Universal Redemption, Compassion and The Walking Dead

When watching the mid-season finale of The Walking Dead, I was reminded of a Monday essay I’d been working on, but put aside because it seemed to ramble a bit too much for even me (can you imagine?). Then the finael’s ending, and what came to light as the theme of the whole of Season Two reminded me of the piece, so I’ve decided to include it with my comments on the show, as a two-parter for this and next Monday.

I’ve just reread the essay that I wrote over the summer, and I find it a little eerie how often I used the word “monster” to describe the evil people we confront in our lives. When I reread it, I thought of Shane’s ultimate rage with the Walkers, with the varying perceptions of them: sick people, loathsome monsters, or as Glen perhaps best put it, “dangerous” – whatever they are. In the second part, I’ll relate a bit more in detail my ideas on how the show expressed much better the point I was trying to get across below. Warning: this is one of my long-winded ones. Get a cup of coffee or a beer first.

The essay from the summer:

I once read a theologian, the late Robert Short, who once wrote that the punch line of the great Christian joke was that Everyone, and he meant everyone got saved. I know I’ve already lost a third of you already, and sent another third of you plumb into an apoplectic rage. Bear with me. I realize that when we think of that Sweet Hereafter, with its Pearly Gate entrance, virgin white silken robes and cottony soft clouds, we really don’t want to think of some of the nasty creatures we have to share the here and now with as rubbing our elbows Up There. After all, Heaven is about deserving to be there, isn’t it?

But really, who draws that line and where?

At first it seems pretty simple: there are the sociopaths, the monsters of society that most of us, and even most of them, would agree have done nothing but perpetrate the most heinous crimes imaginable and unimaginable. Definitely not them. Right? Well … let’s just leave that point right there for now and come back to it.

But other than them, some debate arises. What about people who act in every way with a generous, kind and loving spirit to the rest of the world, but isn’t a Christian? Well, some folks would say “nope, not them. Gotta have the Christian stamp.” What about baptized Christians who are just plain mean? No crimes committed, but just plain stingy, crude, selfish, kick a dog in the street mean. What about them? See, this is where it gets tricky. And for me especially, a little scarey.

I’ve lived parts of my life in ways which made me and my family are very proud, and I’ve had other parts of my life where the pain and despair were so overwhelming that only the most drastic, and self-deluded (if not self-destructive) acts were the absolute best I could manage in my state of confusion. I did things no one understood. I did things that alienated me from my family. I did things the mere possibility of which would probably keep my mother-in-law up at night if she only knew. (Then again, thoughts of me already probably keep her up at night, but that’s another post.) This having been said I want to make one thing clear: I didn’t victimize any one, break any laws, injure anyone, etc. I was a confused and lost, but not a danger to anyone. But, all in all, I did things to this day I can’t explain. All I do understand is that I was like a drowning man grabbing onto the sharp edge of the sword.  Confusion was all I had, and all I knew to do. When I look back on time of my life I truly begin to understand 1 Corinthians 13:12 (New English Bible Oxford Study Edition):

Now we see only puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we shall see face to face. My knowledge now is partial; then it will be whole, like god’s knowledge of me. [i]

My confusion distorted everything, and things of which I was then so certain, I see were just delusions and illusions. As I get older, I see how much of what I firmly believed was based not on truth or personal experience, but by my limited experience then: the teaching of my parents, based on their own fears, preconceived notions and anxieties and damage. The assumptions of my culture, before I’d seen of the world of possibilities beyond my own back yard. My own insecurities and even demons, which persuaded me of the impossibilities of life with such seemingly well-founded logic. All this so colored and blinded me that what seemed to be the clear-headed reason driving my decisions and choices now seem to me to be the blind and panicked fumbling of a lost child. I saw darkly through the glass of my own broken soul.

As I struggled with the sadness and seeming waste of these experiences recently, a trusted confidant consoled me: “but you’ll see the world from an unusual perspective. Maybe you’ll be able to speak for people who are still broken, like you feel you were once.” Because, you see, to borrow the words of Leonard Cohen: “you see that line there moving through the station? / … I was one of those.”

Do you see that line of broken souls needing desperately something remotely resembling salvation? Well, I tell you, I am one of those.

And there it is for me, the other hand. While I’ve never crossed That Line into hurting or exploiting other people, when I stayed on the right side of the law both in spirit and in dead, I have a clear enough idea on the things in life that can tear a person in part. Whenever I hear of some monstrous act committed by some depraved human being, I have a one-two punch of reactions. First, is the natural outrage and disgust, the desire to help completely eradicate that human being from the rest of human society. Fear and loathing, natural instincts to preserve, protect and defend human decency. Then there is the second – my own inner realization that behind each monster is someone or something that deformed that person just like a gash would scar the flesh. Look closely behind the monsters, and you’ll find a victim to another monster. Other than severe brain damage, monsters in our world are made, not born. There are some wounds that never heal in the conventional sense that people want to believe in. Some people do heal, but some people simply implode before they get the chance.

Did God speak to them and they not listen, so their own lack of faith earns them their right in Hell? Or did they simply break under the constant barrage of evil perpetuated against them, and as we know sometimes happens, Evil won out that time? Or did we, as human beings, abandon them to fight a battle in which we were supposed to participate as defenders of the vulnerable and helpless, the sick and downtrodden? Is the failure ours? Is it a different story every time, and sometimes all these reasons and we can never know where is the blame, where is the responsibility, who ultimately deserves blame and punishment?

How many monstrous adults were so abused by their parents and abandoned by their communities that their hearts and souls were twisted beyond repair? How many of these people we view with vile contempt as adults, would we pity as children? How many addicts and inmates are medically, mentally ill – schizophrenic, brain injured, developmentally challenged — and could be easily diagnosed and treated with proper medical care, which they can’t afford, and for which we refuse to pay directly (why is it we’d rather fund prisons than hospitals – explain that logic to me).

I’ve been reading the book of Exodus, and one thing struck me particularly. In the back and forth between Moses and the Pharaoh, there are several offers before the final showdown. Keep in mind, even Moses killed someone. Exodus 10:8-11 begins with the Pharaoh telling Aaron and Moses:

‘You may go and worship the Lord your God; but who exactly is to go?’ ‘All,’ said Moses, ‘young and old, boys and girls, sheep and cattle;’ … (Exodus 10:8 ff; New English Bible Oxford Study Edition)[ii]

Later, a similar scenario plays out, with a similar result:

Pharaoh summoned Moses. ‘Go,’ he said, ‘and worship the Lord. Your dependents may go with you; but your flocks and herds must be left with us.’ (Exodus 10:24; New English Bible Oxford Study Edition)

This doesn’t cut it with Moses or God either, and the final plague – the death of every first born child in Egypt – is let loose.  

In the end, the entire nation of Israel is liberated: man, woman, child; beast, barrel. Not only is the nation liberated, but they leave with food and water and everything they need. Everyone and everything they needed. Not just the people who behaved themselves, not just the pretty people, the rich people. Not just the men, or the people with the right job titles. Everyone no mattered what they’d done. They were led out by a man who’d killed, even. So, I’m thinking it’s safe to say there was no qualification except to belong to the nation of Israel, to belong to God. So, doesn’t that mean that we each get a chance to be delivered?

[i] This is the same verse more commonly remembered as: For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
[ii] I’m aware of the inconsistency in the verse: first the dependents are allowed, then only the “menfolk.” However, because in later verses the theme of a partial liberation is repeated, and refused by God, I believe the text as a whole supports the possibility of my reading.

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