Have you been following the cable TV series “The Walking Dead?” It’s already in its fifth season, and at one point at least, it was the most-watched dramatic telecast series in basic cable history. I see the show as connected with today’s readings about widows, dead children, and how to bring the dead back to life.
In the TV series, sheriff’s deputy, Rick Grimes, awakens from a coma to find a changed world. The apocalypse has happened. Normal life has broken down completely, and the world is dominated by zombies. They are flesh-eaters or “biters.”
So Grimes becomes a “walker” (i.e. a survivor as opposed to a zombie) as he sets out to find his family. Along the way he encounters many other like himself. Those encounters and the flight from the zombies, whose bite is infectious, constitute the premise of each show’s episode.
Many reviewers have attributed the popularity of “The Walking Dead” to its reflection of life in our 21st century. They see our own world largely populated by people who if not walking dead themselves, are at least asleep on their feet.
And it’s worse than that. Today’s walking dead, they say, actually live off the flesh of others. That’s because what we call “life” depends on economic and military systems that cause the hunger-related deaths of people in far off countries as well as the destruction of Mother Earth.
That is, we’re dependent on those who supply us with cheap food, housing and clothes, while the commodities’ producers themselves are paid insufficiently to keep body and soul together. The result is that 21,000 children under five die each day from diarrhea and other absolutely preventable causes. In a sense, according to these critics, when we eat cheap food, we are actually eating those children.
And yet, most of us are totally unaware. As zombies we don’t think about the children whose lives we devour. Our vacant eyes see only the superficial – as though dollar signs had taken the place of our eye-balls. We’re taught to value only what those dollar signs see and measure. Dollar signs can’t penetrate below surface appearances. They isolate us from fellow-felling.
We are the walking dead. Think about that the next time you watch the series.
Can the Walking Dead process be reversed? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that it can if we follow the examples of Elijah, Paul and Jesus.
Elijah, you recall, was the great prophet of Israel who lived during the 9th Century BCE. In today’s reading from the First Book of Kings, Elijah has found refuge in the home of a widow. The widow’s child, who is young enough to be sitting in her lap, dies from unexplained causes – probably associated with hunger.
The widow immediately blames the prophet. She evidently thought that giving refuge to a “man of God” would protect her from misfortune. She complains, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God.”
Apparently stung by the widow’s complaint, Elijah uses a strange ritual to restore life to her child. Three times he stretches himself on top of her little son while praying, “Let breath return to this child.” Suddenly the widow’s son starts breathing again, and Elijah restores him to his mother.
What was the meaning of his ritual? Was Elijah somehow identifying with the dead toddler? Was he doing something like mouth-to-mouth resuscitation?
Hold those questions.
We encounter another widow and her son in today’s reading from Luke. It has Jesus meeting a funeral procession. The crowd is accompanying a widow who has lost her only son. Unlike the case confronted by Elijah, this son is older – Jesus calls him “young man.”
And Luke takes time to mention that the crowd following the coffin was large. Might it have been one of those “demonstration funerals,” we’re used to seeing in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan? I mean where victims of occupation armies use the occasion to express anti-imperial rage. Remember, Jesus’ Palestine was occupied by Rome. And Nain (where this miracle took place) was in the Galilee, a hotbed of anti-Roman insurgency.
I raise the question because in revolutionary settings like Jesus’, occupation forces (like the ones created by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan) routinely identify young men of military age as legitimate targets for the occupiers. The foreign troops kill such men in what our government calls “signature strikes.” I mean this particular widow’s son might well have been killed by Rome. In that hypothesis, Jesus’ restoration of life to the fallen insurgent would have had great political import in terms of Jesus’ relation to the resistance.
In any case, Jesus’ act certainly had important social meaning in the context of Israel’s patriarchy. The mother after all is a widow. And in her male-dominated society, she’s left entirely without means of support. No wonder she is crying.
Jesus is touched by the woman’s tears. Luke says he was filled with compassion for the widow. “Do not weep,” he says. And he touches the coffin. Then Jesus addresses the corpse, “Young man, I tell you arise.” Immediately, Luke tells us, the young man sat up and “began to speak.”
What do you suppose were his first words? Maybe he shouted the Aramaic equivalent of “Viva la revolucion!” or “God is Great!” We’re only told what the people in the funeral procession said, “A great prophet has arisen in our midst. God has visited his people!”
Paul recalls his own visit from God in today’s second reading. And in Paul’s case, there is no doubt that his visit was associated with rejection of empire. Paul had worked for Rome, he reminds his readers. Or more accurately, he worked for the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that cooperated hand in glove with Palestine’s occupiers.
The Sanhedrin had used Paul to hunt down Jesus’ followers. The court wanted them dead for the same reason they and Palestine’s occupiers had wanted Jesus dead – because both they and Jesus were seen as part of the Jewish resistance to Rome. So Paul was hunting down his fellow-Jews and turning them over to the Sanhedrin. In other words, Paul was a widow-maker. He was a killer of the sons belonging to the widows he made.
Then came Paul’s famous conversion on the road to Damascus. He had a vision and heard Jesus’ voice asking, “Why are you persecuting me?” Those words told him that Jesus and the widows Paul was making, as well as the widows’ sons he was killing, were identical. There was a Jesus-presence in all of them, Paul realized.
What do these readings mean for us today?
I’m suggesting that they yield principles for us as we seek escape from the zombie consciousness that prevents us from seeing our own cannibalism and widow-making as walking dead shuffling through those aisles in Kroger and Wal-Mart.
Do we wish to return to the land of the living? Elijah says, identify with those 21 thousand children our eating habits devour each day. Stretch yourselves over their dead bodies, the prophet suggests. Breathe life back into them. Identify with the children is the Elijah principle.
Do we want to walk the path of Jesus rather than the one dictated by our culture? Let compassion be your guide, Jesus suggests. Compassion for widows and orphans was Jesus’ guiding principle as it was for all the great biblical prophets.
And that includes compassion for our widowed Mother Earth. The patriarchy has abandoned her. She has been left to fend for herself and she watches her offspring die. I mean, species after species is disappearing at the hands of the same economic and military systems that kill those 21,000 toddlers each day. Our widowed Mother Earth needs our compassion too. Jesus’ example calls us to action impelled by that sentiment.
And what action might that be?
Paul’s conversion supplies an answer this morning. Stop cooperating with empire, it tells us. Eat lower on the food chain. Stop shopping in the big boxes. Resist the wars empire depends on to keep those boxes filled. Stop honoring the military and encouraging sons and daughters to “sacrifice” themselves on behalf of the corporations that require war and widow-making to retain and increase market shares.
In summary, today’s readings call us away from business as usual. They tell us that we don’t have to be zombies. They ask us all to leave behind our lives of lethargy and sleep. The readings invite us to imitate Elijah and his identification with a dead child. They ask us to be like Jesus in his compassion for a suffering single mom. Paul tells us to dis-identify with empire. The readings urge us to become “Walkers” on the Jesus path of compassion.