Finding the Cross in the Lynching Tree


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees1

The photograph of the lynching in Marion Indiana of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith haunted and then inspired Abel Meeropol to describe the event in verse. His poem, set to music and recorded by Billie Holiday, is a poignant depiction of the American Holocaust.

It was 16-year-old James Cameron, accused and strung up with Shipp and Smith and then given a last-minute reprieve, who would found America’s Black Holocaust Museum. James Cone, in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, echoes the poem in his concerted attempt to view the lynching tree in light of the Cross (and vice versa). His Black Liberation Theology concludes, “Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism.” We must accept, according to Cone, “that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” and that He identifies with the oppressed and suffering. The “very essence of divine activity” as revealed in the Cross enables us to align the lynching tree with the Cross.2 When we make this alignment, we recognize God and his children are not the cultivators of this strange fruit – Christ and Christians are that fruit. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there, but with the one on the lynching tree.

Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” Cone’s Theology has been criticized for its too narrow focus and exclusion, but in this time in which Christians seems to be supporting widespread oppression of the poor and oppressed, Cone points us in a definitive direction away from evil.

It may be difficult to place ourselves amidst the crowd at the foot of the lynching tree. Difficult, not in the sense that we can never imagine doing such a thing but precisely because this is near enough that we understand this crowd. Living in Little Dixie here in Missouri, the rebel flag is still proudly displayed, racists abound, and the majority of white Christians are stumped as to why the emphasis should be on black lives. One can hear the echo of Caiaphas in the comeback: rather than “all lives” or “blue lives” how about “Roman lives” or “Pharisee lives” matter – therefore this man must die. It is possible to imagine the sway of the crowd and being caught up in the moment – the blind hatred is too near not to recognize its potential. As Ted Peters has stated it, “What is there about striking out violently and killing others that makes us think we can quell the pangs of anxiety, overcome our frustrations. Relieve our rage, regain a sense of self-worth, and thereby conquer death? Killing others seems to relieve our own fear of being killed.”3 When the crowd turns, in a moment of scapegoating, the cowardice and instinct for survival may be strong – but stronger yet is the blind hatred for this victim who is disrupting our lives, harming our religion, and threatening our nation. Through this “righteous slaughter” we can attain some eternal, universal form of the good.4 “Lynch him so that our nation might be saved! Lynch him so that law and order will return and righteousness be served!”

It may be that we have to equate the two – the lynching tree and the Cross – to recover the fact that the Cross addresses the lynching tree. The same evil accounts for both but the Cross addresses and overcomes this evil. The Cross is meant to expose and stop the sort of evil involved in lynching, racism, and oppression of the stranger. Yet, there is a form of Christianity which has been rendered ineffective and complicit in evil. How is it that the Cross is emblazoned on battle shields and lawns (as with the KKK) as the emblem of violence and racism? Cone’s claim is that our theology of the Cross has numbed us to the evil which the Cross is meant to expose.

In a strange twist, “Christian” hatred of the stranger, the refugee, and the oppressed, silences the one who exposes the reality of this hatred: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). While we often sing and theologize about being at the foot of the Cross, our theology is such that the horror of the occasion is mitigated by the imagined fact that God is pulling the strings. We might, in a cavalier fashion, place ourselves at the foot of the cross but the lynching tree does not afford easy association. Cone’s point is that Christians, who so easily stand with the oppressors and cannot identify with the oppressed, have been desensitized by their Christianity. Instead of curing blind hatred this Christianity seems to induce it.

Christianity, with the lynchings of African Americans, the crusades, American slavery, Nazi genocide, oppression of women and minorities, etc, has been implicated in evil. Christians have not just been innocent by-standers but have many times been a force for evil.5 I believe, with Cone, that it is time to begin to definitively identify this false Christianity (which even the Apostle John calls the religion of the Antichrist) and distinguish it from an authentic Christianity. Can we can locate the evil, which is not part of an authentic Christianity? Can Christians identify and rid themselves of evil?

Our theology has so tamed the event of the crucifixion that preachers are forced to go to excruciating lengths to recount the pain of the Cross. No one needs to explain the humiliation and suffering of Shipp and Smith. Details only add to the horror of the photograph: both of the arms of Abram Smith were broken to keep him from trying to free himself; police officers participated in the lynching; there was no rape; none of the crowd were ever convicted of a crime. Even without commentary, the photograph conveys the evil. The lynching tree is a revolting horror from which we would turn away. The Cross, on the other hand, is a common piece of jewelry. Equating the lynching tree and the Cross focuses the attention on the evil and violence. The question is, how does the Cross address the evil of the lynching tree? Cone’s work brings out the specific role of atonement theology in disabling this equation (though he has not, I believe, given a full explanation to this question).

In Cone’s estimate, the Anselmian doctrine of Divine Satisfaction, has so twisted the meaning of the Cross that this is not an equation we normally come to. As Denny Weaver points out, Anselm’s doctrine is developed under a Constantinian Christianity which needed to accommodate Christian’s wielding the sword. Cone notes that it also accommodated slavery and racism. Anselm’s doctrine, the received understanding among the majority, accommodates the sword, racism, and oppression of women, so that Cone (from a black perspective), feminist and womanist theologians (from the perspective of female oppression), and Anabaptists such as Weaver (from a pacifist perspective) have converged upon critique of Anselm’s atonement theory. As Weaver describes it, they “have challenged any understanding of atonement that presumes salvation or reconciliation to God that would understand the killing of Jesus as an act required in order to satisfy divine justice.” 6

Anselm’s doctrine, in serving a Constanitinian Christianity, has done harm in several directions. It abstracts the evil of the Cross into a theory of justice in which God enacts violence so as to meet his standard of righteousness. The death of Christ, rather than being a murder carried out by Rome and the Jewish authorities, is an act of violence for which God is ultimately responsible. Rather than uncovering scapegoating of an innocent victim, scapegoating seems to be encouraged and required – even God does it. This violent picture of the atonement projects the violence back onto God, which is something on the order of an originary violence – as opposed to an originary peace. Where the New Testament would have us identify with the victim – the scapegoat (e.g. the woman taken in adultery, the parable of the vineyard, the passion story itself) under Divine Satisfaction we are made to identify with the necessity of having a victim. Christ died so that we do not have to. His death is not thought of as a model in which we would take up our cross and follow him; rather it is a onetime event which allows us to escape the same fate. As I will demonstrate in this series of blogs, Anselm’s “logic” building toward the need for the death of Christ is the logic of those who killed him. God is in one accord with Christ’s executioners. He does not refuse or resist the violence but is the ultimate perpetrator and the one who reinforces or generates its structure.

There is a great deal wrong with Divine Satisfaction (or its derivative – Penal Substitution) but the greater harm may arise, for many, from the displacement of biblical atonement in which the Cross of Christ is defeating a real-world evil. To get rid of Christian complicity in evil it is necessary to identify it and understand how the Cross opposes it. It is necessary to equate racism, oppression of the poor the foreigner and the stranger, oppression of women, and violence, with the sin Christ overcomes. This is so simplistic as to be tautological, yet as with the lynching tree and the cross, there is a disconnect produced by a turn from Christ’s exposure of evil. As Rene Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures.”7 

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community. Sign up here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/lm/offerings)  

1 Written by Abel Meeropol.

2 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

3 Ted Peters, Sin and Radical Evil, 41.

4 After extensive interviewing and analysis sociologist Jack Katz concludes that criminals in general and killers in particular seek to embody, “through the practice of ‘righteous slaughter,’ some eternal, universal form of the Good.” The form it typically takes is that of righteous rage to which someone else has to be sacrificed.

5This is not to argue, with the New Atheists, that Christianity and religion are to blame for all evil and violence in the world. 20th Century secularism, Marxism and Fascism, have unleashed a radical evil that outdoes the problematic history of Christianity. What is clear is that the human heart is evil and where Christianity is so perverted so as not to address or confront this evil it has become complicit with evil.

6 J. Denny Weaver. The Nonviolent Atonement, Second Edition (Kindle Locations 144-145). Kindle Edition.

7Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 101.

