Ill of the Dead

Rush Limbaugh died today. I have zero intention of saying anything good, bad, or otherwise in this post. In fact I would not be writing this article at all except that, as news of Limbaughs’s death broke on social media, I saw someone make an interesting comment. It went something like: “If you are lamenting Rush’s death but cheered when Rachel Held Evans died, you’re the problem.” Rachel Held Evans died nearly two years ago. She was a young wife, mother, and arguably the most influential progressive Christian blogger on the internet. Her death was sudden and shocking and distressed even those who didn’t agree with her theology. The point seemed to be that Rush Limbaugh is a much worse person than Rachel Held Evans, and if anyone out there in theological social media world feels more bereaved by the loss of Limbaugh than of Evans, something is wrong with you.

I kinda understand what this person was trying to say. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Tweet that exemplified better the dysfunctional and odious effects of social media on the human experience. There is no emotional or psychological state that would inspire someone to compare the responses of strangers to a recent death, and try to extract some kind of tribal vindication from that comparison, other than the state of being online. Before social media, if you read that a celebrity you disliked had passed away, how long did you linger over that news? Did you call your friends and compare emotional responses to know which of the people in your circle were “the problem”? Or did the news simply wash over you and you went on with your day?

I just don’t think we are conscious enough of how internet life has created illegitimate categories of thought that are not just illogical, but emotionally destructive. Let me say that again: it is emotionally destructive to cultivate the kind of habits that go into keeping track of who is mourning which dead person on Twitter. It doesn’t feel destructive in the moment because online culture is by definition suffocating and insular, and the only reason any of us use these technologies at all is that while we use them we forget that anything else exists. But other things do exist. And for most of us there will come a day when, either by choice, incapacity, or unavailability, we won’t be able to use Twitter as a broadcast for our resentments. But to the degree that we cultivated them, day by day, tweet by tweet, those resentments will be overpowering, and will spill out in offline relationships and thought life in ways we just never imagined.

OK, sermon over. Now I’ll just make a quick comment about “speaking ill of the dead” when the dead were, at least in your view, bad, dishonest, or harmful people.

I don’t think being more conscious of either justice or orthodox theology is a good reason to celebrate or make glib comments when someone who was bad at either of those things dies. For one thing, the vast majority of human beings on earth are not tyrants or mass murderers whose death is objectively just and good for the rest of humanity. The death of wicked and oppressive rulers naturally causes a degree of joy to those whose suffered under them, but this does not describe 99% of cases. In 99% of cases a person’s legacy is more complicated, cherished by some but not by others. This does not mean that objective moral judgments about a person are impossible. It does mean that they are often difficult, and treating something that’s difficult as if it were easy is a sign of a fool. Death, in most cases, is a reminder of the insufficiency of human wisdom and the mysteriousness of God’s final judgment. We embrace the reality of God’s judgment and the necessity of it, but we cannot try to over-immanentize a personal eschaton. Saying what we know is true about a person is one thing. Translating that into a comprehensive evaluation of their state before God is something else.

Any conservative evangelical who logged on the week of Rachel Held Evans’ death to gloat or “own” her—“Now she knows how wrong she was,” etc.—showed an extraordinary lack of character. Evans’ death was a tragedy and tragedies merit grief or silence (the assault on silence is one of social media’s worst crimes). This doesn’t mean that nobody can ever talk critically about Evans’ legacy. The best I can tell, Evans was deeply wrong about many important theological questions, and even worse, she seemed to have pioneered the #exvangelical moment that has convinced many people that rejecting the claims of Jesus is fine because they’ve met some bad Christians. That is a horrific legacy. But the time to point that out was not in the rawness of her passing.

And here’s the thing: almost every normal person would know this intuitively if it were not for the internet. If you were in a room of different kinds of people and somebody announced a death, you would never (unless there was something very wrong with you) immediately respond by sizing up the deceased. Why wouldn’t you? Because in the physical, embodied presence of other humans something inside us responds to death with the heaviness death deserves. It is when we are separated from our bodies, sliced up into digital text and avatars, that we begin to form inhuman intuitions.

Death is silence. That’s why silence is the right response. Let God speak, and log off.

Author: Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

4 thoughts on “Ill of the Dead”

  1. “The assault on silence is one of social media’s worst crimes.” – that is a very profound comment. Really good stuff here. Thanks for writing.

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  2. Thank you- these are true and necessary (sadly) words in our current culture.

    “Treating something that’s difficult as if it were easy is the sign of a fool.” This applies to so much that is posted on social media. 120 characters does not allow for grappling with nuance or complexity. Nor do several word slogans.

    I especially appreciate the warning about our non-incarnational lives leading to inhuman intuitions.

    Thank you.

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  3. “It is when we are separated from our bodies, sliced up into digital text and avatars, that we begin to form inhuman intuitions.” An argument for both the necessity of having an offline life, and for balance between the two.

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