November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
April 2, 2006
Our film began with the father, Mohammed, saying–as means of explanation to his wife for why they were not leaving their house in spite of its occupation by Israeli soldiers–“Forgiveness is generosity.” This is a hard saying, as his family experienced, so difficult that his son could not do it. The question of my lecture is: In a Christian view, is Mohammed right? Is forgiveness the appropriate response to oppression? Doesn’t that just allow the injustice to continue?
In 1990, I was a graduate student studying politics, religion, and gender at Haifa University in Israel. I lived in an apartment, with my cat, about half way down Mt. Carmel, at the top of which sat the University.
Every morning I would take a crowded bus up the hill to school. I was lucky. My stop was usually the last one before the bus filled up. (It gets cold in the winter in Israel, and it can rain torrents; so waiting for another bus was not pleasant.) In the afternoon, I would take my usual bus down the hill, a couple of times a week getting off early at the shopping center so I could buy groceries. Often, though, I would take the #37 bus down the other side of the mountain to swim laps or visit with friends.
Every once in a while, we would be ordered off a bus, usually at the shopping center, because of a bomb scare. Each time, someone had forgotten a package, but to be safe, a robot would be brought in that could blow up the box and contain the blast. As you can see, I returned home safe and sound.
Now, however, I know a number of people–Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians–in Haifa. As the Intifadah resumed and heightened (after Arial Sharon’s September 2000 visit to the Temple Mount), I would read about or hear of bombings in Haifa. News was always vague, certain that no Americans were familiar with the area. I wanted to know if it was a restaurant I had frequented or even just knew of; which bus was bombed; in what neighborhood? In March 2003, another bomb exploded in Haifa. This time reports were more specific–Haifa, Mt. Caramel, near the University, bus 37. It all made me nervous.
Then I received a call on my cell phone: Abigail, the teenage daughter of some of the friends I used to visit–a family I had spent Passover with–had been killed on the bus. She died quickly. She had been sitting very near the suicide bomber. She had no external wounds. It was the shock waves from the explosion that killed her. Her parents said that she looked like she had just fallen asleep.
This is only one of thousands of stories like it. Abby’s parents could be bitter and want to avenge the death of their loved one, continuing the cycle of violence and revenge, as many Israelis do. Children affected by violence grow up and enter the army. Indeed, my friends’ oldest son–Abby’s big brother–is entering the Israeli Defense Force this summer, but (as far as I know) he does not do so with a desire for revenge. Still, many Israeli youth (and all must enter the IDF) carry their resentment with them when they deal with Palestinians. Palestinian children, in turn, grow up with a desire to fight back (as we saw in the movie).
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In such pernicious and enduring conflicts, how do we make sense of such suffering and how can we end the cycle of violence? The traditional Christian answer, in various forms, to the problem of theodicy (the justification of the goodness of God in the face of evil) is that the cross redeems suffering; that Jesus, through his passion, ultimately triumphs over evil, pain, and death. Our suffering will cease in the afterlife and mourning be made into joy. And in the meantime–in the presence of evil–God uses suffering to transform us into the image of Christ, and we have a responsibility to struggle against injustice.
Feminist theologians, though, have aptly raised important objections to traditional solutions to the problem of suffering. From the very beginning these women have questioned the traditional definition of sin as pride, suggesting instead that women needed to repent of passivity. Womanist theologians, particularly, have contributed to a reexamination of the question of theodicy.
“Womanist” is a term coined by Alice Walker in her famous poem In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, in which she writes: “Womanist 1. From womanish. (Opp. of ‘girlish,’ i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘You acting womanish,’ i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one.”
It is used to refer to theology that is done by and for African-American women. Its roots are in Liberation Theology, which teaches that God has a preferential option for the poor and the main theme of Scripture is freedom: spiritual, social, political, and economic. It begins from the experience of the oppressed. This does not mean individual experience; it is not a sanction for basing theology on feelings. Rather “experience” refers to the historical situation/suffering that a particular community lives. Womanist theology, then, is informed by black women’s particular experience of oppression based on their race, sex, and socio-economic status.
