death, funeral, grace, love, mutual recognition, september 11, war on terror

The Attack on September 11 and the Funeral of My Grandmother on September 11: Two Very Different Visions

Today is September 11. As usual, this date is the occasion for a lot of talk about the ‘terror attacks’ and the unending ‘war on terror.’ For many the frustration has mounted. ISIS has arisen as a threat to Iraq, but didn’t we just get out there? I’m not sure the tail is wagging the dog, but rather, we and the Iraqis are reaping what the US participated in sowing. Historically we are not so innocent. Saddam Hussein did indeed use mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurds, slaughtering thousands and thousands, and horribly affecting many thousands more. However, that was in the 1980s when the US still supported Iraq as a barrier against Iran. Now we are stuck with a mess, at least partially of our own creation. We went into Iraq under pseudo-humanitarian, but largely fearful pretenses given by our leaders who knew quite well that they were lying, and would profit immensely from it. To make matters worse, much of the 31-44 longitude region above the equator is characterized by bloody, political conflict: Israelis-Palestinians; Syria’s civil war; Iraq’s…whatever it is (dissolving? conflict is too tame); Iraq-Turkey boundary dispute with the Kurds in-between; Afghanistan; and Ukraine-Crimea-Russia. So, apparently, now we are compelled to stay in Iraq, if just to clean up our mess so the justifications go. We have a problem. Now those justifying the ‘war on terror’ are comparing it to the length of the cold war. We are in trouble.

What answer do we have? My family and I buried my grandmother a year ago, to the day. Generally one might chalk up the date to a coincidence since she had died a few days before, but in point of fact, she was a person of excellent timing. She had her major stroke the Easter before. Well, actually, it was on the morning of Good Friday in her church’s sanctuary during a small service. While on my long drive down that same day, I worked out a theology of timing as beautiful (fitting-ness), good, and true. It was fitting and good––in a sort of iconographic imitatio way––to have a massively debilitating stroke not simply during a church service, but also just after lighting one of the candles as part of a Methodist take on the ancient tenebrae liturgy. I had something for truth; however, I forget what it was. It was probably something like a witness to the truth, but whatever I had for truth was eclipsed by the timing of her funeral. I do not know how else it would be possible to get so many people into church on an anniversary of September 11, much less not hear a word about it. For at least a few hours there was only grief; there was no sense of retribution that drove our national response to September 11. There was also a deep sense of remembering truth, both of who she was and Christianity’s hope for the resurrection of the dead because Jesus overcame the void. Funny how all of that is diametrically opposed to the ‘war on terror’: remembrance of US action before September 11 did not exist during our response; truth was sacrificed; and no one is even contemplating the hope of resurrection for all the dead, much less reconciliation. My grandmother’s funeral was an occasion of imagination and re-orientation.

But what good is imagination since it is so often negatively equated with ineffectual dreams? I did not mention my theology of timing to anyone, not from the pulpit or privately, for two reasons. First, it could appear as, although it would not have been, a politicizing of my grandmother’s death. I’m an ‘intellectual outsider’ to that small-town agricultural society; they have plenty of smart people but also suspicion. And who says I would be understandable? Never mind, that I’m not a Methodist or part of the church there, and I was leaving in a few days. One does not cause a potential stir like that without being part of the community. In truth, that may actually have made ineffectual my ‘imaginative work’ and the imaginative re-orientation of my grandmother’s funeral. Yet, there was something else that was practical and effective.

Second, I suggested a certain someone else should speak instead of me anyways. They had become part of the family, and because, in my own take on Scripture, there should be no separation between black and white in the church, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line in what was historically a slave state. There was far more racial diversity at the burial than in the church, presumably affirming the very real persistent legacy of slavery, segregation, and the Klan; indeed, the Missouri town is still rather strictly divided, geographically along racial/socio-economic lines. Nevertheless, a black woman willingly, truthfully, front and center from the pulpit, and side-by-side with one of my cousins eulogized her once employer turned friend-family. My grandmother’s funeral not only paused the political narrative of the status quo, but also, in so doing, was a very real site for the proleptic, albeit partial, realization of the eschatological vision.

