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The Politics of Scripture

“Will the Dust Praise You?”: Theologizing Death

What if we treated death and suffering as having the last word? How would that change us and the world we live in?

I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me. O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit. Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. As for me, I said in my prosperity, “I shall never be moved.” By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed. To you, O LORD, I cried, and to the LORD I made supplication: “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness? Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me! O LORD, be my helper!” You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever.

Psalm 30

Death cannot be theologized. To the contrary, in scripture, one even finds a theological opposition to death. Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Isaac, Ishmael, and other major characters of the Torah did not believe in life after death. The “life” they knew was life before death. The “death” they knew was final. It was only later in the context of extreme injustice and murderous tyranny of powerful empires that a belief in an afterlife emerged.

A theological opposition to death may be found in the lectionary reading in Psalm 30. In Psalm 30:9, the Psalmist asks God, “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the Pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” What one sees here is the Psalmist’s challenge and plea to God to do something when there is still time in this life, on this side of death.

The easy emphasis on “everlasting life” that many Christians are so accustomed to thinking as “natural” to a Christian sense of things frightens me. I wonder, if in the desire to not let death have the last word, we have disallowed death from having any word. I write this as an admonition to myself as much I hope that there is something in here that is worthy of collective consideration.

I’ve written elsewhere how victims and survivors of injustice often wonder how the rest of the world moves on chronologically and continuously through time when their own worlds and lives have come to a sudden and striking stop. In Canada—my current geographical location—the bodies of 215 children were recently discovered, buried at the site of a former residential school. Residential schools in Canada existed from the 17th century all the way to the 1990s as part of a violent assimilation effort to remove Indigenous children from their traditional homes and cultures and destroy their ways of life. Many of these residential schools were run by Christian churches. Each death that occurred in these schools could and should have stopped their murderous efforts, but it did not. Assimilation efforts simply kept moving. They were even funded.

This is not simply a case of becoming wiser in hindsight. If the deaths of the past did not stop the world in its tracks, what about the present? Does news of death stop us in our tracks, or do we simply keep moving, hardened by indifference to the need for justice and peace? Despite the powerful chants of #NoJusticeNoPeace arising from the voices of those suffering violence, it seems that peace is often brokered at the cost of justice. Why? Is it possibly because of the tendency to theologize death away? More than we care to acknowledge, I think there are often worldviews that either trivialize or rationalize death.

Describing nationalistic ideologies that “blur the line between the living and the dead,” Maxine Sheets-Johnstone (23) notes how such ideologies create notions of “everlasting glory.” Sheets-Johnstone calls such ideologies “immortality ideologies” because they invoke desire for participation even at the cost of ignoring the death of self and others in the pursuit of a larger imagined immortality. I think there are similar theologically inflected immortality ideologies in which death and suffering are theologized away in the pursuit of a larger goal. Pause and think about the number of times you’ve heard death explained as part of God’s larger hidden plan that we don’t understand, or that death does not have the last word because God’s plan for everlasting life triumphs over death. The flipside of such logics is that deaths are not taken seriously. What if we treated death and suffering as having the last word? How would that change us and the world we live in?

In the 10th episode of season 5 of the much-and-rightly-acclaimed television series Queen Sugar, Nova, a Black writer and journalist, researches a police-involved brutality that affected 19-year-old Andre, a Black boy. Little does Nova realize that it is her boyfriend, Calvin, a rookie police officer at the time of the brutality, who out of fear of having a fall out with his fellow white police officers, decides to join in on the brutal beating and strikes Andre with such force that it permanently paralyzes Andre. Many years pass by, Calvin is no longer with the force, and he is even portrayed as a better man whose past is behind him. But Andre’s pain and suffering are real and ongoing. When Nova interviews Andre, he shares that it is Calvin who literally broke his back. Nova is heart-broken and comes home to confront Calvin.

Nova and Calvin are sitting on either side of the table. The audience can hear the needle of the clock ticking and the sound of papers shuffling as Nova looks for a picture of Andre to show Calvin to confront him. Nova reaches for the picture of Andre and pushes it to Calvin’s side. Calvin’s eyes look away from Nova’s face and point downwards to look at Andre’s picture. The moment Calvin’s eyes make contact with Andre’s image, the background sounds die, and the sound of the ticking clock stops. There is dead silence. Time itself stops moving. It is a powerful scene. The audience is left with nothing but a heavy and lingering grief.

Grief over death and suffering could and should likewise stop our own time. Whether it is the death of the 215 children at Kamloops residential school or any number of deaths of lives taken before their time, death is to stop us in our tracks. Death is to arrest time. There is no profit in death. There is no profit in going down to the Pit. Human dust and ashes cannot praise God, nor can they tell of God’s faithfulness.

Mark 5:21-43 records two encounters with Jesus. The first encounter is with Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, whose daughter is at the point of death. Jairus seeks Jesus’ help. Jesus stops what he is doing and goes with Jairus. News of suffering and death stops Jesus. As Jesus stops what he is doing and charts a new itinerary dictated by death, Jesus is stopped by another encounter of suffering. An unnamed woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years touches Jesus. Jesus stops.

Both Psalm 30 and Mark 5:21-43 present situations in which goodness overcomes death, mourning turns into dancing, and sadness and suffering turn into joy. I don’t discount the real value of such transformation. What I am more interested in, however, is how Jesus stops in the face of real and overhanging death.

Imagine a world in which we stop at every news of death. Imagine a world in which we do not trivialize or rationalize death. Imagine a world in which time stops moving each time a murderous desire or immortality ideology takes a human life before its time. Imagine a world in which we treated death and suffering as having the last word. Have we over-theologized life after death? Somewhere in these texts there is a subversive truth that those who went before us left for us, that the dust cannot offer praises and that there is no profit in death.

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