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A Politics Worse than Death

What do we do when death comes to our politics? Whose death matters in our politics?

Michael Wear
Michael Wear
Michael Wear is Chief Strategist for The AND Campaign and co-author of Compassion (&) Conviction: The AND Campaign’s Guide to Faithful Civic Engagement.

This year, our politics has been riveted by death. The COVID-19 virus has been a blunt reminder of a truth we try so desperately to avoid: that death is coming for us all. Yet the solidarity that might be inspired by this knowledge has been challenged by the renewed realization that death is not colorblind in America, whether it comes to the racial disparities of the pandemic or the deadly violence against black people at the hands of the state. What do we do when death comes to our politics? Whose death matters in our politics?

Of course, death has always been tied to politics. In fact, some would argue that politics itself is a response to death, and our desire to ward it off. Violence unto death has been an engine of economic development. Violence is so pervasive in political affairs that the development of tools of violence so extraordinary so as to ensure the annihilation of entire communities of people have been hailed as victories for peace. It is conventional wisdom among much of the foreign-policy establishment that the threat of violent death as a result of nuclear warfare is an acceptable and wise tool for peace and protection. Many are reckoning with the fact that, as a society, we have made a similar bargain domestically: the ever-present specter of death for some at the hands of law enforcement is an acceptable cost for the security we believe violence provides for us. This violence is necessary, some think, because they never anticipate that it will fall on them. This violence is acceptable because it happens only with the legitimacy we grant it, not by our own hands.

Framed in such striking terms, I am tempted to judge this bargain quite harshly. Indeed, I am tempted to judge us harshly for making it. But perhaps such a judgment is too easy. It is difficult to count deaths averted, especially in such a violent world. What violence has been avoided because of the deterrence of the nuclear bomb, or of the death penalty? If physical death is not just inevitable but an imperative, perhaps our politics needs to plan for it, to consider it, to redirect it as long as possible. One feels vulnerable even expressing such doubts, but what hubris to refuse to even consider the utility of the nuclear bomb or the electric chair, even if you seek to abolish both, as I do. Perhaps the nuclear bomb has saved my life. Perhaps lethal injection has saved yours. Might ending either only lead to misery of a different sort, death by other hands? How do we weigh these possibilities? Whose death matters?

In a discourse centered on privilege, it’s tempting to draw a clear dividing line between the powerful and the downtrodden on questions of death and violence. We might assume that only the powerful are content with such “necessary” violence, and that the downtrodden would do away with it if they could. But the powerful often fly above death, unaware it lies just beneath the cover of the clouds. The downtrodden can view death as a matter of practicality, a potential source of order and safety, however unreliable, amid chaos.

But here is the real distinction: For death to come to the powerful, it almost always has to come for the powerless first. To reach the palace, an opposing army must first make its way through the slums. For the powerful, their death is often everyone’s death. For the unnoticed and unnoteworthy, death comes like a thief in the night. A fundamental privilege, certainly, is the privilege to stave off death, to die knowing every appropriate measure was taken to protect your life.

For death to come to the powerful, it almost always has to come for the powerless first. To reach the palace, an opposing army must first make its way through the slums.

A pandemic like the one we are enduring now cuts through these typical divides. While the burden of the COVID-19 virus has not fallen equally on all, it is striking how it has forced a kind of solidarity. It is easy to mock celebrities complaining about stay-at-home orders while they sip cocktails in their exotic swimming pools, but I can’t really think of anything other than COVID-19 that has forced me to adjust in my life, that has also forced bank CEOs and movie stars to adjust as well, particularly over such a sustained period of time and over such a geographic spread. The powerful sometimes have unique reasons to fear death because of their power, but COVID-19 has caused powerful people to fear death simply because they are human. There is a certain unity in this.

 

For a moment, at least, it seemed as though we were ready as a country to meet the moment. A Pew study in March found that 89 percent of Americans were following news about COVID-19 very (51 percent) or fairly (38 percent) closely. In April, an overwhelming majority (80 percent) of the American people supported stay-at-home orders, knowing and bearing their cost.

