When you aren’t going anywhere, it doesn’t matter how fast you walk. No one was in a hurry in Itta Bena, Mississippi, or, anywhere in the Deep South, for that matter. We ambled along, meandering through the day, hoping to stumble upon something of interest, an emerging butterfly, perhaps, or a dog fight. Anything would do as long as it was novel enough to break the boredom and give us something to talk about for a while.
The problem with conversation in the Deep South is that you weren’t encouraged to be novel yourself. It wasn’t proper to say things that weren’t expected. That hadn’t been said before, and had stood the test of time, and proven its worth by having been said many, many times before. Bringing something new into the conversation could not be done if you had somehow managed to think something new. You had to see it before you could talk about it.
“Cud’n Ned (You never said “cousin.” You said “cud’n.” That’s the way it had been said and was to be said. Just as you never said you and your family were going to have Sunday dinner with your parents, or even with your mother and father, or your mom and dad. You were going to eat with “Momma and ’em.” There were strict rules governing subject matter and syntax, which had to be obeyed down to your tone of voice if you were to be one of “’em”) “Cud’n Ned caught a gator last night on his trot (Not “trout”!) line and put him in the fountain down at the square.” You could say that, if it happened. But you couldn’t say you imagined it, or that you dreamed it. You couldn’t make it up. No one talked about their dreams, so far as I know, or had any. And, no one most surely ever made anything up. The poets and the novelists had to grow up somewhere else. In Itta Bena, You had to stay safely in the realm of what was supposed to be said, which diminished the likelihood of anyone paying attention to anyone, and reduced everyone to the level of functional invisibility.
There were no actual people in my childhood, only stereotypes. Everyone had a role, and a script, and everyone read from the script, and played the role. If you couldn’t bear it, you moved away, or lost your mind and were relegated to a backroom, where you lived out your life and served as a model for children of what happened to you if you were “different.”
It was a tense atmosphere in which to grow up, but no one would have recognized the tension, or commented on it if they did. You couldn’t call attention to yourself by commenting on how things were. You could observe, and have an opinion regarding, something distant, like President Truman firing General MacArthur, or impersonal, like the weather, but the closer to home it got the less you could say about it. You couldn’t comment on how life was being lived in town. To say something about it may have been the catalyst that brought change about, and change was the thing most feared.
We didn’t know we feared it. If you had suggested it, we would have denied it, but we were terrified of it. It represented the end to our way of life. We were afraid there was no way but this way, and if we strayed too far from the way things were thought and done, life would disintegrate before our eyes, and we would be lost and alone, without the guiding path trod into a well-worn rut by those who had gone before. If we called anything into question, we ran the risk of being on our own and not knowing what to do. A desperate state of affairs if there ever was one. So, no one dared challenge the traditions and policies, practices and customs, or do anything that had not been done, or think anything that had not been thought, because to do so would have been the end of life as we knew it.
This was the kind of social climate that was ripe for the arrival of a handsome stranger after the manner of an Alan Ladd, or a Clint Eastwood, or a Jesus of Nazareth, who could shake up the status quo, transform the way things were done, and bring a new way of thinking and being into being. The handsome strangers were evidently busy elsewhere, because none came to town on the C & G, or got off the bus, or drove in from parts unknown to work their magic, and break the spell of death and isolation.
Of course, it didn’t feel like death and isolation. No one would have said, if you had been so bold to ask, what the problem was, “We’re dying here, from isolation,” but that was the case. We were dying from isolation. We were cut off from ourselves, alienated from our own voice, our own perspective, our own slant on things, our own gift, our own genius, our own soul. We sacrificed all that for the sake of a communal way of life that killed us all. Because we were afraid. Of dying.