Of interest in this discussion is that black women’s history has led them to critique traditional Christian teachings related to service, servanthood, and passive acceptance of suffering. Specifically, womanist theologians have argued that such notions have been used to keep black women servile and in subjection and, thus, to keep the dominant in power and complacent about the role of the underclass. Womanist and professor of theology, Jacquelyn Grant put it this way,
“Indeed, we are all called to be ‘servants.’ It is interesting, however, that these terms are customarily used to relegate certain victimized peoples–those on the underside of history–to the lower rung of society…Servanthood in this country, in effect, has been servitude…Why is it that the those so-called service positions [for example: government service] that are higher or high on the economic scale are almost always held by those of an oppressor race, class, or gender?”
Grant concludes that in America “some people are more servant than others.”
Further, womanists have pointed out that the language of servanthood in Christianity has been used to dignify suffering by giving it a positive purpose in God’s economy. Liberation Theology has argued that through suffering justice is established. So, feminist Letty Russell argues that God’s power shines most clearly in the lives of people who confront suffering “by saying no to its dehumanizing power.” Certainly, on the surface at least, this view and traditional language about service seem to condone and even glorify suffering and, thereby, encourages black (and white) women to suffer nobly, and silently, like their Lord who was led silently to the cross, like a sheep to slaughter. Grant notes, “It would appear that Jesus’ reward for obedient servanthood was suffering rather than exaltation.” The implication, of course, is that women, especially black women, ought to be satisfied, even proud in a perverse way, with receiving the same reward. Grant concludes, then, that “to speak of service as empowerment, without concrete means or plans for economic, social, and political revolution…does not eliminate real pain and suffering, it merely spiritualizes [it].”
Such objections have led womanist theologians to question whether, in the interest of justice, servant language, which has undergirded much of the human structures causing pain and suffering for many oppressed peoples, needs to be reconsidered.
One womanist scholar who has concluded that servant language needs to be rejected is Delores Williams. In her book Sisters in the Wilderness, Williams begins with the biblical story of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham’s servant, who bore Abraham a son, Ishmael. Williams then traces the role of black women in American history to show that, much like Hagar, black women’s role in America has been one of surrogacy for white women. For example, during slavery, African-American women were forced to serve as sexual surrogates and wet-nurses for white women and surrogate mothers to white children. In Reconstruction and beyond, black women were kept in servitude as housemaids and “mammies” to white families for virtual slave wages, and in contemporary society, “breeder industries” have used African-American women’s wombs as surrogates for wealthy, white women. Williams concludes that African-American women must reject salvation that is presented in terms that condones surrogate suffering of the innocent and violence because it encourages women to passively accept their roles. In Williams view, traditional theology makes Jesus the ultimate surrogate figure, and if black women accept this, they end up exploited. Thus, when asked at a conference whether the cross is a functional image for women today, Williams responded, “I think the cross ought to be interpreted for what is was: it was a symbol of evil. I mean, it is the murder of this man, of an innocent man, a victim.”
So what alternatives to a cross that glorifies passive suffering do womanists offer? Williams has suggested that women reject the cross in favor of a focus on Jesus’ life:
There is nothing divine about death. There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross. God does not intend black women’s surrogacy experience… Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life, to show humans a perfect vision of ministerial relation that humans had very little knowledge of. As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred.
In advocating such a view, Williams is rejecting traditional theories of atonement–ransom, satisfaction, moral, and substitution–and instead is presenting suffering as salvific. She also is rejecting the liberation theory of the cross, which claims that God always acts on behalf of the poor and oppressed, and therefore it sees the cross as a symbol of God’s solidarity. But Williams argues that this just is not so. Black women have not experienced God as liberator. Liberation, then, is not the dominant theme in Williams’s theology. Instead, based on African-American women’s experience and as found in the biblical story of Hagar, survival is the dominant theme. God did not liberate Hagar, nor has he freed black women, but he does sustain them and help them survive. We are about to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus, the highest holy days of the Christian faith. If Williams is right, they should not be.
Instead of focusing on Jesus’s death, Williams suggests that atonement occurred, not on the cross, but in the wilderness. She calls this a “ministerial vision of Jesus’s life.” In this model, the synoptic gospels, not Paul’s letters, provide the basis for an understanding of redemption that emphasizes what Jesus lived for: justice, peace, and healing. People are saved, then, not through death but through life. Thus, Williams sees Jesus’s trial in the wilderness as a better metaphor for African-American women’s atonement. It was in the desert that Jesus conquered sin “by resisting the temptation to value the material over the spiritual…by resisting death…by resisting the greedy urge of monopolistic ownership.”
