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Why The Walking Dead Is Not As Cynical As You Are

or The Gospel According to The Walking Dead

[NOTE: Some series and season 5 spoilers follow.]

It seems as if The Walking Dead brings out the most cynical side of us. It shouldn’t surprise me that a show about the post-apocalyptic world of zombie infestation would tread regularly into the hopelessness of nihilism. This was particularly true from the early discovery that our fates and place in this world are inevitable.

Given this hopelessness, our attention turns to survival and enduring the nastiest aspects of this world. In this world, other people band together for utility more than affection. As we see in this season’s new characters, survivors in Atlanta’s Grady Hospital, the notion of human life being reduced to its utility has finally been introduced as a primary option available to survivors.

For the show, survival is perhaps the most enduring theme. But it isn’t what binds the characters together.

The theme of the show’s fifth season came to striking clarity in last night’s episode, “Crossed”. The common denominator of the season’s antagonists, the Termites and the Grady gang is that they aren’t just bad, they thrive on their deceitful, by-any-means-necessary view of surviving. The poster-child delivered a soliloquy at the beginning of the season in defense of reckless depravity and human utility, using a baby as a hostage and intending his captor (Tyreese) to be reduced to his most base and vindictive emotions.

Against this nihilism, the show’s protagonists are placed in deep contrast. This isn’t just the obviously reluctant Tyreese and to a lesser extent Glenn, but now too Daryl. Our own support of Rick is starting to strain, as his response to danger has moved from being resourceful and moral to ruthless and vengeful. His reunion with Carol, disowned last season for transgressing the community rules in a vigilante act of euthanasia (how the fans have so easily forgiven her) has come, not through repentance and reconciliation on Carol’s part, but on the moral corruption of Rick’s understanding of community norms. For abandoning her, Rick makes his own repentance, which she easily absolves.

Certainly Rick has changed, and to be expected, as all of the characters necessarily change through the passage of time and experience. His descent from officer of the law and reluctant leader, to tyrant, to hermit, and now, to vengeance-seeking hot head cannot be chalked up to “what happens in a chaotic environment, for it is not mirrored by the rest of the team. Perhaps a strong argument can be made for what happens to a leader in such an environment: that eventually s/he will crack and become what s/he feared. I’d be willing to make that case.

The better direction is how his path does not match the path of the team, nor what actually works for the characters in the show. As I’ve argued before, the show has rarely rewarded cruelty, vengeance, arrogance, and community destructive characteristics. In fact, the characters “most equipped to survive the zombie apocalypse” as we like to argue have become walker bait at the same or better rate than those who are supposedly weak. The emergence of Beth as resourceful, and not so subtly rendered as strong point out the primary characteristic that will prolong a person’s life on the show: devotion to community health. Her captor’s consistent obsession with “strong” and “weak” forcefully hits home that the viewer herself far too easily judges who is strong and who isn’t. And ultimately, who the real survivors will be.

In The Walking Dead, the selfish ones die. And this season’s antagonists epitomise two similar groups of selfish loners.

Which brings us again to the two characters most in danger of succumbing, not to the walkers, but to the show’s opposition to ego: the much maligned Fr. Gabriel and Eugene, with his mighty mullet. As new members of the team, both bring underappreciated utility to an expectation that all members must learn to fight (and kill) as Carl attempts to share the “teaching” Carol had secretly given him and the other children in the prison.

What puts these two in danger on the show, however, is not ultimately their reluctance to fight, but in their inability to fully participate in the community, and the community’s willingness to accept them as they are for who they are. Not every survivor has been a fighter, but until they bring unifying gifts to the team, they are walking targets of the show’s penchant for killing off interesting characters.

This season’s overt signs of religiosity have been far too easily dismissed by many of the show’s critics, for the entire character of the show reveals great similarity to traditional Christian understandings of enduring a world misaligned from GOD’s dream for humanity, the deeper danger of cynicism than violence, and that the only antidote for certain death is hope.

In the fifth season, the walkers are hardly a problem, often dispatched with such ease, that the protagonists are often nonchalant in their hand-to-hand combat, or walking easily in their midst without great worry for their lives. We have long known the greater danger in this world comes not from the undead, but from the living. But now, as we see such variety of antagonistic humanity, we can only conclude that the danger isn’t the people themselves (that only bad people survive–except our heroes, of course!) but their sickness, depravity, and cynicism.

 

The show’s persistent fear, then isn’t that our people will devolve into animals, losing their “humanity,” but in choosing to become self-destructive through selfish intent: cynically hoping to survive while simultaneously believing there is no reason to survive.