This pandemic has brought governance, especially state and local governance, back into the center of a politics dominated by personality, identity, and movements. I was struck on a recent walk as I passed by a series of local government signs urging me to protect myself and others. Local government, which mostly fades into the background in my life, now brought to the fore. A March NBC/Wall Street Journal survey showed about three-quarters of registered voters had confidence in state and local government to deal with the outbreak of the virus. Congress, which has evaded responsibility for much in recent years, actually acted to pass a significant, if flawed, relief bill on a bipartisan basis. Perhaps the pandemic would prove that some seemingly intractable political problems were not so intractable after all. This is the story I would love to see and tell.

Instead, while we should not ignore the bright spots, I do not believe death has jolted us out of anything. Yes, we have had a politics riveted by death this year, but death has exerted little discernible discipline on our political dysfunction. Rather, our politics has proved capable of forcing even death into its mold.

***

In March, Rusty Reno, the editor-in-chief of First Things, decried the “sentimentalism” and “false god” of saving lives. His article was widely panned on social media, and easy accusations of pro-life hypocrisy were called forth. In May, on Twitter, Reno would share that his view that the “mask culture” was “fear-driven” and that wearing a mask is a “mark of cowardice.” This, too, was not received well on social media.

There is a kind of pseudo-Christian narcissism that places on others its own embrace of a calculated risk in determining death’s value. We’ve all seen the folks at protests who claim they’re okay to be out in public because God will protect them. Or the Ohio legislator who invoked the “image of God” as depicted in the human face specifically as the reason he would not wear a mask, and asked, “Is the role of government to protect us from death, which is inevitable? Or is the role of government to radically protect our freedom and our liberty?” Many of us recognize these kinds of sentiments as irresponsible. But perhaps we simply lack theological insight? Perhaps we lack the faith of Christian bravado? Are we not supposed to “reject death’s dominion” as Reno called for us to do?

In the eighth chapter of Matthew, we’re told that while Jesus was teaching, a crowd began to surround him, and so Jesus told his disciples that they would take a boat across the nearby lake. Before they could leave, a teacher approached Jesus and said he would follow Jesus wherever he went. Jesus indicated to the man what he was volunteering for, a life on the run. One of Jesus’s disciples asked to bury his father before traveling on with Jesus. Jesus replied, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”

“Then,” Scripture tells us, Jesus got into a boat and his disciples followed him. “We better do what he says,” they might have said. “He’s been worth following so far,” they might have reasoned, the implicit question hanging in the air.

The passage continues,

Suddenly a furious storm came up on the lake, so that the waves swept over the boat. But Jesus was sleeping. The disciples went and woke him, saying, “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”

He replied, “You of little faith, why are you so afraid?” Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm.

The men were amazed and asked, “What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!”

As Dallas Willard suggested in a talk, Jesus is not just reproaching his disciples for fearing that the boat would sink, but for “their thought that if their boat were to sink it would be the end of the world.” In other words, he reproaches them for their overriding fear—of danger, of physical harm, of death—fear to the point of the diminishment of their faith.

At another point in Jesus’s ministry, he had been sent word that someone he loved in Judea was sick. Jesus told the disciples who were with him that the sickness would not end in death, but would be an occasion for God’s glory. After two days, Scripture tells us, Jesus said that they were to return to Judea. Jesus’s companions reminded him that he had almost been killed the last time he was in Judea, but he told them Lazarus had died and he was going to see him. Martha and Mary, whom he also loved, were there as well. Andrew told the other disciples that they were to follow Jesus to die as well.

When Jesus arrived in Bethany, he was greeted by Martha, who expressed utter confidence that Jesus had the power to prevent Lazarus’s death, and that “even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus tells Martha her brother will rise again, but Martha gives Jesus an out: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” This understanding of physical death seems like precisely the kind of faith Jesus wanted from the disciples on the boat.

