Systems of Death and the Subversive Seed (John 12:24)

the subversive seed -- image by John Jay Alvaro.jpeg

Watercolor from John Jay Alvaro

Watch it on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/arGhrrsFTxc

The Subversive Seed
This week, we saw the shooting of 8 individuals, 6 were Asian-Americans reminding us again of the ongoing and increased racism Asian-Americans and other communities of color have faced in the last year. 
Maybe unsurprisingly at this point: it was done by a man who was not only a Christian but was by accounts of his pastor “one of the most committed members.” (A thought that I find chilling).

This stream of what David Dark calls “White Supremacist Terror” (see also David Dark’s “Dumpster Fire“) continued in January when we saw Christian Nationalists violently storm the US Capitol. And of course, this year also saw other terrors from the previous president tear gas peaceful protestors for a photo op holding a bible in front of a church, to the horrific killings of George Floyd, Ahmad Arbery, Brianna Taylor, and others.
If that wasn’t enough we have faced massive amounts of deaths due to mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and systems in place not meant to protect our most vulnerable. I suspect by the end of the weekend we will reach 540,000 deaths. 
The pandemic within the pandemic has been devastating poverty, rampant unemployment, and many people fighting for basic survival (but especially among the poor and dispossessed).

[Let’s take a moment of silence in light of all of this]

This year has revealed a lot about us and our society. About whose lives matter and to what extent we will go to spread misinformation in order to protect some at the expense of others. 

This year has taught us a lot about death. Those who with their lips profess life live lives that promote death.

It would be fair to call this past year apocalyptic. What the Biblical authors refer to as an unmasking of the powers. In this way, it has been an unveiling. 
Have you seen it? Have you been watching? In each of these instances, people proudly claiming the name Christian, waving Bibles and crosses in the air, proudly declaring themselves to be pro-life participated in systems of death. Systems of death are made up of policies, practices that allow for and even create death, and false narratives that say — sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly — that it is okay (and sometimes even good) for some to die while others live. 

These systems of death permeate every sphere of our current culture. 

We can call them by their names:

  • Systemic racism
  • Poverty
  • The War Economy and Militarism
  • Ecological Devastation
  • The Distorted moral narrative of Christian Nationalism


I call these systems of death because the theology underneath each of these says that not only does some life matter less (or not at all) but that these systems actively determine who gets to live and who will die. 

In the face of this, Dorothee Soelle, a feminist biblical scholar, raises a question about what it means to see and respond to these systems as a collective (in her book Mysticism and Resistance).
She says:

What I can do in the context of the rich world is minute and without risk in comparison with the great traditions of resistance. The issue is not to venerate heroes but together to offer resistance, actively and deliberately and in very diverse situations, against becoming habituated to death, something that is one of the spiritual foundations of the culture of the First World

To stand within the great traditions of resistance, which I take the Quaker tradition to be a part of, is to stand actively and deliberately against becoming habituated to death – which is the spiritual foundation of the religion of empire. 

That means that we will – no matter the cost – stand in opposition to the 5 interlocking evils I named above. 

Like all systems of oppression, it impacts all, the great and the small, the rich and the poor, those with their backs against the wall, and those whose backs are no longer or have never been pressed. 

To refuse to become habituated, desensitized, to these systems is our act of resistance.
For many, to live each day in the face of these systems is itself a great act of resistance of all.

This is because the work of the religion of empire is to lull us to sleep so that we accept these systems and we not only become habituated to them but participate in them. 
I think it could be easy, after all the death we have seen to want to just move on — to care a little less, to listen less, to throw empathy out, and become numb to the cry of our neighbors. 

To watch the replay over and over again of people dying in hospital beds from lack of healthcare and people gunned down in their homes and on the streets, while bible-carrying terrorists believe they are the righteous and holy ones sanctioned to enact violence on their god’s enemies will either shock us awake or numb us to sleep. 
And then we turn to this little story from Jesus about a grain of wheat, a little seed; I wonder what it is that you hear in light of all of this. 

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

At first glance, it might be easy to read even this in the context of being habituated to death. 

But I want us to pull back a little and see the what Jesus is talking about here is also said in the face of systems of death in his own time. 

To the Roman Empire, Jesus’ own life didn’t matter.  

As a brown-skinned, Palestinian-born poor Jewish person he was born with a target on his back like the rest of his community and he died the way many whose backs are against the wall have died before and since then: state-approved violence. 

Therefore, Jesus’ little grain of wheat is not a justification of those systems of death nor it is a giving up in the face of them, it is instead a subversive seed standing in resistance to all systems that place death as the final word.

Jesus tells shows us the possibility of an alternative imagination that is not marked by death. 

The imagination that shapes the church is to be fundamentally different from the religion of empire. 

For empire, death is all there is. So you accept it and you play by its rules. And if you’re really lucky maybe you will find a way to win at the game. 

But for the people of God – those shaped by this alternative imagination of Jesus: death holds no sway.

This is how we make sense of the lives of the ancestors of the traditions of resistance from Jesus to Mary Dyer to John Brown to Levi Coffin to Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ruby Sales, and John Lewis and so many more. 
This letting go of imaginations marked by death frees us up to see how resistance and resurrection work:

  1. At a cellular level (as old cells die and new ones are born)
  2. In the natural world whether it is this grain of wheat or a nurse log found laying the forest, or fireweed growing on the side of a volcanic mountain repairing and preparing the soil for new life
  3. On the collective level (when there is death there is the birth of collective action and resistance).

The subversive seed invites us to let go of the fear of death: whether that is in the form of loss of power and wealth, loss of “normalcy” or face, or the death of structures we are used to or benefit us in some way. 

It invites us into an entirely new way of seeing the world, ourselves, and one another.
That subversive seed says that until we allow our hearts and our imaginations to be redeemed by the power of Christ which is resistance and resurrection in the face of death, we will be unable to bear new life. 

The subversive seed invites us to see through death.
To quote Catholic theologian James Alison,

“Jesus is saying something like this: “I am going to my death to make possible for you a model of creative practice which is not governed by death. From now on this is the only commandment that counts: that you should live your lives as a creative overcoming of death, and you are doing this to make possible a similar living out for your friends. The measure in which they *are* your friends is the degree in which, thanks to the perception which they have of *your* creative acting out of a life beyond the rule of death, they come to have their imaginations expanded in the same way, and they too become capable of entering into this creative living out of a life that is not ruled by death.” (Raising Abel, 71). 

If we do not allow the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to subvert the powerful myths of death and power we are inducted into as people of empire if we do not allow the subversive seed to undercut these systems of death in our hearts and in our own communities then we will not be able to imagine, let alone live into that new world we wish to create.

What is on the other side of the death of these systems of death?

What would happen if we let this little grain of wheat, this little subversive seed bomb enter deep into our souls and allow it to plant and spread and bear new fruit of life within?

  • What fears would we need to get rid of?
  • What shame?
  • What commitments would need to change?
  • What new solidarities would we join?
  • How would our understanding of death, and power, and wealth, shift and be subverted?

Queries for reflection: Where have we become habituated to death? What needs to die so that new life can be born? 

Published by Wess Daniels

Teacher, author, Quaker, ​and public theologian. Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College.

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