A few years ago, my favorite show on television was Alias. The premise of the show was this: a young woman graduate student gets recruited by what she thinks is the CIA, only to learn it is actually a nefarious organization. She then goes to the actual CIA and works as a double agent, to bring the bad organization down. While I loved the show for its tough, yet sensitive main character-Sydney Bristow-one of the campy, fun things about the show is that no one ever, ever, ever stayed dead.
When the show begins, Sydney believes her mother drowned in a car years ago. At the end of the first season she discovers that, in fact, her mother used the air from the tires to breathe and survived the drowning! It also turns out her mother was a KGB spy, but that is an entirely different story. In fact, this same character, Sydney’s mother, “died” at least two other times during the course of the series. I think the third time finally stuck, but we’ll never know, since the series ended.
Sydney “died”, as well, or at least everyone thought she had. In fact, she was kidnapped, became an assassin with an assumed name, and then lost her memory. When she “came back to life” all her friends were shocked, particularly her boyfriend, who had since remarried. (The new wife was an evil double agent, of course.) And of course, that boyfriend “died” for awhile, too.
Sydney’s best friend, Francie, died, too. But, Francie came back to life as an evil clone. Her boss’s wife, Emily, died of cancer, but was actually holed up on an island, waiting for her husband. The list goes on and on. No one on Alias ever stayed dead!
Alias was not the most realistic television series ever, but somewhere in its soap opera twists and turns, it captured humanity’s deep desire for life, especially the power of life over death.
This power of life over death is a fundamental tenet of the Christian faith.
God’s power over death was shown in Jesus’ ability to rise Lazarus from the dead, and then, of course, God the Father’s ability to raise Jesus from the dead. Our reading from Acts today, when the apostle Peter is able to raise Tabitha from the dead is the next link in the biblical chain. The book of Acts tells the story of the very early church. Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, and begins with the disciples gathering in the upper room, waiting for the Holy Spirit, per the risen Jesus’s instructions. The Holy Spirit does, indeed come, and the fledgling Christian church is born. Can you imagine being on the first vestry? These new Christians had to make tons of decisions every day-do we let in Jews and Gentiles? Do you have to be circumcised to be a Christian? Who is going to take care of the poor? Who is going to take care of widows?
The new believers had to have faith in their new leaders-men like Peter and James who had been with Jesus as his disciples.
Part of the coming of the Holy Spirit was imbuing these leaders with some of the same powers Jesus had-so that their followers would know they had God’s stamp of approval. So, when Peter is able to raise Tabitha from the dead, God is showing the early believers that Peter is a chosen leader of the church, but also, that the theme of life triumphing over death will be a hallmark of the Christian faith.
We celebrate this triumph every Easter, at every Christian burial, and every time we consume the Eucharist.
But maybe, this is not enough.
Life is precious. Life is the very breath of God. From a baby’s first yelp to a dying person’s last jagged breath, the air we breathe reminds us we are also full of God’s breath, God’s spirit. We are made in God’s image. But are we behaving as if we believe in the deep value of life?
The church tends to focus on the quality of life issues either at the beginning or the very end of life-with abortion and the death penalty the most public issues. What would it be like, if we expanded our energies to focus on the years in-between birth and death?
I grow increasingly concerned that we as a culture are losing touch with the preciousness of life. I perceive it happening in two ways. First, the obvious-the increase in acceptability of violence as entertainment. Recently the New Yorker published an article about the television show 24. (Now, before I continue let me make it clear that until recently I watched and enjoyed 24. And I didn’t stop because of the violence, I stopped because it got boring.) 24 is the first television program to show Americans government agents using torture that is outside the bounds of American law and being rewarded for it. In the past, television shows or movies showed the enemy using torture as a way to demonstrate the inhumanity of the enemy.
This normalization of torture began having an affect on the real world American military. U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick Finnegan, the dean of the United States Military Academy at West Point, actually traveled to Los Angeles to meet with the producers of 24 because the show has such a problematic impact on U.S. soldiers. These young soldiers have spent their teenage years watching 24 and coming to believe the kind of torture its hero, Jack Bauer practices is acceptable, even though it is, in fact, illegal. These young soldiers are having to be reigned in again and again as they cross the boundaries of acceptable treatment of prisoners.
The culture of violence pervades many of my favorite shows and movies, and certainly some of the video games Matt plays. But at what point do we cross the line as a culture? Where is the line between acknowledging violence as an unfortunate, but interesting, part of life and glorifying it as a glamorous way to conduct one’s life? Once again, I have no answers for you, but I think these are important questions to think and pray about as we go about making our daily choices.
The second way of disrespecting life that I’ve observed lately is the way we treat one another verbally. For some reason, this seems to be the year where out of control stars seem to think it is okay to insult Jewish people, black people, gay people, heck, even their own children.
In March of this year, a blogger, Kathy Sierra, who blogs about the one-would-think uncontroversial topic of computing technology began receiving more and more threatening anonymous comments towards her on her and others’ blogs, culminating in a death threat. This began a conversation in the blogging community about the problem of increasingly sexist, sexual, and violent language being used against women in the commentary section of even mainstream websites like Salon.com and Slate.com. Measures are being taken to filter out such comments, but even that they were made in the first place is deeply disturbing.
The hip-hop community has responded to Don Imus’s comments about the Rutger’s women’s basketball team by beginning a conversation within the hip-hop communitiy about what words are and are not appropriate to promote in albums and videos.
While they may not kill, words can contain incredible violence. Words can undermine someone’s entire sense of identity, even humanity. The language we use to speak to one another reflects how we see the other person. Do we see them as a threat? As less than ourselves?
Part of respecting life is respecting those made in God’s image. Everyone on this planet has been made in God’s image. Everyone has a soul. One of the first jobs human beings were given was the job of naming-Adam was asked to name all the animals and then his wife, Eve. This power of naming is the power of giving life and identity.
My neighbor just had a baby and already we’re calling her names. Sometimes they are meaningless names like Pepper Pot or Anna Banana, but just as often we’re calling her precious, lovely, smart, perfect-we are identifying the precious humanity in her and calling it out.
There is no reason to stop this kind of naming once babies become children or children become adults. Part of our job as Christians is to remind each other who we are-We are beloved, precious in the sight of God, favored, part of a human family.
Celebrating and respecting life is not just about deciding when human life begins or debating end of life issues, but valuing our own life and the lives of those around us. When Peter raised Tabitha from the dead, he was not just doing a magic trick, he was affirming the goodness of life, of Tabitha’s life. The writer of Acts tell us that she was a woman who did many good works. Tabitha was a whole person with a story and relationships-her resurrection was not just to impress the new Christians, but to bring life where there was death, wholeness where there had been grief.
Her resurrection was a reminder that no matter how much evil or violence or death may lap at our heels, ultimately we belong to a God who pours such abundant life upon us, we cannot help but give that life to others.