Why “All Lives Matter” Misses the Cross

In the tension between the particularism of James Cone’s theology (which might be characterized by the phrase, “black lives matter”), with its focus on black experience, and the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, with its focus on abstract and unattainable universals (which might be summed up as “all lives matter”) reside the problem of universals and particulars. The question is, if you can get to the former (“all lives matter” or the universal) without prior and exclusive focus on the latter (“black lives matter” or the particular)?

Those who blithely intone, what must seem to them the higher principle – the universal, “all lives matter,” are clearly prone to be blind to the particular. The danger, as demonstrated in the past hundred years, is that the leap to the universal conceals the particular vested interest, the forms of exclusion which have given rise to imperialism, death camps, exploitation of the 3rd world by the first world, or the bloodiest period in all of human history. The direct move to the universal (the enlightenment?) is the root cause of suppression and exclusion of differences. The question is, in an order where “all lives matter” in general, will some lives in particular have to be sacrificed, overlooked, or suppressed for the universal (as in the logic that “one man must die that the nation would be saved)?  

Historically, it is clear that where the universal precedes the particular there is a wink and a nod, perhaps unconscious or suppressed, as to which group does not fit the universal. In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction of which life matters, this supposed universal condition (the condition of law, the condition of the state) is established by the particulars of exception. The very root of human polity is structured around a necessary exclusion of one form of life, bare life (homo sacer). It is only where bare life is structured and ordered in the city that it can be said to be “good life” from Aristotle onward.

 The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[1] Homo sacer is stripped of legal status and falls outside the political community and is among those continually and unconditionally exposed to the potential of being killed. This power of death, deciding who dies outside the city, establishes the life of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside of the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to only bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.  

The point of the Gospel is that the universal (God) is not to be had apart from the particular (the incarnate Christ) and the most pertinent particular of this Christ is that he was lynched outside the city gates. In John Milbank’s description, Christ as homo sacer is the exception beyond exception. He exposes the place of exception as the place of God.  It was those who presumed to overlook the man (the realism, in Niebuhr’s terms, of the particular) that are responsible for his lynching and every lynching.

In this establishment of human sovereignty, the true Sovereign is excluded. God is on the lynching tree and is excluded by those who would gain life by killing him. There is no mystery as to who might be most prone to dispense with a particular life (a bare life, a biological life that has none of the qualities of “good life”). It will be those who presume to be able to distill the universal without reference to an overlooked sort of particular.

To make the point that American theological perspective begins and ends in a peculiar blindness, Cone cites the example of Niebuhr, America’s favorite theologian. His “Christian realism” was admired by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Hubert Humphrey, John Kennedy, and Jimmy Carter and in the present time, President Barack Obama has called Niebuhr one of his favorite philosophers. Niebuhr’s Christian realism presumes that self-interest must always be figured into the justice that will be implemented and this justice will always fall short of love. Because of humanity’s natural tendency to deny sin, we can never fully reach the ethical standard of agape love. The best that we can strive for is justice, which is love approximated, or a balance of power among competing groups. He leaves room for the reality of faith, hope and love only as a future possibility.

Niebuhr claims the 1896 Supreme Court doctrine of “separate but equal,” which made Jim Crow segregation legal in the South, was a positive move, allowing for gradual change. He praised the 1954 Supreme Court decision ending segregation, yet he was also pleased by the Court’s added phrase, “with all deliberate speed,” which “wisely” gave the white South “time to adjust” (while also opening a loophole to delay integration). Cone says, “Niebuhr’s call for gradualism, patience, and prudence during the decade when Willie McGee (1951), Emmett Till (1955), M. C. “Mack” Parker (1959), and other blacks were lynched sounds like that of a southern moderate more concerned about not challenging the cultural traditions of the white South than achieving justice for black people.”[2] When Martin Luther King asked Niebuhr to sign a petition appealing to President Eisenhower to protect black children involved in integrating schools in the South, Niebuhr declined.

In the end, Niebuhr would seem to fall among those sort of liberals King counted more insidious to blocking civil rights than overt racists. Niebuhr, in his silence on lynching displays his own blindness and the inherent problem of beginning with a presumed shared knowledge or agreed upon universal. In his theology, ever focused on an abstract future universal, he is willing to continually delay justice.

