Protesting Death and Constructing a Counter-culture of Life

My mother is a fifth-grade educator, and recently on the phone, she told me about the lock down drill their district ran this week. In her small, rural, public school, my mom was instructed to ask her 9-and 10-year-old students to hide in a space where they could not be seen from the door window, and remain silent. “If someone tries to get in, do not open the door,” she was asked to tell her students. A real-life knock at her classroom door simulated a potential shooter trying to get in, and the students practiced remaining in their positions. At the end of the school day, the faculty met with local police officers for a debriefing of the drill. The officers instructed the faculty to scan their classrooms for potential “ammunition” that could be used in an event of a real lock down. They suggested that 3-hole punchers, scissors, or even pens could be used to deter an attacker.

Today, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, students across the country are walking out of school because they refuse to be continually being defined as the “mass shooting generation.” Even though many are at risk of unexcused absences, they are protesting nationally to advocate for stricter gun laws because their lives literally depend upon reform. Their approach  is not only to advocate for policy that protects students in schools, but to lobby for legislation that eradicate gun violence in all of its forms across the United States (1).

Indeed, political activism is a significant step in reducing gun violence in the United States. But it can’t stop there. Sociologists, for one, argue that we need to approach the issue holistically, from as many directions as possible. Esposito and Finley, for example, contend that while a more stringent gun policy would certainly reduce the disbursement of automatic weapons, we need to also work on chipping away at the worldview which pervades our culture and fosters gun violence. The authors expose how the current neoliberal system under which we operate, economically, politically, and culturally, reinforces hyper-individualism, and places citizens on the defense, making them feel that they need to protect themselves and their property against the Other, whether conceived of locally or globally (2).

So, if we are to take these sociologists seriously, we should continue addressing gun violence at a policy level. But, we should also take a long and careful look at the way in which our cultural beliefs and practices perpetuate the gun cultures that result in wide scale death.

Enter religion. No doubt religion can be blamed for upholding the neoliberal system as much as and other cultural institution. But, I claim that our religious traditions also harbor the resources to deconstruct it, and replace it. Speaking from a Christian context, we certainly have an abundance of tools in our toolbox to build an alternative worldview, one which constructs a different vision for life together both at a structural and individual level. I look to Dorothee Sölle, a 20th century political theologian, as someone we must retrieve in this process of constructing a counter-culture of life.

Sölle was a child in Germany when the Nazi regime ruled with terror. She spent her life as a theologian asking, how could Christians have allowed genocide to happen? Sölle was haunted by the reality of Christian support for the murderous politik of Nazi ideology, and participation in its death-dealing strategies. And so, her theology is contextually bound to this experience, and is dedicated to formulating theology that challenges the church to be a community which protests death, and stands for life.

Indeed, Sölle argues that we as Christians identify as people who have “passed from death to life,” a belief we recently renewed and remembered over Easter. But what does this mean, exactly? Does the claim to “life to the full” solely guarantee our tickets to the heavenly realm after we have died our natural deaths? Sölle argues that Jesus’ example provides a more expansive interpretation of “life to the full,” extending beyond the traditional afterlife often imagined by Christians. She contends that Jesus’ resistance to death is not solely exemplified in the resurrection stories, but emerges in the stories connected to his life on Earth: stories of healing, feeding, eating and drinking in community, storytelling, and resisting Roman occupation, to name a few examples.

For Sölle, then, we can look to Jesus to redefine our understanding of the life/death binary. We can establish “life to the full,” and resist death in the here and now. What does this look like? The gospel message, for Sölle, exclaims that life happens when we are more free to love our neighbor, to reach out to our neighbor, to make ourselves vulnerable to our neighbor. Abundant life is made possible when we resist forms of death in this existence. This shifts the center of gravity from  focusing on natural death, to awareness of “institutional death” as Sölle names it: patterns of death imposed by the current system of the day, in which efficiency and profit are valued over and above human and nonhuman life.

Protesting death becomes the Christian community’s obligation when Jesus’ example is taken seriously. Thus, as Sölle states, “religion can mean the radical and wholehearted attempt to take sides with life.”

But how?

What does taking sides with life and protesting death mean in light of our current culture which has produced a profound gun crisis? Sölle provides three main tasks which lie at the heart of the Christian message, and can be adapted to respond to the challenge of deconstructing neoliberal cultural values: Disobedience, imagination and transformation.

Disobedience: This involves the prerogative to disobey our leaders, our culture, the status quo– everything that cranks the wheels of “institutional death.” We do this publicly, in an outspoken and communal manner. Practically, this might mean that those of us who are adults in the Christian community find practical ways to support our young people, amplify their voices, and provide them more and more spaces and opportunities to speak out and share their stories of suffering caused by gun culture.

Imagination: We can free ourselves from the neoliberal mindset of individualism, fear and defensiveness, and open ourselves to each other in radically relational ways. We can also free ourselves of the trope that there is nothing we can do to change the reality of gun violence. We can allow our minds to be opened by our neighbors who are actively working on the ground to put an end to the many forms of gun culture in our country. And we can allow our children’s dreams for their future to inform our directives.

Transform: Once the dream is articulated via creative imagining, we do the work of transformation. We refuse to see the future as a threat, but rather as open and malleable. We can do this by transforming our local communities, churches and neighborhoods from places worried about security and protection, to groups of people who are open and inclusive. We can do this by asking ourselves if the structure of our community/church/neighborhood reflects hierarchy, xenophobia, marginalization, or, does it reflect equality and just relationships? We can use resources, such as facilitated peace circles, to communicate with each other on how to practically go about changing the way our communities are structured.

And we can do all of this with our children’s voices at the center. Our children are walking out today, in an effort to cry out for for us to change the way we do life together as a society; crying out for adults to give up their addiction to death, fear, security, individualism, and profit.

Yes, we need political activism. Fearless, risky, dedicated political activism is critical. And, we can also resist the current culture of death in every facet of our lives. As Sölle exemplifies, Christian tradition provides us with rich resources to do this. And we must let the children be our guides.

  2. Luigi Esposito, and Laura L. Finley, Beyond gun control: Examining neoliberalism, pro-gun politics and gun violence in the united states. Theory in Action, 7(2014), 2, 76.
  3. See Dorothee Sölle, Death by Bread Alone. Fortress Press: 1978.
  4. Image credit:….0…1.1.64.img..8.19.1743.0..0i8i30k1j0i10i24k1.0.GbwEI8Z0PZ0#imgrc=FNXak2STZMLPFM: