Part 5 of the series “A Dystopian Lent”
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
March 13, 2016
Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
Isaiah 43:16–21 • The LORD says— who makes a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and battalion; they will lie down together and will not rise; they will be extinguished, extinguished like a wick. Don’t remember the prior things; don’t ponder ancient history. Look! I’m doing a new thing; now it sprouts up; don’t you recognize it? I’m making a way in the desert, paths in the wilderness. The beasts of the field, the jackals and ostriches, will honor me, because I have put water in the desert and streams in the wilderness to give water to my people, my chosen ones, this people whom I formed for myself, who will recount my praise.
John 12:1–8 • Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, home of Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Lazarus and his sisters hosted a dinner for him. Martha served and Lazarus was among those who joined him at the table. Then Mary took an extraordinary amount, almost three-quarters of a pound, of very expensive perfume made of pure nard. She anointed Jesus’ feet with it, then wiped his feet dry with her hair. The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume. Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), complained, “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would take what was in it.)
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.
What is it that makes zombies so terrifying? Over the years there has been a fascination in the culture at large with zombies. The earliest zombie movie was the 1932 film White Zombie, but the modern zombie craze can be traced to George Romero’s 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead, which was the first film to depict zombies as reanimated, flesh-eating corpses, essentially redefining the genre and creating the monster we know today. Since that time the zombie has shown up in nearly 400 movies, including Dawn of the Dead, The Evil Dead, Day of the Dead, Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, 28 Days Later, Shaun of the Dead, Land of the Dead, 28 Weeks Later, Zombie Land, and World War Z, to name but a few of the more popular ones.
On television, the AMC series The Walking Dead, based on the comic series of the same name, has captivated viewer interest as it presents, once again, the familiar trope of a world devastated by a plague that reanimates the dead who pass on the infection to those they bite, who will die of the infection and return as undead themselves. Given the popularity of the genre in general and the television series in particular, there is something about the bleak, zombie-infected dystopian landscape that we can’t get enough of. What is it about zombies that fascinates and terrifies us so?
There are a number of different reasons why we might find zombies so compelling and terrifying.
One possible reason is that zombies are the epitome of the mindless horde, and that we fear loss of individual identity and being turned into a shell of ourselves. The same fear that makes us fear Star Trek’s Borg—who “assimilate” individuals into their technological hive-mind collective—makes us fear the zombie. Zombie is even a term sometimes used in cognitive science to describe the non-existent, hypothetical human being lacking a consciousness. The ultimate separation of the physical body and the “self” that inhabits the body. A terrifying vision of the individual reduced to automaton.
There are even those who have theorized that our fear of zombies is linked to the political mood of the country. Some have argued that zombies are more popular in times when the Republicans are in office (the fear of being subsumed into a mindless horde, apparently) and that vampires are more popular when the Democrats are in office (the fear of being bled dry through taxes, etc.). (I have no idea who’s supposed to be more frightening in an era of divided government and partisan gridlock—werewolves?)
But the reality is that what we find the most terrifying about zombies isn’t their hordeness, it’s their deadness.
II. THE DEAD WHO ARE ALIVE AGAIN
There’s just something about the living dead that we find unnerving. What is it about the dead being alive again that terrifies us?
In an episode of the TV show Lost –a show rife with philosophical and religious imagery–one character believes that the death of another character is necessary to achieve what he wants–and so he murders him. Later, he discovers the latter character alive and well. Post-coffin alive. While on some level he had believed it would happen, the first character admits that he wasn’t really expecting it. He says,
I had no idea what would happen. I’ve seen this island do miraculous things. I’ve seen it heal the sick, but never once has it done anything like this. Dead is Dead. You don’t get to come back from that. Not even here.
And then adds, “The fact that [the second character] is alive scares the hell out of me.”
Now, it should be pointed out, that there is nothing at all frightening about the resurrected person–he is quite peaceful, and even agreeable with his murderer. So, it’s not him that the one character is frightened of. It is the idea of him that scares him.
The dead are supposed to stay dead. We don’t like it when they don’t.
That’s not a new thing. The threat of the dead coming back to the realm of the living has been a terrifying option since as long as we’ve had literature to imagine it.
In the ancient Babylonian epic Gilgamesh, the goddess Ishtar is so incensed by Gilgamesh’s refusal of her advances and offers of marriage (and the insults he heaps upon her in doing so) that she demands her father unleash the Bull of Heaven against him. If he does not do as she demands, she will open the gates of the underworld and “the dead will outnumber the living.” Her father relents. Even in ancient Babylon, no one wanted to face zombies.
Dead is dead. It’s supposed to stay that way.
III. THE WALKING DEAD
This is what really terrifies us. We expect the dead to go away so that we don’t have to deal with the reality of death. Now that we’re able to, we sanitize death: it takes place in hospitals and the dead are whisked away to some unseen place and delivered to the funeral home and the next time we see our loved one, they’ve been cleaned, dressed, made up, and laid out in a restful pose.
The times when loved ones died at home and had their bodies prepared by the family are long gone. We have become so uncomfortable with death that we can’t even talk about it any more. We say don’t say that people died but that they passed away or just passed, which always sounds to me like they did well on an exam or something. Our funerals are now memorial services, our graveyards are memorial gardens, our coffins are caskets—an older word for a jewelry box. (Please, when I die, just bury me in a coffin in a graveyard after a funeral and say, “Well, he’s dead.”)
Because none of us wants to confront the reality of death that looms over us. We avoid talking about it in order that it might be less real to us.