Though Cone credits Karl Barth for his turn to the Word (rather than the given human reality) as his own escape from this Niebuhrian/American form of theology, nonetheless he insists this encounter with the Word is very particular. He pits his starting point against that of Barth and focus on the “objective word”: “I am black first—and everything else comes after that. This means that I read the Bible through the lens of a black tradition of struggle and not as the objective Word of God.” Cone’s experience as a black man raised in the Jim Crow era in Arkansas, is the singular, particular approach to his understanding of the word of the cross.

 He concludes his long theological career with the realization the lynching tree, the definitive symbol of black fear and subjugation and white supremacy, is the singular access he has to rightly understanding the cross.  They put Christ to death by hanging him on a tree (Acts 10:39), excluding his life as one of those that mattered. The power elites, who order the valuation of life in the polis, required this death outside of the city. So too, every universal human organization of “lives that matter” will necessarily make this demarcation with the blood of those that do not.

 Cone references the work of Paula Frederickson to note that that description of the cross perfectly describes lynching in the United States. “Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement: Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar. The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching. Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.”[3]

Though Golgotha was the sight of a first century lynching and it would seem only natural to draw out the parallel, yet there is no place for the lynching tree in American theological reflection. Isn’t this silence a telling condemnation of the value of this theological tradition? As Cone poses the question: “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar that one wonders what blocks the American Christian imagination from seeing the connection.”[4] The silence in regard to lynching, the very possibility of lynching, but the inability to see the cross in the lynching tree must mean that the reality of the cross remains invisible. Those who oppress and lynch in the name of Christ have undoubtedly been guilty of the worst apostasy, but those that cannot name this apostasy continue in the same blindness.

The point of the cross and the point of the Gospel is not to validate the way our culture, nation, and cities organize and value life but it is to upset this order. Where “all lives matter” is the starting point, the danger is that some lives matter more immediately while others matter theoretically, and one can thus be satisfied with future or theoretical equality and justice. In other words, where “all lives matter” or where the universal is the starting point, the life extinguished on the lynching tree, the life of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, Eric Garner, and the uncounted others, clearly do not count as lives that matter but serve to affirm the life that “really counts” (the life of the lynch mob or the representatives of the culture that have carried out the murders).

What “all lives matter” misses is focus on the particularity – the particulars of black lives and the particularity of the cross. Much like a negative theology which cannot predicate any determinate qualities of God, the “all life” is simply bare life, undistinguished life, so that what is excluded from the “all” is the suffering and humiliation of the particular life of Christ or of black lives. To miss the fact that God, in Christ, identifies with the particular, with suffering lives, outcast lives, is to miss the life that matters.

(If you are interested in pursuing studies on reconciliation and forgiveness, on July 6th the class Philemon and Ephesians will begin. This class will focus on forgiveness and reconciliation in Paul. As the PBI catalogue describes it this course is “A practical development of radical forgiveness and reconciliation from Philemon and Ephesians worked out in healthy community.)  


[1] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 18.

[2] Ibid, p. 48.

[3] James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (p. 43). Orbis Books. Kindle Edition.

[4] Ibid.

Will the Revolution Endure?

Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them.  “But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45 NASB

Donald Trump has explained to U.S. governors his mode of rule: “You must dominate the streets,” he told them. John Bolton indicates this was also Trump’s advice to the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, telling him he should build concentration camps to keep Uighur Muslims under control. He encouraged Xi, according to Bolton, to buy more American farm products, not for farmers, but to improve his reelection bid. Where the values of empire reign supreme, the lives of Muslims, protestors, blacks, or ordinary citizens, are of less value than the lives of the “great men” themselves.  According to Jesus, their authority permits them to “lord it over” others, such that political power can be equated with this power over life and death. The power to dominate is what power amounts to in this valuation system.

