On Death and Contingency
I can still vividly recall the first death I witnessed with my own eyes. I was (then) a young pastor, and I had been called to the hospital to be at the bedside with two of my parishioners, both elderly: the wife had had a stroke in the middle of the night, and she was dying. The husband, a strong, masculine farmer, was utterly broken, trying in vain to reach her with his voice, hoping that she could hear his last “I love you,” barely believing that the previous night would be their last. They had been married, their adult children tell me as I sit and listen and pray, for over fifty years. If I close my eyes, I can still hear his voice, through tears, calling her in vain.
It is almost too obvious to say that death involves finality, and, yet, I find it still needs to be said. When someone dies their voice is cut off from the earth; their ears can no longer hear our words; their flesh becomes cold to touch; their eyes lose their life. What was a person becomes a body, and this body, not the person, we then commit to the earth. And they are done.
Now, full disclosure, I was then and still am today a Christian who confesses a belief in “the life everlasting,” both the continued existence of the soul after death and the promise of future resurrection for all the dead. Nevertheless, I find myself imagining what it might be like to die. If a knife or a bullet pierced my heart or my brain, if I fell into Lake Michigan on a windy day, or if I was run off the road by a semi truck. For me this is not morbid curiosity, but a philosophical task: given the unknowable (yet inevitable) end of my life, how can I understand the life I steward in my body right now? I find myself thinking about the finality of it: of life leaving my body, of my brain shutting down, of losing my power to effect change in the world. I confess a promise and hope of resurrection, but, in the present age, death reveals itself to be permanent.
And this is some kind of transgression: A person dies, but the rest of the world continues on: growing, changing, adding, and multiplying. A person dies, but there are many many more people, and they continue. We perceive the whole world as a coherent system, one that circles around on itself, where matter and energy are conserved, and, thus, we find it hard to perceive that when a person dies—that is, when someone we know dies—they leave this world permanently and will never return. Fifty years of marriage is no defense, nor is the thin papery wall of skin enough, against a bullet fired at 715 meters per second. Maybe I have played too many video games, maybe I have “respawned” too often: but watching my parishioner die taught me that death, indeed, is permanent.
I also, about a year later, lost that job. By that time I had done three funerals (I served an old congregation), one marriage, two baptisms, and all kinds of other pastoral things. I really enjoyed it, it suited me well, and I was looking forward to decades of this life. It is beside my point to bring up the context—it is enough to say my supervising pastor and I had different expectations—but I bring this up to talk about a different kind of loss: that is, destruction of property.
What is property? Property, understood from a Christian standpoint, are those things outside of our being which we associated with ourselves to the point of some level of identification and connection, ownership. What constitutes the relationship between the being-that-owns and that-which-is-owned is always some kind of contingency: we happen to be born into a context where wealth is (or will be) attributed to our name, for instance, and this happenstance—a contingent connection between our name and those goods—is a pleasant one.
But, rightly speaking, all the property in the world belongs to God alone and, given that death is permanent, we can’t claim a right to it in any lasting sense anyways.
A job is one kind of property in this sense. After all, who knows the myriad contingencies it takes to land “a good job” anyways? The position has to be open; it has to be offered by the kind of person who might hire the kind of person you are; you have to possess their minimum qualifications (whether or not that matches what is written on their posting), and so on. And if you love it, then it is something you treasure and make your own, something you feel proud about; it becomes a part of you. I’m not speaking here about people with bad boundaries with their jobs (those abound), but about those who love their jobs, who have landed a position they delight in, and who find energy doing what they do every day without imploding. It is a rare thing, and, gosh, it is a good thing.
As I look back, I had that as a pastor. I delighted in sharing the Word with my congregation every week, in planning out our outreach, our potlucks, our VBS, in praying with the prayer group and meeting with the elderly. I also had a measure of comfort and financial stability: a parsonage we called home, a garden we had dug in the backyard, a community we had grown fond of, a town we were committed to. To lose that job—that life, even—struck me as an immeasurable kind of loss. It was, in a sense, a kind of death. Yet it bears one striking difference from real death: it was an accident I even had the job in the first place. Property—whether wealth or fame or profession or social clout—is essentially contingent in a million different ways, and we never properly “deserve” it. When it leaves our hands, or when the moth eats and the metal rusts, or when we find ourselves moving on from it, we are merely experiencing change, that Heraclitean essence of the chaotic universe. In different terms, if the first kind of death is a transgression—something that opens a wound in the universe—then this second kind of death is merely confirmation, a repetition of the known facts of the universe that are always true for all people.
