Returning from Death: A Reflection -to be broadcast
by Kevin D. Annett
Returning from Death: A Reflection
by Kevin D. Annett
Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!". And he who had died came out of the tomb bound with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. And Jesus said to the others, "Loose him and let him go."
He had once been my friend, when we both thought we were alive. Foster Freed and I served as pastors in adjoining United Churches on Vancouver Island, but we had met in seminary. Our eldest daughters Clare and Rachel were the same age, and more than one birthday party was spent together as our families grew closer and settled in to a happy routine that I imagined was my life. But all of it ended one day, and my friend Foster helped to wield the knife that killed me and my family.
Over the years that followed, I met him only once more, outside a church conference where I staged a solitary public vigil in memory of my death, and the death of many children. Foster looked frightened at first when he saw me and my worn placard that read, “Your Victims Do Not Rest: Where is Justice in the United Church?” But then he approached me with the self-assured look he always dons when he steps into his pulpit.
“Still at this, are you?” Foster said to me with a smirk.
I was about to repeat his own words back at him when I looked in his eyes: and I saw nothing there. And so there was nothing for me to say. Later, I realized what I should have said to Foster: Lazarus, come forth.
I am a stubborn man, or perhaps incapable of learning very quickly from my own experience. For in the quarter century since my old life was murdered I have never relented from appealing to the Foster Freeds of the world in terms other than what Jesus spoke to Lazarus. I have called upon their humanity, their self-interest, and even their fear of legal and retributional consequences for the group-crime atrocities they committed and are committing on legions of children. I have cited the quaint but illusory notion called international law. But none of it has changed them. None of my words or deeds have returned life to the dead, for I have not yet called them forth from death.
By my final year in my own pulpit in Port Alberni, I had run out of things to say. I felt like I was verbalizing my substance out of existence. And so I opened that pulpit to whoever would speak, listening for the still quiet truth that sometimes emerge from the ancient forests that are being slaughtered all around us, or from unexpected strangers dragging their weary lives into my church. And in that place of silent waiting, Mark Angus found me, and brought me a message.
Mark was impoverished and alone, like all true messengers. He helped me feed others like him from our congregational food bank. His heart was burdened by the suffering of those others, and in barely a month he would die for his compassion. But Mark’s words were meant only for me that day after the Sunday service, when he insisted we speak alone.
“You don’t know where you are” he implored me. “You don’t know who these church people are, what they’re doing. You can’t see how they hate you for bringing people like me into church …”
I tried interrupting, trying in my stupidity to defend the people who were already plotting my destruction. But Mark cut me off sharply.
“Listen to me!” he barked. “They’re dealing drugs and kids outta the catholic church in town! I know who’s doing it, all the church brass know about it and they already told me I’m dead. But I ain’t scared of them, I’m scared of that thing that’s running them! And that thing hates you for how you’re exposing it, pulling back its mask! It’s gonna destroy you but you can’t let it Kev! You can’t ever stop doing what’s right! But you’re gonna be alone. You won’t have anyone in your corner but God, everybody’s gonna abandon you. That’s why you don’t have to pray for me, Kev. I’m gonna be okay. But you’re gonna be here and you gotta deal with all these dead souls who want you to be a dead soul too.”
Mark Angus was killed three weeks later.
Perhaps it’s the very enormity of the tomb that has become our world that has prevented me from calling forth the Foster Freeds. Is the miracle reserved only for individuals, for a solitary Lazarus touched by grace and a simple invitation to live again? Or can the same voice call an entire people to throw off their grave clothes and come out from their own abominations?
I have hesitated before the dead thing called Christian Canada and doubted whether such a serial killing culture can or even should live again. Perhaps that’s been a sign of my own lingering in the grave of my murdered life, of my lost children and betrayed innocence. But with the death of all that was sacred to me has also died my illusions and my fear. And thus stripped and laid bare I have been able to finally hear the same two words of life spoken to me, to Come Forth from the dead.
Meanwhile, the dead hear nothing but the sound of their own dull cacophony, mumbled in the tomb: words not of life but of self-preservation and denial, of reconciliation and healing and forgetting about a regrettable past. The dead are not moved by the truth of murdered children because they have no living heart. I see nothing but these dead souls and their dead words at every level of Church and State. Nowhere are the two words of release ever spoken, for they cannot be. The lie required by the dead must be preserved. To them, the present arrangement cannot end, nor can its ending even be imagined.
But that is only the state of things within the tomb. Outside, in the freedom of eternity, we who have been brought forth by death are not capable of returning to the tomb, and can only call forth those within it who will answer and will leave the dead world the rest call home. And then, as Jesus showed, while the divine word brings forth those dead to life again, it is we, the separated and clarified remnant, who must remove their grave clothes and complete their transformation into a living people.
What does this all mean, as another year dawns? What is our message and presence for the inhabitants of the tomb?
Our message is simple: to turn away from the dead city into a new higher law, a sovereign nation alongside but set apart from the corruption and means of the world; to bring down the old institutions of corporate Church and State by withdrawing our allegiance and participation in them. But to come into being, that nation must first dwell within our own hearts and minds. The revolution must exist within us even as we give it birth in a fallen world.
Few people will respond to this appeal at first, since the babble of the tomb seems overwhelming. But that fact requires all the more that the still, quiet voice of truth in us prevails, and be given concrete expression through the separation of our remnant into self-governing assemblies: a grassroots movement already underway in Dublin, in Toronto, and in smaller communities where people are practicing and not simply learning the Common Law. Into these new spiritual and political assemblies will we call forth the dead into life again.
I don’t believe for a moment that most of the captives of the tomb will ever step forth. The Foster Freeds are too settled, too convinced of their own righteousness, too rewarded by the system of death to feel doubt or liability, or to be stirred to leave their catacombs. But the dead are not the issue. The judgement that is on them and on all of us who linger with them cannot be avoided or survived. But a few of us have been set apart by death and by grace to be the seed of a new humanity. In the time that is left to us we must protect and nurture that seed with all that we are, so that one day a worthy people can be brought to life even in a tomb as global and as monstrous as our own.