Homicide and acts of personal violence kill more people than wars and are the third-leading cause of death among men aged 15 to 44, according to a new report by the United Nations.
Many people once viewed politics merely as a form entertainment. We could all collectively laugh at the likes of Edwin Edwards even if he was notoriously corrupt. Many folks in Louisiana embraced the former governor for his antics and not merely for his ability to fix every problem in the state. I’m certainly not defending Edwards’s criminal past, but now we look to every politician to solve society’s problems, as if politics could. Because politics is now life and death for so many, it has become too serious for entertainers.
Now the deaths of famous people like Robin Williams are routinely politicized. You’ve probably seen this if you pay attention to social media, 24 hour news shows, or talk radio. Over a decade ago, the Paul Wellstone funeral turned into partisan pep rally for rigid collectivism and electoral success. Politics is everywhere and now in everything. It’s saturated in sports, education, the military, the weather, and history, to just name a few. My own alma mater, The University of Mississippi, is looking to shed its well known and affectionate nickname “Ole Miss” because it could be perceived as politically incorrect.
Now that death is becoming more and more politicized, it’s a powerful reminder of the surge of secularism in society. Death needs to be politicized to give death meaning given that politics is becoming all consuming and the pinnacle of life for so many. Politicizing death expresses, perhaps unbeknown to those guilty of it, this sentiment that there is little or nothing of worth beyond this world. More important to them is the here and now and attempting the impossible, fixing society through politics.
Yesterday, I had the honor of contributing to a panel discussion on the art of Margaret Vega here at the Acton Institute. Her exhibition is titled, “Angels, Dinergy, and Our Relationship with Perpetual Order.” Some fuller coverage may be forthcoming on the PowerBlog, but in the meantime I have posted the text of my presentation, “Death and the Struggle for Permanence” at Everyday Asceticism.
Angels … represent hope amid the human struggle for permanence in a life so characterized with the dark and tragic side of impermanence, death most bitterly of all. Heraclitus found the fact of impermanence so essential that he coined the phrase, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” And Socrates memorably declared that all true philosophers do nothing but contemplate death. And, at the very least, we may say that every major religion offers a way to engage humankind’s most primal fear, the fear of the radical impermanence of death.
But does “Perpetual Order” depict true hope amidst this struggle? On the one hand … the angels are symbols of permanence amid impermanence. On the other hand, however, on the panel hanging in the meeting room to the left of the gallery and on the panels on the gallery’s south wall, we see how the angel’s wing bleeds onto the blackboard, ready to be erased. Here we can see most especially that angels are not themselves the permanence for which we hope and may just as easily represent the ephemeral nature of our hopes as their certainty. Margaret even shared a story with us earlier about a graveyard in Mexico City where stone angels had been reduced to rubble after a major earthquake.
While imprisoned by the Nazis at Tegel military prison, and shortly after learning of the last failed attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned a short poem for his friend, Eberhard Bethge, titled “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”
I’ve come across the poem before, but in recently reading Eric Metaxas’ fine biography of the man, I was reminded of its power and potency in describing the essence of Christian freedom. It becomes all the more compelling given its context, serving as a “distillation of his theology at the time,” as Metaxas describes it.
Though we must be careful to appreciate the time and place from which it sprung, it brings with it plenty of implications for the ways in which we order our lives and allegiances. Indeed, in his prodding toward obedience, discipline, and submission to God — features many would find contradictory or in opposition to freedom — Bonhoeffer’s embrace of this profound paradox dovetails quite nicely with Lord Acton’s famous notion of “defining liberty not as the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.”
Now today comes a report that “doctors who hold religious beliefs are far less likely to allow a patient to die than those who have no faith” (HT: Kruse Kronicle). These results are only surprising for those who think religion is a form of escapism from the troubles of this world.
Instead, true faith empowers the human person and provides a context of true meaning for this life and this world. An atheistic worldview, by contrast, is much more likely to lead to a nihilistic emptying of living vitality and vigor.
There’s no necessary connection between religious institutions and religious practitioners, but it may well be that the superiority of Christian hospitals and Christian physicians have a reciprocal relationship in this regard. Are Christian physicians more attracted to jobs at Christian institutions?
And be sure to check out the case made by Christian physician Dr. Donald P. Condit for applying Christian principles to these pressing issues in A Prescription for Health Care Reform.
In Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief offers a serious account about tragedy, God, family, and grace. He also spins a great spiritual yarn which can move you from laughing to tears in mere moments. One of the strengths of this book is that it is not another bland self help book that promises “Your Best Life Now.” I’ve always wondered anyways about Christians who do not even realize their best life is in Glory. This is a very honest confessional book that really contrasts itself with the prosperity gospel and the kind of superficial Christianity that eschews a theology of suffering.
