Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Valley of the Shadow of Death: Biblical Theology as a Primer for Anthropology

The hue and cry arose to heaven. 

Raw passion gripped men and women alike.  Dark with human frailty, the architecture of their souls scuttled them from one extreme to another: from wailing grief to insane murmuring, from desperate hilarity to catatonic shock, from enraged cursing to soft choking sobs.

Broken bodies.  Cast off lives.  Stark naked tragedy.  Gore and devastation.  Sadness and sorrow.  There before them was the vexing spector of mortality and the awful stench of death.  It was a gruesome panorama that defiled their senses and haunted their every waking thought.

It was a nightmare come to life. The carnage was beyond their comprehension.  The loss was beyond their measure.  But the memory of it would be carved onto the fleshly tablets of their hearts with a dull familiar blade.

It was an all too recognizable scene.  It still is. 

It could describe for us the savage anguish of Israelite mothers after Pharaoh ordered the deaths of all their male children (Exodus 1: 15-22).  It could describe for us the desperate terror that raged through Gilead after the marauding army of Ammon ripped open their pregnant women and raped their daughters (Amos 1:13-15).  It could describe for us the dreadful pall that gripped the families of Bethlehem after Herod slaughtered all their infant sons in a fit of jealousy (Matthew 2: 16-18).  Or, it could describe for us any one of thousands of other vignettes that litter our cultural subconscious like parched bones in the howling wilderness—from the ovens of Auchwitz to the gulags of Siberia, from the prisons of Teheran to the streets of Beirut, from the hospitals of Bloomington to the abortion clinics of New York.

Indeed, such tragedy is a well worn human landscape.  Such calamity clutters the pages of human history.  Such pathos persistently torments the hodge-podge ideals of human hope.  Replayed again and again and again, it has become a semeiotic symbol of the end of man and the end of his doing.

Like a moth drawn to a candle flame, man deals in death.  He always has.  He always will.  For that is his nature in this poor fallen world.

Sadly, because all men without exception are sinners, the most fundamental factor in understanding anthropology is the thanatos factor.  Very simply, what that means is that all men have morbidly embraced death (Romans 5:12). 

At the Fall, mankind was suddenly destined for death (Jeremiah 15:2).  We were all at that moment bound into a covenant with death (Isaiah 28:15). “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12; 16:25).

Whether we know it or not, we have chosen death (Jeremiah 8:3).  It has become our shepherd (Psalm 49:14).  Our minds are fixed on it (Romans 8:6), our hearts pursue it (Proverbs 21:6), and our flesh is ruled by it (Romans 8:2).  We dance to its cadences (Proverbs 2:18) and descend to its chambers (Proverbs 7:27).

The fact is, "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) and "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.  Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18). And, “all those who hate God, love death” (Proverbs 8:36).

It is no wonder then that abortion, infanticide, exposure, and abandonment have always been a normal and natural part of human relations.  Since the dawning of time, men have contrived ingenious diversions to satisfy their fallen passions.  And child-killing has always been chief among them.

Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children.  Unwanted infants in ancient Rome were abandoned outside the city walls to die from exposure to the elements or from the attacks of wild foraging beasts.  Greeks often gave their pregnant women harsh doses of herbal or medicinal abortifacients.  Persians developed highly sophisticated surgical curette procedures.  Chinese women tied heavy ropes around their waists so excruciatingly tight that they either aborted or passed into unconsciousness.  Ancient Hindus and Arabs concocted chemical pessaries—abortifacients that were pushed or pumped directly into the womb through the birth canal.  Primitive Canaanites threw their children onto great flaming pyres as a sacrifice to their god Molech.  Polynesians subjected their pregnant women to onerous tortures--their abdomens beaten with large stones or hot coals heaped upon their bodies.  Japanese women straddled boiling cauldrons of parricidal brews.  Egyptians disposed of their unwanted children by disemboweling and dismembering them shortly after birth--their collagen was then ritually harvested for the manufacture of cosmetic creams.

None of the great minds of the ancient world--from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and Quintilian, from Pythagoras and Aristophanes to Livy and Cicero, from Herodotus and Thucidides to Plutarch and Euripides--disparaged child-killing in any way.  In fact, most of them actually recommended it.  They callously discussed its various methods and procedures.  They casually debated its sundry legal ramifications.  They blithely tossed lives like dice.