When Mary saw Jesus, she fell at his feet, and told him, “Lord, if you had been there, my brother would not have died.” Scripture says that when Jesus “saw Mary weeping . . . he was deeply moved and troubled.” Jesus asked to be taken to Lazarus, and it is when those who had gathered told him “Come and see, Lord,” that Jesus wept. He would, of course, raise Lazarus from the dead. And Jesus and his disciples would not die that day, as the disciples had worried.

In the passage of Scripture describing Jesus’s greatest miracle, and his supreme confidence in his Father, Jesus is described as “moved” multiple times, troubled, weeping. What was it that led Jesus to rebuke his disciples on the boat but to weep with those mourning the death of Lazarus?

When confronted with death, when is the proper Christian response to proclaim, like Paul, “O death, where is thy sting!,” and when is it to weep, to mourn, to try to avoid death or turn it back?

There is a passage in Scripture where Jesus is talking with Simon Peter about death. The way a person interprets this passage can be an indicator of what they think about God and how God views death. Jesus, who had risen from the dead, had joined several of his disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and made them breakfast. After they were fed, he addressed Simon Peter, who had denied that he knew Jesus three times prior to his crucifixion.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

I am afraid many of us read this as a story of Jesus shaming Simon Peter, reminding Simon Peter of his betrayal and then giving Simon Peter his punishment. Instead, I believe this is a story of reconciliation, of Jesus assuring Simon Peter of his love. By telling Simon Peter how he will die, he tells Simon Peter that he will be with him, that even in death Simon Peter will never be abandoned by Jesus. It’s a tender moment, not an alpha moment, just as when Jesus tells Thomas he can put hand into his side where he was pierced. This was not to shame Thomas, but to help him believe. We so often put ourselves in the center of the drama, when Jesus was always thinking about others.

Jesus’s life testifies to a concern for the lives and physical deaths of others, even as he was on his way to his own death. He told his disciple to put away his sword, and healed the ear of a man who would take him to his death. Bearing his cross, he looked at his mother and the “disciple he loved” and thought of how his death would leave them, and entrusted them to each other’s care. On the cross, he asked that his Father forgive those who put him there. On the cross, as a thief feared his own death, Jesus spoke through anguish to offer consolation and salvation.

***

Our political culture is sick with self-expression and a self-interested pursuit of power that masquerades as civic contribution. This sickness is not as developed for most Americans as it is for its greatest purveyors, but that is part of the problem. We have, indeed, an exhausted majority in this country, for whom the heights of their greatest imagination for their contribution to our politics, when they think of it at all, is their self-satisfied rejection of it. Those who are, understandably, exhausted by this culture that is intended to either convert them or grind them down become limp in their convictions.

Our political culture is sick with self-expression and a self-interested pursuit of power that masquerades as civic contribution.

There was no widespread outcry for stay-at-home orders and restrictions to be lifted. As of late May, 83 percent of Americans were concerned loosening restrictions would lead to a second wave of infections. They were betrayed by elected officials, yes, but that explanation is both insufficient and a practical dead-end. Those elected officials were simply more certain they would be held accountable by special interests and a vocal, active, and organized fringe than they would be by an exhausted, disengaged majority.

Our political problem is not simply a function of those who haven’t thought about their own death, but of those who aren’t motivated by the death of others. Our political problem is that we have a system that requires tremendous energy to be heard, and a citizenry that cannot find the energy, resources, and will to be heard. At some point, we must question the conventional wisdom that the stratification and sophistication of media, including social media, has been a neutral democratizing force, and instead ask whether it has empowered and incentivized unrepresentative voices at the cost of a representative politics. We should ask the question now, while we still can, before we become so limited by the extremes in our politics that we can’t imagine there are any other options.

