Afraid of Being Afraid

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.

Afraid of Being Afraid

Me and Revelation

The language of Revelation scared teenage me to death. There was a time prior to 1995 when I was sure (to my way of looking at things) I wasn’t “ready” to be a Christian, but I knew I needed to be. During this period, the imagery of John’s Apocalypse haunted me. This universe of cosmic monsters, bloody battles, falling stars, red moons, and red tides weighed heavily on me. I remember that night in Spring, when I was buried and resurrected with Jesus in baptism, I came home to the same house I’m living in now, sat in nearly the same spot that I now occupy, and read Revelation from start to finish, ecstatic that I no longer needed to fear its words.
It should go without saying that I didn’t actually know much of anything about Revelation back then. My fear owed more to an overactive imagination, driven by countless “meeting sermons” about people dying on their way to be baptized, but I’ve grown up a little since then, and while I still don’t know a whole lot about Revelation – don’t trust anyone who says they do! – I’ve learned a little more.
I’ve learned that Revelation is a fantastical retelling of the Exodus story. It is a story about God hearing the cry of his people in the darkness of their experience and going head to head with the gods of the world, bringing liberation. It is about what happens whenever the Empire of this age – that ancient beast, mounted by the harlot of Babylon – rises against the Kingdom of the Lamb that was Slain. As Randy Harris summarizes the book, Revelation teaches us, “God wins. You need to pick a side. Don’t be stupid.”
The monsters of Revelation no longer scare me, but as I reflect on the book, they do raise another set of concerns. In the Exodus story, Egypt was the global super-power and under her oppressive reign, the weak, powerless, and marginal cried out to God. In Revelation, the beasts that served the great, satanic dragon represented the might and power of Rome that dominated the known world with bread, and circuses, and swords. The cry came to God from those who were crushed by the machinations of the Empire’s beastly power. God acted against those who hold all the power – and greedily so – in favor of those who had none. In a similar way, Mary sang in her Magnificat that in her child, God was bringing the powerful down and raising up the weak. He was sending the powerful away empty handed and filling those who had nothing with good things.
One of the perennial sins I commit when I read Scripture is that I associate myself with the good guys. Of course, blessed Mary is pronouncing a good word on me – even though I’ve never been hungry a day in my life; even though I was born with more privilege and power than most other people in our world could even dream up. I look at Egypt and decry the evil of the Empire that dehumanizes and oppresses the other for its own exploitative ends. I do this almost instinctively without ever wondering about the true cost of the “must have” items that line my closets, shelves, walls, and storage units. I look at the Roman beast and condemn its power without ever stopping to wonder if I might be part and parcel of the same satanic system.
Nowadays, when I read texts like Revelation (or the Exodus or the Gospels), I’m trying to put myself in the proper place and read it for what it is worth from that perspective. That is, I’m learning to remember that I’m situated on top of the pile and that is a precarious place to read Scripture. It’s not impossible to read (and follow!) from that starting place. After all, none of us chose to be born where we were on the pile and unless we forget, “Nothing is impossible with God!” But it does bring its own set of attendant sacrifices, concerns, temptations – and even blessings.
I’m not scared by the beasts of Revelation anymore. If anything, I’m leery of the ways they might look like me. But, I am mindful of the word we’ve received from the Lord, “Come out of her, my people, so that you don’t take part in her sins and don’t receive any of her plagues” (Revelation 18:4).
Lord, you have redeemed me from the Empire. By your Spirit form me in such a way that you take the Empire out of me. Amen.
Me and Revelation