Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 9: Practicing Resurrection)

This is probably the meatiest chapter in the whole book, as it tries to get into specifics of what practicable actions are available to Christians who want to cultivate their faith in a manner that helps enable them to act in ways of self-expenditure that are contrary to the fear of death.

There’s a lot to cover, but I want to focus on just a couple of the larger points that Beck makes.

The first point, and I think this one is really big because of its implications for the way Christians deal with each other, is how self-expenditure looks when practiced in community.  Up till now, all of Beck’s examples of martyrdom have dealt with individuals practicing self-expenditure at the radical end of the spectrum of Christian action.  Even centering the discussion around the idea of martyrs is pretty daunting, since the common understanding of martyrdom is one of self-sacrifice to the point of death.  It’s scary to think of giving so much of ourselves in that way, but even if we take on the challenge of mastering our fear of death so that we can give freely, we’re still left with a practical problem: how far should we go in self-expenditure?  A person who gives too much of themselves runs the real risk of becoming one of the needy they they’re trying to help.

Beck argues that the amount of self-sacrifice assumed is largely a personal question.  There’s no clear agreement in any Christian tradition about what degree of martyrdom is the standard of good practice.  Some people can give much more of themselves than others, and I think Beck’s estimation is that that’s okay on an individual level.  We don’t all have to be martyrs to the same degree as Mother Theresa or Stephen.  What we must keep in mind though, is that self-expenditure isn’t something that’s supposed to be practiced individually.

Using the episode of the young rich man whom Jesus told to sell all his possessions, Beck illustrates that self-sacrifice should be done in community.  We make ourselves vulnerable through our giving, but that vulnerability becomes mitigated when done in community with other givers.  As Beck puts it, adding the dimension of community turns self-sacrifice into a form of economy, where we help those in need and receive help when we need it.  He goes on to point out that this model is extremely rare, as church communities in affluent parts of the world tend to be built around maintaining the illusion of self-sufficiency.  Everyone is getting by fine, so there’s no need to help each other out (Beck alluded to this problem much earlier in the book when he was discussing the deathless delusion that affluent cultures tend to engage in).  Nonetheless, being realistic about the difficulty of creating communities like what Beck describes doesn’t change the fact that they’re worth aspiring to, especially since the ethos of self-expenditure scales up from an individual level to a community level.  He doesn’t say this explicitly, but I get the sense in reading about how Beck imagines churches that are free to give of themselves in order to help others that he’s dreaming of a way to reconcile different branches of Church (not necessarily from a theological perspective, but in the sense of recognizing our unity as parts of the family of Christ despite our differences).

The second point that Beck makes addresses the question of how everyday people can practically commit to self-expenditure.  He’s a fan of the Little Way, an ethos promoted by St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a nun who spent her short life living in a convent before she died of tuberculosis at 24.  The Little Way describes faithful practice as something that happens quietly in small steps.  Becoming better at self-expenditure doesn’t require making grand, impractical gestures of sacrifice, but looking for ways to help others, like being kind to people who are socially difficult (this may not seem like much of a cost, but it is a real expenditure to show kindness to difficult people).  What I think Beck wants to emphasize here is that we should be aiming to grow in our ability to give of ourselves, but we don’t need to be intimidated by the big impossible-looking examples because small steps count too.

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