This article contains spoilers for seasons eight and nine of The Walking Dead.
America is divided. We have split into disparate factions with wildly differing values and goals. The government is in chaos, and it seems that the mindless hordes are in control. People who we have known for years and have trusted in our everyday lives and specific events can’t seem to come together with us anymore because of the partisanship of our communities.
I’m not talking about the election consequences; I mean season nine of The Walking Dead. While the past seasons have been dark, chaotic, and heart-wrenching, this newest season has taken an unbelievably unexpected turn. Thus far this season is all about hope. The major theme that permeates the first few episodes is one of reconciliation and hopefulness rather than fear and uncertainty.
The Walking Dead isn’t a show about zombies. It’s a show about people who have to deal with a world ravaged by zombies. It has its gore-candy, jump-scares, and suspense, but the heart of the show these very human characters learning to live in a new world. Like the best science fiction, The Walking Dead helps us to perceive very real and current social problems through a new lens. When the niceties and convenience of culture are stripped away, what does a human society look like? Much in the vein of Lord of the Flies, The Walking Dead helps leads us to ask: “What would we do if the rules were taken away? Would we still be good? Would we still help one another?”
In season eight, Rick and the gang won their greatest victory so far. The army of Saviors who ruled the east coast like Roman conquerors have been defeated. The main thrust of the Saviors demise was that they did not believe that the multiple communities they were oppressing could unite and fight back. The Saviors counted on self-interest to keep their subjects checked in fear. They did not account for the human capacity for self-sacrifice, charity, brotherhood, and loyalty. Rick, having had his own traumatic experience witnessing a totally selfless sacrifice of another, went all-in on valuing the community over the self, loving his neighbor. Thus, with organization, trust, and the benefit of believing in something bigger than yourself, the Saviors were defeated.
Rick turns the Coalition to building, planting, and growing. They share resources, build shared infrastructure, and provide for the common defense. Hilltop supplies food, Seaside catches fish, Sanctuary has arms, the Kingdom has manpower. The hopefulness in this picture is sublime. Where the iconic picture of the first season is Rick alone on a horse on an abandoned highway riding into a broken and empty Atlanta, a husk of civilization that has crumbled, the image of the ninth season is a bridge being built by people of all different communities, sharing resources and laughing together.What would we do if the rules were taken away? Would we still be good? Would we still help one another?
What do you do when it is time to build together, live with one another, and work shoulder-to-shoulder with someone who was on the other side? The Saviors were not all bad. Many of them were slaves under the control of the villainous Negan. Once the war was over, they were liberated and wanted to be a part of the Coalition of communities that demonstrated such great love and valor. But even if they were under duress, they took up arms against the Coalition; they were complicit in the subjugation and terror the Saviors brought. Their hands were unclean.
By episode three the tensions rise to an intense level. The Saviors are not allowed to arm themselves as they are not yet fully trusted. When walkers killed one of their own they demand the ability to arm themselves, but the Coalition is unwilling. A fight breaks out, and it looks like an all-out war is about to be rekindled.
What struck me was the leadership of a few who will not allow the people to descend into primal hatred, fear or distrust, but who are willing to fight tenaciously for reconciliation. Alden, on the side of the Saviors, is a particularly strident voice for the value of trust, compromise, and love. When passions rage and partisanship overtakes the factions, Alden slows everyone down to really listen to one another, to understand and empathize. He puts his body between the two raging mobs, willing to stand in the middle and risk being demolished to get them talking. Michonne on the side of the Coalition takes each leader aside and urges them to hold to a higher standard than revenge or pragmatic hoarding of supplies. She calls for a return to a higher ideal of societal virtue than reactive vigilantism, and a return to a shared set of laws and ethics codified like the Constitution. And, of course, Rick—who has lost everything personally but still sees the hope of the community—will not let base instincts drive his decision but rather a genuine love for the potential in people.
I can’t help but see Christ in these characters. The Image of God is branded on their souls, harkening to a higher law and a higher calling than just human impulses. One of the strongest values that Christ placed on the church is the call for radical reconciliation—forgiveness that reaches beyond all passion, beyond human reason, and is lasting and true. Jesus goes so far as to tell us that our forgiveness is intrinsically linked to our understanding of the Father forgiving us. The forgiveness of the Christian must transcend wrongs done to us as we are no longer called to account for the wrongs that have been reconciled in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18-20). When we grasp how great the cost was for us to be restored to Christ, we are left with no other option than to reconcile with those in our communities.
The higher calling is the unity that comes in community and a shared focus on an ideal greater than ourselves: reconciliation. This is even more important in the current political climate. We must ensure that we are not seeing people who vote differently than us—or prioritize certain societal problems differently than we do—as anything other than humans made in the image of God. If the living humans in The Walking Dead struggle with this, then we are even more susceptible. We are not primarily political beings; we are primarily community-focused beings. Politics is just a method by which we seek to improve our communities. Disagreement does not make one an enemy; it only gives us alternatives that we may seek the best course of action together. We should see these community leaders, Alden, Rick, and Michonne as paragons of the virtue which God has called us to be in the world—those who do not give up when reconciliation is hard but know that resurrection power is available for communities to heal and come together when we remember to be Jesus in the tough moments.The Image of God is branded on their souls, harkening to a higher law and a higher calling than just human impulses.
Just like Alden, we cannot allow ourselves to devolve into tribalism but strive for empathy. Even if we are 100% right, we are not like Christ when we demand our rights but when we lay down our lives to serve one another, to “outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10). If Rick and Maggie and even Daryl can put hope first when there is no hope, community first when society has failed, love first when living with those have wronged you, we can do it with people with whom we merely disagree.
There is a lot of season nine left. The Walking Dead is absolutely capable of depressing me and jading me again. But three episodes in, I am filled with nothing but hope for humanity and a fresh breath of the free air that those of us who know the love of God can bring to a world that needs it.