Autor: Gregg Okesson
Category: Pobreza & Riqueza
Everyday I walk to work. My pathway, rough and dirty, takes me past a cemetery, across a field, alongside the morgue, until I reach my office. At every step along the way, death marks my journey. This is somewhat startling to someone raised in the West, where death is a topic restricted to particular physical and social boundaries. Coffins are made inside ambiguous factories, not in open-air workshops along a busy road. Cemeteries occupy specific spaces within townships, carefully manicured to assuage the memories of the departed. People do not discuss death with their friends, unless it is thrust upon them by circumstances beyond their control … and only in pre-approved places: hospitals, funeral homes, churches, or cemeteries. We will do anything to escape an encounter with death, whether trying some new dietary regiment, embarking upon some vigorous exercise routine; or elevating entertainment personalities to godlike status: perhaps imagining that such examples of youthfulness, beauty, or super-human strength will transport us into realms of immortality (even if just for a moment).
Such is the mythic imagination of Western civilizations.
My point is not to glorify death, or somehow suggest that we should shun nutrition, medical science, physical exercise, or any other means of being good stewards with our bodies. However, I am concerned with two things. Firstly, in the West we have reduced death to a mere physical reality. Because we largely neglect the soul, our bodies take on extra importance. Without any moral rudder, the body leads the person (rather than the other way around) in directions that maximize physical pleasure (understood reductionistically). Internal body maintenance (nutrition, exercise, etc.) serves outer-body enjoyment (dance, fashion, or sex). Anything that “feels good’ must be good – or so we suppose.
By way of contrast outside of the West death manifests a stark visibility. It stands in the middle of communities: coffins are made alongside roadsides, people are buried in homesteads, and death becomes an unavoidable narrative of everyday speech-acts. My daily walk to work shows this to be the case.
I used to live in a small village in Tanzania where the most common activity was attending a funeral, or dua (Muslim prayers for a deceased person). One of these would occur almost every day of the week. I would sit on a mat with older men and hear stories about sickness, drought, the absence of rains, or other tangible reminders to recall the fragility of life. My primary task was that of ambulance driver. We were the cheapest form of transport (other than walking or bicycling) to take people to the government hospital three hours away. People would wait until a family member was at the most dire moment – usually when their fever had spiked in the middle of the night – to send an entourage to my home. I would get dressed, find my flashlight, and meet the family. We would then pile into the truck and wind our way through the dark roads to the hospital. Sometimes the sick would live, other times they would die. On one occasion, a five-year old boy lay gasping in the backseat as I sped to the hospital. His voice slowly quieted to a last painful breath ... and then, silence. The Father leaned forward in the seat to inform me that we could return to the home; the boy had died. I refused to believe. Somehow I thought that if I could drive fast enough, I would save his life. It was a journey of futility.
On another occasion, I remember going to a different hospital where the driveway wound through a long cemetery (hardly a comforting notion for the sick!). Many times I have caught the stench of decaying flesh when walking past a hospital on a hot, sunny day; or found myself trapped in a parade of cars proceeding to a funeral.
Yesterday I was walking to my office. On most days, people congregate outside the morgue waiting to receive the deceased’s body. There are usually tears, almost always singing. As I walked past the group yesterday there was a woman hunched in half, sobbing uncontrollably. It is hard to describe what this did to me. One moment I was deep in my thoughts about a project or idea, and the next I am consumed by her grief. Death is more than a sterile topic (to be avoided except when necessary) … but is personal, communal, and stands in the middle of our daily life as if to announce, “all is not right with the world.”
We need to listen to this voice… even as it mocks us.
I don’t want to sensationalize death; nor do I care to suggest that we should give it undue attention, as if to intimate that death has the final word. We know that in the end LIFE prevails. God will pronounce His authoritative “no” to human suffering; and the eternal “yes” to life in Christ.
But along the way, and until we come to the consummation of all things, we need to learn from people who do not insulate themselves from death. For the vast majority of Christians in the world, death brings opportunities for “weeping with those who weep.” Exposure to death does not numb them to the realities of loss, nor dispose them to futility; rather, it equips them with resources in which to move into others people’s lives with the compassion of Christ. My friends have taught me these lessons. They don’t always get it “right.” We all stumble awkwardly around the topic. I am also not suggesting that African culture is somehow superior to Western societies (we need to oppose all such polarities). I just know that the visibility of death has done good things within me. I am being shaken out of my self-interested slumber to feel the pains of others (like what happened yesterday). I have learned to cry again. Others have ministered to me when I have suffered loss. My prayers have moved away from my immediate (and sometimes trivial) concerns to the plight of the poor, the widows, orphans, and others who face daily atrocities of human suffering. I am not where I should be, but the pathway to my office is helping.
Finally, “death” is more than a physical condition. Our bodies are inter-woven into an extensive multi-faceted fabric that unites us with the entire cosmos. If Christians are going to proclaim LIFE in the midst of DEATH, we cannot do so armed with only well-intentioned spiritual sayings (“Its okay, she is in a better place now”); nor relying solely on the authority of scientific medicine (“just take this medicine;” or “take this treatment”). Both may be true, but they hardly help us look at deeper issues. We, in the West, cannot just throw money at death, and thus find our selves guilty of a “false generosity” that tries to solve people’s problems without looking at the causes (here I make illusion to the words of Paulo Freire in Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Nor can those trapped in poverty afford to just throw up their hands, and say “It is God’s will.” Death needs to move us into global injustices, poverty, gluttony, famine, selfishness, agricultural development, greed, economic inequities, holistic health, spiritual shallowness, and yes, … theology.
Health is more than the absence of sickness, but “wholeness.” As God’s agents of shalom in the world, Christians need to confront death wherever it exists, in its personal, bodily, spiritual, relational, emotional, and environmental forms. But we also need the visibility of death to compel us deeper into daily liturgies of lamentation: for our sins, … the good of each other … but also for the rest of creation which “groans” awaiting the redemption of the children of God.
You see, my daily pathway may be littered with emotional minefields but it is doing a world of good within me.