Our political problem is not simply a function of those who haven’t thought about their own death, but of those who aren’t motivated by the death of others. Our political problem is that we have a system that requires tremendous energy to be heard, and a citizenry that cannot find the energy, resources, and will to be heard.

Watch the Republican governor of North Dakota plead through tears, marshaling great rhetorical tools of persuasion, that citizens not assume a person wearing a mask in public is sending a political message of antagonism but consider that they might have a five-year-old at home who is at risk of death if they are infected with the COVID-19 virus. How can our politicians gain trust and respect as experts when our politics is so stupid? When a governor of a state has to explain to grown adults, citizens, that they should prioritize the safety of vulnerable children over their discomfort at the sight of a mask, I’m not sure a mere change in political leadership is sufficient to the challenge. No, our political narcissism is now institutional and systemic, and deeper reform is needed.

Why is the primary response our political system can muster to a man dying at the hands of police in Minneapolis the rejection of an image in Mississippi that apparently required nine people dying in a church basement in Charleston five years earlier for politicians to finally act to take it down from South Carolina’s state capitol building?

Here is where federal reform that would actually be responsive to the millions who have protested following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd sits today: Senator Mitch McConnell charged Senator Tim Scott with drafting legislation without Democratic input in the Senate. Speaker Nancy Pelosi held a vote on legislation drafted only by Democrats that they knew had no chance of becoming law. Democrats in the Senate refused to negotiate with Senator Scott, contending his bill was not robust enough. That assessment is valid; I agree with it. But I would also note that Senator Scott’s bill includes provisions Democrats believed were important enough to include in their own bill.

It is now doubtful Congress will pass any legislation in response to the clear injustice that has grabbed the attention of the people. Correction: Juneteenth is still on the table. What a predictably American way to commemorate a history of racism in this nation, to respond to black death with kente cloth and a holiday.

How is inaction preferable to insufficient action? With political will so fleeting, the attention span of politicians and the people so short, can we really afford to wait until another election, in the hope that we’ll be more empowered, not less, come January? Is this political gamesmanship commensurate with the moral gravity of the moment?

Our politics can muddle any clear intention. You see, the political insiders tell us, it is really for the best that we don’t pass any federal reforms now, when there is political will to do so. In order to pass federal legislation addressing police brutality, the best course of action is to raise money for political campaigns that will promise to pass reform, and also raise money for the advocacy groups that will ensure those politicians we elect will pass reforms. What’s the cost of waiting? We won’t know for sure, because the national database of police use of force that is in Senator Scott’s bill that Democrats won’t negotiate on, which is also in the Democrats’ bill, won’t see the light of day until the right tragedy meets the right expression meets the right constellation of politicians who are in power to take the right amount of credit for the reform.

The expressive drives American politics right now, at least when it comes to the terms of debate. When the American people actually get to vote, like in the Democratic primary, it’s more of an even contest.

One reason our politics is now so driven by executive action and legal balancing tests is that this mode of “governing” is sustained by personalities. Once a bill becomes law, that’s it. That work is done, and there is no more symbolism to extract from it. The expression is expressed. Once it is law, the debate over it is dead. A new debate might emerge, but that debate now must consider a new feature. A new word has been spoken, and it stands on its own. How frustrating that is for those who prefer to talk without ceasing, without ever really saying anything at all.

***

It is exhausting—this political culture that responds most readily to those who find in politics an ultimate arbiter of meaning, who view politics as a forum for their inexhaustible expressions—but if anything is to change, the exhausted must choose to act. As citizens, we hold an office we cannot leave vacant. As Christians, for those who are Christian, we must identify the harm our politics is causing and the harm our politics is unwilling to rectify, and recognize that our capacity as citizens paired with our obligations to our neighbors requires us to act. Our actions might prove insufficient, but in a pluralistic democracy like ours, we are not held accountable for outcomes but inputs. Ideally, every citizen can come to the public square fully as themselves. This is not in contradiction to the idea that citizens, and especially Christians, ought not come to politics only for themselves as individuals. Our political participation should be grounded in our perspective and our convictions, yes, but our political convictions are a different thing than merely our personal preferences, affections, interests, loves, and hatreds made public. This is not relativism; it is discernment. And the Christian faith offers tremendous resources for our actions in a pluralistic society, and for the society we live in itself. We must act for the good of our neighbors, the good of our politics, and hope that, by the grace of God, our actions accomplish some good.