This dramatic difference in the danger between the walkers and the humans is so pronounced now that we have no choice but see that the danger of other survivors comes from unknown motivations.

This confusion made the Termites were the most dangerous of all villains so far, because they understood that people wouldn’t trust one another. They preyed on those that would trust them, of course, but they intentionally built a community ethic around mutual distrust. Much like the biker gang in season 4, a reluctant band of ingrates with no redeeming character among them, the Termites fostered distrust as human ethic and norm. I can’t help but think of Jesus’s warnings of the false prophets and those who would deceive in the name of GOD, encouraging evil for the sake of good.

In contrast, the building of community through trust, dignity, and mutual respect are cornerstones of the gospel from the beginning: informing The Law, the prophets, and the prophetic ministry of Jesus. The story we receive in Matthew gives us some similar terrain of surviving and enduring through great strife and against human evils.

For the discerning viewer, The Walking Dead offers a much different take on survival than horror movies and procedural crime dramas do. It offers the viewer a constant opportunity to discover hope in a world that seems irrevocably broken, compassion in a world full of evil, selfishness, and lurid, cynical violence. And it rewards the constant pursuit of life, creativity, and true purpose in a world so purposelessly distorted.

Personally, I love The Walking Dead in spite of the violence. Because each week there’s a chance. Each week there’s potential. Each week there’s discovery. If we followed the lead of the cynics, we wouldn’t have Michionne and the world wouldn’t love Daryl. They’d all end up like Shane. Dead. Then dead again. Every week proves that Carol (and now apparently Carl) aren’t entirely right about what we need to do to survive. And neither is Tyreese. And we should know by now, the same goes for Rick.

That gives me hope.

That, and that some day the team will realize that they really need to listen to Glenn a whole lot more. That dude’s the smartest one.

Being Where GOD Will Be

Finding GOD in the places we fear to go

That is our certainty. It is found being where GOD is. Where GOD says GOD will be. It isn’t found in our stated beliefs or creeds or political affiliation or what our Sunday School teachers taught us about GOD: it is about how we treat the powerless and the defenseless.

a Homily for Proper 29 A  |  Text: Matthew  25:31-46

a hand in need

Photo Credit: Hamed Parham via Compfight cc

Listen and read along!

Are we on Team Sheep?

Jesus begins with the sheep and the goats. The Son of Man will divide them, he says. How will they be differentiated: how will we know which one we are?

Are we sheep?

Or are we goats?

we ask ourselves, one another, our spiritual advisors. We want to know which we are because we want to know where we’ll be in the end. It isn’t just “am I a sheep” but “am I with the sheep?” We want to know, because we aren’t always so sure.

The pious young man comes to mind: what must I do to inherit eternal life? he asks Jesus. In this morning’s context, we might ask What do I have to do to be one of the sheep? How do I do it and how do I know if I’ve done it?

Jesus tells that young man to sell his stuff, give the money to the poor, and follow him. The young man doesn’t like that answer. Most of the time, neither do we. We have a lot of stuff, too.

In that story, Jesus speaks to a young man who has everything and has done everything he has been told to do, but what he is lacking is certainty and he wants Jesus to give him certainty. Instead, Jesus offers the young man community. He offers him a place at this table with friends. He offers him relationship and opportunity and instruction. He offers him the chance to come in from the cold of solitude and join in a mission that demands a whole community.

The young man doesn’t want that. He wants what he wants, not what Jesus offers him. Even if it is more valuable than certainty.

This time, Jesus is telling his disciples not what they must do, but what people they must be. Not in solitude or independence, but together. Who will you be?

Pursuing Certainty

We want that kind of certainty. That’s why we regularly argue about what Jesus would or wouldn’t do, who he would or wouldn’t condemn, and where we may or may not be going in the relatively near future.

Jesus doesn’t offer certainty. He offers opportunity.

We talked last week about endurance. Jesus set up this talk with the disciples by describing what they will live through and endure when the Son of Man comes. He elaborates this in a couple of parables about bridesmaids who are expected to wait for the groom and slaves who are given talents by a wicked master.

These ideas: waiting, expecting, enduring: are such human problems. Because so much of our life and our faith is full of uncertainty, we require it of our tradition and one another. And most of all, we require it of our devoted one: our creator, savior, redeemer.

We confuse the very name of GOD, revealed to Moses in the burning bush: EHYEH ASHER EHYEH. We say I AM WHO I AM. We say that GOD is the great I AM: permanent and unchanging. But the Scripture reveals a different GOD than the one we so often proclaim! A GOD who is willing to change the plans because Lot asks for it. A GOD who is moved by the people. A GOD who is revealed in those words, not as permanence, but as something that will be.