Soon after Woodlief and his wife’s conversion to Christianity, their three year old daughter Caroline is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was soon dead. The author offers a lot of emotional devastating details of the heartbreak of losing their first child along with the tragic details of physically watching their little girl waste away. “God never promised everything will work out okay in your lifetime, and that each trouble you face will yield a blessing out of all proportion to the pain,” says Woodlief. The story goes on. Woodlief talks about how he drifted apart from his wife and family and was even unfaithful. His home was breaking apart and he was too angry with God and his circumstances to care. He plotted to leave his wife. But he came to a realization that he really had nowhere to go and everything he cared about was right at home.
He seems to profoundly recognize that his wife extended immense grace in his situation and he is now happy he has a front door to enter. He praises his wife for not giving him over to destruction. He offers an exceptional thought from a Greek Orthodox Priest named Aimilianos of Simonopetra, who says “It is an adulteration of marriage for us to think that it is a road to happiness, as if it were a denial of the cross.” And while the priest and the Church understand the joy of marriage and its level of suffering, much of our society sadly views marriage as a means of self-fulfillment and an arrangement rather than a sacrament.
Woodlief has four boys now and he takes us on a spiritual journey through the rooms in his house explaining how the grace of God abounds. He weaves together devotional thoughts about the power of the incarnation within the stories of his family. He understands that through the incarnation we do not just receive a glimpse of God, but can better understand ourselves. It was Martin Luther who said the angels are envious of humanity, “They worship Christ, who has become our Brother, our flesh and blood.” Woodlief says of helping his young sons clean themselves in the bathroom:
Dad, does this look clean?. . . Cleanliness is next to godliness, I think to myself in these moments of degradation. And if God can see me in these moments, perhaps he will forgive all the times I supposed I was better than anyone else.
The author offers some beautiful thoughts on a theology of death too. Towards the closing he admits, from the experience of losing a child, “If you love anything, you must live with the reality that you may one day lose it.”
This is an impressive account because it does not pretend to have easy answers for life’s tragedies, heartbreak, and shame. It only offers up the ancient truths of grace, incarnation, resurrection, and divine love. It is a deep contrast with the spiritual glibness that many in today’s culture and churches encounter. It is confessional and authentic and I think by allowing himself to be vulnerable readers will easily relate to his story.
The book reminds me a little of Treasure in an Oatmeal Box which I read long ago when I was younger. Both books see the beauty in children and understand they offer a lot of spiritual insight. Both authors are excellent at telling a story and capturing the greater purpose and value of life. They also both deal with heartbreak, tragedy, and perseverance. I am sure fathers and mothers of children will receive a lot of insight and will have a lot to ponder with this account. But this book is really for anybody who has felt heartbroken, betrayed, or separated from God. The beauty of the cross of course is just how much triumph and victory can come out of the deepest depths of evil, and how the world is transformed because of it. American slave culture and the Appalachian people always possessed a strong theology of death and resurrection because of the immense trials and suffering that surrounded those communities. I always like to listen to Appalachian bluegrass and gospel music because it doesn’t pretend to soften the blows and pain of human suffering but deals with it head on. And it always struggles to deal with pain and tragedy with the redeemer in mind. Woodlief says of his daughter Caroline, and of that day when he will wake to sleep no more:
I believe in a God who loves even the likes of me, and so I believe I will wake once more after my body betrays me, to the sound of singing. I am sure the songs of angels must be beautiful, but it will be the warbling of a little girl that my ear searches out. It has been so long since I have heard her voice. It has been so long, but I needn’t wait forever. Spring is coming, a spring with unfolding colors, enduring warmth, life that doesn’t mourn its own passing.
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. – 1 Peter 1:3
John Wesley said of the new birth, “It is the change wrought in the whole soul by the almighty Spirit of God when it is created anew in Christ Jesus.” A message he often preached was “Since we were born in sin we must be born again.” The resurrection of Christ affirms the everlasting power of Christ to save and deliver humanity from sin and death.
This Easter, Christians all over the world celebrate an event that points to our present and future hope and glory. In American slave and Appalachia culture, the afterlife was always celebrated and stressed through their words and music, because of difficult trials on earth. The resurrection is the real theology of liberation, as Samuel Medley wrote in his great hymn “I Know that My Redeemer Lives:”
He lives to silence all my fears,
He lives to wipe away my tears
He lives to calm my troubled heart,
He lives all blessings to impart.
