The “Avoidance” of Death [Billings and McGill]

Tragically a recent acquaintance of mine, Fr. Matthew Baker, just died as he was driving his vehicle in the weather (in the East Coast of North America) and had an accident; he died, but his six children were spared (please keep his wife and kids in prayer). Death is a reality we all face, even in America. I was once again just recently reminded of my own mortality as I went in for my annual CT scan to make sure that I am still cancer free; free from a cancer (DSRCT) that is typically terminal, incurable, and aggressive (as many of you know, by God’s grace I have remained cancer free, and as I write this, for five years). I also just happen to be reading a book from another theologian friend, J. Todd Billings. Todd was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) back in September, 2012; he has since undergone treatment (and continues to receive maintenance levels of chemo), a stem cell transplant, and as a result his cancer has gone into remission.

Death is an ever present reality that each and every person who draws breath on the face of earth must face it. Death is indiscriminate, and transcends racial, ethnic, geo-political, and all regional boundaries; death is an equal opportunity reality that we all must face. But living in the West, particularly in the United States (and/or Europe), we would rather not deal with reality; we would rather pretend, as much as possible that death has no reach into our personal lives and plans. In fact, we are so dedicated to avoiding the reality of death that we have created a whole society dedicated to not dealing with it; as much as possible. Todd Billings, in his recently released book Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ has written this:

The Denial of Death in Western Culture, and Death in the Church

In contrast to God’s story, which includes and envelops death, the currents of consumerist, Western Culture move toward repressing dying and death. To come face-to-face with our mortality would be to encounter our frailty and limitations—showing the absurdity of our attempts to center the world on ourselves. But our consumerist culture would rather deny these limits. Western culture glorifies youth and spends billions of dollars annually to make the appearance of youth last longer and longer. The actual experience of dying and death is isolated to nursing homes, hospices, and the funeral industry, away from children and youth and the rest of the family. This cultural trend was exposed to me with particular potency while working in community development for six months in a rural area of Uganda. In that context, dying and death were thickly woven into everyday life. When I would meet a new family, I would often hear explanations like, “We have seven children, but only four are still living.” Ailing and dying members of the “extended” family were not institutionalized but lived in the same house as children and young people. And death itself was an everyday thing—not a rare incursion. I remember writing about it at the time, saying death was like “enya,” a staple food eaten at least twice a day. We should not romanticize this state of affairs in Uganda—this is not the way things are supposed to be. But we need to recognize that in the West today, we not only have better medical care but we also tend to put our elderly and sick out of sight. Intentionally or not, we isolate ourselves from the real-life dying and death of others, and we have a culture that is often so focused on positive self-esteem and accomplishing one personal “victory” after another that dying and death are pushed to the margins.[1]

In this exact same vein, Arthur C. McGill has written in his amazing little book Death and Life: An American Theology:

The Ethic of Avoidance 

As we observe our lives in this country, we cannot help but be struck by the effort Americans make to appear to be full of life. I believe this duty is ingrained deeply in everyone. Only if we can create around us a life apparently without failure, can we convince ourselves that death is indeed outside, is indeed accidental, is indeed the unthinkable enemy. In other words, the belief that death is outside of life is not a fact to be acknowledged; it is a condition to be attained. Consider the American commitment to nice appearances. We often speak of the suburbs in terms of near and flawless appearances. When we look at the lawns and the shrubs and the solid paint of those homes, who can believe the human misery that often goes on within them?… What about the people who do fail in America? And what about those who collapse of life? What about the sick and the aged and the deformed and the mentally retarded? Do they not remind us that the marks of death are always working within the fabric of life? No, because in the United States, deliberately and systematically, with the force of the law itself, we compel all such people to be sequestered where we cannot see them. You’ll find no beggars on the streets of America. You’ll visit few homes where a very aged person is present and where that person’s imminent dying is integrated into the rhythm of family life. As for the insane, they are hidden in such well-landscaped institutions, behind such beautiful lawns and trees, that when we drive by in our shiny automobiles we cannot imagine the suffering that goes on within those walls.[2]

This is heavy and serious stuff, and I think something that we can all recognize as true as those who inhabit (for the most part) the Western existence. It is true, we have not been designed by God to die, but live. But we can only live, if we are united to life itself in Jesus Christ, who is life. Through his death, burial, and resurrection, and our participation in that we can face the reality of death and life as dual realities in Christ for us. We don’t have to pretend like death isn’t happening to us; especially when it is. And when we are faced with tragic things like cancer diagnoses, or car accidents—like the one that just claimed the life of our dear brother, Matt Baker—or other terrible things, we can look to the One who raises the dead, as he raised himself for us. We do have a real and concrete hope for Matthew Baker; if I were to die from a recurrence of my cancer (God forbid it!) I have a real and living hope; if Todd Billings were to die from his cancer (God forbid it!) he has a real and tangible hope—and all of this because of Christ and the hope that his resurrection has provided for all of humanity.

But, as Billings and McGill have underscored for us, we continue to live in a Western society that will try and avoid the reality of death at all costs; this makes sense if for the ‘world’ there is no hope, if they have no hope of resurrection in Christ (personally). Life is a tragedy without a hero who can actually conquer death, and then give that victory to us as we participate in his victory, His life. But we live in a world, by definition, that will reject this even until its own death and destruction. We live in a world that will marginalize the plight of those types of people that most remind us of what we most fear, death; and so we will continue to build societies and buildings that hide what is happening all around us; death.

14 Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.[3]

[1] J. Todd Billings, Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2015), 105.
[2] Arthur C. McGill, Death and Life: An American Theology (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987 republished by Wipf and Stock Publishers), 18-19.
[3] NASB. Hebrews 2:14-15.

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2 comments

  1. Ron Huston · ·

    Thanks for the thoughtful article. It was helpful, but the stark reality of death and the accompanying fear remain. I am not nearly as concerned about being dead as I am about the process of getting there.

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  2. Yeah, me either Ron. Like I don’t want to die from the Cancer I had; a nightmare process.

    But this article wasn’t really for comfort, but for folks in our society who don’t think about such things and how we run from reality when instead through Christ we should embrace all of reality and allow that to work Christ’s compassion in us.

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