Abortion, infanticide, exposure, and abandonment were so much a part of human societies that they provided the primary literary liet motif  in popular traditions, stories, myths, fables, and legends. 

The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the happy result of the abandonment of children.  According to the story, a vestal virgin who had been raped bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus.  The harsh Etruscan monarch Amulius ordered them exposed on the Tiber River.  Left in a basket which floated ashore, they were found by a she wolf and suckled by her.  Later, a shepherd discovered them and took them home to his wife and the kindly couple brought them up as their own.  Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue.

Oedipus was presumed to be an abandoned child who was also found by a shepherd and later rose to greatness.  Ion, the eponymous monarch in ancient Greece miraculously lived through an abortion, according to tradition.  Cyrus, the founder of the Persian empire, was supposedly a fortunate survivor of infanticide.  According to Homer's legend, Paris, whose amorous indiscretions started the Trojan War, was also a victim of abandonment.  Telephus, the king of Mysia in Greece, and Habius, ruler of the Cunetes in Spain, had both been exposed as children according to various folk tales.  Jupiter, chief god of the Olympian pantheon, himself had been abandoned as a child.  He in turn exposed his twin sons, Zethus and Amphion.  Similarly, other myths related the fact that Poseidon, Aesculapius, Hephaistos, Attis, and Cybele had all been abandoned to die.

Because they had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as natural as the spring rains for the men and women of antiquity to kill their children.  It was as instinctive as the autumn harvest for them to summarily sabotage their own heritage.  They saw nothing particularly cruel about despoiling the fruit of their wombs.  It was woven into the very fabric of their culture.  They believed that it was completely justifiable.  They believed that it was just and good and right.

But they were wrong.  Dreadfully wrong.

Life is God's gift.  It is His gracious endowment upon the created order.  It flows forth in generative fruitfulness.  The earth is literally teeming  with life (Genesis 1:20; Leviticus 11:10; 22:5; Deuteronomy 14:9).  And the crowning glory of this sacred teeming is man himself (Genesis 1:26-30; Psalm 8:1-9).  To violate the sanctity of this magnificent endowment is to fly in the face of all that is holy, just, and true (Jeremiah 8:1-17; Romans 8:6). 

To violate the sanctity of life is to invite judgment, retribution,  and anathema (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).  It is to solicit devastation, imprecatation, and destruction (Jeremiah 21:8-10). “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, whatsoever a man sows, that he shall also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

But the Lord God, who is the giver of life (Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), the defender of life (Psalm 27:1), the prince of life (Acts 3:15), and the restorer of life (Ruth 4:15), did not leave men to languish hopelessly in the clutches of sin and death.  He not only sent us the message of life (Acts 5:20) and the words of life (John 6:68), He sent us the light of life as well (John 8:12).  He sent us His only begotten Son--the life of the world (John 6:51)--to break the bonds of death (1 Corinthians 15:54-56).  Jesus "tasted death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9), actually "abolishing death" for our sakes (2 Timothy 1:10) and offering us new life (John 5:21). “For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

One of the earliest Christian documents--actually predating much of the New Testament--asserts that "There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death."  In Christ, God has afforded us the opportunity to choose between those two ways--to choose between fruitful and teeming life on the one hand, and barren and impoverished death on the other (Deuteronomy 30:19). 

Apart from Christ it is not possible to escape the snares of sin and death (Colossians 2:13).  On the other hand: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Corinthians 5:17). “All those who hate Christ "love death" (Proverbs 8:36); while all those who receive Christ are made “the sweet savor of life” (2 Corinthians 2:16).

The implication is clear: the pro-life movement and the Christian faith are synonymous.  Where there is one, there will be the other--for one cannot be had without the other. 

Further, the primary conflict in temporal history always has been and always will be the struggle for life by the church against the natural inclinations of all men everywhere.

Death has cast its dark shadow across the whole of human relations.  Because of sin, all men flirt and flaunt shamelessly in the face of its spector.  Sadly, such impudence has led to the most grotesque concupiscence imaginable: the slaughter of innocent children.  Blinded by the glare from the nefarious and insidious angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), we stand by, paralyzed and mesmerized.

Thanks be to God, there is a way of escape from these bonds of destruction.  In Christ, there is hope.  In Him there is life--both temporal and eternal.  In Him there is liberty and justice.   In Him there is an antidote to the thanatos factor.  In Him, and in Him alone, there is an answer to the ages long dilemma of the dominion of death.