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THE FINAL WORD

This Lent the Passion of the Christ has been the biggest Christian show in town. Among the many faults theological critics have found in it, they have accused Mel Gibson of being false to the Gospel by wallowing in the gore and sweat of the Passion at the expense of the Resurrection.

That criticism surely misses the target. In the Gospels, Christ rises only after fully testing the devastating power of death. Although Mark’s account of the Passion is understated in its detail, he enumerates all the things that might make us believe, or even hope, that death has the final word in human life. He tells of power cynically used, of betrayal, injustice, torture, terror and of humiliation. In the lead-up to Easter, we are invited into the bear cage in the company of a death whose claws are unsheathed. It is there that we recognise that death’s embrace is not fatal, not final. If we were to use Easter as a reason for avoiding or softening the brutality of death, we would show that we feared its power.

We commonly learn from experience that our personal way to life runs through death, or at least that it goes through no other place. But public life tells another story. Politics defines human well-being as the prosperity, security and reassurance of the majority, offering a passing assurance that even in sickness and misfortune you will be looked after. The art of politics is to persuade people that you have the technical skill to devise strategies and policies that will give them what they want. To introduce into this conversation moral considerations that speak of human purposes, dignity, destiny, despair and mortality is to drag a dead bird into the political drawing room. Politics is built on the denial of death.

The denial is useful. It allows you to happily think in abstractions and neglect the human effects of your policies when putting them in place. You are free sunnily to involve yourself in bombing Iraq or in imprisoning children without seeing the faces of those whom you have maimed physically or spiritually. You need not contemplate your own death or the death of those whom you afflict. Where policy is radically dissociated from the reality of death, the paradoxical result is a society dominated by the logic of death. It is caught in the cinematic image of the future city where human government, having devised a policy that will guarantee security through the bombardment of enemies, has subsequently been wiped out. But computers continue to organise and deliver the daily bombardments of an abandoned city. The transition from a human government based on the denial of death to the dominance of a pure technology of death is seamless.

In Australia over the last few years, we have endured the myth of public life as technology and the denigration of those who criticise policy on moral grounds. More recently, in the discussion of the ways we should educate out children, and support the elderly, there have been seeds of hope that our public conversation can encompass death. But we are still hearing advice that we should move on from Iraq, move on from Tampa. The counsel indicates that the denial of death is alive and well. To the extent that we heed it, we shall render cosmetic the transformation of Easter. Easter will have touched our public life when we are able to enter respectfully the Passion to which we condemn our fellow human beings. Then we may discover that death does not have the last word.

Andrew Hamilton SJ is Eureka Street’s publisher.

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