Jacquelyn Grant, in a less radical alternative, has proposed a shift in emphasis from the language of Christian service to that of discipleship as more empowering for the oppressed. Grant looks to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, as a model of her proposal. As you are, I am sure aware, King led a massive resistance movement of nonviolence against the unjust laws that blacks in 1950s and 60s America lived under. In doing so, King rejected the laws of the United States, instead giving allegiance to God and God’s laws. King lived “in this world,” but worked to end its injustices, willing to suffer the consequences of his resistance to corrupt laws. King was imprisoned numerous times and, ultimately became a martyr for the cause of racial equality. In doing so, King modeled that suffering could help end injustice by revealing the illegitimacy of the lords and masters of this world. Thus, a focus on discipleship emphasizes that King’s response to injustice, not the suffering itself, was transformative, not of the sufferer, but of the social system.
The problem with the Williams’s and Grant’s solutions are that: one the one hand, the power of the cross is denied; whereas, the other hand seems to give a weak–or at least underdeveloped–answer to the question we began with: How do the oppressed respond to suffering in such a way that it is not simply an acquiescence to dominance that allows oppression to continue? Grant points, I think, to a solution that Miroslav Volf develops in his book Exclusion and Embrace. This solution is, as Mohammed put it: “forgiveness as generosity”; or in the language of Volf: “forgiveness as hospitality and communion–’embrace.'”
Volf’s proposal was originated in his personal history. Volf, the Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School was born in Croatia and grew up in communist Yugoslavia. He studied in Croatia, then at Fuller Seminary, and later in Germany. When civil war broke out and genocide occurred in the former nation of Yugoslavia, he began thinking about relationships between cultures and between individuals of different cultures, and he wondered how he was going to relate to those who had injured him and his country. In Exclusion and Embrace, he recounts that he thought first about seeking justice and liberation from the oppressive situation before reconciliation with “the other.” But he found it did not work: In his homeland (as in Israel and many other ethnic conflicts), both sides saw themselves as oppressed. Another problem with this first attempt at a solution was that violence often breeds violence, a desire for revenge cloaked as justice, which does not foster reconciliation. So–again, much like the Palestinian/Israeli conflict–both sides saw themselves in a “just” struggle for freedom.
So instead, he turned to the biblical story of the prodigal son to learn how people relate to one another in situations of conflict, wrongdoing, and suffering. He concluded that at the center of Christian faith is not liberation, but embrace of the sinner. Both the cross and the prodigal’s father, he found, illustrate that reconciliation–embrace, or hospitality and communion–comes before justice and liberation. In other words, in contrast to Liberation Theology, it is Jesus’s forgiveness on the cross, not his suffering, that establishes justice. But this raises our question: Doesn’t forgiveness simply allow injustice to continue? As Volf put it: “How does one remain loyal both to the demand of the oppressed for justice and to the gift of forgiveness that the Crucified offered to the perpetrators?”
Volf’s answer is not to focus on particular kinds of social arrangements (that foster a just society), but to focus on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies. At the center of his theology is Romans 5:6: “Christ died for the ungodly.” Relying upon his mentor, Jurgen Moltmann’s idea of “divine self-donation,” Volf points out that God does not abandon the godless, but gives God’s very self in order to receive the godless–us–into eternal communion with God. At the core of Christian faith, he argues, is the conviction that “the other”/”the godless” does not need to be perceived as innocent or worthy in order to be loved/embraced. God’s self-giving was not conditional. Before sin–before creation–God knew human beings would sin. God’s forgiveness came before our sin. And as Christians, we are called to live according to God’s revelation in the pattern of Jesus’s life. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus taught them what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, which includes these words, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus did not intend these words as a bargain: forgive us in like measure as we forgive others, making God’s forgiveness conditional on our ability to forgive. This would be a very poor bargain. No, this phrase illustrates the social dimension of the cross. As Volf puts it, “Divine grace obligates.” It calls us to live according to the self-giving pattern of Jesus’s life. Such a life restores communion, not just with God, but offers the possibility of reconciliation–embrace and communion–with others.
