Facing Death, and the End of White Christian America, with Dignity

The corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind. (Wisdom 9:15)

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, 33)

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Who knows who said these words? Holy Job.

We Christians do not despise life in this world. We do not despise our mortal bodies.  But mortal they are. Our lives on earth will end. Following Christ means exercising humble realism about the earth and our earthen bodies. When we recognize that this pilgrim life will pass, then we can embrace the truth about the divine life that Christ offers, through His own bodily death.

I recently read a thoughtful essay about death, and a review of a book about the end of an era. First the essay.

Jones End of White Christian AmericaThe essayist laments the “indignity” of dying in a hospital. Wearing one of those pathetic gowns that never stay closed in the back. Grim fluorescent lighting. Tests and tubes and aches and pains and cruel anonymity. Family members hunched in uncomfortable chairs.

A grim scene, no doubt. But then the proposal: we need to take control. We need to approach death like consumers who get to choose options and decide the time and place. The so-called “Death with Dignity” movement. Also known as physician-assisted suicide.

This whole school of thought misses the great elephant in the room. Death itself. You can die in a hospital bed, or you can die in your favorite boutique hotel, surrounded by bagpipes and accordion players, with rosewater and peonies beside your canopied bed. When it’s over, you’re still dead. Hospital gowns are a bummer, sure. But death’s the part that really sucks.

When it comes to “death with dignity,” what about the dignity of Christ’s death? On the one hand, it makes suffering in a hospital look like a walk in the park. But who could die with more dignity than the suffering servant Who trustingly commended His life into the hands of the Almighty Father? Nailed to a cross, He exercised royal power, forgiving the penitent criminal and saying to him, “you will be with Me in paradise.” Unjustly tortured and killed by evil men, Christ prayed for them: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Sovereign dignity. Lord Jesus exercised no control, made no consumer choices about his death. Yet no one has ever died more beautifully.

The parables of the tower and the king preparing for battle teach us to exercise this humble realism about our mortality. Dying with dignity does not mean controlling all the external circumstances. No: we live with dignity, and we die with dignity, when we share in the triumph of Christ. When we have a spiritual life. When we have divine faith, hope, and charity. When we humbly receive from God all that He gives. Yes, He gives us life in this world, and bodily death is no picnic. But life in this world is just the beginning.

parable towerWhich brings me to the book. The End of White Christian America. It’s a new book which analyzes population trends and religious affiliation. Newsflash: White Christians no longer constitute a political majority in these USA.

Now, I’m a white Christian. I wish I could call myself a good Christian. But the mirror tells me I’m white, and my baptismal certificate proves I’m a Christian.

We could stay here all day long talking about how America has operated as a Christian country, or failed to do so, over the course of 240 years of history. But the idea of the book is that the hegemony of white Christians has now ended. Meaning that we white Christians must feel all petulant and defensive about it.

I, for one, don’t quite see it that way. Demographics can change. Polls change. How many white Christians does it take to change a light bulb? But tribal allegiances, based only on externals, have no enduring claim on our souls. Christ, on the other hand, does not change. The Gospel does not change.

And the Gospel neither offers nor denies political hegemony. What the Gospel offers is eternal life. Not earthly power, but meaning and beauty for our otherwise dangerously inscrutable existences.

When St. Peter first preached Christ on Pentecost Sunday, no one had any thoughts at that moment about political control. After all, the Romans weren’t counting votes in Palestine in those days. It wasn’t a democracy, even in name. But the Apostles and the first Christians burned with zeal for souls anyway. They longed to share their supernatural joy.

Brothers and sisters, we must never underestimate the difference we can make in other peoples’ lives simply by bearing faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the communion of His Church. What we Catholics have—not because we are so great, but because Christ has given it all to us—what we have to offer is the one real, living solution to the problem of human mortality. And to the problems of human loneliness, and conflicts between races and peoples. Jesus Christ is the real, living answer to all this.

In American history, and in world history, this year—2016—has pretty much sucked, and it continues to suck. But it is our moment. It is the moment when we can give up the pursuit of shallow comfort and silly emotional excesses and embrace the mission that the Lord Jesus has clearly laid before us.

Be My apostles! Be fishers of men! The worst thing that can happen is that they will kill you. And that would be death with dignity.

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