All this tells me two things. First, like Stanley Hauerwas notes, timing requires time, and sometimes lots of it. Conflict resolution is not quick, in part, because healing human inflicted wounds takes time. However, how does this address the fact that innocents are still bombed right now or unarmed black men shot by police? Second, like Gary Dorrien understands, there are instances of break-through when all lights are green, a kairotic moment. Yet, historically this has been the justification for seizing or colluding with coercive power. So how does one reconcile the two types of time? Both points about time I attribute to God receiving and responding to human development qua receptivity. The Spirit works unevenly––sometimes in what seems like long stretches of silence and at other times in rapid succession––because the Spirit works in-between what human stubbornness will allow at the time, the possibility of human transformation, and the fullness of transfiguring humanity for theosis.

So how does this apply today? The issue is stubbornness: the refusal to love qua openness towards the other, ekstasis, and mutual indwelling with the other; the refusal to recognize the other as giving themselves that calls for one to reciprocate with self-gift. The answer, I believe, is in Rowan Williams’s work. We have to get to a place of dialogue to mutually develop. Dialogue is built on mutual recognition, rather than some sort of ‘pure’ rationalism; and mutual recognition is predicated on the love’s openness and grace’s receptivity. So the question, upon which lies the balance of many human lives and the environment, is: how do we get to the corporate realization that we mutually constitute each other?

Funerals need to be more like my grandmother’s. I do not ascribe to the sovereignty of the void, as if it ultimately determines meaning; but we need to learn how to deal with loss in a way that stresses our mutual interrelatedness. The death of a person should recall the full history of the community, as well as be a site for steps towards dealing with the loss of them in relation to the life of the community. Unfortunately, funerals now are little more than sentimental, ineffectual bandaids. This is ridiculous. First, the truth is a pre-requisite to properly mourn someone and heal. Second, funerals are the most important, public place for how those most affected can deal with violence. Funerals need to be deeply sensitive while having a kind of public social inquest as a strong element, and ‘both sides’ (if there are ‘two’ sides) present in some manner and under a banner like the medieval “truce of God.” These wars will not end if we grieve separately. Gee, doesn’t that sound kind of similar to the “Truth and Reconciliation” vision?

death, grace, movie

Maintain the Humanity in Humans or Become the Nazi

One may find the trailer below disturbing.

First thought: Dehumanizing is exactly what the Nazis did. I hope for the best in this movie, that it will shed light on what we should not do: fall into the equally violent and sinful way of seeing people as animals to be scalped. And for those readers who are protesting, this criticism is nothing new. However, Tarantino has given me little in the past to hope that such a criticism will be written into the movie. Although, perhaps the title is an indication to the contrary, or perhaps not. After all, Tarantino is not beyond the Norse understanding of the hero — the hero seeks to transcend death by doing great deeds so as to be remembered in lore.

Death calls out death. It is toxic and creeps into us all. This the trailer shows so thoroughly. How could we respond differently than a murderous cycle where all humanity is lost? Thank God for the interruption of grace.

In other movie news, Watchmen did alright in my book. Even if the Christology in it was just as terrible as the Dark Knight.

death, hope, love

Death to Comedy: Gurgle to Laughter

I am literally sitting next to a death bed. There is a certain smell to the room, quiet talk by those still around for the night, and a very, very slow IV drip. I’ve been to the hospital chapel, because frankly, it seemed wrong not to go in. That and the hope that stepping into a holy place (a place set aside) would do what my voice could not: speak the anguish. I’ve been told that He can hear us. I’ve been told that the dying man in front of us can hear us. Yet, all I seem to know is that the sound of death is gurgling.

I cannot stand an academic trivializing death or sterilizing humanity for the sake of a scholarly epiphany. This is emphatically what I am trying to avoid. What I cannot avoid is: the man who once smiled large is now virtually catatonic. I cannot avoid the warping of the voice. The constant gurgle, from a man who once laughed loud and hard, cannot be escaped. In a very real sense, this is a living nightmare.

While watching death in full control of a human, I have two answers for the family. For my family. I have to have answers, after all, I’m the one with theological training. I don’t have the choice to volunteer to act as chaplain, it is assumed. But at least I have two answers, answers I like because I think they’re good, beautiful, and true.

The most utterly bizarre juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced occurred in this hospital room. While the gurgle is incessant and dominating, there is laughter from memories and little jokes. He loved little toys. There are two voices in this room: death’s and grace’s. The grace — the pure gift — of divine redemption active in the people in the room speaks to the presence of grace: they are here, and here not at each others’ throats, but taking care of each other. They are at least reconciled enough to one another, knowingly or unknowingly, to live within this gift that makes the presence of God known. Therefore, they can laugh. Indeed, they do laugh.

