Simon Barrow

Re-evangelizing the religion of death

By Simon Barrow
July 21, 2007

The cult of death in certain aggressively angry contemporary religious movements is, to put it mildly, hugely disturbing. Terrifying, more like. The ideology of the Islamic ‘martyrdom operative’ or the Christian ‘crusader’ (for example) often seems beyond human empathy and beyond compassionate recall. It uses the name of God to secure a vision of “we are right and you are wrong” as a murderous, divinely-sanctioned certainty.

Psychological and other studies suggest that what lies behind the use of religion (or any human ideology) as “the ultimate weapon” is not bravery, but fear; not free nobility but a kind of ‘immortality fixation’. Unless we kill, our cause cannot triumph and it (and we) are finished. It is "a fight to the death".

Since the root issue here is anxiety about extinction projected as the need to extinguish, the only antidote is the removal of fear. Killing back, asking people to sacrifice their identity, or issuing a lecture on the evils of religion (as if it was all of this type) simply will not work.

The problem of religious killing and hatred, in other words, is a spiritual one, a disorder of the person in relation to self, others, the world and (it needs to be said) God. It calls for deep healing within the psyche and within the imagination and practice of the community.

That may seem impossible for some individuals, who have gone (or been pushed) “over the edge”, but it is never impossible within a culture, if there are people in that culture who can recognize the problem and know how to address it. Indeed, the solution has to finally come from within. There is no way to impose a new way of behaving from outside.

In his fine book ‘Search for Reality in Religion’ (1965, re-issued 1984), which I have been re-reading recently, the personalist Quaker philosopher John Macmurray writes: “[Removing] for ever the fear of death… is a tremendous gain in reality; for until we reach it – however we reach it – we cannot see our life as it really is, and so cannot live it as we should.”

He continues: “The fear of death is the symbol in us of all death; and fear is destructive of reality. It is true that one can gain this familiarity with death and use it falsely. We can say, as so many of my contemporaries did after the war, ’Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’ But it may well lead us to the opposite conclusion. We may feel that life is precious because it is short; and because it may end at any moment we must live so that every day would be a good day to die in, if death should come. Without this knowledge of death… there can be no real knowledge of life and so no discovery of the reality of religion.”

In other words, there are positive and negative ways of ‘embracing death’, just as there are positive and negative ways of seeking to be free of its apparently inexorable logic.

Acceptance of mortality is a condition of maturity. We will rightly "rage, rage against the dying of the light" (Dylan Thomas) if we have seen how wonderful the light is, and what an affront its loss is. But if we really do believe in the light, this raging will reach a point of non-necessity that becomes healthy acceptance – rather than pathological subservience.

For a Christian the non-necessity of rage-against-death arises from a conviction that if the God in whose eternity all life is gifted is a reality, then death is not the final word. But by the same token it also involves recognising that there is no word we have which is more final than death. There is no 'way out'.

The Christian Gospel agrees with this estimate. To be baptised into Christ is to choose to face death in an utterly realistic way, to enter into it, to accept the company of the crucified – the One killed by the religious and political systems which trade in death, and those he dies in solidarity with. Yet at exactly the same time, baptism places our trust in God's love as being stronger than death, the only power that can swallow up and relativize death, such that we are no longer bound to its will and its ways. Rather, we are raised with Christ.

There are no earthly 'guarantees' here, of course. We human beings have no purchase or control on the gift of life. We can only receive it, give it, nurture it, develop it, and place our hope in it as an act of prayer and worldly engagement – alongside others who find themselves (often against their own expectations or rationalisations) held in the same life-giving hope.

As we do this, not only does fear begin to lose its grip, but our desire and need to threaten death towards that which (and those who) threaten us, also begins to melt. To live outside the power of death is to have no further use for a sword, and to begin to see the sword (along with the suicide bomb and the war-strategy) not as a symbol of strength but of weakness; of capitulation to death, rather than empowerment by "the peace of God which passes all understanding". As this happens, another logic begins to take hold. Our minds are, in St Paul’s words, transformed rather than being conformed.

