by Faatimah Knight
For many death is not a subject that readily lends itself to reflection. It’s elusiveness and general undesirability keeps us at an arm’s length from it. Death is a constant worry and an unrelenting threat to the permanence we know so well. Yet, dying is just as much a part of the natural order as living. Perhaps as modern people we are so acutely sensitive to talking about death because we do not see ourselves as properly within the natural order.
There is a prophetic saying that has always comforted me: “On the Day of Judgment, God will present death in the form of a lamb and slaughter it.” I take that it is meant to comfort humanity: there will be no more dying past this point. Now that I think about it, I see parallels between that and ‘atonement through substitution’ in Christian theology in which Christ takes humanity’s place as the recipient of penalties humanity otherwise deserves. In the example of the lamb of the hadith, the fact of dying that is attached to all of humankind and creation is transformed into one being, a lamb, whose very purpose is to be death incarnate. Once the sacrificial lamb is slaughtered, death will never taunt us again or separate us from our beloveds.
Resurrection, insofar as it promises new life, can just as well be an antidote to the fear of death. Or, the uncertainty of our place in the abode of resurrection can compound our fear of dying. I’ve found myself wondering recently: What if God treats each person according to what that person sincerely believed about God? Would that be ‘fair’? My understanding of Islam allows me to think that to a certain extent this is possible. The God I believe in values sincerity and conviction to one’s well-examined beliefs. Thus one way of passing judgment would be to place people on a spectrum, ranging from those who were true to their convictions to those who were not—whatever the form and content of those convictions may have been.
I relate strongly to the concluding sentiments in “What Manner of Love?” an essay written by Dr. JoAnne Terrell, in which she reflects on seeing The Passion of the Christ in a movie theater with other Black women around her age, and what drove these women to the theaters, and why the suffering of Christ so overwhelmed them. Terrell holds that God does not suffer more than us, but rather that “God identifies with us in all manner of suffering.” She writes quite movingly: “I refuse to believe that Jesus’ whipping was more brutal than those of my slave forebears.”
“God does not seek to supersede us in suffering either in quantity or quality,” writes Terrell but to persuade us to stop inflicting suffering.” I almost have a selfish impulse to say, “Suffering is ours, and God can’t take it.” It does not help me to know that God suffers as others do, or more severely than others, but rather to know that God sees our suffering through those unselfish Divine eyes is more redeeming a theology for me.