Freedom, Reason, Tolerance and Zombies
A Sermon at Countryside Church, Unitarian Universalist
January 25, 2015
The Rev. Dr. C. Scot Giles
The Zombies of Haitian Folklore
Do you like Zombies? I do. I grew up on 1950s Science Fiction and Fantasy movies and still enjoy them. I Walked With A Zombie, The Movie about Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery and my all-time favorite, Plan 9 From Outer Space. In fact the first time a girl hugged me was during the classic zombie movie Night of the Living Dead (she hugged because she was terrified, but I enjoyed it anyway).
In case you haven’t noticed, we are living during the Golden Age of Zombie literature and cinema. The Walking Dead, a TV series about an apocalypse caused by a zombie virus, is the most watched show on television, and it’s ratings have out-performed the Olympics twice.
But there are many more: 28 Days, 28 Weeks, the Last Ship, Strain, Shaun of the Dead, Z-Nation, World War Z, In The Flesh, Helix, the list goes on.
In fact, the you may want to know that the Centers for Disease Control have designated October as the official Zombie Preparedness Month, and if you don’t believe me check out their website. Heck, there is even a Zombie Weekend at the Bristol Renaissance Faire and some of my colleagues have participated in wedding ceremonies with a zombie theme. Seriously.
What in the world is all of this about? I mean, why is this even “A Thing”?
Well, the Centers for Disease Control use their Zombie Preparedness Campaign as a tongue-in-cheek way of encouraging people to be prepared for natural disasters. If it’s good preparation for zombies it’ll be good prep for hurricanes too.
But there is something about this sort of literature that intrigues me. What does it say about our civilization that an obscure and unofficial part of Haitian folklore has become so prominent?
Zombies began as a religious phenomena. Long ago when slaves were being imported from West-Africa they brought their religion along with them. This religion involves the worship of a complex pantheon of gods and it is guided by a system of divination called Ifa’. It is still practiced today and in fact it is growing.
When these slaves got to Cuba, their religion mixed with the indigenous Spanish Roman Catholicism and became the religion we now call Santeria.
In Haiti, the mix was with French Roman Catholicism and it came to be called Voudun. That strain was imported to America in Southern States and became called Voodoo or Hoodoo.
In Brazil it’s called Candomblé, and on an on under many different names: Palo, Umbanda, La Regla Lucumi, the list goes on.
A priest or priestess who had lost his or her good heart might engage in black magic. Such a person might re-animate a dead body as a personal slave. These were called “zombies.”
There is actually something to this belief. In 1985 an ethnobotanist named Wade Davis went to Haiti and found that some practitioners had developed a drug, called tetrodoxin from the Datura plant and an extract from the puffer fish, that could create a coma-like state of somnambulistic slavery. The actual drug is now used in cancer care for pain relief, and I’ll refer you to Dr. Davis’ book, or the very well-done movie of the same name, The Serpent and the Rainbow, for a sympathetic account of all this.
But modern zombies are different. They are presented as scientific phenomena. Instead of being the work of religious professionals, they are the result of contagious viruses or genetic experiments gone wrong. It is either our science that has let us down, or Mother Nature herself rises up using the smallest life forms, to strike us down.
That’s something new. Zombies not from Voodoo, but from an pandemic or a science lab gone bad. That’s an important point I want you to get. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, zombies came from Voodoo. No longer. The contemporary zombie is not the creation of magic. They are creations of technology or a germ.
I think this literature (books, movies, television, graphic novels and role play) discloses a deep thread of anxiety in our culture. This anxiety is mostly unarticulated but very real that we may be entering an age of disruption. Our collective unconscious minds are using the zombie metaphor to express things that most of us are deeply concerned about. The image of the zombie engages themes that thoughtful people do ponder. I notice three such themes.
Hell is Other People
In 1944 the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre published a play called No Exit. It is about the afterlife where three deceased people are put in a room together for all eternity. They’re all bad people and their punishment is to live together making each other miserable. Which they do. There is famous line in that play, “Hell is Other People.”
I personally have a much more optimistic view of the afterlife than that one, but the zombie image I feel discloses how much we do have to fear from other people.
In modern zombie lore the zombification is contagious, and if you get bitten, scratched, bled upon or come into contact with any other body fluid, you become a zombie yourself. We don’t see this in the original religious version of the zombie image, but it’s there in all the modern depictions. Why is that?
The answer, I believe, is that we are increasingly seeing other people as a source of anxiety. We used to have communities; neighborhoods. The whole pioneer ethic that enabled us to settle the Great Prairies was that we would try to look after one another, because you never knew what you might need your neighbors.
It’s different now. People seem different. How do we stay decent people in a world where there are school shootings, financial meltdowns, racial cleansing and people who behead innocent captives and upload the video to YouTube? Even our consumerism is out of control, which is probably why Director George Romero shot his Dawn of the Dead inside a shopping mall.
During Hurricane Katrina we all got a lesson about how quickly society can break down. It took, what, a few days before police were turning traffic around and not letting people flee stricken areas. Exactly how long was it before looting broke out? Three days? And then we heard about how everyone was crammed into the Superdome where gangs had taken control.
Didn’t take long at all. Hell is other people. That’s one of the vibes from the modern zombie literature. Urban life might be fun but if people are turning into zombies, you do not want to be around a lot of them. When everything goes wrong, there is nothing more anxiety-producing than other people.
Technology Out Of Control
The second anxiety disclosed by the popularity of zombie literature is the fear that we might lose control of our technology. A lot of zombie literature is about genetic or viral experiments going wrong and unleashing a plague of the undead upon the world. It is claimed that when we tamper with nature, things go wrong.
I think this aspect discloses an intuitive sense that our scientific and technological understanding has advanced beyond our philosophical and moral understandings, and like Walt Disney’s Sorcerer's Apprentice we are about to be brought to task by our own hubris and over-reach.
People of my generation were raised with the fear of a nuclear war, that our weaponry had become so powerful it outstripped our ability to use it wisely. That theme is commonplace in the media portrayals of the future now: The 12 Monkeys, Jericho, The Day After, Resident Evil and its endless sequels, and many more.
The third anxiety that I think zombie literature explores is the fear of contagion. Remember the original zombies of Haitian folklore were creations of a religious professional gone bad. But modern zombie literature reflects the theme of some sort of virus or plague that runs out of control. That’s the vibe you see in the television show The Walking Dead, the book and movie World War Z and others.
There is something very deep and dark in this. Most of you know that in my community ministry I specialize in working with people who are living with cancer; I’m sort of a spiritual healer. Due to a number of courageous celebrities who went public when they were diagnosed with cancer, some of the social stigma that used to exist has lifted. But most people still don’t want others to know if they’ve had cancer.
When I was in training we conducted an experiment. A candid video was made of an actor at a college party. On cue the actor said, “Oh, I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. But it’s very treatable and I should be fine.” People around him moved away. They increased their interpersonal distance by double. They later denied they had done it, so it was a completely instinctual phenomena, but you could measure it on the video.
Now if he had said, “Oh, I just had a cardiac bypass,” I don’t think anyone would have reacted. But think—most people who have cancer will survive it. Most people who have heart disease (like me) will die of heart disease. Yet everyone is afraid of getting cancer and no one is afraid of getting heart disease.
The reason, I believe, is that if you die of heart disease it’s usually quick and clean. If you die of cancer, you can waste away. Also, many of the most successful treatments we have for cancer such as chemo or radiotherapy themselves cause temporary loss of weight, hair, energy and appearance.
Deep in our Collective Unconsciousness there is something about wasting diseases because for 99% of our social evolution that meant plague, and plague was contagious. Even though we know that cancer isn’t a plague, and it isn’t contagious, there is still something in us at a deep level that pulls back. We fear contagion. The modern zombie literature is all about that.
In the 1970s a chemist named James Lovelock published a book in which he set forth the idea he called the Gaia Hypothesis after the Greek goddess of the Earth. There are many planetologists who now endorse it and in 2006 Lovelock received an award from the Geological Society of London.
The idea is that the organic and inorganic elements on Earth cooperate together to form a self-regulating system to regulate life on earth. If any part of the biosphere acts in a way that is a liability, the Earth itself changes to correct that, even if it means bringing some life forms to extinction. In the great drama of life on Earth, The Gaia Hypothesis says the Earth gets a vote.
Just last week, the New York Times published that an international commission has confirmed that human activity has so changed our planet that we are now living in a new geological age, called the Anthropocene, and that it’s not going well. We’re pushing the boundaries of what our planet can support.
This is exactly reflected in the zombie literature. There is an intuitive sense that we are violating nature and nature will respond by creating an extinction event for us in self-defense. The zombie literature proposes this and suggests that the instrument Mother Nature will use one of the smallest and most deadly tool in her arsenal--the virus. In fact I wonder is some of the over-reaction we saw about the rare and relatively-hard-to-catch ebola virus was a manifestation of this fear.
That this gets me to why I like zombies
The Value of the Zombie
It would be easy to supply a list of things that might head off the problems I’ve just listed. Move toward sustainable agriculture, limit consumerism, reduce and eventually eliminate fossil fuels, put restrictions on dangerous research, etc.
All of these are these are all worthwhile ideas. Some people predict that the end of our industrial civilization is inevitable and counsel the we all need to reduce our lifestyle in anticipation.
