In their different inflections and in their different priorities, both Halloween and the Feast of All Saints are expressions of a reality inscribed in the Christian faith: the commingling of the living and the dead. Even Advent, however, participates in this dynamic, for while it may now be understood as preparation for Christmas and associated with faith, hope, joy, and peace, it was historically preoccupied with the second coming of Christ and focused upon the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Changes such as these are not intrinsically bad, but something is lost when a new set of practices completely displaces what came before without explanation, much less when the habitus of an entire season becomes oriented around accumulation. Advent in the past evoked sobriety in the face of death and the judgment with which Jesus will rectify all wrongs. This has all been abandoned in favor of commercialized frivolity that does not even know what it has displaced or the people for whom the older practices were formative. This season’s preparation is focused upon products that will be gained and the denial of death rather than on the One who will judge the living and the dead.
This illuminates a gulf that often goes unrecognized. For many Christians, it is one thing to confess the communion of the saints and quite another to ascribe any significance for our lives to the dead. But the former demands the latter. We live within an excluded middle where what is affirmed in creeds is nullified by vicious forms of “rationality” that prioritize greed, prestige, and self-preservation, leaving us vulnerable to spiritual harm as a result.
Human beings are who they are in their relation to the dead. We may deny this fact or live as if it were not the case, but we are always enmeshed within ties to our predecessors. None of us become subjects wholly independently: our hopes, our projects, our senses of duty, are always also the responsibility of others who shape our personhood. The worlds we inhabit are due to those who came long before us. Human existence is always shaped by the dead.
Various cultures manifest this differently, but humanity is enacted in large part in the connection between the ground and the living who inter their dead within it. “To be human means above all to bury,” writes Robert Pogue Harrison in The Dominion of the Dead, for in this act we consecrate the soil of our homes as we carry out our duties to our dead. Funerary rites link past to present and reinforce the values that bind a community together by focusing the energies of the living towards those who are no longer present in the same mode as we are. Burial is a testimony that though they may be dead, the dead belong here.
In his poem, “Hallowe’en,” Conrad Aiken describes the dead who are “lost and forgotten” as the “homeless and hearthless,” and asserts that they return to abuse and to haunt us, because “the dead do not forget us, in our hearts / the dead never forget us.” Aiken psychoanalytically mines the images and pathos of Halloween in this text, but the truth he uncovers is as true of Advent and Christmas as it is of All Hallows Eve:
for we have neglected not only our death
in forgetting our obligations to the dead
we have neglected our living and our children’s living
in neglecting our love
for the dead who would still live within us.
What have we forgotten? And what has replaced it? Aiken emphasizes the haunting of the modern subject when he repeats his thesis: in our hearts the dead never forget us. The dead are, in their own right, subjects of another type of existence distinct from the living, but they are never entirely separate. They are other, and yet they are simultaneously intimately near, among us, within our stories of our world, and within our very minds.
But formation under capitalism has severed us from substantive connection to our planet, to our ancestors and contemporaries, and to ourselves. Our lives are always situated at the border between the living and the dead, and that border is more porous than many of us allow ourselves to believe. The dead persist as objects which occupy space, and the artifacts that give shape to our days are remnants of the anonymous laborers who made them, after the machinery of capital erases them from the map of the world.
We have neglected these things because the metric against which a thing’s significance is measured is its malleability to the exploitative technologies we have manufactured. Any given thing, then, is real only insofar as it yields itself in submission to human domination. This ideological sieve incorporates those things that are useful to the logic of capital and the commodities and totems we strive to secure, but excludes vast swathes of reality that remain invisible precisely because of their apparent insignificance for those goals. This paradigm arrogantly presumes to judge what is and is not real or relevant on the basis of its utility, and frighteningly, it has an agency that captures our own and damages our moral imaginations.
Capitalism is thus more real to us than the dead, more real than the one who was born to die and rise again. The being of those who came before us is excluded by these filters that organize our experiences into a shared world and distort even a season that is ostensibly devoted to the Incarnation. Those structures acclimate us to a very strange persuasion: that we belong to this place and other beings do not. And so we wantonly damage and reshape the planet in order to realize our disordered desires and repress from consciousness its resistance and its efforts to retain its shape. The earth absorbs the injustices perpetrated upon the dead who have been erased, channeling its force against our efforts and even our lives. The cries of the dead and the groanings of the creation, like the ground upon which Abel’s blood fell, join in a single chorus begging for recompense.
Ironically, capital itself is phantasmic, as ghostly as the dead we forget. Capital is physically present nowhere, operating through the abstraction of numbers, substantiating arrangements and propelling projects through its spectral purchasing power. Peoples are displaced and the earth desolated in accordance with its misanthropic logic, and yet it is accepted as rational and real. The sameness of consumer goods, of subdivisions, of assembly lines and recreational escape finds its fruition in the sameness of rigor mortis and decomposition, in the anonymity of skeletal dissolution. A life lived with the aim of accumulating and solidifying wealth and security is not real life, but this is imperceptible to us so long as we are biologically alive and active. We do not recognize our own living death, convinced as we are that our commodities are staving off our mortality.
