“Survival is Not a Worthy Moral End”

“Survival,” Stanley Hauerwas writes in the Foreword to Truthfulness and Tragedy, “is not a worthy moral end.” These words seem like ones we should be meditating on during this time of pandemic, fear, and death gripping our nation and world.

They are shocking words, especially coming from a Christian. Too often, our faith is equated with the American pro-life movement that has co-opted much of the public persona of American Christianity. Yet, as Hauerwas highlights, our faith is not – or at least, should not be – one predicated on a monomaniacal pursuit of life for life’s sake. The question is not whether we live or not, but how we live. Upon baptism, we take on a new life, one dedicated to imitating the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Our lives becomes dedicated to something beyond our own needs, our own desires, our own mere survival. As Christians, we have a duty to conform our lives and our priorities to those of God as revealed in Christ.

This reorientation of self, this submission to the life of discipleship, rather than being a restriction on our being, instead is the root of the greatest freedom of all: the freedom from fear of death, the freedom for a life, life lived for love. In Christ, we become free of the need to survive, which leaves us free to love God, to love our neighbors, to love our enemies, to practice love through open, selfless service of others.

We become capable of this kind of love because by being freed from the fear of death, we no longer are driven by our need for validation, for acknowledgement, for the stroking of the ego so often sought in our relationships with others. We no longer need an enemy to define ourselves against in order to be reminded we are good. And we become capable to living our lives in a way that orients our actions and priorities towards practicing love for God and love for others in service to those in need, those we meet everyday.

In short, through life in Christ, we break free from our existential fear in order to love freely and wildly.

I’ve been thinking about this all as I watched the news of protesters taking to streets and capitol buildings in places like Michigan, in opposition to the social distancing and shutdown measures our leaders are putting in place to help forestall the spread of Covid-19. I thought about the interplay of fear and love when looking at images like these:

TOPSHOT – A protestor with a sign that has Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whittmer depicted as Adolph Hitler is seen at an American Patriot Rally organized by Michigan United for Liberty protest for the reopening of businesses, on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 30, 2020. – The group is upset with Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s mandatory closure to curtail Covid-19. (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY / AFP) (Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

These protesters think they are being brave, that they are standing up in the face of fear. But, I don’t think this is right. As I wrote last week, taking seriously the threat of Covid-19 is not driven by fear, but by love of neighbor. We are called to not fear laying down our own lives, not the lives of others.

Instead, what I see in these images is deep, existential fear. It’s fear revealed in the intense desire to reopen to economy, to sacrifice others, to display a false bravado in order to mask a fear of their own mortality. Men and women standing in a state capitol with guns and fatigues to protest quarantine orders aren’t the epitomes of bravery and courage; instead, they are the purest distillation of fear.

It’s a fear that we channel quite well here in America: the fear of being called on to sacrifice something for others, of being asked to submit our own primal needs in order to promote a good far beyond our own. It is a fear, in short, of other human beings, and the demands their existence puts on our own.

Understanding as I do the demographic makeup of political coalitions in America, I have no doubt many of the men and women in the photos above would describe themselves as Christians. But the Christianity they practice seems rather small and sad. It is a faith that has been subsumed under American individualism and capitalistic greed. It is a faith that has been conquered by death and insignificance, and thus can no longer recognize the radical call of Christ lose one’s self and become willing to lay down our lives for others, even those that may seem undeserving.

To follow Christ means, again the words of Hauerwas, “we are freed from the obsession of securing our significance against death.” It means living in such a way that our love and trust in God through Christ becomes apparent in our actions. This love in action never looks like an assertion of self, or a need to strike fear into others, or in the need to protect or assert oneself. Instead, this love in action looks like just what Christ described: “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

In this time of pandemic and fear, we Christians have a unique duty: to stand up in the face of death and remind the world it does not have the final say, to assert that in Christ we need not live in fear, but instead, we have the freedom of the love of God that allows us to live in joy and hope of a better tomorrow. It is to remember that we aren’t here merely to survive; no, we are here to love, and love fully, wildly, radically, and without bounds.

May those who live in such a way be heard.

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