What is it about love and hope that turns the gurgling to laughter? This juxtaposition is crucial: despite the work of death, hope lives. This is not a hope that looks for a miraculous recovery, but a hope that death does not have the last word. Death will not defeat the love of God. It is this love that stimulates the laughter in the room. And it is this laughter that reminds us of both the dying man’s laughter and divine laughter.

Jensen was wrong. The end is not music, it is laughter.

death, grace, modern nation-state, peace, political theology

The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 2)

In the past two posts, “Moving Towards the Comedy of Death” and “The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 1)“, I’ve been putting forward something titled “The comedy of death.”

The first post was on scientific soteriology and the inability for science to truly deal with death. Indeed, science is more than impotent, but rather, at times hurries death along farther than we could on our own, sending millions to the reaper. Humanity’s greatest achievements are equally destructive and not actually salvific. The Christian answer is not to run from death, but to face it and live well together, participating in the redemptive work of God.

The second post functions like a case study of sorts, mentioning three movies based on grace — being given what you need from an estranged family member, rather than getting what you want. These movies function as a way to imagine justice and solidarity at work while undergoing unusual, stressful circumstances, with the theme of death.

Consider this last one, yet another different view of the Christian life functioning redemptively in the face of death, but this time summed up in the phrase, “Memento mori“: Remember (you too are) mortal.

In Republican Rome, conquering commanders coming back from a victory against a new people group could maybe get a triumpha grand parade where the commander is literally is dressed up like a god, decked out in red and the recipient of the city’s adulation. Now, tradition says that in the moment of such praise, the commander was reminded of his mortality by a slave with the words: Memento mori. Such a job is the height of prophecy, yes? I would pay money to be given the time and space, during his Roman triumph, er, I mean, his Inaugural Address, to proclaim to the next president: Memento mori. Remember you are but dust! Remember your death!

This is a Christianity that is not necessarily at the service of the state — as a Bible used to swear in an office holder — but rather this is the work of God, making clear to the people of the world that they are not gods. This is comparable to the Barthian “Nein!” This is the loud refusal to confuse the state’s justice with true justice and true peace.

This comedy of death is first a liberation through the acceptance of our limits. This isn’t liberation from death, but the acknowledgment of our finitude — our status as creature and not creator — and to face death throughout our life. Instead of cheapening or avoiding death and tragedy, this takes evil seriously. The comedy of death, in many ways, is the Christian stabilizing weakness (strength) for our world — seeking justice/redemption and peace — in the face of frustrating, trying, bizarre, or farcical circumstances. The way this often plays out in a crazy world of violence, coercion, and commodification, we peaceably seek a scandalous redemption. After all, in a crazy world, the actions that are in step with the world are crazy as well. Part of the nature of the peaceable scandal is that it doesn’t fit into crazy and looks to the masses like foolishness.

The Christian life is death because the grim is always at our door, and comedy because God’s work culminates in redemption where the scripture “Death where is your sting?” is fulfilled, as death, the last enemy, is addressed for the last time.

death, grace, peace

The Christian Life: The Comedy of Death (Pt. 1)

This post is the continuation of the previous post, Moving Towards the Comedy of Death.

The “dark” comedy. It may be my favorite film genre, partly ’cause I like the brand of humor — which is generally irony and understatements in the face of frustrating, trying, bizarre, or farcical circumstances — but mostly because the good “dark” comedies are the gospel parables of our time. Simply, they’re about the redemption of broken relationships.

I have in mind three great “dark” comedies, The Royal Tenenbaums, Little Miss Sunshine, and Death at a Funeral. These extend beyond the wikipedia definition for a dark comedy, which in my opinion (although I am no professional film critic) is lacking: “a sub-genre of comedy and satire where topics and events that are usually regarded as taboo (such as death, rape, or domestic violence) are treated in a satirical or humorous manner…. usually includes an element of irony, or even fatalism.” Instead, I find that a more adequate definition of the wonderful movies listed above centers around the following: an odd assortment of diverse and well crafted characters who strive for what they want but do not receive it. Instead, in the end the characters get what they need.

