Who Are the Walking Dead?

By Michael LeaserIn The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis worried that modern education was producing “men without chests,” those with sharp intellects and animalistic appetites but without the sense of magnanimity or sentiment that regulates both intellect and appetite and helps shape moral human beings.The television phenomenon The Walking Dead, the #1 scripted drama for 18-49 year olds, male and female, has its share, literally, of “men without chests,” but the show’s title refers just as much, if not more, to many of the human beings trying to navigate a post-apocalyptic world as it does to the zombies that infest their world. This surprisingly theologically-nuanced program creatively makes this point through a couple book-end scenes from Season 3. The first episode begins with a tight camera shot on the pupil of an eye that upon zooming out reveals a zombie. The last episode also opens with a similar shot, but this time the zoom out reveals that season’s human villain, the charismatic, Jim Jones-type, psychopathic “Governor,” committed to killing anyone who gets in the way of his lust for power. As he beats up a saboteur in his ranks, he tells him the “secret” of surviving in their world: “There’s a threat, you end it, and you don’t feel ashamed about enjoying it. The smell of gunpowder, and you see the blood, and you know what that means? It means you’re alive. You won….You kill, or you die.”When the Governor and his men subsequently assault another community, they find the camp deserted. The Governor picks up a Bible he finds there, opened to a passage from John 5: “28Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, 29 And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” In Augustine’s commentary on this chapter, he writes:So those who do not hear [the voice] will not live. What is the meaning of “those who hear it”? Those who believe and obey it, they are the ones who shall live. So before they believed and obeyed, they were lying there dead; they were walking around, and they were dead. What were they good for, walking around dead?”The spiritual and moral emptiness of the path the Governor and others have chosen contrasts with the difficult but chest-conscious decisions made by the group the Governor is trying to eradicate. Rick Grimes, leader of this group and a former deputy sheriff, wrestles with an offer the Governor makes him: hand over a specific member of his group, and the Governor will leave Rick and the rest of his group in peace. Though he distrusts the Governor, Rick initially decides that accepting the offer is worth the risk if it might mean the safety of the rest of his group, including his son and infant daughter. As he digs through rubble, looking for wire to bind the hands and feet of the person he is about to turn over to the Governor, another member of his group, in an off-camera voiceover, reads from Psalm 91:3 Surely he shall deliver thee from the snare of the fowler, and from the noisome pestilence….5 Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; 6 Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.Rick throws down the wire he finds and determines that he can’t, that he won’t, go through with the deal.In a recent scene from the current season, Rick goes so far as to banish a valuable, long-time, member of his group when he learns she has taken a step in the Governor’s direction by making the cold calculation to murder two members of their group who have come down with a potentially deadly, contagious illness.In these and many other instances, Rick and his group wrestle with trusting the voice that tells them goodness leads to the resurrection of life, realizing that heeding the voice may increase their chance of physical death, but also knowing that if they focus on physical survival to the exclusion of any moral or ethical considerations, they will lose their chests in the process and thereby join the ranks of the walking dead.