The Common Good

The Forgiving Corpse: A Parable

How’s this for an unlikely scenario? One of the characters in Keith Huff’s new crime comedy, Big Lake Big City, is a petty criminal named Stewart who ends up not quite dead after a screwdriver accidently gets embedded in his skull. If the doctors try to remove it, he will die; if they leave it in, he will die. But somehow he isn’t dead yet. For a few days he walks around in a liminal space between life and death, more like a walking corpse than anything else. The sign of his violent demise is there for all to see but he manages to hide it under a Shriner’s cap. A pretty funny sight gag because you have to ignore that fact that the hat is kinda floating off kilter slighter off his head in order not to know something is terribly wrong.

Big Lights Big City promotional poster
Big Lights Big City promotional poster

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Big Lake Big City is having its world premiere at Lookingglass Theater in Chicago this summer. After seeing the show and interviewing the lead actor Phil Smith for Voices of Peace Talk Radio here at Raven, I couldn’t help but see parallels to another unlikely scenario: a crucified man is resurrected with the marks of his violent death on his body for all to see. I’m pretty sure that Keith Huff did not intend to write a Christian allegory, but the themes of life, death, and resurrection reverberate through the play. Oddly enough, I think Stewart’s story can function as a parable of sorts for understanding the radical shift in the human relationship to death and violence that was made possible by the resurrection. Stay with me, now!

When we first meet him, Stewart is not very Christ-like. He is a petty criminal who has just bargained his way out of prison by fingering another guy for murder. His betrays his brother Trent who has given him a job by stealing from Trent’s construction site, wrecking his truck and claiming to be sleeping with Trent’s wife. That last one was just to mess with Trent’s mind, but conning is such a part of Stewart’s life that he can’t help stealing from and lying to the only person who is on his side. In a rage at being betrayed, Trent chases him with a screwdriver, which somehow ends up embedded in the top of Stewart’s skull. It is never clear whether it was an accident or a deliberate act, but it makes Stewart a walking dead guy and Trent guilty of manslaughter if not murder.

Two things make Stewart into an allegory for Christ. First, like the resurrected Christ, he does not fit neatly into the usual categories of “alive” and “dead.” As James Alison says in Jesus the Forgiving VictimListening for the Unheard Voice:

The Risen Lord is not the Lord recovered from a nasty bout of ‘death.’ The Risen Lord is this dead man, who lived his thirty-three years and was killed: he is the whole life and death of this dead man being held in life in such a way that death doesn’t close him down. This is a very difficult thing for us to grasp, because ordinarily being alive and being dead are two equal and opposite realities: you can only be one of them at any given time. We can’t easily understand the sort of ‘being alive’ that is able to assume within it, take inside itself, ‘a being dead’ without being in rivalry with that.

Alison makes a good point, one that Stewart gives us access to, with a nice touch of humor. Not being in rivalry with death would probably make us all a bit more prone to laughing at ourselves and our situations, which would be a good thing. In other words, not being in rivalry with death would enable us to be fully alive because we would not also at the same time be expending psychic energy to deny or fend off the reality of our death. What sort of life would that make possible? Here’s how Stewart explains his new reality to his brother:

I got all this, this energy, Trent. Major buzz, man. Everything brighter. Daytime gimme a headache, but night, Christ, it’s like the lights are alive, man. Like I been given a gift. Chance to get it right.

What does Stewart want to get right? Here is the second parallel to Christ: he wants to forgive his brother for killing him. Before the screwdriver, Stewart was anything but forgiving. He used and abused others without any remorse. But just before he succumbs to the wound, he tells the detective pursuing him:

Stewart: I don’t wanna press charges, okay?

Podaris: That’s not typically the dead guy’s call, Stew.

Stewart: That dead got no rights?

Podaris: Not this side of paradise

Stewart: I been f--in’ up my whole life, Podaris. Lemme put one thing right before I – Trent’s      got a family. Kids.

Normally when dead men talk it’s to complain and accuse from beyond the grave. Ghosts come back to haunt their killers and seek revenge (the ghost of Hamlet’s father is a classic example), not to offer forgiveness. But Stewart, the not-quite-alive-not-yet-dead talking corpse, isn’t out for revenge. He offers forgiveness instead. Being already dead seems to have released Stewart from being in rivalry with death and so opened up the possibility for a fullness of life he had not experienced before. When we talk about Christ having conquered death, I think this is what we mean – that being alive is freed from being defined over-against death and so life becomes so much more. For Stewart, other over-against ways of being something collapse, too, so he no longer needs his brother to be wrong to know himself as right, to be a murderer to know he is innocent, to be a perpetrator so Stewart can cling to a victim identity. All of it melts away and this gift, as he calls it, is what enables Stewart to forgive his brother.

That’s as good an imitation of Christ as you can get. If Stewart can forgive a wound unto death, we must ask ourselves if we can forgive lessor wounds, the mundane hurts and betrayals at the hands of brothers and sisters, parents and children, friends and co-workers that we suffer each day rather than harbor resentment, hatred, and plans to get even. Freed from rivalry with death and with each other, it is what the imitation of Christ would look like if it leapt off the pages of the Bible and off the stage of the Lookingglass Theater into our lives. As Stewart might say, what a gift!

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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