Writings by Cole Huffman

How Do We React to the Death of Someone Who was "Kind of a Jerk"?

As a panelist at Faith in Memphis, I was invited last week to write on death with dignity, and did: http://faithinmemphis.com/2011/10/08/a-dignified-death-takes-some-preplanning/.  The night before I turned in my post, Steve Jobs died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.  And then Al Davis died this weekend past after a long bout with the NFL.  “Reaction” has become the word now to catch everyone’s—from family and close friends to the man-on-the-street—take on what kind of life the deceased lived.
“Man knows not his time,” in the words of the Preacher (Eccl. 9:12), although Jobs was terminally sick and Davis an octogenarian.  Both men lived large in the public eye—the popularity of Apple and the NFL is boundless—and so their deaths were subject to ubiquitous public “reaction” chatted up in media outlets, from trending Twitter epitaphs to published articles.
While you have to be Osama bin Laden to have your death celebrated, Al Davis was as destructive a personality as one would care to know.  And yet in the immediate reaction to his death his Machiavellian ways were softened to "maverick," his contemptuousness smoothed into "a complex personality."  In our scrupulous cultural deference to sensitivity, it is simply out of bounds to make any negative (read: true-to-life) comment about a guy like Davis for at least 24 hours, or until his meager positives have been extolled by those few people in his circle who try to tell the rest of us that we just didn’t know him well enough to appreciate him, so stop judging him.  But after the weekend's polite reaction, one sportswriter finally asked, “How are we supposed to react when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies?”  I’d like to take a stab at this question from a Christian perspective.
Let's begin with God, who says, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11).  God's pleasure is turning the wicked into saints, not leaving us in our sins and jerky rebellion against Him.  I know that apart from His grace I could have easily been more like Al Davis than anyone.  And so the aversion we feel to focus on the most unflattering character side of a deceased person is a godly impulse.  Steve Jobs was also regarded by many as “kind of a jerk," though Jobs was something of a trophy of common grace in that his computer genius served the public good in extraordinary ways that many, including me, are grateful for.  From history’s vantage point, I expect Jobs’ accomplishments will be celebrated on par with Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s.  He should be commended as a titan of technology.  The macabre way fans in Oakland dress is it's own kind of tribute to Davis, the penultimate raider.
I understand Jobs’ spiritual allegiance was to Buddhism.  If that's true and remained his confession to his last breath, then his eternity is a nightmare, not nirvana.  But if I'd tweeted that line on the night of his death as "reaction," it would have rightly been deemed equivalent to kicking a man not just when he’s down but out.  I would have been thought peculiarly insensitive and petty, a harsh Christian with a Westboro Baptist streak, scoring theological points at the expense of a man whose invention I would have typed the rebuke to his beliefs on.
Such is not tolerated in the great cloud of reaction, we know.  The public is expected to initially show respect and restraint, even if we all know the deceased was kind of a jerk.  But therein is a tension for Christians, at least evangelicals.  Based on what I know of them, Davis and Jobs were not bowing to Jesus in life, and thus in death each appeared before Him with uncanceled enmity still between Jesus and himself.  This is a sobering reality, and if in reaction we say nothing of this for fear that we'll look pressingly triumphant or opportunistically insensitive or hypocritically unappreciative, we then have a truncated gospel.  For, as my Sunday school teacher taught me years ago, the gospel is bad news before it is good news.
Luke 13 is reaction at it's finest.  Pilate, kind of a jerk, killed some Galileans and desecrated the day's sacrifices with their blood.  Jesus is probed for His reaction to this atrocity in Luke 13. He didn't expresses condolences but a warning about the need for repentance—for man knows not his time—those Galileans didn't, the 18 victims of the Tower of Siloam tragedy didn't, nor did Pilate, the jerk who signed Jesus' death warrant.  (I can think to the point of physically shuddering what it must have been like for Pilate the day he stood in Jesus' own court.)
So here's my suggested reaction for us when a person who was also kind of a jerk dies, and the public is weighing in on it.  First, praise and thanksgiving to God that He takes no pleasure in anyone's death, however negligent, abusive, or confused about His designs for them they were.  Second, sobriety that my own death will someday come and thus a renewed resolve to live repentant and more attentive to God.  Third, honesty about the deceased's life and legacy—every life conveys both example to follow and warning to heed—as I want those who will remember me to be honest about me.  Fourth, proclamation of the gospel of grace for sin to the living.  You ultimately want to be remembered as belonging to Jesus.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 3:55 PM
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