I meander through these two personal stories in an attempt to tease out two kinds of death—death which is permanent and death which is not permanent—in order to say something about the discourse surrounding riots in America. My reason for taking two very personal and very painful stories to comprehend this is straightforward: I want it to be clear that I do not take any of this lightly. When I speak of “death,” of either kind, I mean death with all the weight and seriousness that the word is due. Where there is death, there ought to be a funeral and mourning.
When we watch a small business go up in flames, we are witnesses to a death of the second kind, and it is not for that reason unimportant or insignificant. A business is a way of living, of being-in-the-world, and, given the lack of social or governmental safety nets in modern America, the loss might well be a permanent one. Who knows what that might mean? For one person, this loss of income might snowball into the loss of a home, or might force them to move, or might require them to retrain or pursue a new line of work. For another, it is a setback that diminishes their future dreams—again, not to be despised!—to own a small cabin on a mountain lake or to travel the world. Here I am uninterested in a Marxian callousness, distinguishing between those who ought to feel loss and those who ought not feel loss; let us attend to what is at hand: a small business in flames is a death, one that ought to be mourned.
But what is lost when property is lost—that is, what is lost when a livelihood or a lifestyle or a way of being-in-the-world or a joy is lost—is separated by a chasm of ultimacy from what is lost when a human being is lost. The one who loses property loses a life, but not, ultimately, their life. They, after all, can always rebuild. The one who loses their own life, however, has no such possibility. To lose a business or a home or a job or a sense of safety or treasured belongings or freedom of leisure or future pleasure is to be flung into the normal chaos of the world, to be faced with the typical changeableness of existence. If we heeded Solomon in Ecclesiastes, we would recognize the wisdom of “spread your bread upon the waters.” We wouldn’t sink our hopes into life as we experience it today, knowing full well that tomorrow everything might change. And it will change, that is inarguable: the demographics of your neighborhood will change, the storms will come, the rain will fall. Your house, or, to adapt from the biblical parable, your livelihood, might collapse under it all.
What is the future, after all, of a society that so easily traffics in the bodies and souls of men? You might find your property safe from today’s riots, after all, only to find it overturned tomorrow by the natural course of nations that trample upon the rights of the poor and lowly. Or you might pass through without anything on fire at all. Even then, everything around you will change and you will be faced by destruction from some new front.
But if you live through it all, you’re still alive.
What a precious gift is life! What horrible things we can endure! This is the miracle I cannot seem to comprehend: that somehow people have for ages upon ages found the moral strength to live in spite of pressures and oppressions, violence and hatred, slavery, rape, and torture. Not only that, but to even produce beauty in the midst of these trials. Humans are capable of extraordinary feats of cultural innovation and spiritual endurance, if they but live through their sufferings.
This is what makes murder such a transgression. It denies another human being the possibility of endurance and creativity. Riots and revolutions, fires and hurricanes, will come and go, wreaking devastation. But, if we live through them, we have ahead of us the power of reconstruction, renewal, restoration. To murder a human being is to deny them the dignity of creative power, to assault the God-nature breathed into them by the Spirit of God Himself. To murder is to foreclose human possibilities.
It is in this sense that I want to contrast the discourse around people and property. Not that lost property is unimportant or not tragic in its own ways, but that property, lost or found, is part of our contingency here on the earth; but, by contrast, that contingency itself is our most precious gift. And this emotive core is what sparks riots in the first place: the conception that another person, or groups of persons, perhaps even with state support or funding, can take away your contingency, your capacity to experience possibility in the world, is an ineffable thing. It is a horror, worse than any other on the planet. It is worse than powerlessness, for even the powerless have been known to find access to the divine nature; it is pure void.
I have gone a long way to elaborate something that, in actuality, I view quite simply: People matter more than property. This is not complicated. It is, for Christians, a basic moral stance. But I have in this argument sought to explain what is one reason for this simple prioritization, and how to articulate the chasm between the two sets of values, without devaluing the latter category. Those who say “property is life” make a serious error, but their emotional sense, that is, that property owners live in light of their property, is not misguided. Still there is persists an enormous difference between contingently enjoying the goods of life and access to the possibilities of contingency itself.
Ian Edward Caveny is a graduate student and writing instructor at the University of Chicago, studying the history of religions and Victorian literature. He writes at The Poet in Babylon. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.