The resurrection was foundational everyday preaching for the Apostles in the early Church. As witnesses, their focus on the resurrection was also the cause of their persecution by the ruling authorities (Acts 4:3,4). Today some who claim to be ministers of the Gospel deny the miracle of the resurrection or dismiss it as “merely symbolic.” Sadly, they deny Scripture and Church teaching.
The Apostles knew that when they saw the risen Christ they were looking at the beginning and the end of history. The complete purpose and promise of Christ and humanity was made known and it’s an incomparable comfort. Humanity has a purpose and a place to call home. One of the most perplexing and haunting aspects of life is death. Life on earth is all we know and death for so many is very troubling and a topic to be avoided. Many churches and houses of worship avoid it. This is sad and it shows a wide displacement from the early Church and Church Fathers. For the believer, they will share in the resurrection of Christ and “death will be swallowed up in victory” (1 Cor. 15:42-54).
Often in the burdens that afflict our inner most being we can only find meaning in the resurrection. The trials, despair, and pain of this life crushes us too much. But when we spend our time dwelling on the risen Lord, our despair turns to hope. We know that he will not abandon us or forsake those who love and worship him, especially beyond the grave. The resurrection is a cause for endless celebration. It is the seal that we will fully dwell in the everlasting with the Triune God who created us for relationship with him for his glory.
My Acton commentary this week looks at As We Forgive, a moving documentary about reconciliation and forgiveness in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. As I reflected on forgiveness in my own life, my thoughts fell on a dear friend who died very young and my feelings towards the man who took his life.
The full commentary follows:
Two and a half years ago I lost my good friend, Tim. He had just reenlisted for his second term in the Army after having already served once in Iraq. On a late summer evening, while stationed on his base in Washington, a fight broke out. Tim tried to break it up and was stabbed in the neck by a fellow solider. He died shortly afterward at the hospital. Tim was 22. I haven’t ever thought much about the young man who took his life. And if I had the opportunity to meet him, I can’t think of any reason that I would. Tim’s killer is locked behind bars for the rest of his life, and for all intents and purposes justice has been served. For me it’s easier to forget that he still lives while my friend is dead.
For many in the small African country of Rwanda, however, it’s not easy to forget about death. Just over a year ago, I traveled with the Acton Institute to Rwanda in preparation for a new project on poverty. Although we were there primarily talking to entrepreneurs about wealth and poverty, it was impossible not to have questions about the 1994 genocide. In less than 100 days, nearly one million people were murdered and tens of thousands were responsible for these deaths. Flying into the country with that knowledge, a mere 14 years later, I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious and unsettled, the same sort of tension that I felt while visiting Tim’s body at the funeral home. The weight of death stood in stark contrast to such a vibrant culture. (more…)
If it be all for nought, for nothingness
At last, why does God make the world so fair?
Why spill this golden splendor out across
The western hills, and light the silver lamp
Of eve? Why give me eyes to see, the soul
To love so strong and deep? Then, with a pang
This brightness stabs me through, and wakes within
Rebellious voice to cry against all death?
Why set this hunger for eternity
To gnaw my heartstrings through, if death ends all?
If death ends all, then evil must be good,
Wrong must be right, and beauty ugliness.
God is a Judas who betrays his Son
And, with a kiss, damns all the world to hell–
If Christ rose not again.
–Unknown Soldier, killed in World War I
(From The Life of Christ in Poetry, comp. Hazel Davis Clark)
“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!” – Luke 24:5b,6a
The Lord Jesus Christ makes all things new. He is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and his glory knows no end. Isaiah says in his 65th Chapter, “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”
Christians understand everything is summed up in Christ. For believers, all of our sins, trials, afflictions, pain, and heartache is made perfect and right through the victory of Christ over death. “The despair of all past history is reversed by the resurrection, and the hope of all future history is enabled by it,” says Thomas C. Oden.
In his horrible affliction and despair, Job cried out long before the incarnate presence of Christ on this earth, “I know my redeemer liveth.” Job had lost everything on earth. He lost his children, his comfort, and his health. His utter despair made him see the need for a mediator and vindicator, one who could reverse the deep despair and suffering that covered his circumstances and his entire body. Job points to the future triumph of the risen Lord.
The testimony and the witness of the Saints finds its meaning in the risen Lord. I know for me the testimony of their life has been decisive in my own belief. The same followers who were known to be in despair and hiding because of the death of Christ, then find super-natural authority and power in the name and reign of Christ. This makes sense, because through the resurrection, Christ raises humanity. The resurrection points to what we are to become. In the hymn “Christ the Lord is Risen Today“, Charles Wesley says it well:
Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia!
Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!
Made like him, like him we rise, Alleluia!
Ours the cross, the grave, the skies, Alleluia!