The move that Jesus makes is not simply the relinquishing of power, but the unleashing of a different sort of counter power, in what John Howard Yoder calls “revolutionary subordination.” Subordination is not normally equated with revolution, but there are several instances in literature and cinema which illustrate the point that embracing that which gives control to the other is a means of dispossessing them of power.  In The Usual Suspects, Keyser Söze’s family is being held hostage by Hungarian mobsters. Rather than succumb to their demands he murders his own family, which leaves the mobsters without any power over him and then he is free to massacre the mobsters and their families.  In Speed, Keanu Reeves character shoots his own partner in the leg as a means of freeing him from being held hostage. In Ransom, Mel Gibson playing a wealthy media executive, instead of paying the ransom demanded by his son’s kidnappers, puts up a large sum for their capture. Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, is inspired by the life of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who kills her own child rather than let her be taken back into slavery. In each instance, the situation is reversed and those who exercise power lose control because their would-be victim embraces the very thing that is threatened.

 Abraham, the biblical prototype of faithfulness, is made to act against his own best interest at every stage of his life. He is told to leave home and family and is promised a child, and he spends most of his life waiting for the promised arrival. Once the child is born, he is told to sacrifice him as an act of faith.  The lesson of his faith is that his identity as father, husband, patriarch, and founder of a new people and new form of life, is gained in his move to relinquish the forms of identity which would secure him a place in the world.  For Abraham, the standard order and protection of society, is shattered by his subordinating himself to the very danger this order protected him from.  He embraces homelessness (without kindred or land); he embraces childlessness (leaving him no way to propagate his name); his life is one long encounter with and acceptance of death and by this means he escapes one order of existence for another.

Jesus mode of liberating from the power structures, fulfilling the foreshadowings of Abraham, is not through domination but through subordination to the worst of conditions; a slave’s death. His taking up of the cross is his means of disempowering those who would use crosses and death as a means of enslavement. The willingness to take up the cross renders the threat of the cross as powerless. His subordination is neither obedience nor acquiescence but inaugurates a new kingdom built on servitude.

Paul will submit himself to the same powers, not by ceasing to preach, but by seeing his arrest as itself a sign of honor – the mark that he is an ambassador for Christ.  So too each of the disciples subordinate themselves to the powers, submitting to crucifixion, beheading, and a martyr’s death, but this is counted as a primary form of witness (the meaning of the word martyr). Accepting death is not a form of obedience but it is the most radical form of revolution, as it accepts the threat and in doing so empties it of its power to control. Once death is removed as a means of control, through death acceptance, fear is cast out as a means of coercion.

Where the values of empire reign supreme, the lives that matter most are those of the “great men,” those who “lord it over” others and this is their power. The value of power is immediately evident in the prerogative to threaten life and to cause suffering and death. In the world of Caesar, Roman lives matter and Caesar’s matters most. Every Roman soldier as an extension of the power of empire is representative of this value. In the case of Caiaphas, Jewish lives matter and the life of the chief priest and the Temple matters most. Sadducee lives and Pharisee lives matter, as they are the protectors and keepers of the Jewish way of life. Rome and Israel conspired in their valuation of which life was expendable, what man must die, so that the nation might be preserved. Who would dare defend the life of one Jewish slave against the needs of empire? His death would only serve to secure the empire. Afterall, it is slaves who make masters, the oppressed who make rulers, and subjects who provide the ruler with the substance of his rule. In the world of empire, it is the representatives of power, the blue lives, that matter and any challenge to this power needs to be made an example.

Christ’s death forever exposes the means of “great men” and empire. Perhaps the jujitsu reversal that Christ and the early Christians played on empire is no more starkly illustrated than in the letter to Philemon. Paul is willing enough to accept elements of the household codes. Slaves, and specifically the slave Onesimus, is to subordinate himself to Philemon, his master. It was not Paul’s goal to start a violent revolution in which Christian slaves would rebel and the church would dominate and enforce a new code of behavior. (In fact, where the church has aligned itself with the means of empire it is questionable that any hint of Jesus-power remains.)  Paul’s mode of undoing the slave/master relationship is much more direct and immediate: “I appeal to you for my child Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my imprisonment, who formerly was useless to you, but now is useful both to you and to me. I have sent him back to you in person, that is, sending my very heart” (Philemon 10-12). Paul claims personal kinship and identifies Onesimus with his own deepest feelings – the very center of who he is. “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (v. 17). It is doubtful that Philemon will regard Onesimus as anything short of a brother, which is Paul’s appeal: “For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,  no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother” (15-16). Here is Christ’s ethic applied, as Paul identifies himself with the slave he undoes the oppression of Onesimus.