For this to happen, we, the exhausted, must institutionalize. We must coordinate. We must invest. We are exhausted because we shout into the wind with no plan, alone, and are disappointed when the wind does not return to us with a reply. Politicians cannot respond to incentives that are never presented to them. Institutions respond to those who are active participants in them, not silent bystanders who express their displeasure through cold shoulders and disappointed scowls.

The exhausted must know what they believe, and actually believe they have something to offer the public. They must affirm truths, not just sigh when they hear falsehoods.

The exhausted must recognize they are exhausted because politics is demanding from them what it does not deserve, and distracting them from providing what it needs. When we refuse to grant politics’ claim as a source of affirmation and forum for unmediated self-expression, we’ll have space and energy to view politics as a forum for the mediated pursuit of the common good. This pursuit will be healthier once we acknowledge that our political convictions, our convictions about how to advance justice and affirm human dignity in our politics, are imperfect and prudential. We pursue right as we see it, but we assume we could be wrong, and therefore our political participation will always be tinged with enough ambivalence that we can act in politics with integrity, and treat those with whom we disagree with dignity.

The exhausted must know what they believe, and actually believe they have something to offer the public. They must affirm truths, not just sigh when they hear falsehoods. The exhausted must recognize they are exhausted because politics is demanding from them what it does not deserve, and distracting them from providing what it needs.

The exhausted must stop looking to politics for motivation, and find their motivation elsewhere. Politics cannot be the source of our action, only the object. We must refuse politics’ claim as ultimate, while also refusing to cede politics to those who make an idol of it.

We must die to our ourselves, to our nonsensical desire for a politics that is just our own, so that we can see and act in politics as it is, in a way that is free to reflect concern for others as well.

On the night before his death, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. called for something like this, what he called “dangerous unselfishness.” He told those gathered about the good Samaritan. Here, he sought to empathize with the priest and the Levite who passed the man on the other side of the road. He imagines not just cold indifference, ignorant, but that the priest and the Levite were conflicted.

And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

What King describes here is the moral paralysis of refusing to address the injustice in front of us because of uncertainty about what would follow. I am not advising here a reckless politics; I have already cautioned about a dogmatic politics that fails to consider the potential costs of pursuing a particular agenda. But you will notice that dogma is rarely accompanied by a concern for others’ interest and perspective. The issue here is not whether citizens and policymakers should react recklessly to whatever injustice seems most pressing without concern for the consequences. The issue is whether we allow the possibility of unintended consequences that would more directly affect ourselves to override whatever motivation we might have to alleviate an injustice that more directly affects someone else. Does the mere imagining of harm falling to us prevent us from intervening in a real injustice we know is happening today?

***

In April, a story circulated about the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. Priests had stepped forward to volunteer to offer final rites to dying coronavirus patients. Some hailed their actions with similar language as was used to praise those who defied convention to wear a mask. Here, too, were people who weren’t going to let fear over a virus get in the way of doing something they wanted to do. But, of course, the nature and context of what these priests did is far different. Their confidence in Christ was not used as justification to act in a way that put their neighbors at risk. Quite the opposite, it was because of their security in Jesus that they had the freedom to sacrifice in the service of others who faced death. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil. For you are with me.” Christians never welcome death on its own, for this is a very rejection of life. But to walk where death might be in order to follow Jesus—like David, like the disciples following Jesus to Judea even as they did not understand what would happen or what Jesus intended—this is to embrace life to its fullest.

The issue is whether we allow the possibility of unintended consequences that would more directly affect ourselves to override whatever motivation we might have to alleviate an injustice that more directly affects someone else.

