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October 19, 2007

life after death: the general, the comic genius and the terracotta emperor

by quaesitor

You may have seen the brouhaha that (eg picked up by Ruth Gledhill’s blog) recent remarks of General Sir John Dannatt has caused. He is Chief of the General Staff in the British Army and therefore the most senior soldier in this country. The reason for the fuss – not just the fact that he is a Christian, but the fact that he thinks this has an impact on his job. This is what he said at the recent Spring Harvest Excellence in Leadership conference.

In my business, asking people to risk their lives is part of the job, but doing so without giving them the chance to understand that there is a life after death is something of a betrayal, and I think there is very much an obligation on …a Christian leader to include a spiritual dimension into his people’s preparations for operations, and the general conduct of their lives. Qualities and core values are fine as a universally acceptable moral baseline for leadership, but the unique life, death, resurrection and promises of Christ provide that spiritual opportunity that I believe takes the privilege of leadership to another level.

Of course, similar convictions have been open to abuse over the centuries – people have been urged to die/be martyred for dubious if not downright immoral causes over the centuries: eg Crusades or 9/11. But given that armies are necessary in the modern age for national defence or prosecution of injustice (the official MOD page outlining the many countries where the British Army is currently deployed is fascinating), surely it is appropriate for someone facing death all the time to face it with eyes open? The risks for a soldier serving in Helmand province or on the Kuwait border are huge. Of course, no one should be compelled or deceived into believing anything (which is a ludicrous and totally counter-productive notion anyway); but it would be a total dereliction of duty if an army padre failed to spell out the claims and promises that the Christian faith makes about death.

The thing is death must force us to ask what it is all about. It always has – and it always will. For it leaves nowhere to hide when it comes to life’s purpose. Death pierces every facade, shatters every mask and undermines all but the most robust of confidences. Take this quote from Woody Allen (who, it has to be admitted, has a bit of a one-track mind about death!)

‘Let me tell you, when I go for a walk in Central Park on a beautiful day I have to set myself mental tasks, prepare a speech, think about casting. Otherwise I know I will want to run up to people and shake them and say, ‘Why are you bothering to sunbathe? What’s the point of your pregnant belly? Why are you walking your dog? Toward what end? We’re all going to die one day. AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO SEES IT? Am I the only person in the concentration camp who knows what’s going on behind the hedge?’

He spreads his arms, fingers splayed. ‘I will look around the park and think, “We can cut to this scene 100 years from now and all these people will be dead.” Every 100 years a big toilet will have flushed and a new group of people will be in their place. The Islamic fundamentalists, the baseball players, the beautiful models, everybody who is here now will all be gone. ALL GONE. You and me. It is hard to combat this thought. It’s constantly nagging at me. Our seemingly busy busy lives ultimately mean nothing in this cruel and hostile universe.’
From an interview with Woody Allen, Sunday Telegraph Magazine, 17 March 02

The weird thing about the timing of all this brouhaha (after all, the general made his remarks two weeks ago) is that Rachel & I managed to get to the Terracotta Army exhibition in the British Museum this morning (having booked ages ago). There’s been a lot of hype – on top of the queues and the not inconsiderable cost, the exhibition is pretty small (with too many crowding around the individual exhibits). They’ve borrowed only a handful of the 7000+ terracotta warriors found in 1974 in Xi’an. Still, despite all this, it is still well worth it. Ying Zheng, 1st Emperor of China, was by all accounts rather a nutter – and yet a pretty successful one. He was the first person to unite the warring regions of China and to impose unifying writing, legal and mercantile systems. He was not without ambition. For not only did he declare himself Emperor of China, but also Emperor of the Universe – building palaces around his empire to echo to the constellations in the night sky. But despite this, he was petrified of death. This is what the official British Museum book says:

The first Emperor of China controlled a vast territory and wielded enormous power. He ordered 120,000 families to move to the new capital, Xianyang; he summoned 700,000 men to build his tomb and other structures; and he was self-consciously aware of his authority and of the new era that this marked…

Yet this powerful ruler was assailed at the same time by his human frailty: he feared conspiracy and death by human or by supernatural forces. he consulted occult specialists and insisted that his whereabouts be kept secret. In search of eternal life, the First Emperor urged his officials and associates to seek out herbs and plants that would enable him to evade death and live for ever. Several fruitless exhibitions were sent out into the eastern sea to find the mythical islands of Penglai, Yingzhou and Fangzhang, where these plants were believed to flourish. None of these efforts succeeded. How then did the emperor resolve his fears of death and make them compatible with his claims to be a universal and eternal ruler? His solution lay in preparing a great tomb for himself on the slopes of Mt Li near present day Lintong to ensure his power on the journey into and throughout eternity.

What the First Emperor created astonishes us today with its haunting lines of soldiers, officials, acrobats and servants to do his bidding, frozen for all time in clay… It must have been astonishing for his ministers and officials as they laboured at the immense task to bring into being this universe for the emperor. Nothing on such a scale had been attempted before. In death, as in life, the First Emperor was unique.

From The First Emperor – China’s Terracotta Army chapter 4, by Jessica Rawson, p115-18 (publ British Museum Press)

But I think I would also want to add that in death, as in life, the First Emperor wasn’t unique at all. He was just like everyone who has ever lived – for death has always had a sting. And as General Dannatt believes, (and I of course agree with him), it would take an emperor of emperors (born only 200 years or so after Ying Zheng died) to remove that sting.

 

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