We needed a handsome stranger to break the spell, and wake us up, and bring us to life, because we did not have what it would have taken to do that on our own. And, none came calling. But, in an ironic, paradoxical, sort of way, the absence of a handsome stranger can be as transformative as anything an actual stranger might do. The absence of the stranger makes resurrection as likely and as real as his presence. In the absence of the stranger, we have to become the stranger if we are to have a chance. We bring the stranger to life in our own lives and come alive because of him. Because of his absence, we live and he lives because of us—through us. The deficits and deficiencies of our youth can become the obsessions and compulsions of our advancing years, and I find myself compensating for what was missing when it mattered. Or, trying to. Trying to redeem the irredeemable. Trying to resurrect the dead, by being the person who was most noticeably absent from my life, and living, vicariously, through him.
I step into the role of the Handsome Stranger, and say the things that were not said, and ask the questions that were not asked, and exhibit the qualities that were not evident, and offer what was not given, as if to say, “It may be too little, too late, but I cannot perpetuate the illusion that an unexamined life is worth living, or that it can even be taken for life at all.” We bear the impact, for better or worse, as the blessing or the curse, of where we have been into the far reaches of where we are going. “What we do not embrace as destiny comes to us as fate,” (Carl Jung). One way, or another, we will be who we are. One way, or another, we will live to express what is most important to us. Unless, of course, we die.
The one thing we must not do is die by being afraid of death. The one thing we must live to avoid at all costs is dying before we are dead. To believe in the resurrection of the dead is to step into our fear. It is to look deeply into the empty eyes of that which we are most afraid, and without flinching, do the thing that threatens our future and keeps us from being alive. To believe in the resurrection of the dead is to say the thing that cannot be said, to do the thing that cannot be done, and to know what that thing is, what those things are.
What is anathema? What is life? What is death? How can we be raised from the dead, raised to new life, if we don’t know what constitutes death, or where life is to be found?
Let me take you back to the time of the martyrs. Who killed the people who would not recant their faith? Rome, or the Church? Rome made Christianity punishable by death because the Christians weren’t playing by the rules, mainly by refusing to buy animals to sacrifice in Roman temples to Roman gods and goddesses. It was wrecking the economy. It was creating unrest. Their way of life was coming under fire. It was a lot like Itta Bena, Mississippi.
We protect our way of life at all costs. So Rome instituted the death penalty for Christians who refused to pay appropriate homage to Zeus. And, the church resisted the Roman initiative by telling its members to go to their deaths for the sake of their faith without renouncing their savior and their reward would be great in heaven. Who bears the greater shame here? Rome, or the Church? Who killed the Martyrs? Rome, or the Church? What is it that cannot be done? Sacrifice to Zeus or not sacrifice to Zeus? To do what cannot be done would have been to do what?
How much more inventive, and imaginative, and creative, and life-giving it would have been for the Church to sacrifice to Zeus as a gracious concession to the fear and insecurity of Rome and a testimony to the all-inclusive nature of the God Who Is God! Sacrifice to Zeus every Thursday, winking at each other, with our fingers crossed! Jesus will understand! And laugh! How gracious and compassionate can the one be who is called Lord of Life if he requires our deaths in the coliseum in order to be certain of our faith in him? The belief in the resurrection of the dead enables us to live by dying to that which cannot be. What is it that cannot be? That is the thing we can do, and live, here and now, in this physical life, today! What is it that we cannot do—sacrifice to Zeus, or renounce Jesus? That is the thing the resurrection enables! Die to that thing, and live!
Would the handsome stranger lead a rebellion? Killing the Romans and establishing the Church? Would the handsome stranger support the local economy, sacrifice to Zeus, and wink, and establish the Church? What would he, what would we, do in the service of life? We cannot talk about the resurrection of the dead—of the resurrection to life everlasting—without talking about what we are going to do as evidence of our resurrection, as an expression of our wonder and joy for life, and living, and being alive.
Tombs can be cozy, safe places of refuge. What is the nature of the tomb we are called to abandon? What must we do to do the thing that keeps us from being alive? Sacrifice to Zeus? Question the status quo? Speak out of our experience to say that which must not be said? What is the thing standing between us and life? What do we need a handsome stranger to help us do?