The principalities and powers will always seek to capture and enslave God in an attempt to use the name of God to underwrite current power arrangements. To go against the status quo, declare the powers, is to go against God… Consequently, before proclamation to human captives can be made – freedom to those being oppressed by current power arrangements – the prophet must dare to proclaim that God is not the spokesperson for the status quo, but rather stands outside the system – free – to speak a word of judgment.
When we change allegiances in baptism, we are renouncing the way the world defines significance and value. Concretely, the hero systems found in serving the principalities and powers offer a vision of ‘success,’ a vision that guides just about everyone around us… But in baptism, Christians turn their backs on this game… and reject the things that give others value, respect, and significance. By this act, Christians register a dissent that implicitly indicts how everyone else is choosing to live their lives. And we can’t kick out the props of everyone else’s self-esteem without expecting a negative response.
If we receive everything – even our very lives – as a gift, then we have nothing to cling to or to protect. Following the example of Jesus, we become ‘nothing.’ In a sense, we ‘die’ – and thus we no longer have to fear dispossession, loss, diminishment, or expenditure in the face of death. Not that we seek out such losses. But we form our identities in such a way that we are freed from the anxiety of self-preservation, which makes different choices and modes of being human open and available to us. The creation of a secure heart makes love a possibility. It enables us to do something that biological creatures worried about self-preservation don’t naturally do: place the interests of others before our own.
Love, as many Christians seem to conceive of it, costs nothing and requires no real sacrifice. We can see the neurotic death-denial at work here, creating and maintaining the fantasy that we can always say “yes” to ourselves and simultaneously say “yes” to everyone else. Need, want, and lack don’t exist in this illusion of deathlessness.
But need really does exist, and sacrificial love will quickly bring it to the surface. We find that when we give, what we give isn’t always replenished. This truth is what marks love as love, as something more than mere exchange, as an act of grace. The account books are not balanced. Love gives gifts and makes sacrifices and expects nothing in return.
We are enslaved to the fear of death because the basis of our identities – all the ways we define ourselves and make meaning with our lives – is revealed to be an illusion, a lie, an obfuscation, a neurotic defense mechanism involved in death repression. Death saturates every aspect of our personhood.
…This predicament gives us a glimpse into why the biblical authors speak of conversion and discipleship as a death – our identities are too saturated with death to be rehabilitated as they stand.
In contemporary American culture our slavery to the fear of death produces superficial consumerism, a fetish for managing appearances, inauthentic relationships, triumphalistic religion, and the eclipse of personal and societal empathy. These are the “works of the devil” in our lives, works produced by our slavery to the fear of death.
As mortal creatures the selfish pursuit of survival and self-preservation becomes our highest good, and these survival fears lead us into all sorts of sinful practices. Almost every unwholesome pursuit of humanity – from hedonism to self-aggrandizement to acquisitiveness to rivalry to violence – can be traced back to these basic survival fears. The fear of death creates the experience of the ‘satanic’ in our lives.