The biologically dead have no place in a world ruled by the logic of capitalism and as such have no duties owed to them. They are only acknowledged on two conditions. First, when they become hindrances to our efforts to construct ideal selves, homes, and cities their remains must be disowned, either by relocation or by destruction. Second, the dead are invoked when symbolic violence can be perpetrated against our ideological opponents, as in the acknowledgement of indigenous land, an action which does nothing to aid the ancestors of those who were wronged. Nothing is returned or made right; it is a performative abasement that earns itself prestige for its “humility” and implicitly shames those who do not perform similarly. But even here the recognition of a shared humanity is muted or downplayed: the dead, after all, precede us, and the past is presumed to be inferior to the present.
But the real dead—those who are not simply idealizations we invoke to assure ourselves all is well—demand to be heard. The ghosts which haunt us unearth the time we have forgotten or are attempting to forget, testifying that the past may be past but it is never quite over. The dead protest our projections upon the past, for they remember the terrible things we struggle to forget or to conceal. Their testimony haunts the consciences of the living: “in our hearts the dead never forget us.” But the unquiet dead bring their distresses to God as well, as evidenced by the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:20) and the martyrs who cry, “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10). The tears of those who have died are stored by God (Psalm 56:8) and valued by him vastly more than the consumables for which we toil.
No return to an unblemished past is possible; there can only be a rupture which breaks the machine-like regularity of capitalism’s disorder and allows the faithful dead to speak freely, like Samuel at Endor, opening a future which carries with it the truth and goodness of the past. Striving for justice means locating oneself in the often defeated but enduring insurrection of the faithful dead throughout time. “The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption,” Walter Benjamin wrote in his second thesis on the philosophy of history. “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one,” one which cannot be recognized or enacted so long as we ignore the voices of the dead. This agreement can be activated by those who remember rightly, and in so doing participate in the act of the Messiah, in whom the righteous dead have a claim.
Our hopes and ambitions must originate somewhere other than the capitalist cartographers that shaped our era and desecrated the memory and the resting places of the dead. We cannot live well apart from the fellowship that recognizes the claims of the dead upon the living. The powers that invisibly shape our world will eat us alive, and the dead we demean and dislocate will not aid or pity us. The erased, the “homeless and hearthless,” will scornfully deride our pretensions when our dreams come to nothing. The choice is not between a world of phantoms and one exorcized of them. It is, “Will we heed the dead who are never truly absent, or will we carry on as if all is well?”
In the midst of life we are in death, and we are doomed to repeat what we do not remember. We think that denial will protect us, but it only renders our patterns of self-sabotage all the more inexplicable to ourselves. We cannot truly live without the dead. Our world is only ever haunted: by the horrors and failures that are our history, by the dead who are never fully gone, by the saints who petition God for rectification and retribution, and preeminently by Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead who judges our living death. And if we will not remember as they do, we shall neither truly live nor be forgiven.
We—modern American Christians, caught in the current of capitalist subjectivity—must resist the pressure to dwell exclusively in the present as that monomania inclines us towards the propaganda and priorities that preserve the inhuman status quo. Redeeming the time we are given will only be possible when we tune our attention to the wisdom and warnings of our predecessors, when we respect them as persons with claims rather than disregarding them as impertinent relics of a time better left buried. We must open ourselves to the shock of discovering the human cost of the things we enjoy.
But to do that we must read in order to gain fluency in the foreignness of the past, because this will demonstrate that the norms and values of the present were not inevitable and are not intrinsically superior to those of the past. Nor is the past inherently better than the present, but we will only learn in what ways this is so by attending to the testimony of the dead who lived it. We must listen to those closest to the dead in order to have our myopia challenged by accounts that reveal alternatives to what we assume is given and unchangeable. We must be willing to learn the origins of our goods as well as the extraneousness of many of them. We must acknowledge our complicity in regimes of sin that perpetuate human suffering and take the further step of refusing to invest in those things any longer. Repentance that does not seek to rectify what is wrong will not satisfy the dead.
This is precisely the type of preparation that is fitting for the Advent season, for in such practices the people of God can responsibly inhabit time and penitentially shed those encumbrances which distort their imaginations and desires in such a way that they live as though the Savior was not returning. Faith awaits the promised one born in a manger; faith anticipates his judgment upon our disordered lives, and faith recognizes and draws encouragement from the great cloud of witnesses who have died and yet live. May we likewise take hold of true life and spurn its zombie counterfeits.