Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 7: The Sign of the Cross)

In the previous chapter, Beck discussed the concept of the eccentric identity, and how our embracing this identity that centers outside ourselves can help us overcome our death anxiety.  It’s good stuff.

This next chapter introduces multiple interrelated concepts all interpreted through the vision of the cross.  Though I recognize that the discussion of identity in the previous chapter is important, and that it’s even framed with reference to the example Jesus sets in his life, it feels like it doesn’t quite reach any sort of conclusion that explains the significance of Christianity in general and the crucifixion in particular.

I suspect these feelings are largely personal and relate to my experiences as an evangelical Christian.  For all of my criticisms leveled at that branch of the Church, I learned from it that the crucifixion matters, and I still believe that.  Jesus lived as an example for Christians, but it’s also important to remember how he died and wrestle with the meaning of that act.  This is the chapter where Beck really explores that facet of the faith.

Now, I’ve written about theories of atonement before, but it’s been mostly in critique of the implications that come from theories centering on the satisfaction of God’s wrath through a method of scapegoating (I think the connection between this practice discussed in Leviticus 16 and the crucifixion is usually overlooked because it’s not as clean a metaphor as the Lamb of God, and the scapegoat isn’t slaughtered but turned loose to die in the wild).  I’m not a big fan of God’s wrath, so typically atonement theories that include that characteristic are nonstarters for me when considering theological models.  Anyway, the explanation that Beck promotes here is devoid of wrath and considers instead how the crucifixion demonstrates to the utmost degree what we’re called to do in following Christ.

It begins with a consideration of martyrdom and what that role actually means.  The Greek word from which martyr is derived simply means “witness.”  It’s largely because of the ultimate fate of many martyrs in the early Church’s history that the label carries connotations of dying for one’s beliefs.  As martyrs, we’re supposed to be witnesses; the literal dying part is a possibility in certain extreme situations, but it’s not the entirety of the role.  At the same time, Beck makes a case that martyrdom does involve submitting to death in small ways through the renunciation of our possessive identities.  By refusing to place value in the hero systems that prop up our death delusion, we become martyrs both in the original and contemporary meanings.  As Beck says, “there is no qualitative distinction between the martyr and the Christian in everyday life.  The distinction is only quantitative, a difference not of kind but of degree.”

The way that we grow into this martyr role involves committing to a kind of asceticism in our practice as Christians.  Typically, ascetics in the Christian imagination resemble John the Baptist or the prophet Zechariah, people who deny themselves all kinds of physical comforts as a way of demonstrating their message or heightening their own experience of God.  It seems like very extreme behavior to be an ascetic, especially in modern industrialized settings where comfort for the privileged is so easily acquired.  We think of this behavior as possibly virtuous, but not for everyone.

One issue that I’ve wrestled with recently is the problem of Christian identity (particularly in the more liberal vein that I find myself in) with relation to the world.  Evangelicalism is a highly problematic system, largely because of its emphasis on setting members of the community apart from the rest of the world through strict doctrinal regulation, but Christians within that branch of the Church tend to have a much easier time maintaining their spiritual identity (if they’re not on the outs or heading towards farewell territory).  As I’ve pushed more into liberal territory and considered theological systems that emphasize universal love and redemption, it’s definitely felt like the lines between my spiritual identity and those of non-Christians have blurred.  On the one hand, this isn’t such a bad thing because it’s a breaking down of barriers to communication and mutual empathy.  On the other, it does sometimes leave me wondering what makes identifying as a Christian so special (for anyone following along at home, yes, this line of thinking does feed into a recursive loop with the problem of buying into worldly systems by wanting to belong to an in-group that I think is “special”; I’ve not yet figured out how to resolve that tension).

In Beck’s proposed system, the Christian identity, besides being eccentric through its focus on divinely received identity, is important because of its emphasis on asceticism (which Beck defines as an acquiescence to small instances of death through self-expenditure for the sake of others).  Most people are familiar with the Christian preoccupation with renouncing the ways of the world, and this is how Beck suggests that we do it.  We reject the values of principalities and powers in favor of a life devoted to undermining our own self-preservation instincts.  We try to empty ourselves of the striving to survive (Beck says that this doesn’t mean adopting an attitude of death seeking, so much as an indifference to our own survival).  We’re supposed to follow the example of kenosis Jesus sets and Paul describes in Philippians:

Who, being in very nature[a] God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Philippians 2:6-8

I’ve mentioned kenosis before as a useful concept for considering the problem of theodicy in a cosmological model that incorporates evolution, and also as a helpful idea for considering how God might combat the principalities and powers using people in the world (old posts can on those topics can be found here and here; perhaps unsurprisingly, the second one is a response I wrote back when I was first engaging with Beck’s ideas).  Here, kenosis serves as a metaphor for the ascetic attitude Christians would try to adopt in the Christus Victor model that Beck’s discussing.  “Self emptying” effectively describes how we symbolically allow ourselves to die as part of the indifference to death that comes with rejecting the death delusion and our idolatry to it.

The next obvious step, if we’re following Jesus’ example, is resurrection.

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