Universal Redemption, Compassion and The Walking Dead: part 2

This is the second part to last week’s Monday Meditation on salvation.

The Mid-Season finale for The Walking Dead brought my draft of last weeks’ post to mind because I think it more eloquently expressed what I struggled to write: that any monster we face in the world, no matter how dangerous and depraved, ultimately, that is someone else’s sick and broken child.

May of my friends and family are a bit puzzled, and not a little repulsed by my obsession with AMC’s The Walking Dead. I’ve long maintained to them that the show is not about Zombies, believe it or not. I’ve always believed it’s about our own struggle to confront all the hardships and adversities we face in life just to survive and hopefully bond with each other to find solace and joy.

In the first season, Rick wakes up and must fight and struggle to find a place in human society – the group of survivors. In this second season, we find the group struggling as individuals and a group to find their own perspective with which they are going to face the world: expedience for Shane which has its place, but ultimately leads to near insanity; emotional numbness for Andrea, which isolates her and makes her a threat to the group, Daryl’s struggle to find purpose; Glen’s openness to connection and relationships in spite of a dangerous world; Lori’s struggle with nihilism or hope.

In one post recently, I wrote that I thought the missing element to the moral debate about “holding” the Walkers was the humanity of keeping someone “alive” in that condition. After seeing the finale, I must admit that the question had no place in the show’s season. The ultimate question is: how do we conceptualize the dangers we face, specifically, people who pose a threat to us because of their monstrous nature, and what context do we decide to build for ourselves and our world.

The last few episodes drew this out very well. For Hershel, they are sick people deserving compassion and mercy. As I tried to express last week, there are monstrous, dangerous people out there who are, ultimately, sick and deserve compassion. When Glen asks Maggie what she calls the Walkers, she tells him: “Mom, Sean.” And as we see when Sophie finally emerges from the barn, behind every monster is a person someone used to love; behind any depraved adult and you will find a very mistreated child. For Shane, though, they became the focus for all of his self-hate and rage and grief: he ultimately makes a depraved sport of creating a massacre for them all, when they pose no direct threat at the time. Glen’s point makes the most sense: sick people or loathsome monsters, ultimately, “they’re dangerous,” and that’s the fact he plans to face, with compassion but with commitment. A subtle shot in the final shoot-out scene shows him deferring to Maggie before he joins in the shooting.

For me, that was the most poignant message: you can hate and despise all those horrible “monsters” out there all you want, but be very careful of two things: first, so much blind rage may make you one of them, and second, you may get confronted with their humanity when it’s just too late for your own.

Of course Hershel’s perspective, while more compassionate, isn’t necessarily any more productive. His secrecy set up a line of dominoes waiting to fall into chaos with one gentle nudge. And he does neglect the very obvious point that they are, sick or not, people you loved or not, dangerous. As one of my favorite preachers reminded me: yes, we are called to love, and there are people in our lives we love dearly. But some people, no matter what the relationship, we simply need to love from very far away for our own sakes. If my step-brother were a Zombie, I think I’d be loving him from very far away.

In the final scene, Rick’s actions were consistent with the way I’ve written about him earlier: it is he who ultimately practices the greatest compassion when he shoots Sophia. He’s set this precedent in the park, a moment he mentions vaguely to Hershel. In Rick’s action, as in the park, there is no rage, no fear, only mercy and acceptance of the sad facts stumbling to him slowly.  She’s a danger to survivors, even if not to them, and a broken child. It’s just not right, in his moral world, to let her go on like that. Everyone has lowered their guns in sadness, grief, shock and I hope a little self-reflective remorse. Rick’s raises his and shoots Sophie through the head. I could hear the echo of his words at the Atlanta park: “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.”

On the only Talking Dead I’ve ever seen, the executive producer was on the show. She, and the rest of the guests, maintained that Shane had a more morally complex view, and way of coping, than Rick. This followed the episode where Shane shoots Otis in the leg to take the medicine back. At the time, I went with the idea, with some reservations. I have to say that now, I believe Shane’s view is the more morally simple, and while expedient every once in a while in them moment, ultimately it makes him a danger. Rick’s view is more complex; at one point he says he’s “negotiating” with Herschel, and that is Rick’s role throughout the second season:  the struggle for a point of balance between extreme positions with regard to the dangers they all face.

So, this leads me back to last week: in a world where our monsters are someone else’s broken, damaged child “infected” helplessly by someone else’s disease, how do we ultimately judge them, and how do we ask God to judge them? We have our rage at their actions, our fear of their depravity, and our awareness of the real threat they pose to our survival and well-being. But they don’t pop out of nowhere, they are created because somewhere, somehow down the line a long time ago, they were helpless and lost and damaged beyond repair, beyond taking responsibility. And what do we do with that when we talk about God’s mercy and salvation?

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