Can We Talk About Zombies for Easter?

Rev. Meredith Garmon, "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason," part 2

Love has subversive power, and I prefer subversion to open battle. I prefer, and recommend, for the sake of our own emotional and spiritual well-being, looking for ways to make connection with people of more traditional Christian faith. Let us connect rather than denounce and vilify.

Reason is very good at denouncing and vilifying. However, when it comes to my inner demons, the better strategy is to embrace, befriend, and then re-direct that energy -- and, likewise, when it comes to outer demons -- who are not demons at all, but people whose cognitive rational functioning is typically as high as mine is -- the better strategy is embracing and befriending.

A wise life recognizes the limitations of reason. A full life honors and celebrates all of who we are, including all our nonrational tendencies. Enjoying music, delighting in beauty and poetry, enjoying good food, falling in love -- these are not rational things. If those of us who do not identify as Christians can connect better with those who do, then we’re part of the conversation. We can introduce various alternative directions that those stories point. But we have no chance of subverting the dangerous ways of interpreting the gospels if we refuse to talk about the gospels at all. So, let Unitarian Universalists not be shy about knowing and referencing gospel stories.

Like Easter. There are four Easter stories – a different one in each of the four gospels. (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – which I mention for you just so you’ll know, because surveys are showing that only about half of Americans today can name even one of the gospels. Indeed, one article noted, "Americans love their Bibles. So much so that they keep them in pristine, unopened condition.") Jesus, a charismatic teacher and healer was executed by crucifixion on a Friday. By the time his body was brought down from the cross it was late in the afternoon – with Sabbath beginning at sundown. Since there’s no burying allowed on Sabbath, his body was placed in a temporary tomb, a cave, until it could be buried on Sunday. Mary Magdalene, either alone or with other women, went to the tomb carrying spices to prepare the body for burial. At that point the four stories become quite different.

If we are interested in historically what actually happened, we don’t have much to go on. In the Gospel of Matthew, there’s a tantalizing clue. Some of Jerusalem's rulers, says Matthew, bribed the guards to affirm, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep” (Matt 28:13). So maybe some disciples really did come by night and steal away the body. Maybe Matthew was trying to discredit the guards’ inconvenient testimony by saying the guards had been bribed to lie.

But historical accuracy is not the point. It doesn’t matter. The point is that each of the four different stories – whether they are history or fiction -- have something to tell us about loss and death. The dead are with us. Those who are gone continue to live in memory, where they are not merely stored but also grow and change, for every time the brain recalls a memory, the memory is changed through association with the situation in which it is recalled. Those who are gone from us are not merely entombed in memory, they are actually growing and changing there – living, we can say.

I do think this is funny. But, no,
Jesus was not a zombie.
So I was thinking about the Easter story, and how it’s a story about reanimation of the dead, and that reminded me of a very different sort of story about the reanimation of the dead: zombies. I am not comparing Jesus to a zombie. I am contrasting, because the contrast will illustrate how rationality is a half-way house.

Zombie stories, like the Easter story, come in many different versions. Zombies have become huge in popular culture – movies, and TV shows from World War Z to the Walking Dead to iZombie depict endless variations on the zombie concept. Zombie stories originated in Africa and were further developed in the voodoo culture in Haiti in the 19th century and probably earlier.

In the mainstream Haitian tradition, before Hollywood began making its modifications of the story, zombies are “undead” – animated, yet entirely under the control of the bokor, a sorcerer.

Zombie stories originated as an expression of the fears of an enslaved and oppressed people. Zombies represent a loss of cognition, of independent thought -- of rationality and of free will. As slavery and oppression led people to feel the loss of their minds, their freedom, their humanity, they told stories of zombies that represented what they felt like. It was a way for the enslaved and oppressed to depict what they feared they were becoming, and also a way to remind them that they weren’t quite zombies yet. Though their conditions deprived them, they could hold on to self-respect and dignity and refuse to be like zombies in the story.

Zombie scholar Amy Wilentz explains:
"In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery. For the slave under French rule in Haiti — then Saint-Domingue — in the 17th and 18th centuries, life was brutal: hunger, extreme overwork and cruel discipline were the rule....To become a zombie was the slave’s worst nightmare: to be dead and still a slave, an eternal field hand. It is thought that slave drivers on the plantations, who were usually slaves themselves and sometimes Voodoo priests, used this fear of zombification to keep recalcitrant slaves in order." (NY Times, 2012 Oct)
Zombies never get tired. For Haitian slaves, that was about the only kind of hell worse than the one they were living -- nothing but constant toil, without out even the possibility of death as respite.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason"
See also
Part 1: Unitarians, Universalists, Reason, and Love
Part 3: Jesus, Zombies, and the Half-Way House of Reason

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