Jesus and the Jolly Roger: Part 5, Living Under the Sign of Death

When you think of pirates you think of things like eye patches, peg legs, hooks, parrots, and buried treasure.

And you also think of the Jolly Roger.

The skull and crossbones on a black flag--the Jolly Roger--is one of the most recognizable pirate symbols. But what did it mean to sail under this sign of death?

No doubt, the skull and crossbones, as a sign of death, was meant to stir up fear onboard the ships the pirates attacked. "Death is coming for you!" the flag declared.

But in his book Mutiny! Why We Love Pirates, And How They Can Save Us Kester Brewin suggests that the skull and crossbones symbol--the sign of death--had other, deeper meanings for the pirates.

According to Brewin, when the pirates raised the Jolly Roger they were also saying something about how they saw themselves in relation to the world. Specifically, they saw themselves as dead men. Sailing under the sign of death the pirates declared that, being already dead, they were immune to the fear of death.

Here is how Brewin describes the deep symbolism of the Jolly Roger:
For all sailors the skull and crossed bones was a familiar ensign. It was entered into the ship's log when a member of the crew died...The raising of the Jolly Roger was thus deeply significant. It represented the pirates embracing of their fate--they were going to die--and yet their resistance of death at the hands of their despotic masters...

The Jolly Roger was doubtless designed to inspire fear and supplication in the hearts of those they attacked, but there is something more profound and heartfelt in the symbolism. The skull and crossed bones does not just mean 'we are bringing you death'; rather it announces 'we are the dead.' We the shat-on, the abused, the flogged, the one you have treated as less than human, have escaped your power, have slipped away from the identity you foisted upon us. We, the ones you took for dead, are returning as the dead--and thus free of all fear, free of all human labels or classifications or ranks. We might say that the pirates did not raise the Jolly Roger as a symbol of violence, but rather as a declaration that no more violence could be done to them. They were dead, and yet lived still...

It is this fearlessness in the face of structures that have oppressed and marginalized them that marks the pirates out...Drawing together what this extraordinary powerful flag meant, [Rediker] concludes that it serves to sum up piracy altogether: 'a defiance of death.'
Obviously, there are a lot of Christian resonances here.

Like the pirates with the Jolly Roger, Christians also live under a sign of death. The sign of the cross.

And this sign functions for Christians in very much the same way Brewin describes how the Jolly Roger functioned for the pirates. Under the sign of the cross Christians declare that they have died to the world. Christians live as the dead and, thus, live freed from the power and threat of death. In the words of Brewin, no more violence can be done to us. And it was this fearlessness among the early Christians--following the example of Jesus before Pilate--that made their witness so potent and powerful. Already living as the dead, there was nothing the empires of the world could do to threaten the followers of Jesus.

I've written an entire book about all this. Beyond a fearlessness in the face of the threat of death, in The Slavery of Death I talk about how our emancipation from the fear of death also affects how be build and bolster our self-esteem. Defying death means dying to the ways our culture defines a significant and meaningful life. Empires don't just threaten death, empires define who is or is not successful, worthy and significant. Empires tell us who are the winners and who are the losers.

Living as the dead, then, means being immune to the ways our culture variously praises and shames us as we seek first the kingdom of God. This immunity--found in renouncing the idolatry of our age--creates the capacity to live resurrected lives, lives set free from our slavery to the fear of death (Heb. 2.14-15).

Like the pirates, Christians sail under the sign of the cross in a fearless defiance of death.

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