Editor’s Note: Archbishop Charles Chaput, 76, is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation and the first Native American archbishop — having served as archbishop of Denver from 1997 to 2011 and as archbishop of Philadelphia from 2011 until his retirement in 2020. The following essay is excerpted and adapted from the first chapter of his new book, Things Worth Dying For: Thoughts on a Life Worth Living (Henry Holt and Co., March 2021), and is reprinted with permission.
By a person’s mid-70s, the road of life in the rearview mirror is a lot longer than the road ahead. A theme like “things worth dying for” takes on some special urgency. As a sardonic friend likes to say, dying is a one-way off ramp.
Or that’s one way of looking at it. My own feelings are rather different.
My dad was a mortician in a small Kansas town. As a family, we knew and were known by nearly every other family in the community. Many were warm friends. Home was a good place with a lot of happiness. We lived upstairs from the funeral parlor, and for me, that never seemed strange. As I grew older, I would, on occasion, help my father receive the deceased. In our home, death, and all of the complex emotions that surround it, were a natural part of living. There was nothing dark about it. Death in the community mirrored the cycle of seasons and farming all around us. I learned early, by seeing very intimately, the beauty and sacredness of life, and also its fragility. I learned that mourning is a good thing. It acknowledges that someone unique and unrepeatable has left the world; a life filled with its own universe of joys, sufferings, and loves has passed; a life once linked vividly to so many others, but now sustained only in memory.
I also learned, from my parents and many others, that death isn’t an end. It’s a beginning. God and his mercy are real.
Time has a purpose. The meaning of a sentence becomes clear when we put a period at the end of it. The same applies to life. When we talk about things worth dying for, we’re really talking about the things worth living for; the things that give life beauty and meaning. Thinking a little about our mortality puts the world in perspective. It helps us see what matters, and also the foolishness of things that finally don’t matter. Your hearse, as my father might say, won’t have a luggage rack.
There are two great temptations that I’ve seen people struggle with over my lifetime. The first is to try to create life’s meaning for themselves, which translates in the end to no meaning at all. The second is to live and die for the wrong meaning, the wrong cause, the wrong purpose. The world is full of disguised and treasonous little gods that demand our full attention and in the end betray our deepest longings. But there is only one god, the God of Israel. And only in him, as Augustine said 1,600 years ago, can our hearts finally rest.
Socrates was one of history’s greatest minds. He’s often seen as the founder of the Western ethical tradition. He said that his philosophizing was best understood as a preparation for dying. It sounds like an odd claim, but it makes perfect sense. He had a passion for truth-telling; for the wisdom that comes from it; and for the life of integrity that results. The very word “philosophy” captures his love for truth. It ties philia, the Greek word for friendship-love, to sophia, which means wisdom. Socrates didn’t “study” wisdom. He pursued it as the framework of his life. He loved it as a friend.
Love is demanding. It draws us outside ourselves. The more we love, the greater our willingness to sacrifice. When we know, honestly, what we’re willing to sacrifice for, even to die for, we can see the true nature of our loves. And that tells us who we really are.
We’re surrounded by examples. Families, at their best, are an exercise in self-denial for those we love. An extreme and heroic case of familial love is the Jewish mothers and fathers during the Holocaust who gave their children away to Christian families to save them. Friendship is generally a milder form of love than family, and the notion of dying for a friend might seem remote. But as Jesus himself said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). History is full of stories of soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way to save their comrades.
Yet another example is the love of honor. “Honor” is a word that can seem theatrical or outdated to the modern ear. But that’s simply a defect of our times. Honor is profoundly important. We expect it from others, and we want it for ourselves. It’s linked to the idea of dignity or integrity. We all have a hunger — even when we fail at it — to live as honorable people; people of principle willing to speak for what we know to be right and true.
The novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn are filled with people who strive to live honorably in the toxic world of Soviet communism. A gulag survivor himself, Solzhenitsyn writes with reverence for persons who honor their consciences even at the risk of death. The settings for his novels are bleak, and today, the great murder regimes of the last century are history. Their perils can seem remote. But wickedness, like a virus, has a genius for mutating into new forms, and Solzhenitsyn’s themes are still instructive. Evil is real, even when it’s masked by soothing words and excellent marketing. Thus it’s always vital to honor our convictions. And doing so usually has a cost.
Authentic love turns us away from ourselves and toward the Other. It’s ordered to truth; the truth about human beings, human nature and creation.’
We live in a time of vindictive political correctness on matters ranging from sex to the meaning of our national history. Our politics often seems gripped with amnesia about the price in human suffering extracted by the bitter social experiments and poisonous Big Ideas of the last century — always in the name of progress and equality.
Obviously our courage needs to be guided by prudence. Life — all life, no matter how poor, infirm, unborn or disabled — is a precious gift. We should never foolishly risk it.
But we need to be careful. Cowardice is very good at hiding behind appeals to the virtue of prudence. Too often we twist ourselves to fit with what we think is approved behavior or thought. We muffle our beliefs to avoid being the targets of contempt. Over time, a legitimate exercise of prudence can degrade into a habit that soils the soul. No person of integrity betrays his or her convictions. Mouthing lies we know to be lies murders us inwardly. Even silence, which is sometimes prudent, can poison our integrity if it becomes a long-term policy.
Jesus urges us to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love can never involve accepting or joining in the evil of others. The self-love proper for a Christian includes the love of personal honor, the kind that comes from living with integrity in a world that would have us betray our convictions.
And that raises a fundamental question: Are we really willing to be “martyrs” and public witnesses to our faith; and if so, how must we live to prove it?
Those of us in the so-called “developed” nations, even in the midst of COVID and our other many challenges, live in an era of stunning wealth. For many of us, the entire globe is open to travel. To a degree unimaginable in earlier ages, many of us can choose our own path in life or even reinvent our identity. We float in a fluid world of limitless choice. This can seem like a blessing, but it often turns out to be a curse. That’s because only a life without weight, without substance, can float.
The most telling feature of our era is that it curves us in upon ourselves. It seduces us to live without love. We’re smothered in sweet-sounding slogans like “love wins” and “hate has no home here.” But so often these words are merely masks for resentment; weapons in a culture war filled with more poison than honesty. Authentic love turns us away from ourselves and toward the Other. It’s ordered to truth; the truth about human beings, human nature and creation. It’s demanding and self-denying. It anchors us to realities that are deeply human, deeply rewarding, and the deepest sources of joy; but also inconvenient, and easily seen as burdens.
It’s a good thing, a vital thing, to ask what we’re willing to die for. What do we love more than life? To even pose that question is an act of rebellion against a loveless age. And to answer it with conviction is to become a revolutionary; the kind of loving revolutionary who — with God’s help — will someday redeem a late modern West that can no longer imagine anything worth dying for, and thus, in the long run, anything worth living for.
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