In the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre in June, Russell Moore lamented our inability to mourn as one people. He wondered “whether the country still has the capacity to grieve, together, in moments of national crisis.”
The balkanization of America has been a regular theme of political commentary for decades, but few have gotten so close to the root of our divisions as Moore. Our inability to lament together isn’t merely a symptom of our divided polity. We are segregated in life because we are segregated in death.
And that segregation, in turn, is a sign of a more fundamental division: our warfare over the sacred. For some Americans, the dead in Orlando are martyrs in the holy war for sexual liberation, the Pulse nightclub a sacred space. We mourn the dead and sympathize with their loved ones, but believers cannot accept that blood alone covers sin.
Our segregated sacred has a long, complex relation to Christianity. In the ancient world, sacred places were consecrated by the dead. Egyptian pyramids were both temples and tombs. Alongside the immortals on Olympus, Ancient Greeks worshiped heroes and chthonic deities. In his classic study of The Ancient City, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges traced the political religions of ancient Rome to ancestor cults centered on the domestic hearth.
For ancient Israelites, by contrast, dead bodies radiated impurity rather than holiness. Touching a dead body or being in the same enclosed space with a corpse would defile the living. Anyone rendered impure by the contagion of death had to be cleansed by a double baptism with a specially prepared “water of purification.” Israel honored its fathers, but the rite of purification marked an exodus from the realm of the dead back into the land of the living. Long before Jesus said it, Israel’s rituals were already issuing a radical call to discipleship: Let the dead bury their dead.
Christianity broke from both ancient paganism and ancient Judaism. Place, writes Robert Pogue Harrison in The Dominion of the Dead, is established by a hic jacet: “here lie” the bodies of my fathers. To this the gospel posed a direct challenge: When the women showed up at Jesus’s tomb, the angels told them hic non est, He is not here. The empty tomb “points away from hic jacet; that is, from a site marked by its resident dead.” Thus, “filled with the promise of a new life, the earth as a whole becomes not a conglomerate of places but one new place: the place of Easter morning.”
Yet, surprisingly, over the early centuries, Christianity came to resemble ancient paganism more than ancient Judaism. Augustine mentions the controversial practice of celebrating Eucharist at the tombs of martyrs. By the early medieval period, a network of sacred shrines for the dead covered Western Europe. Supernatural power was attributed to the bones, teeth, hair, and other reliquiae of the saints, and the Second Council of Nicaea (787) determined that a cathedral could only be consecrated if relics were present.
The cult of the saints didn’t cancel the gospel of resurrection, Harrison argues, because dead saints were considered to be alive, more alive than the living, enjoying a foretaste of the delights of the new heavens and new earth. The saints aren’t sacred because they represent the past but because, resting with the Lord, they already inhabit the future.
Inevitably, the Christian sacred threatened the existing sacred of the Roman empire. The battle of emperors against martyrs encompassed the dead and the living. Christians didn’t respect the heroes of ancient Rome as sacred, while Romans reacted to Christian martyrs with horror. For the first three centuries, Christians were disturbers of the Pax. We were the balkanizers.
At its best, liberal order permits Jews, atheists, Methodists, and Catholics to bury and honor their dead as they see fit, without interference from each other or the state. Ideally, liberal order is a network of peaceable cemeteries, that is, coexistent sacreds. Liberalism has sometimes aspired to elude the sacred altogether, and its failure on that score, as Philip Rieff recognized, was inevitable. At its worst, liberal order establishes a new sacred as imperious as any other, or more so, since liberalism has nothing to consecrate but liberal order itself. Today, when liberalism has become licentious, the sacred dead are those for whom nothing is sacred, our sacred places sites of rebellion.
Christians have thus become balkanizers all over again. Moore learned this, as his cri du coeur rapidly became another battlefield in the war over the sacred. Many condemned his grief as hypocritical because he refuses to budge in his opposition to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. As long as we’re segregated in death, we will be segregated in life. It won’t be enough to mourn with those who mourn so long as we sturdily refuse to sacralize sin.