Everett Fox translates EHYEH ASHER EHYEH as “I-will-be-there-howsoever-I-will-be-there”. I will be in the way that I will be. I will be up this mountain when you come back from visiting Pharaoh and I will be at the parting of the sea and I will be in your midst in a cloud. And we know that GOD would later be with the prophets and the judges, with David and the rulers, with the leaders in Exile and with the people back home, with the people when they were conquered and with the people who were liberated. And we sure as everything know that GOD would come to be in the form of a human being that would walk the earth and become known to us as Jesus. That GOD would be in the form of tongues of fire and in a mighty wind and in all of these ways that have directed us in Scripture.

This is the coming of the Son of Man.

The certainty is found in GOD’s coming to us: in GOD’s presence with us. Not in the form. Not in the power. Not in the tradition. Not in any of the ways we demand GOD come to us. GOD will be here howsoever GOD will be here.

Becoming Sheep

Jesus tells us so powerfully that if GOD is this king, then the way GOD will be known is through ministering to “the least of these who are members of my family”: the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned. Not that GOD is a certain group of people, but that GOD is found in serving.

Stanley Hauerwas writes:

It is significant that the righteous have not known that when they ministered, provided hospitality, and visited that they did all of this to Jesus. They have done what God would have us to do and so doing have ministered to Christ himself. All people, whether they are Christians or not, know all they need to know to care for “the least of these.” The difference between followers of Jesus and those who do not know Jesus is that those who have seen Jesus no longer have any excuse to avoid “the least of these.”

When we ask about being the sheep or the goats, or more precisely, we argue over who counts as a sheep and who counts as a goat in our society and in our churches, we are asking the wrong question. It is not about knowing, it is about what we do when we aren’t paying any attention to who we are supposed to be. It is not about the rules when we know people are watching: it is about who we are when we aren’t sure of the rules. And Hauerwas rightly points out that the stakes are even higher for us when we do know the rules!

Where GOD Will Be

This gospel, this work that we are to do isn’t about certainty about GOD or certainty about how good we are with GOD. It is certainty that GOD will be with us. Because GOD will be with us when we are hungry and thirsty and naked and strangers and sick and imprisoned. GOD will be with us when we ignore those around us who are suffering and need our help. AND GOD will be with them, too! This is where GOD hangs out and where GOD promises to be found and we are called to go there and find GOD there.

The Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, addressed a United Nations conference on nutrition this week and demanded that we not only acknowledge suffering, but that we do something about it. He said:

It is also painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by ‘market priorities,’ the ‘primacy of profit,’ which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.

Francis reminds us the way Jesus reminds his disciples: that the real question, not the question you want to ask, or think you are supposed to ask, but the question GOD is hoping you’ll ask is this one: how can I best love GOD? That’s the question Jesus answers. And his answer isn’t comfort the comfortable. It is comfort the afflicted! Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. The “least of these” in our midst are the powerless. Jesus’s concern here isn’t with how we treat people generically, but how we treat the powerless specifically.

That is our certainty. It is found being where GOD is. Where GOD says GOD will be. It isn’t found in our stated beliefs or creeds or political affiliation or what our Sunday School teachers taught us about GOD: it is about how we treat the powerless and the defenseless.

GOD doesn’t expect us to be perfect. We don’t get one shot at righteousness. We get a chance every day. A chance to be thankful. A chance to be thoughtful. A chance to show how much we really love GOD by loving this wonderful creation and all in GOD’s family. Even the black sheep…and the goats.

Untalented

How the talents Jesus speaks of aren’t really gifts

a Homily for Proper 28A   |  Text: Matthew  23:34-39

And the master rewards this behavior (dare we say, stealing) of the first two slaves. They know what this man is like. Chances are, they take on this behavior. Think The Wolf of Wall Street and the culture built around stealing people’s money: not just the excess in itself, but the attractiveness of it. Think of how alluring it is to throw away your morals for the opportunity to double your free money.

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Gathered by the Spirit

Finding and reclaiming our common purpose in Terre Haute

a Homily for a special evensong  |  Text: 1 Peter 2:1-9

[Last night St. Stephen’s gathered for evensong with our neighbors from St. George’s in West Terre Haute. It was a wonderful gathering of mutual celebration and commitment that marks a big anniversary for the Episcopal Church’s ongoing presence in Terre Haute for 175 years.]Continue Reading