Interestingly, each of the three movies relies on not the nuclear family, but an extended family. Halden has touched on the nuclear family, and I am quite sympathetic to his view, but would like to build upon it a little. Importantly, the only way redemption could exist in the movies above is through extended family interaction. Uncles need their nieces and nephews, grandparents need their grandchildren, and in-laws or future in-laws need the family they married or will marry into. Such notions of interaction and redemption ought to call into question how we exist today as family units. How much redemptive work are we missing in our family alone, much less the church? That gay uncle you have shunned? He is important, and if the movies are true, he is fundamental to any true fulfillment/redemption in the family.

Its not about grabbing what you want, its about being told and given what you need. Theology calls this grace. And in theory, the justice that the church works towards, the redemption of people and their broken relationships, is the climax. Peace is the aftermath, the dénouement; it is after the narrative resolution where peace lives between people and where almost, if not literally, the lion lays down with the lamb and swords are beaten into plowshares, or where in the movie, familial enemies hug and so begins the flowering of a previously damned relationship. This is the Christian life. In the face of death or farce, we peaceably seek a scandalous redemption.

(As for this last image, the family was arrested together because they showed real solidarity with Oliver.)

death, liberation, science

Moving Towards the Comedy of Death

I was thinking the other day about problematic questions in the future for theology, and I found myself fixated on the combination of human and machine (as well as technological advancement on the whole) and the theological issues this may bring up. I wondered if a creation theology could extend to machine, but that seemed like a dead end now, not all that interesting yet, and problematic as hell. What is significant and interesting is how technology does and will function.

Cultural imagination has always played an important of a role in technological development, if at the very least, fueling imagination. Today, cyberpunk” — which includes stories and adaptations from Phillip K. Dick (and perhaps Asimov, but he did write much earlier), movies like The Matrix, and across the Pacific with the likes of Akira and Ghost in the Shell — and various other lesser known incarnations of cyberpunk seem to rule today’s mind by shaping the language of discourse around the future. Albeit, generally not a spectacular language (after all, the TV and Movie medium limits it a great deal), but at least some of the themes are important. Themes center around a dystopic future, common existential crises, and science and technology gone mad or bad to name a few. Aftermath and survival seem to be the name of the game, despite the use or integration of technology and humanity. Life is still complex and in so many ways. It hasn’t improved, oppressive structures still exist.

What interests me isn’t about the ethics of machine and humanity, its about, or against, a spirituality or faith and a way of being that incorporates soteriological machinations toward always being. Immortality is a common theme, and often even the protagonist seeks to go beyond human limits to achieve a personal, extended life or perceived “justice.” As for the real, future individual applications, they will obviously necessitate a case by case basis, for at times technology can be a legitimate improvement (i.e. wheel chair), however, the grand scheme of our creation — our technological leaps — is about saving us? Well that is a theological, anthropological narrative we must always critique.

And now for a funny story, which I promise is entirely relevant. A fellow student recently came exasperated to the information desk in the library. I along with two other fellow theology PhD students were staffing it at the time. The distressed student began with, “They’re building a dooms day device and next week they’ll switch it on!” He was referencing the large hadron collider. Now, trying to be sensitive to his needs, we all bust out laughing, or at least giggling, because we just couldn’t get over the irony of humanity blowing itself to pieces with what it hails as salvation and exploration. Granted, some of us knew a bit more about CERN and the LHC to know that most likely a black hole would not form to de-atomize our existence. And so our theological answers? 1. Go email a physicist. We’re at a University, I’m pretty sure they exist here. Still. But hurry, or they might not! 2. A Barthian notion of God’s redemption and hesed was explained. 3. In light of impending doom, and perhaps eschatological fulfillment, how will we actively continue to participate in the building of the basiliea before the new creation? How will we continue, or begin to help people based on this still relevant kingdom hope? He didn’t quite like this so much. The focus on the local, instead of litigation, and the notion that we cannot control fellow human beings seemed a bit much.

However, this is exactly what Christianity can give us in spades, the ability to laugh when faced with our death — a liberation in the acceptance of our limits. This isn’t liberation from death, but the acknowledgment of our finitude and that it is okay to be a creature. However, it does not stop there, otherwise this theology would be insensitive to what it ought to take seriously, the suffering of others. And this leads me into a follow up post in the near future about the very core of Christian existence: “The comedy of death.”