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Don't Fear the Walking Dead

To be sure, the recent rise in the popularity of dystopian entertainment is not unprecedented, with such stories appearing in many mediums across the centuries. However, the recent resurgence of interest is somewhat unique.
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Imagine a world plunged into darkness and despair. A world where all the security and stability of society collapses into chaos -- no government, no electricity, with none of the rules that make up civilization. Imagine a world where only the strongest and most ruthless survive, where your children are forced to murder for sport or where humanity is enslaved to evil forces. Or worse, imagine a world where the very dead rise again -- including loved ones and friends -- only to brutally kill and devour the desperate survivors. Such are the images of nightmares, our worst fears impossibly come true.

And yet, these are also the images drawn from some of our cultures most popular films, televisions shows and novels. Our imaginations for all manner of apocalyptic despair seem to know no bounds. Whether it is Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy or George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road, we seem to be drawn to the dark possibilities of our own global demise and destruction. Where does this come from? Why is it so prevalent?

To be sure, the recent rise in the popularity of dystopian entertainment is not unprecedented, with such stories appearing in many mediums across the centuries. However, the recent resurgence of interest is somewhat unique. Take for example the widely popular AMC television series, The Walking Dead (and it's recent spin-off Fear the Walking Dead). The original series follows a small group of survivors as they struggle to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic America destroyed by a virus that turns the infected dead into flesh-eating zombies, with all the horror and gore one would expect.

Fascination with zombies is nothing new, but both of the Walking Dead series have achieved something few others have done before: By drawing between 5 and 10 million viewers, they have created loyal viewers from well beyond the typical horror fan-base, appealing to people who would otherwise never watch such fare. Aside from an excellent cast and quality writing, a critical dynamic in the shows capacity to draw such a following comes from its ability to connect with the viewers fundamental fears, namely our fear of death.

So why would a Christian writer explore these themes of fear and death? As Christians, we often assume that, on merits of being followers of the once-dead-but-now-resurrected Jesus, that we would not live with any fear of death. Few of us face a genuine risk of immediate death, so how could such a fear be important enough to address here. Yet, Hebrews 2:14,15 reminds us that the work of Christ is to free us from the power of death and the bondage of fear it creates:

"Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death -- that is, the devil -- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death." (NIV)

Unless we are able to recognize the bondage of the fear of death in our lives (and churches), we cannot expect to live our lives in a ways that look like Jesus. The truth is that that fear of death extends much deeper and more subtly than to just death itself. Consciously or not, our response to our own mortality inspires behaviour that seeks to deny and/or mitigate the reality of death in our lives. This often takes two distinct expressions.

First, there is the explicit fear of death insofar as we fear those things which threaten the stability and sustainability of our lives- things like disease, poverty, oppression, etc. As a result, we respond to these fears by acting out of self-preservation, inevitably resulting in the exclusion or deprivation of others, especially those whose need is greatest (as they would most threaten us). Consider, for example, how many vocal Christians reject and attack efforts to provide basic care for all people, citing inequality and risk of economic crises.

Second, there is the more subtle fear of death as it threatens to our sense of identity. If I die, would my life have had any meaning? Would I be alone? Will I be remembered? Motivated to live in such a way where something of ourselves survives beyond our own mortal lives, we again react selfishly. This motivation is often at the heart of nationalism, the accumulation of wealth, achieving positions of influence and power -- each an example of something that inevitably defines us over and against something and/or someone else.

An honest examination of our lives tends to reveal how deeply in bondage so many of us remain to this fear of death. It produces institutions that consume vast amounts of resources for self-sustenance, mediating tightly conditioned "generosity" that rarely reflects sacrifice. It leads to controlled expressions of ministry that allows us the moral high ground of giving to those in need without allowing "them" to threaten our stability (or purity) directly. It allows us to take strong, counter-cultural positions on issue of "morality" that have little to no direct impact on our lives of communities, while ignoring our systemic culpability in widespread injustice and inequality. It allows us to treat the world with contempt dressed in so-called righteousness, twisting their legitimate criticism of our hypocrisy, claiming instead that is "persecution of the faithful".

