Glorifying Death?

Source: John Sellars, Stoicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) 145-146.

“What [Nicolas Malabranche (1638-1715)] found most objectionable in Seneca’s Stoicism was the arrogance of the claim that it is possible to be happy in this life. For Malabranche the Christian, human life here on Earth is inherently miserable, for we are all sinners, and so we must wait for the next life before we can be truly happy. Stoicism’s claim that one can indeed be happy here and now is, he argues, simply the product of human pride and arrogance.”

The issues that this quote touches on have cropped up in my readings and daily quiet times.

I’m reading the letters of Ignatius in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden. Ignatius was a second century church leader. Basically, he had a death wish: he wanted to be a martyr. He saw this as a path to purification, and he eagerly anticipated being with Jesus Christ forever and ever.

At first sight, that looks rather selfish. After all, he can only serve people on earth when he’s alive, right? Paul wanted to die and be with Christ, too, but he realized that God may have other plans: “I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you” (Philippians 1:23-24). There were people who needed Paul, which was why he left his time of death up to God.

But Ignatius didn’t exactly view himself as selfish, for he thought that his death as a martyr could be an expiation for the Christian community. Ignatius was not the first to maintain that martyrdom is meritorious. In II Maccabees and IV Maccabees, God stops punishing Israel after Jewish martyrs give their lives for the laws of God’s Torah. Their deaths bring expiation and divine benefit to the community of God’s people.

I have problems with a religion that celebrates death. When I was at Jewish Theological Seminary, Mary Boys of Union Theological Seminary was giving presentations against Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. She said that Jesus did not come to earth to die; rather, he died because of how he lived. I think she meant that Jesus preached God’s love for all people–including the marginalized–and this incited Jewish religious leaders to plot against him. But I could be wrong, since she tried to pin a lot of the blame for Jesus’ death on Pontius Pilate, not so much the Jewish leaders. In any case, she tried to shift the focus of Christianity from death to life.

I admire her attempt, but I’m not sure if it’s biblical. Ignatius talks about experiencing Christ’s passion. Where’d he get such an idea? Presumably from passages such as Philippians 3:10: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death[.]” Paul wanted to be intimate with Christ, even in terms of knowing Christ’s passion.

When I was at Harvard, a friend told me about Opus Dei, an ultra-conservative Catholic group that had people wear nails in their shoes to experience the pains of the Lord. That sort of outlook may explain why the Opus Dei character in Da Vinci Code whipped himself over and over. “Isn’t the point of Christianity that Jesus suffered in our place, meaning we don’t have to suffer?,” my friend asked? Apparently not in the eyes of certain Christians, who try to identify with Jesus in his sufferings.

I’m reminded of something a friend of mine at JTS said. America was about to go to war with Iraq, and my friend was a West Point graduate. He said that the army glorified death, since there were many monuments to people who gave their lives for their country. My professor asked him if all that death was actually necessary. Similarly, Christianity seems to glorify martyrs, as if they were athletes–people who took their faith commitment to the ultimate level.

I can understand that Christians may find themselves in a position where they’d have to die. If the world threatens to kill them because of their faith in Christ, then what are they supposed to do? What I don’t get is Christianity’s glorification of suffering and death. I like the Old Testament and Ben Sira’s focus on blessings in this life, in terms of enjoying this life to the fullest, and helping others to do so as well.

There are other things that I can say about this quote, but I’ll stop here for the time being.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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