Paul might be said to be exercising a kind of authority, but it is the authority of “sharing in Christ.” Paul’s position in prison is not a place of power by any worldly standard, yet Paul takes pride in being imprisoned for Christ. He is subordinate to the powers and he would have Onesimus be subordinate also, but in both instances, he is enacting a revolution. He is challenging the social status projected upon slaves at the same time as he challenges the social status of being imprisoned (he considers imprisonment and chains as the sign of his being an ambassador for Christ). Paul sees his suffering as “filling up the suffering of Christ” so that to suffer with him is to be identified as an ambassador of the Gospel.

God chooses to identify himself with the suffering and oppressed in Christ and his followers. As James Cone puts it, “God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience. God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering” as he identifies with the oppressed and suffering.[1] The very essence of divine activity, as revealed in the Cross and as revealed in Christian witness, reverses this world’s orders of power. The victims of the police state, those lynched and killed by the powers are most intimately identified with Christ. Christ’s radical reversal of power enables us to align every lynching tree, every victim of the thugs of empire, with the victim of the Cross. Christ was himself hung from a tree and his followers identify, not with those who put him there (the lynch mob, the Roman lives, the Pharisee lives, or the blue lives), but with the one on the tree (and thus with the victim of every lynching, every victim of empire). While the kingdoms of this world rapidly fail under the rise and dominance of succeeding orders of “greatness,” the revolution of radical subordination endures in its effects as Christ’s life and kingdom endures .

In this sense the revolution enacted through Christian subordination, the revolution of Jesus, of Paul and the apostles, the revolution of Martin Luther King, the revolution of the victims who refuse violence and choose love, is the only enduring sort of revolution.


[1]  James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, 63-64

Are There White Christians?

The mode of doing identity through difference (Jew versus Gentile, free versus slave, male versus female) is, according to Paul, set aside in Christ. At one level the provenance and end of these categories is uncomplicated (oppression, discrimination, inequality, are to end) but at another level, considering all that is included in Paul’s categories (ethnicity, religion, biology, social class, economics, culture, behavior, gender, sex, etc.), setting aside these categories entirely will not be possible and negotiating around them so as to make Christ the prime identity will be no easy task. Most every element of what is normally considered as constituting humanness will have to be reconstituted, deconstructed, reoriented, recreated, and so, a great deal of Paul’s effort will be spent in explaining how oneness in Christ is to be implemented. Jews and Gentiles will have to renegotiate nearly every element of their life – how and what to eat and the role of ethnic and religious identity. Men and women cannot simply continue to identify themselves through the gender and sex roles of the surrounding culture. Slaves and free will have to undergo a radical reevaluation in their relationship, as now they are of the same family in the body of Christ.

Identity will no longer be through oppositional difference but will be “in Christ.” However, what needs to be obliterated and what needs to be preserved and reconstituted would seem to work out differently in each of the opposed pairs. “Master Christians” and “slave Christians” resonates very differently than “male Christians” and “female Christians.” The slave/master relationship is undone in that in Christ all become the slaves, or at least the servants, of one another. The same principle, of relinquishing self-interest, applies in gender roles but Paul specifically warns the Corinthians against a unisexuality. So, there are some things which need to be obliterated – there are no master Christians – while there are other things that are changed up and yet preserved. Jewishness, for example, is preserved but changed. It is not simply assimilated into the dominate Gentile mode but neither does it maintain its segregated stance. Clearly all must relinquish the self-interest which is the prime force in privileging one half of the pair.

The precise thing that is obliterated between the opposed pairs is the “hostility” or the alienating force or the principalities and powers which divide and darken. The dualisms that divide – Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female/, or most recently and most clearly white/black, all gain meaning (political, religious, ethnic, or gendered meaning) through an interdependent difference. The difference cannot be absolute or there would be no point of comparison, but to describe the difference as necessarily inhering in the pairs creates an instability. There is no essence in either of the parts; there are no masters without slaves, no men without women, no Jews without Gentiles, no white without black.

