I am re-reading Douglas John Hall’s book, The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death. I am also watching a BBC staple, “Silent Witness,” while I walk mornings on the treadmill. The intersection of these thoroughly unrelated works seems to be the theme of “necrophilia,” the love of or fascination with death.
Hall originally produced his work in 1985, but he could have written it this morning. Thermonuclear Armageddon is not quite so prominent in the public view as it was thirty-five years ago. But global climate disaster, economic bankruptcy among the industrialized nations, and the political and cultural decline of the American empire are front and center in his work. Hall’s writing was precise and prescient a generation ago. It is almost mere reportage now.
Beneath the surface currents of Western decadence, Hall points to a deeper reality — what he describes as a “covenant with death.” The book is a series of five meditations around this theme, taken from the words of Isaiah 28:15: “Because you have said, ‘We have made a covenant with death,
and with Sheol we have an agreement; when the overwhelming scourge passes through it will not come to us; for we have made lies our refuge, and in falsehood we have taken shelter’…“
I won’t rehearse Hall’s entire book here. I’d encourage you to read it and let the power of Hall’s prophecy persuade you. He describes the situation of the original prophet: “the society that bargains with death is invariably a religious one,” Hall observes. “The prophet who has given us the metaphor of the covenant with death is not railing against godless unbelievers but against fervent believers.” Isaiah was describing the callous complacency of the one percent in Israel. “In the name of God,” Hall concludes, “they are ready to consign their world to nothingness if that is the only way they can preserve their own souls, their own properties and values, their prosperity” (page 42).
Certainty, security and status are treated as backstops against the reality of death. There is no concern for the general population. They simply exist to insure the continued comfort and control of the one percent. That so-called “life” is built on mounds of disposable human flesh. Such is the way of every empire. It is necrophilia camouflaged as conservatism.
“Silent Witness” portrays the dramatic work of Home Office forensic pathologists in London. The series is nearing twenty-five seasons. The circumstances of the plots vary widely, but the central character is always the same: Death. Of course, Death never shows up in the credits or the cast list. But there is no denying who the central player is.
The show narrates noble efforts to give voice to those who can no longer speak for themselves. Along the way there are lots of garrotings, poisonings, bludgeonings, shootings, drownings, and other creative ways to dispatch people. We can also track the development of technology in the forensic field, even if most plodding pathologists can only dream of the electronic paradise in the London lab. Lots of people die, but the march of western technological prowess continues unabated.
Even with all the technical glitz, whiz-bang gadgets, intellectual sleight of hand (and lots of interpersonal drama), Death always has center stage. That’s not surprising for a show that spends hours in the very fancy morgue. But there is at times a leering, voyeuristic quality to the scenes of bodies on stainless steel exam tables. There is a fascination with death that goes beyond fear and teeters toward titillation. The show at times is necrophilia with a PhD.
It’s, as the Brits might say, cracking good telly. I’m not complaining. Indeed, I’m participating. The mystery of life and death is compelling drama, especially with good camera work and smart stories. But it is also a reflection of the decadence to which Hall pointed a generation ago. “Thus the mood of our society, where it is not a bored, narcissistic cynicism about public life and meaning,” Hall writes, “is far too often an adolescent exhilaration at the prospect of Armageddon.” And like adrenalin-addicted adolescents, “we are some of us ready to flirt with death, feeling ourselves indestructible, or perhaps drawn by a deep fascination with death, a sort of social necrophilia” (page 44). I can’t improve on that description of the current American administration.
Our covenant with death is so much a part of our worldview, that we hardly even notice it anymore. Now I come to the Vice-Presidential debate. Even as Death is the unspoken star of my current video binge, so a fly became the uninvited and unintended star of the debate. The memes are flying fast and furious (who will begrudge me my addition to the stream of bad puns?). Prominent in some feeds is the observation that flies flock to feces. That’s true enough, but I don’t think it’s diagnostic in this case.
Flies are attracted to death. I’m unwilling to attribute any deep philosophical commitments to Mr. Pence. Nor do I think the Lord was sending a particular kind of sign. Let the one who has eyes, however, see what there is to see. The covenant with death is really national policy at this point. Humans are disposable in the interest of power. Truth is a luxury no longer necessary to certain political perspectives. Life is a commodity reserved for the rich and auctioned to the highest bidder. Western culture reeks of death and loves it all too well.
Perhaps the fly knows something we are unwilling to smell. But we who live the foolishness of the cross of Christ must see something more. Hall writes, “we live here as witnesses to a God who has made a covenant with life. The new covenant in the life blood of Jesus,” Hall declares, “is God’s ratification and renewal of God’s ancient, creational Amen to life; it is the final seal on the divine determination to mend the creation” (page 53). That includes, by the way, the flies.