Political Theologies for Living and Dying
- ISBN: 9780231208376
- Published By: Columbia University Press
- Published: February 2023
While working as an intern chaplain at a hospital, I had ample chances to re-cognize human mortality. When I customarily told a patient, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” offering ashes for Ash Wednesday, he mischievously asked, “You mean, today?” Death, obviously, is not a topic many of us are prone to ponder everyday. And yet, it is also a truism that death is always near us, with us, and among us. Post-pandemic, and in the era of mass extinction, Beatrice Marovich’s timely monograph Sister Death: Political Theologies for Living and Dying has a lot to say about death.
Marovich, however, does not preach that we should embrace or celebrate our mortality. Instead, she aims to explore the political-theological meanings of death in relation to life. While death and life are in a tensive relationship with each other, the imagined war between death and life is misleading at best and politically dangerous at worst, she claims. Critically and creatively re-appropriating St. Francis’ feminized figure of death as a “sister,” Marovich writes, the thinking about the “sisterhood between life and death is … a gesture to acknowledge the fact of death, the fact of death’s intimate relation with life, and yet also a recognition that death marks a form of otherness we continuously struggle with and against” (9). This sisterhood between life and death indicates an intimate bond that is also not without tension and negativity. Marovich contends that this idea of sisterhood resists the long-standing “political theology of death” that sees enmity as well as dichotomy in the death-life relationship, and thereby places death at the opposite side of God, goodness, and life.
Sister Death, with its intricacy and nuances, defies a Wikipedia-style summary, but let me offer a cursory reading of some core insights offered in each brilliant chapter. In chapter 1, Marovich starts with the Apostle Paul’s declaration that death is “the last enemy” to be conquered. In her view, this idea set the tone of the whole Christian conception of death throughout Western history. Challenging this political theology of death, Marovich suggests that by thinking of death as a sister to life, we can acknowledge that death is “integral to and supportive of life” (34). Distinguishing her proposal from other frames like “death as finitude” and “death the friend,” Marovich turns to Jacques Derrida’s concept of “lifedeath.” This concept of lifedeath “illuminates … neither opposition nor sameness but a form of difference” (51) and denotes an “irresolute rhythm” (55).
Why, then, is the political theology of death so troubling? Chapter 2 answers this question. The conception of death as enemy of life in the West, Marovich claims, has been funding an unending struggle and war against death—and against all those beings and life-forms associated with death. Drawing upon James Baldwin and Christina Sharpe, Marovich suggests that this political theology of death lies behind anti-Blackness, since it identifies blackness with death (and evil). This war with death is found in the histories of European colonialism and racism, what Achille Mbembe called “necropolitics” (83). Chapter 3 seeks to reveal that the Pauline idea of “the triumph of life over death” helped shape “a particular form of subjectivity” (89). Using Sylvia Wynter’s concept of “the human-above-death” as a lens, Marovich re-reads ancient Christian doctrines, particularly the Nicene Creed. She suggests that the doctrine of Christ’s being “fully divine and fully human” ended up severing the linkage between humanity and mortality/creatureliness. This Western theological legacy became quickly racialized, giving rise to the idea that death is ultimately for Jews, and Blacks.
Chapter 4 is dedicated to a close reading of philosophical and theological thoughts on mortality. For example, Thomas Aquinas’s conception regarded death as a privation, as “something that separates humans from God, the sign of a fractured relation” (128). For Marovich, this idea has informed and formed Western metaphysics, in which death has been associated with nothingness, privation, lack, and sin. Drawing on Calvin Warren’s concept of “ontological terror,” Marovich suggests that whereas Martin Heidegger’s interpretation of human mortality and Dasein (according to which we are in a state of “being-towards-death”) does not regard death as an enemy, it ends up subordinating death to life and thereby leaves intact Western metaphysics that has formed “a constellated negative” (126).
In chapter 5, Marovich turns to Carl Schmitt’s political theology. While she is concerned about the destructiveness of the Schmittian friend/enemy distinction, Marovich does not want to entirely leave the sense of enmity behind in her account of death. She finds in Audre Lorde’s work “a counterpoetics to the political theology of death” (177). Here, Marovich’s approach is reminiscent of what Catherine Keller calls “amorous agonism.” While Marovich does not “deny the antagonism that structures the lifedeath relation,” she wants to re-signify and complexify the relation “as bonds of sisterhood rather than a form of enmity that seeks to destroy a precious enemy” (177). As a “biomythical form of relation” (177), sisterhood conveys both intimacy and antagonism, rendering the life-death relationship “both nurturing and antagonistic” (181). In the sixth and final chapter, Marovich interrogates Hannah Arendt’s concept of natality, which is based on her reading of Augustine of Hippo. Along with Adriana Cavarero, Marovich critiques Arendt, arguing that natality should not be seen as in opposition to agony and mortality. “We are, if anything, natalmortals,” Marovich avers (215).
Marovich’s writing is complex, rigorous, and theory-heavy; it is not for church book clubs. At the same time, it is also elegantly written and at times even personal. Marovich straddles between a wide range of literatures in theology, continental philosophy, and psychoanalytic theory, skillfully weaving them together to present her original view on death and life, or better, deathlife. For Marovich, there is no tidy and happy resolution to the generative but fraught relationship between the two sisters, living and dying. Some readers might find her reading of Christian theology disagreeable. Yet, it needs be noted that Marovich’s political-theological account, which traces the intersection between the theological and the political, is not meant to be seen as “orthodox” God-talk.
While reading this book, I was wondering what differences Marovich’s concept of sisterhood can make to contemporary healthcare ethics and chaplaincy. How can this idea impact medical practices, daily interactions, and death work in a hospital setting? Of course, Sister Death does not offer ready-made answers to my practical questions. Instead, it proffers readers a chance to examine both the beauty and horror of deathlife (enhanced by Krista Dragomer’s mesmerizing as well as discomforting illustrations included in the volume). Ultimately, this book is a gentle invitation for us to wrestle with our individual and collective mode of being in this ecologically fragile, “livingdying” world. Accepting this invitation, we might “find ourselves enfolded into forms of life and forms of love that are much more than what we believed could be human” (233).
Keunwoo Kwon is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago.Keunwoo KwonDate Of Review:August 31, 2023