James Baldwin captures this in his description of the American invention of whiteness. He claims, in fact, that there is no white community. Whiteness is a false construct created by shedding Irish, Italian, German, English, and Jewish identity but this becomes a unified identity over and against what it is not. “No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.” It became a white country on the basis of what was done to “red,” “brown,” and black humanity. “White men—from Norway, for example, where they were Norwegians—became white: by slaughtering the cattle, poisoning the wells, torching the houses, massacring Native Americans, raping Black women.” America became white on the basis of subjugation of people of color. “No community can be based on such a principle—or, in other words, no community can be established on so genocidal a lie.”[1]

Whiteness describes a relationship of power. To the degree that people depend upon this power, to the degree they live off this power, to the degree that this power defines, to that degree their identity is dependent on the genocidal form out of which this identity emerges. This genocidal hermeneutic, in Willie Jennings description, continues to center “the good, the beautiful, the intelligent, and the noble” around whiteness, creating a regime of whiteness. This whiteness “disciplines fantasies of becoming (becoming human, mature, cultured, civilized, authoritative,)” such that whiteness continues to colonize through these ongoing effects. Jennings refers to it as Caucasia’s capital.[2]

He raises the question, “Can white people be saved?” The question, as he explains does not pertain to the efficacy of salvation in regard to a category of people. The point is that whiteness is a way of being in the world that stands opposed to the Christian way of being in the world. Whiteness, he explains, is “a deformed building project aimed at bringing the world to its full maturity.” It is conceived as part of the idea of progress as Europeans colonize(d) the world. This new world is not allowed a voice but is named in reference to the colonizers. “These Europeans answered the question without the voice or vision of the peoples of the new worlds. They self-designated.” And they designated a vast variety of peoples in reference to their self-designation. They began to “suture different peoples, clans, and tribes into racial categories. They, the Europeans, were white, and the others were almost white, not quite white, or nonwhite, or almost black, not quite black, or black.” Metaphorical and literal genocide began with denying these “non-white” people a voice, so that whiteness was projected into their world as an order of meaning, very often in the name of Christ and missions. “Death expanded its reach by designating peoples and the earth in reductive categories, isolating lives into fragments in order to make them useful, turning everything into commodities.” Christian conversion became an event toward whiteness “as a formation toward maturity.”[3]

So, whiteness does not pertain to birth or biology but it refers to a particular form of agency and subjectivity by which progress is gauged. To merge Christian with whiteness is to reverse the valuation system of the former: being an owner rather than owned, being a citizen of the first world rather than a stranger, and gauging the departure from darkness by being seen as white. Whiteness can be equated with ownership and having a voice, whereas to be non-white amounts to literally being owned or being material in the production process. To be a citizen of Caucasia meant taming the wilderness, subjugating native inhabitants, and by this means establishing an identity in the new nation. Citizenship in nationalism is a pure construct, not grounded in the land but taking ownership and control of the land, rather than being integrated into the land and its controls. The labor of whites took on a different order of meaning than the labor of blacks in that it was a labor of ownership and control to establish whiteness and citizenship. Native and black, in Jennings description, were perceived as “closer to nature and its raw condition of unproductivity.”[4] In this understanding, whiteness is a condition of lostness: one is lost due to a misplaced notion of ownership and control, a misplaced citizenship, and a misplaced value system.

In a similar but differently articulated vein, James Cone maintains that God is not the God of all people as he is against the oppressor and is the God of the oppressed. He concludes, “So-called Christianity, as commonly practiced in the United States, is actually the racist Antichrist.” This “false Christianity . . . of the oppressor must be replaced by an authentic Christianity fully identified with the poor and oppressed.” In other words, to claim to be a white Christian is to miss the oppressive genealogy of this identity.