I have been thinking about one death in particular over these past few months. Reverend Joseph Echols Lowery helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), served as its vice president under Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and served as the SCLC’s third president. The SCLC is arguably the most powerful, explicitly Christian organization for human rights and justice in the history of this nation. Lowery was there in Montgomery for the bus boycott. He was the person who presented the demands to Governor Wallace from the “Bloody Sunday” march. He was one of the principal American voices against apartheid in South Africa. He delivered the benediction at President Obama’s first inaugural, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009.

In his book Bearing the Cross, David Garrow wrote of Lowery that he was “the most prominent survivor” of the civil rights movement, “the human and symbolic link going all the way back.”

Reverend Lowery died on March 27, 2020. Had he passed during any other time, the city of Atlanta would have been consumed with honoring this man even more than it already has. (A street is named in his honor, and Atlanta’s mayor ordered flags at half-staff in the wake of his death.) Had he not passed during a pandemic, he would have been honored as Billy Graham was, laid in honor at the capitol. Had he passed during the presidency of any person with the slightest sense of history, of honor, Reverend Lowery would have been honored from the Rose Garden, perhaps—with some expression of gratitude and recognition from the president of the United States.

I knew Reverend Lowery, and had the tremendous blessing of spending significant time with him over the last twelve years. My personal sadness over his sadness has mingled with a public sadness. I have been quite sad that Reverend Lowery’s name has not been on everyone’s lips. I have wondered where the inexpressible mourning will go, as I believe it must go somewhere. The dead always leave a trace.

There’s a story about Reverend Lowery that has helped me.

The run-up to Bloody Sunday was a difficult season for King. He was physically tired. He was tired of fundraising. He was off the highs of the Civil Rights Act, but he was now back in Alabama, where his first major action took place a decade earlier. The FBI had notified him of the most serious death threat on his life up until that point, and had urged him to take much greater precaution in his travels. Malcolm X had been assassinated. Jimmie Lee Jackson had been murdered.

It was Jackson’s funeral that brought King to Alabama on March 3. (Bloody Sunday was March 7.) Jackson was murdered by an Alabama state trooper during a peaceful, nonviolent protest for voting rights. He was a civil rights activist and deacon in his Baptist church.

Garrow describes the scene:

King returned to Alabama on Wednesday to attend Jimmie Lee Jackson’s funeral. He preached at the memorial service and led a procession of some one thousand mourners through the rain to Jackson’s grave site. The constant death threats and the reminders of Malcolm’s and Jackson’s violent ends, had put King in a morbid state of mind. As the march started out for the cemetery, King beckoned SCLC board member Joseph Lowery to come with him. “Come on, walk with me, Joe. This may be my last walk,” King remarked in a bantering tone that did not conceal the concern underlying it.

“Come on, walk with me, Joe. This may be my last walk.”

Might we consider our political participation less as an opportunity to express and advance our personal interest, and more as an opportunity to come alongside those who face death, those whose backs are against the wall? Will we walk in our politics without thinking of only ourselves, but the death and injustice around us?

Might we consider our political participation less as an opportunity to express and advance our personal interest, and more as an opportunity to come alongside those who face death, those whose backs are against the wall? Will we walk in our politics without thinking of only ourselves, but the death and injustice around us?

There was a time when Jesus’s “soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” He went to pray, taking several disciples with him, and asked them to keep watch with him. They could not. While Jesus stared death in the face, the disciples slept.

I know many of you are exhausted. We are exhausted because we believe our life is our own, and that politics is ours to manage and control. But in politics, as in all things, our call is to be faithful. To stay awake. To walk with those who face injustice. To stop obsessing over our feelings, our interests, our tribe, and to consider that politics in a pluralistic society just will not work if that is what guides us. Clearly, we see that now. We can trust in Jesus in the political realm, like any other. Jesus, whose death matters. Whose life matters.