In Richard Beck’s book, The Slavery of Death, he makes a case from Scripture, theology, and psychology that in our broken, post-Fall experience, much of our human endeavor is driven by the fear of death. A central notion for him is the Hebrews author’s contention that Jesus set us free from slavery to the fear of death when he defeated the devil in his cross and resurrection (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Beck tells us there are two basic forms of death anxiety. The first is obvious and primal. We experience anxiety when we don’t know where our next meal is going to come from or when something (or someone) threatens to take our life. Many people around the world experience this sort of anxiety each day as they are refugees or live in areas suffering from famine, drought, disease, etc.
The second form of anxiety is more nuanced and a lot harder to describe. We might say it is attached to the search for meaning in the face of death. This is the core issue the Preacher deals with in Ecclesiastes. In a world where everything “under the sun” is rendered empty by death, where does one find meaning? The sociologist Ernest Becker explores a similar thought in his The Denial of Death where he argues that we develop culture as a way of pushing away the looming fact of death and thereby invest meaning in our life that is bigger than our mortality. Becker believes we’re all pretty much like the Preacher, working to find something meaningful in the face of death, and that is what we call culture.
Sociology and psychology have observed (much as Scripture has) that once our basic survival is relatively secured, we begin to operate out of this second kind of fear or anxiety. The Hebrews writer would say we are slaves to it, that we serve death. Last year, I took a survey course in World Literature and was interested to see how often this theme pops up. In the oldest extant narrative we have, The Epic of Gilgamesh, the ancient king of Uruk seeks immortality and, failing that, looks for meaning in the face of death. At one point, he says, ““I have peered over the city wall, I have seen the corpses floating in the river’s water. So too it will come to pass for me, so it will happen to me … Since no man can avoid life’s end, I would enter the mountain land and set up my name.”
Importantly, Scripture, Beck, and Becker all agree on one point. Motivated by our anxieties over death, we hurt each other. We find an obvious example in the Exodus narrative (cf. Exodus 1). A new Pharoah rises to power that doesn’t know what Joseph did for the nation. As such, when he sees the Hebrews, he only sees a threat to national security and he is afraid. Acting out of this fear, he institutes a domestic policy of Hebrew enslavement. When that fails to ease his anxieties he calls on all patriotic Egyptians to execute any Hebrew boys of a certain age when they encounter them. This narrative is paradigmatic for how death anxiety operates in human culture.
Put another way, for those of us who don’t have to worry about starving to death or living in a war zone, the reality of death is still present. Because of this, we build up structures – culture – to help us push away this reality. When I’m at the symphony, shopping at the mall, eating a great meal, playing video games, working hard at my job, or tossing a football in the backyard with my kids, I can deny the fact of death. What’s more, when I engage in this way of life I’ve helped build up, I tell myself that my life is meaningful in the face of death. But, when someone challenges that way of life, when someone threatens to unmask the reality of death that I’ve been pushing away or they call into question the meaningfulness of my way of life, I respond with violence because they reintroduce the anxiety I’m working to forget.
In the introduction of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark, she summarizes this second, existential anxiety helpfully. She says, “Almost everyone is afraid of being afraid.” And history shows we’re willing to go to great lengths to deal with that.