Life Before Death?

Perhaps one of the most iconic scenes in British cinema during the 1990s was the opening to the film Trainspotting. For those who have not seen the segment, and as a reminder for those who have, we are shown a slightly built scruffy skinhead called Renton running, full pelt, down Edinburgh’s Royal Mile while being energetically pursued by two store detectives.

The scene gains its power through the way in which it amalgamates a trinity of images, music and narration. The camera work manages to convey the breathless, asthma-inducing chase while the scene’s soundtrack of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ provides a metronomic beat laid loudly under the scene. However, for the purposes of this post, what is most important is the speech that Renton broadcasts over the chase. His voice proclaims his philosophy of life at an amphetamine-like pace. He says:

Choose life.
Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family.
Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical can openers.
Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance, choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home.
Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage. Choose a three piece suit on hire purchase in range of fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on a Sunday morning.
Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth.
Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish fucked-up brats you have swanned to replace yourself.
Choose your future. Choose life…But why would I want to do a thing like that?
I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons?
There are no reasons.
Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?

Renton paints a cynical/accurate/honest (take your pick) image of modern Western life as he sees it. But, as he concludes, he informs us that this is not for him. What he has chosen is not life, but something far more radical. He has chosen heroin and thus, we may safely infer, a form of death.

At first glance, this scene may appear quite some remote from mainstream church reflection. But this choice of death over life is not necessarily as detached and distant as we may think. It has certainly provided a theme for the mocking of Christianity from the images and taunts in early Roman catacombs through to the present day atheist graffito that proclaims that; ‘Atheists will celebrate life while you’re in church celebrating death’. Such perspectives make an interesting, if uncomfortable, point. Inhabit the mainstream church long enough and you do get to spend an awful lot of time talking about death. As Matthew Collings observes when looking at the history of the images of Christ:

‘[We see] Jesus transforming over the centuries from sublime ethereal being in a gold void to a tortured god-man on a cross who reminds us that, beautiful as it is in its symbolism and poetry. Christianity is a death cult.’

So, to what degree have we chosen death over life? Are we, in fact, not so far removed from Renton – minus the heroin – after all? This is the next question to be raised on seditioustheology.com and in the following post by David Muir we see the subject nicely explored as he paints with broad brushstrokes providing an image of the kingdom of God and how it can be evidenced today.

(Over to David)

‘We believe in Life before Death’ was once a much loved Christian Aid strapline. But, why is it necessary to make such a statement?

Well, first, because there are some Christians who will not agree with it. A great many understand Christianity in terms of getting to heaven when we die. Life for them is mostly about getting saved, and perhaps getting others saved, to populate heaven after death. In this belief system it’s life after and not before death that has pre-eminence.

Through its strapline, Christian Aid tried to playfully subvert such thinking. Why? Because even a cursory glance at our world shows us that, for huge numbers of people, life is barely worth living. Around 1 billion suffer from chronic hunger and about 20,000 people will die today of starvation. What’s more, this takes place in a world where over 1 billion are overweight and where Europe and North America alone throw away enough food to feed the hungry three times over.

Such statistics have abounded for years now but, looked at globally, appear to leave many, including some Christians, relatively unmoved or untouched. Perhaps if the implicit logic of the statement of believing in life before death were followed it might have more impact. Why? Because for the Christian it leads to questions around how we understand Jesus, and specifically how we understand the meaning of Jesus’ life.

Most of us of know the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus died so our sins could be forgiven. But, why did Jesus live? How much importance should we give to Christ’s life?

Is it not significant that historic creeds skip over Christ’s life with statements that go straight from birth to death? There is that emphasis on life after death. Is it not also significant that we know the Church’s symbols for Jesus’ death, his resurrection and even his birth? But, we have no common symbol for his life.

So, let’s ask: why did Jesus live?

To die for us? Yes, of course. But why did Christ not go straight to the cross? Why not miss out 3 years of unnecessary public ministry? Some might say his ministry was to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, although most of the specific prophecies that will be in mind are about his death and perhaps a few about his birth. Interestingly, at the start of his ministry the Old Testament scripture that Jesus applies to himself was not about his death or his birth. Isaiah 61 was an agenda for the next 3 years of his life.

