On the nature of Christianity


Reposted with revisions, from early 2004:

On another journal, a friend has posted the following assertion:

Christianity is a death cult. Do good. Spread the word. Die.

He prefaces this with an insistence, which should be obvious to anyone who gives the matter more than fifteen second thought, that the call to take up the cross is an invitation to death, and not just any death, but death of a most painful, humiliating and violent kind —the kind of death suffered at the hands of the state by those who are legally deemed to deserve not only the end of their life, but to be held up as an example of the pain and punishment that goes with criminality.

It is not a new observation, of course. Just a few decades ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer zeroed in on this same point with the opening words of his book The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

And in every generation (so I assert), there has been a conflict between people who actually GOT the message and wanted to do what Jesus had preached, and those who wanted to stabilize it into a real religion, usually one that provided them with a meal ticket in the process.

—to quote my friend again.

So let me suggest that there is a moral equivalence between (a) the proffered promise of eternal life, which translates (in popular imagination, by a process encouraged endlessly by that party which also embraced Constantine and the ascendancy of the kingdoms of this world) into dreams of a future heavenly existence, but which more properly refers to something that begins with a transformation of this present existence, and (b) the call to embrace death— one’s own death, that is to say, whether understood merely as the inevitability of mortality or as the necessary beginning-point of the all-embracing transformation. Christianity sees death as the gateway to life — to this life, not just (or, perhaps, at all?) a life in an otherworldly future. Those who have died have been set free. Those who know how to die well have a message that can set others free. Those who, having died, have lost the fear of death, are free to do the good that such fear would otherwise restrain them from. Thus in those intervening decades between the writing of the New Testament and the establishment of Christianity as an acceptable religion under Constantine, Christians were known, among other things, for their willingness to care for the sick in the midst of plague, giving no regard to their own risk. Like the martyrs, their contemporaries, who faced flame and wild beasts, they took joy in such tasks, by which they bore witness to the Message they had received. Abundant life and the bold embrace of death were one and the same.

Thus letter-writers Paul, Peter and John could talk about death as already having happened, and the new life as that which was the possession only of those who had truly died. To Paul, this meant living in the power of the resurrection. To John, it meant living in love, and thus without fear. To Peter, it meant. being partakers of the divine nature and living the rest of this earthly life by the will of God.

The conflict is always between those who see such things as somehow indicative of otherworldly hopes, and those who see them as descriptions of what it means to fully embrace the instructions of that incredibly charismatic rabbi, Jesus, on how to live in this world, that is, how to embrace death — not only its inevitability, but its painful reality — while living.

It is better to die in screaming agony than never really to live. Live wholly. Do what you can. Die well.

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