The real scandal of Gospel, though, is not that it calls us to sacrificial love, but that all too often sacrifice fails to bear positive fruit and instead stabilizes the power of the oppressors. The movie we just watched shows this kind of failure: the son does not understand why and cannot “forgive” the way his father can. As a result, he seeks revenge. The result is, presumably, that the occupiers stabilize their position in such a way that violence escalates, while each side believes themselves justified in their actions. This is the real feminist objection: that in a world of violence, in which women are “more servant than others” and in which sacrifice fails to yield positive results, it is held up nonetheless as the Christian model.
Volf argues, though, that in the scandal is a promise: communion. It is forgiveness that sets the stage for reconciliation. Let us look at the story of the Prodigal Son that triggered Volf’s theology of “embrace.” The two main features of the story, in Volf’s reading of the parable, are the father’s giving himself to his estranged son, and the father’s receiving that son back into his household. First, Volf notes that the father continued to keep the son in his heart (even as he was “in a distant land”) and watch for him so that the father was able to see his son when he was “still far off.” Because the father held on to the memory of his son, he was “filled with compassion,” “ran” to his son, threw his arms around his son, and “kissed him” before his son even made it all the way to the house. Volf emphasizes that no confession was necessary for the embrace to take place. The son’s strategy was different, though. He thought he would go to his father, confess, and, hopefully, be accepted into service. Instead, confession followed acceptance. Second, the father received the son back into his household. Not only did the father embrace the prodigal, but he accepted him back in relationship as a son, not a laborer.
There is, however, another noteworthy feature of the story that pulls back in the question we are considering this afternoon: the rejection of the Prodigal by his older brother. Volf notes how the older brother no longer calls the prodigal his brother, but “this son of yours.” Unlike the father, the prodigal’s transgression, “not the memory of his former presence,” is what the elder brother holds on to. The older brother also begins to address his father not as “father,” but as “you.” Volf argues that this shows that the older brother allows relationships with his younger brother and the father to be broken. His anger seemed “justified.” After all, basic rules, without which civil life would be impossible, where broken. Volf acknowledges at this point that rules, indeed, are necessary to preserve social ties. He explains,
“The one who works deserves more recognition than the one who squanders; celebrating the squanderer is squandering. The one who obeys where obedience is due deserves more honor than the one who irresponsibly breaks commands; honoring the irresponsible is irresponsible. The one who remains faithful should be treated better than the one who excludes the others; preference for the excluding one is tacit exclusion of the faithful one. When squandering becomes better than working and the breach of relationships better than faithfulness, justice will be perverted.”
But, obsession with rules encourages self-righteousness and the demonization of others, as the older brother demonstrates, not hospitality and communion. Volf, then, is suggesting a middle way, based on love that attends to the other, between indiscriminate acceptance of anything and everything and adherence to strict, inflexible moral rules.
So how can the older brother–how can we–according to Volf, learn to embrace the other in such a way that it does not offer “cheap grace” and encourage injustice to continue? Let me briefly summarize Volf’s argument here. First, the will to embrace precedes any truth about others, except their humanity. God’s reception of hostile humanity into divine communion is our model in this. Second, the will to embrace, therefore, is indiscriminate. It is the grace of self-donation. Third, the embrace itself (full reconciliation), however, is conditional upon truth and justice being done. The offer to embrace must be met by a willingness on the offender’s part to behave in such a way that builds rather than undermines the relationship. Fourth, in the absence of final reconciliation–full truth and restitution–we must engage in struggle against oppression and renounce all attempts at final reconciliation. Instead, a responsible theology should facilitate a nonfinal reconciliation in the midst of struggle that include hope for a reconciliation that cannot be undone.
Last, nonfinal reconciliation involves the oppressed (note this does not read: “oppressors”) forgiving and repenting. For forgiveness clears the way for either separation and “peace” or embrace and restored communion, and repentance frees one from hatred that leads to revenge and a reversal of roles where those who were oppressed become oppressors once in power: “Envy and enmity keep the disprivileged and weak chained to the dominant order–even when they succeed in toppling it.” This seems to be something that Mohammed, the father in our film, understands. If Volf is correct, then, in this way, leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are right: suffering is redemptive, in that forgiveness is redemptive; but it is also a form of suffering since one suffers both the violation and the suppression of one’s rightful claims to strict restitutive justice. The son in our film couldn’t give up his claim for restitutive justice for the ongoing destruction of his greenhouse and occupation of his home, or was it revenge? Bonhoeffer, King, and others–Gandhi, African-American slaves, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu–continued to struggle against injustice, but with a commitment to nonviolence, for only God can do violence.