This is one of many reasons why, for me, belonging to the Christian community (being incorporated into a glorified Body scarred by the wounds of death) requires the rejection of violence as a key identity marker, a decisive sign of whose we really are as companions of Jesus. It is not an "ethical option" (as many churches like to think) or the outcome of an argument about 'what works best' between people labelled 'pacifists' and 'just warriors'.

The peace of Christ is who Christ is and the way of life we are invited to be re-deemed (re-defined and re-made) into. It is something resourced from beyond the kind of power declared by death, that is from the God of life. To speak of it while defending our lives with a sword is a contradiction in terms. It tells the world we do not believe.

Only unarmed truth can properly declare the Gospel, the evangel, the good news of God's gratuitous love that has the power to reshape us in truth. This is the most important and difficult lesson Christian people have to learn today. In a world of "religious violence" it is, indeed, an imperative. Distinguishing genuine from deceitful faith is literally a matter of life or death.

What stops many Christians from seeing the Gospel as a path of peace is a belief that this is unrealistic or irresponsible “given the way things are”. But for a Christian, viewing the world as if it was devoid of the transformative love of God is not 'realism', it is unbelief. Understandable in the face of great ambiguities and evils, but hardly something we should take as normative. So the key political question for Christians is always "whose realism [version of reality] is this, determined by what or who?"

Similarly, for a Christian, ‘social responsibility’ can never entail abandoning hope and deciding to go with the solutions offered by the reign of death. In a world of killing, our job as followers of Jesus is not to be more ethical killers, but to testify to a different way of life made possible by God’s non-possessive love. Meanwhile, though they often constitute the road less traveled (because more difficult), the possibilities of working for justice and peace are endless, even in the face of seemingly inexorable conflict and oppression.

But what if, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Christian peacemaker who ended up in a plot to kill Hitler), we find ourselves in a situation of contradiction where we feel that it would be immoral to remain pure while a greater wrong is allowed to triumph?

Well, even there, we have no reason to turn this into a 'policy' or to seek to justify it theologically. Notably, Bonhoeffer refused both of these options. He simply threw himself upon the mercy of God, recognising his actions as those of a helpless sinner in a world of sin. His maturity was that he was willing to be dependent, as we all in fact are, on the liberating power of forgiveness that, like life itself, is sheer unbargainable gift.

We cannot gainsay what Bonhoeffer would declare today – on the other side of his own death at the hand of the Nazis, for involvement in that (tragically failed) plot. But if one reads the whole trajectory of his theological explorations into Christian living in his age of mounting terror, there are few grounds for thinking that he would encourage us to abandon the divine invitation of the Hebrew Scriptures: "This day you have set before you both life and death. Therefore choose life" Or to forsake Jesus' telling final injunction to his disciples: "Put away your sword".

Nevertheless, the compromised Bonhoeffer, not some plaster pacifist saint, has to be the apostle of Christian non-violence. Because the contradiction he embodies, between the vocation of the Gospel and the lesions of the world, keeps those who know they must reject violence for Christ’s sake from any sense that we are morally superior or absolved from the struggle against death’s thrall.

The peace vocation is not about personal moral purity or vindication as a righteous person by the world. It is a matter of who and what we finally trust, and whether we see life as a true gift (like manna in a desert) or as something to be grasped at before we die. It is, in the correct sense of this term, an evangelistic matter: an invitation to a change of heart.

One final footnote. I have been writing as a Christian about how to face death humanly and how to re-evangelize the religion of death. If you belong to another faith tradition, or if you are a humanist or atheist, the task you share with me, I would suggest, is to look for the sources of life-giving within your own community of conviction. And to face its deep corruptions and evasions, too.

For that, we might find we need one another; that we have things to learn and share, as well as differences to acknowledge. The easier route (and, surely, the deadlier) would be for us to think that our understanding is inherently superior and that the real issue is with all those other dumb, irrational, blind, deluded or immoral people.

That kind of simplification and contempt for what we fear isn't the solution. It's part of the problem. A million miles from killing for Jesus (or Allah, or Pol Pot), certainly. But not totally removed.


Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog is

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