Was Christ’s life an example of how Christians should live? As a Rabbi the way Jesus lived was how he taught his disciples. But they, and we, sometimes fall short of his example. Christ’s highly ethical life is often attempted and those who do find that it is a tough act to follow. Should we say he failed as a teacher?

An answer to the meaning of Jesus’ life becomes clearer when we consider what he actually did. Jesus spent considerable time with the poor, marginalised, and unloved. Jesus himself was certainly not likely to have been wealthy and was, perhaps, poor himself. Philippians 2 says of the incarnation: ‘…he made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave…’. This was not only poetic, but actual. Jesus was a refugee at an early age. At his circumcision ceremony, Mary and Joseph gave the least expensive offering of two pigeons, instead of a lamb, for purification. Nazareth, where he grew up, was a small and relatively poor village.

During his ministry, Jesus spent time with the poor and marginalised and provided hope in the way in which he was inaugurating the Kingdom of God. The miracles of healing, deliverance and the raising people from the dead all provided hope in the present for those who saw them. Those compassionate actions were a way of saying, ‘God cares about your life right here, right now’.

When Christians only believe in life after death, they can, if they are not careful, defer hope to the beyond – to the far future and thus, to some extent, leave the present as a time to be endured in despair.

Jesus challenged unjust power structures. These were the religious elite, the Pharisees and Sadducee priests and the Roman military government. The Romans were brutal dictators who demanded taxes and tributes. The priests charged their own religious taxes and subjected the people to harsh interpretations of the law. The priests at the Jerusalem Temple collaborated with the Romans and the result of such governance was an Israel that was crippled by debt and poverty – a far cry from the Moses’ blueprint for an egalitarian society.

Jesus challenged the injustices of the ruling elite. He focussed energy on putting right the political injustices of his day. One outstanding example is his triumphant arrival at the Temple when he chose to perform a highly symbolic act. He entered the Temple, a key centre of ruling power, and while executing a highly prophetic act demonstrating judgement on Israel and her leaders, accused the temple authority of turning the space into a ‘den of thieves’ – a reference to Jeremiah’s condemnation of the Temple officials who stole Temple offerings. Matthew’s gospel records that immediately after this the blind and lame came into the Temple and Jesus healed them whereas, previously, they had been barred from entering. What Jesus had done was a direct challenge to the corrupt political powers of his day and the high priests responded by looking for a way to kill him.

However, it was the Romans who killed Jesus. They crucified him as one who threatened the political status quo, not for being a theological heretic, as they had no interest in Jewish theology. The sign on the cross, ‘Jesus king of the Jews’ was the Romans’ way of saying, ‘This is what we do to your political leaders if they get in our way’.

So, we can see that Jesus’ life, and not only his death and resurrection, should be understood as the launch of God’s Kingdom project for good news to go to all people everywhere. Jesus’ message, the Gospel of the Kingdom, challenged the imagination of those who heard it then and challenges the imagination of those who have heard it since. The Kingdom is about salvation in the here and now, the fight for justice, compassion, food, drink and shelter and the way in which forgiveness could be had to renew their relationship with God and secure their eternity. For some, this is accompanied by more physical liberation in the evidence of healing and physical liberation.

The Gospel is both personal salvation and social justice – it’s for the future and for the present – it’s for life after death and for life before death.

(Back to Mark here.)

One final thought, I chose to include Renton’s soliloquy unaltered because not only does it clarify the introduction but also does one further thing in relation to David’s piece. It reminds us of the following sentence.

One billion people are currently in a state of chronic hunger and 20,000 of them will die today.

Are we still worried about the F word? Really?? Are we???

Until next time…

For more from David Muir please contact him at DMuir@christian-aid.org

Recommended reading:

Collings, M. This is Civilisation (London: 21 publishing, 2008)
Donovan, V. J. Christianity Rediscovered (London: SCM Press, 1987)
King, C. S. My Life with Martin Luther King (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1970)
Wright, T. Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007)
Yoder, J. H. The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994)

Copyright: Where possible, I have tried to seek copyright. In cases where I have not been successful, if anyone has any information related to this subject I would be grateful if you were to contact me.

If anyone would like to use any of the work on seditioustheology.com, please feel free. If you would be kind enough to put MDJ@seditioustheology.com so that people know where it derives from that would be much appreciated.

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