice to suffer or move beyond suffering we think the choice obvious, but I can’t help but think that love might direct us on a more difficult path for the sake of others.”

One area where we often feel inadequate as individuals is in doing meaningful work for the common good. With political power concentrated in the hands of politicians, social power held by members of the media, and religious authority flowing from pulpits, individuals often feel powerless and impotent in the face of social problems. Too often we settle for the least bad option presented to us instead of risking alienation by insisting on something better. When we look at the magnitude of the problems, we rightly wonder what one person can do. Again, this is a part of our cultural conditioning. A population that believes they are powerless is easier to control.

In Jesus’ day, the Roman Empire kept individual people feeling powerless by their shear brutality towards anyone who dared to challenge them. Jesus’ crucifixion was not because he claimed to be God’s son, but because he was being called the king of the Jews, which was a threat to the Empire. Indeed, his followers hoped the kingdom he spoke of meant the end of their occupation by the Romans, but that was a gross misunderstanding on their part.

Those of us in most first world countries live in democracies and are not subject to the overt threat of physical violence in response to expressing our views and beliefs. We can safely join with others of similar beliefs, we can peacefully protest public policies and structures that perpetuate injustice, and we can campaign and vote for political candidates who share our values. We can add our individual efforts to those of others on the front lines, fighting for mercy and justice for those in need. Our culture prefers citizens who do not threaten the status quo, but we are not called to perpetuate the status quo wherever injustice is present. Rather, we are called to rock the boat and stir up the waters when necessary to bring attention to the sad realities of the marginalized in society.

This is how we find a larger purpose for our lives, a purpose worthy of living, and even dying for. It is how we overcome the cultural message that our life is more important than anyone else’s, and that postponing our death at all costs should be the primary focus of our lives. It was the social structures and status quo of his day that crucified Jesus. By fearing the suffering of Jesus instead of expressing the love underlying his willingness to suffer, we betray his legacy.

This is the 30th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at ghildenbrand@sunflower.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.

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