One of the best of these, a book titled The Long Descent by John Michael Greer, an Archdruid of The Ancient Order of Druids in America, predicts a gradual slide into a “de-industrial” civilization where environmental collapse will lead to simpler and more agrarian lifestyles. He claims the process is inevitable, may even be a good thing overall. His recommendation is we should all now start moving in that direction. Or, as he puts it, “Collapse now and avoid the rush.”
But my hope lies in a deeper place, a more spiritual place.
I am an optimist about humanity. I expect good things of the future, not bad things. I believe that our society has some capacity to deal with serious threats. But we tend toward careless thinking, and unless these threats are brought to our attention we tend to ignore them.
Part of the cultural role of literature is to remind us of things we might overlook or take for granted. Zombie literature, precisely because it captures our anxiety about social unrest, technological meltdown or biological collapse keeps us reminded of those possibilities, and that will make us more careful than we would otherwise be.
A really scary movie about zombies eating your family does more to remind the average person about the need to worry about biological warfare research than all the white papers liberal think tanks issue.
The zombie literature speaks loudly to us because it speaks to the place where our deepest fears live in a way that an article in the New Yorker or the Atlantic, ever will.
That’s a good thing. So I like zombies.
The future is always a bit scary, but I believe the problems we face do have solutions and that catastrophe is not inevitable. When I was in Theological School in the 1970s we were all upset about a report issued by an international think tank called The Club of Rome. The report, titled The Limits of Growth predicted the end our our industrial society because of limited resources.
For example, at the time most of our electronics used copper wire and copper connectors. The Club of Rome computed that there was not enough copper in existence to meet the anticipated future growth of technology and therefore technology would inevitably collapse. But it didn’t.
What happened is that we developed silicon chips and fiber optics which we make out of sand. Hardly anything uses a lot of copper anymore. And so I think it will go for the other problems. It may not be easy and it probably will not be seamless, but I do think we will cope with every one of the upcoming problems and we’ll be fine.
But I said my optimism is spiritual.
Earl Morse Wilbur
An important history of Unitarianism is Earl Morse Wilbur’s, A History of Unitarianism in two volumes. Professor Wilbur lived prior to the merger between the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in 1961 so he only wrote about the Unitarian side. He believed that the essential genius behind the Unitarian movement could be articulated in three values: Freedom, Reason and Tolerance.
If you took any historical Judeo-Christian tradition, and inoculate it with those three values, it would end up looking pretty much like the Unitarian Universalism of today.
It’s possible to quibble. “Reason” in the sense of “deductive reason” is not as critical a value among us as it was back in the 1950s. We’ve all learned to appreciate the value of intuition and inductive reasoning as well.
“Freedom” has become much more closely analyzed as we’ve learned about multi-culturalism and the pervasiveness of racism.
“Tolerance” is somewhat qualified in today’s world too. While we respect Islam, Right Wing Christianity and Ultra-Orthodox religion, no one is going to tolerate them being expressed as terrorism.
But that said, we’re really still the people who tolerate a heck of a lot from each other, fundamentally value the life of the mind and heart, and all of us claim the freedom to believe as we see fit.
What made us unique, said Wilbur, was that we were proposing a new reason for being religious. Everywhere else in the West the reason to belong to a religion was to either experience pleasure (go to heaven when you died) or to avoid pain (to not go to hell when you died). Basically you practiced a religion because it offered you a Get Out Of Jail Free card that allowed you to escape a punishment to come.
The Unitarian tradition was the first to say that neither the hope of heaven nor the fear of hell was the best motivating factor. Instead, belonging to a community of seekers, having the freedom to do spiritual seeking yourself was enough of a reason to practice the faith.
That was an incredibly optimistic proposal for a religious tradition. While everyone else was shouting about “the Wrath to Come” the Unitarians took a completely different path. It would be what psychologist William James called “A Healthy Minded Religion.”
I have said before the optimism is a choice. It is not about feelings, at least at first. It is a decision to interpret what happens to you through the lens of a positive worldview. That doesn’t mean we’ll always be able to come up with a positive interpretation, but it does mean we’ve decided that when there are competing interpretations available, we will select the one most likely to lead to positive thoughts. A Healthy Minded Faith.
And this is another reason why I love zombies. The three cultural anxieties that are represented by the image of the modern zombie: anxiety about other people, anxiety about our technology, and anxiety about our impact on nature are made laughable by the far-fetched image of the shambling zombie who both reminds us to be careful and ministers to us by suggesting our fear might be overblown.
That’s why I enjoyed the novel, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. It is so overdone that it reminds me not to be fearful.
Everyone knows zombies are not real. By our unconscious choice of the cultural image of the zombie as a representation of those fears, our Collective Unconscious Mind proposes that perhaps those fear are not as inevitable as they seem either. Maybe a way will be found and a sun-filled future could await us all. I think it does.
And that’s why I like zombies.
And that’s my sermon.