To close, let us return to the cross, that instrument of torture that offends so many feminists for the way it glorifies suffering and acceptance of oppression and injustice, and let me summarize the alternative theology of the cross that Volf proposes, which does not make Christianity either impotent against injustice or oppressive itself (along the lines of dogmatism and crusade)? Volf argues that the cross is God’s way of breaking human enmity without violence and receiving human beings into divine communion: “The goal of the cross is the dwelling of human beings ‘in the Spirit,’ ‘in Christ,’ and ‘in God.'” Volf suggests that two aspects exist to Jesus’s passion, self-giving love and space to receive estranged humanity, and these indicate that the cross aims beyond forgiveness to communion. And by refusing revenge, in his granting forgiveness while on the cross, Jesus breaks the cycle of violence, by absorbing it rather than using it. Thus, it is not Christ’s suffering on the cross that is redemptive, but his forgiveness of wrongdoers: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The cross, then, is not a display of divine weakness, as some feminists suggest, but divine grace that restores the violator. If Volf’s conception of the cross is correct, and I think it is, forgiveness is more powerful than brutality: “The cross of Christ should teach us that the only alternative to violence is self-giving love, willingness to absorb violence in order to embrace the other in the knowledge that truth and justice have been, and will be, upheld by God. ”
Importantly, too, “the cross is not forgiveness pure and simple, but God’s setting aright the world of injustice and deception.” In other words, Volf is calling Christians to return to a traditional understanding that at the end of times, God will judge and punish evildoers. Such justice must be left to God alone for only God can do violence because only God is truly just.
Does the fact that God must resort to violence prove, though, that nonviolence is impotent? Volf answers “no.” First, because God acts, not to seek revenge, but to remove the causes of violence: terror, deceit, tyranny, and exploitation. Second, because God, who is fully just, must be angry, for “a nonindignent God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.” As the African-American, especially the slave, church has claimed for so long, then, the cross represents ultimate victory. (Volf notes for those Westerners who may be skittish about the idea of a God who judges: “it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge.”)
Obviously, Volf’s theology of the cross, of embrace, is difficult, which is why he concludes that “without entrusting oneself to the God who judges justly, it will hardly be possible to follow the crucified Messiah and refuse to retaliate when abused.”
The friends that I mentioned at the beginning of this presentation had a (limited) opportunity for revenge less than one year after Abby was killed at the sentencing hearing for the brother of the suicide bomber. Monir had helped his brother to plan the attack and provided material assistance in carrying it out. Abby’s father wrote me about the hearing:
“As victims, the families of those who were murdered in the attack were given the right to address the court to express what they believed would be a proper sentence. Our family attended to listen and understand a bit more about what had happened. We saw how the other families were dealing with this tragedy. When I asked [my son] afterward what he thought, he commented on the hatred and anger that filled the room. He said, ‘You could feel it in the air.'”
“One mother, whose son attended high school with Josiah, told the court how her son’s death had left her with no purpose in life and of how her ‘life had ceased’ since that day. The words used were harsh and included curses and threats. Most [victims’ families] asked the court to impose a death sentence–something the [Israeli] law permits but which is not done… They wanted this man to pay the ultimate price for his crime in hope that it would help stop future attacks. [And I would add, in part, for revenge.] While we also desire to see steps taken to help prevent terror, our hope does not rest in seeing political change in this world. Instead, we have a living hope.”
Feminists, particularly womanist, theologians have helped to raise important objections to standard language about service and traditional theologies of the cross. Perhaps a better answer, though, than abandoning the cross altogether as some propose is to adopt a theology of the cross that encourages a discipleship of generosity, forgiveness, and embrace.
Pamela D. H. Cochran
Pamela D. H. Cochran is a Lecturer in American Religious History in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the Communications Director at the Center on Religion and Democracy, where she was formerly the Associate Director from 2000 to 2002. Her research interests are in the areas of religion and culture and the history of women in religion. She is the author of Evangelical Feminism: A History (New York University Press, 2005), which addresses the changing nature of religious authority in contemporary American religion and culture.