Yet Jesus calls us to follow the way of self-emptying, sacrificial love -- a love that finds it's standard in Jesus' own first teaching on the topic, as a love for our enemies. While we might find ways to justify building lives of insular self-protection, Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that such a life is contrary to the call of Jesus:

"The Christian cannot simply take for granted the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. In the end all his disciples abandoned him. On the cross he was all alone, surrounded by criminals and the jeering crowds. He had come for the express purpose of bringing peace to the enemies of God. So Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the midst of enemies. There they find their mission, their work." (Life Together)

In other words, it is the very freedom from the fear of death that is to characterize the witness of the Christian community. Our commitment to empty ourselves for the sake of loving God and others is to be embodied in acts of laying down our lives for others. While this might include literally dying for others (John 15:13), it most often means putting the needs of others ahead of our own (1 John 3:16-17), trusting that our own needs will be met by God, who gives us "our daily bread". This is what is at the heart of Jesus' admonition in Matt. 6:25-34- that we should be free from any anxiety for our own well being, able to recklessly abandon ourselves into selfless service and love of God and others, knowing that God (and others) will care for us in turn.

As beautiful as the idea of this may sound, the hard reality of it is difficult to swallow. The path to such self-emptying is quite clear: "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship). The cross is not merely a romantic religious image, but the counter-intuitive means by which we find life through death, made possible by Jesus. Richard Beck, in his stunning book The Slavery of Death, writes:

Following the example of Jesus, we become 'nothing.' In a sense, we 'die'-and thus we no longer have to fear dispossession, loss, diminishment, or expenditure in the face of death. Not that we seek out such losses.

But we form our identities in such a way that we are freed from the anxiety of self-preservation, which makes different choices and modes of being human open and available to us. The creation of a secure heart makes love a possibility.

It enables us to do something that biological creatures worried about self-preservation don't naturally do: place the interests of others before our own... The spirituality of death that had previously possessed our beings has been 'exorcised' and replaced with the animating and life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

The cross represents this death, a death that points to a kenostic indifference that creates the space and capacity to love. This is a death that brings about the possibility of resurrection.

Like Jesus, we are to lead in this way by modelling it in our lives. Yet, it is often those in leadership for whom it is most difficult to embrace, both for their own struggles and the external expectations placed on them by churches and communities. Pastors are often called to fearlessly lead through word and deed what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus, yet, how many of us have equivocated or even remained silent about points of deep conviction for fear of rejection or even (understandably) to protect job security? We are not looking for suffering and controversy for its own sake, but neither can we allow such fear to govern our own lives as disciples and disciple-makers. If the cross of alienation or termination is required, we must join Christ on that path.

The church I pastor, called Little Flowers Community, shares life together in one of our city's inner city neighbourhoods. In addition to worshiping together, many of us have chosen to share life together in intentional community which includes co-housing. In the midst of that, we practice hospitality, meaning that we sometimes have house guests who would otherwise be homeless, whether from mental illness, poverty and/or other dynamics. Needless to say, such a way of life is not common for most churches. As you can imagine, such practices raise a great deal of anxiety in our hearts -- Are these people "safe"? What if they steal? What if we don't have enough for our families? These are all legitimate questions and need to be carefully considered.

However, like the fears surfaced in the dystopian fictions, these anxieties often expose our own fear of death in its different expressions. While we do not ignore the the risk of suffering and death -- for to do so would show disdain for the gift of life that God has given us -- we cannot let fear govern our responses. Further, if we genuinely believe that God will "give us this day our daily bread", then we must resist the impulse to withhold that which others need in the immediate that we do not. In our community, we have named this fear and chosen to put it down by practicing the counter-intuitive life of love and generosity. This has been especially meaningful as, over time, more members of our community are those who genuinely are "the least of these" and in their understanding, lead us by example.

The discipline of recognizing and naming our fears is essential for us as communities. This requires a commitment to suspend our impulse to justify, qualify or rationalize our fears and failings. When we rediscover the practices of confession and mutual support (modelled powerfully for us in 12 step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous) suddenly those things which once seemed liabilities to life and faith become opportunities for the witness of humble transformation in the context of genuine community. Is it any surprise that, while pop culture often represents the church with disdain, it invariably portrays groups like AA with great respect? When we are weak, then we are strong. (I explore this theme more explicitly in my book Vulnerable Faith).

An interesting thing happened in the TV series The Walking Dead after the first season. While the threat of flesh-eating zombies remained, the group soon learned to accept such risks as the new normal, clearing a field of "walkers" with the same casual ease we might clear a field of weeds and stone. Instead, the thing the survivors had most to fear was not the walking dead, but the living, themselves included. In a world of scarce resources, where the maxim of "might makes right" rules, they had to decide how they would relate to those others remaining alive. In this way, the story of these survivors is our story too. How will we choose to live in a world that lives in bondage to the fear of death?

"The virtues necessary to be a martyr are no different from the virtues necessary to be a faithful Christians. This means that martyrdom is not a special calling for a select few but the commitment of every Christians and the responsibility of every church." (Craig Hovey, To Share In The Body)


Orginally published in and adapted from Leader, Fall 2013, MennoMedia.
Reprinted with permission.