The thing that makes zombies so terrifying is that we are confronted with dead versions of ourselves who have not had the common courtesy to go elsewhere. We have to face the reality that we might actually become one of the dead. The irony here, is that embracing our mortality might be the only way to truly live.
At one point in The Walking Dead, the main group are holed up in a barn for the night and reflecting on the world they find themselves in and the reality they have to face. The group’s leader, Rick, says:
When I was a kid… I asked my grandpa once if he ever killed any Germans in the war. He wouldn’t answer. He said that was grown-up stuff. So… so I asked if the Germans ever tried to kill him. But he got real quiet. He said he was dead the minute he stepped in to enemy territory. Every day he woke up and told himself, “Rest in peace. Now get up and go to war.” And then after a few years of pretending he was dead… he made it out alive. That’s the trick of it, I think. We do what we need to do and then, we get to live. But no matter what we find in DC, I know we’ll be okay. Because this is how we survive. We tell ourselves… that we are the walking dead.
“We are the walking dead.”
This turns out to be truer for the characters than they might think of what is simply a survival strategy. Early on, they learn from a scientist at the CDC that they are all carrying the virus that causes reanimation. While they won’t get sick quickly and die, the way those who get bitten do, the reality of the virus is that when they do die, of whatever cause, they will come back as a “walker.” Whether they like it or not, they’re all the walking dead.
But the reality is that that is true of all of us. We’re all mortal. We’re all walking around as those who will one day be dead. We all walk around carrying our mortality within us. What is the most terrifying thing about zombies is that they force us to confront this reality more directly than we’re used to doing. None of us wants to admit that we are the walking dead.
IV. AT THE HOUSE OF LAZARUS
Death, is after all, the Great Fear. It is one of psychologist Irvin Yalom’s “four great concerns” at the root of our psyches. Other psychologists speak of “terror management theory,” arguing that our fear of annihilation and death motivates everything we do as a kind of coping mechanism. The fear of death is at the heart of our existential anxiety. It begets all of our other fears, fears that form the basis of our desire to control, to inflict harm, to sin. The very fear Jesus came to liberate us from. And we see that in the scripture lesson for tonight.
Here Jesus is at the house of Lazarus, one who was dead and now, because of Jesus’ power, walks the earth again. Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha host a dinner for Jesus and his disciples. At one point, Mary takes some very expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. The gesture is so extravagant that Judas Iscariot complains that it was a waste of resources. Jesus responds this way:
Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone. This perfume was to be used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it. You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”
Sermons on this passage frequently focus on the question of the use of resources, or the extravagant nature of Mary’s act (I have done that), or some other aspect of this act that seems to violate propriety. But tonight, I want to look at how Jesus interprets what is happening. Jesus interprets the act as an anointing before his burial. It would have been done to his body when he was dead and about to be buried and, Jesus says, “this is how she has used it.” Putting it on Jesus now is the same thing as anointing his body before burial. In effect, Jesus is declaring himself already to be one who is dead.
Jesus is the walking dead. Here in the house of a man who was dead and returned to life, Jesus, living, declares himself to be one of the dead.
This is the most important point of all of this. Jesus in John’s gospel is the most divine of all the portraits of Jesus in the gospels. He is ever in control. He is all-knowing. Powerful and mighty. He is the Word of God, God’s own self-revelation, come down from heaven and made flesh among us.
This Jesus, this God-with-us, declares himself to be one of the walking dead. One of us.
See, the power of that declaration is two-fold.
Death is the great fear that lies at the heart of all the others. The great loss, of self, of being. The ultimate experience of being cut-off. And Jesus declares himself to be a part of that experience. Through this we know that not even in death are we abandoned. Not even in death are we separated from the love and presence of God. Christ declares that he, too, not only knows death but participates in it. Sharing in that death with us. Whatever our fears about death, we know that we are not abandoned in it. We may walk in death, but we will not walk it alone.
And further, we know that the story doesn’t end with Jesus’ death. The gospels are meant to be read with the ending in mind. Indeed, it was that ending that prompted the authors of the gospels to write in the first place. And so, when we read Jesus saying that he is like a corpse having been prepared for burial, we have to read it not as having been said by one who was going to die before too long, but as one who is the Risen One. The one who conquers death. The one whom the grave cannot hold.
Years ago, I was asked by a student whether Jesus counted as a zombie. I said no, and went on to distinguish between a resuscitation and a resurrection, the former bringing life back to a person who had died (basically, what happened to Lazarus, and which happens from time to time in our hospitals and emergency care situations) and the latter being a completely renewed and glorified body, imperishable and incorruptible, never to die again. But now I think I might have been too quick on that answer and think I wasn’t quite correct. Oh, I still think there’s a difference between a resurrected body and a resuscitated corpse—that much hasn’t changed—but I think that prior to his crucifixion, death, and resurrection Jesus was a zombie. Because we are all zombies. We are all the “walking dead.” And Jesus, like us, is one such walker.
Dystopias like The Walking Dead provoke our fears of death run amuck. The zombies are the relentless tide of death that we know, deep down, is headed our way. As such, it is compelling and terrifying fiction.
The message of the gospel is not that we do not die or face death, but that when we face it, God faces it with us. That Jesus should be the Word of God made flesh, God’s self-revelation in human form, and should declare solidarity with us even to death, is the great source of our hope. As St. Paul said, not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In our living and our dying, we are united with God through Christ.
So, yes, the horde is coming for us. It is a moment we will all face. But we face it with one who stands with us in the midst of it. Who neither abandons us to death or in death. And therein is our hope. As we die, so does Jesus; as he lives again, so shall we.