In Paul’s depiction, the principalities and powers exercise this alienating force through the dualisms that divide. The full weight of the Christian Gospel is aimed at defeating this division, this mystery that has us entrapped. The mystery of division is one we naturally inhabit in the way we organize ourselves in dualistic identities. The mystery divides and confounds our thinking. It is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator in which the one (the created order) is idolatrously pitted against the other. The idolater self-designates, imagining all else is relative to his created image, and imagining oneself as his own father-creator. Paul depicts passage from out of this mindset as the opening of this obscurity that darkens every mind.  The passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” marks a new historical consciousness.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. No longer should we posit a gap between God and creation, heaven and earth, Jew and Gentile. Christ has bridged the gap. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. Given this insight, all divisions are exposed as a false order of identity.

To be Christian is to break out of the division of whiteness as an identity, a value system, or a form of citizenship. Perhaps all we can expect is to gradually learn to be something other than white, something on the order of citizens of a different sort of kingdom. This begins, in Paul’s description, through a different order of embodiment – finding ourselves embodied in Christ. This is not an abstraction but a real-world connection to other people as a means to receiving grace and gifts of the Spirit. This is not identity by segregation but a preservation of unity provided by Christ. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4).

To be Christian is to give up on ownership and first-world citizenship so as to identify with a different citizenry, dispossessed and poor in this world. The space Christians are to occupy is neither coveted nor contested as it is outside the city, where doing life together is the singular economy and value. As Jennings puts it, we must be saved “from being or becoming white people.” As we relinquish white capital we can begin to enjoy “the gifts from on high.” “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift” (Eph 4:7). This is capital enough.


[1] James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies,” https://bannekerinstitute.fas.harvard.edu/files/bannekerinstitute/files/on_being_white.and_other_lies_baldwin_0.pdf

[2] Willie Jennings, “Caucasia’s Capital: The Ordinary Presence of Whiteness,” https://divinity.duke.edu/sites/divinity.duke.edu/files/documents/faculty/Jennings-Caucasias-Capital.pdf

[3] Willie Jennings, “European Christian missionaries and their false sense of progress” in The Christian Century, (October 31,2018). https://www.christiancentury.org/article/critical-essay/european-christian-missionaries-and-their-false-sense-progress

[4] Ibid.

“I Can’t Breathe”

The police officer ignores the plea, “Please, please. I can’t breathe,” George Floyd gasps out.  “I can’t breathe, officer.” A bystander addresses the officers: “He is human, bro.” The cop is unphased and keeps his knee in place cutting off Floyd’s breath. After five minutes he is motionless and silent. A bystander notes the unbelievable but obvious: “They just killed that man.”  It is obvious from the video released on the internet that for ten minutes the officer drove his knee into Floyd’s neck. Despite pleas from bystanders, the officer showed no pity or compassion.

Six years ago, another black man, Eric Garner, pleaded with police officers in New York City who held him in a chokehold, saying “I can’t breathe.” He was choked to death and his cry, “I can’t breathe,” became the slogan and chant against police brutality.  

The final words of Frank Gabrin, the first ER doctor to die of coronavirus were, “I can’t breathe, help me.” His partner reports, “he was gasping for air in great, hoarse breaths, but could not get enough oxygen.” By the time paramedics arrived, Gabrin was on the edge of death, or had already gone. His face had turned purple.

 Dr. Byron Safewright indicates that this is a common refrain. “When people came to the hospital, it was because they couldn’t breathe. But when they had oxygen, it just didn’t help. They still were fighting for air. It doesn’t matter how much oxygen we give you — it doesn’t improve the problem.” The coronavirus can infect the respiratory tract, irritating and inflaming the airways. As the infection travels through the respiratory tract, the immune system fights back but this causes airways to become even more swollen and inflamed. As the body fights back suffocation results.

Some of Gabrin’s final texts before contracting the virus were, “Don’t have any PPE that has not been used. No N95 masks ― my own goggles — my own face shield.” He is one of numerous, and as of yet uncounted, medical workers across the U.S. who have succumbed to the virus, many of whom have died due to lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).  State legislators and health care providers across the country called on the Trump administration to help with the lack of PPE but the administration maintains it is the states’ responsibility to procure PPE and Donald Trump has deemed the shortage “fake news.”

Columbia University recently released a study showing 36,000 fewer people would have died in the midst of the crisis if the U.S. had acted just one week earlier to impose social distancing. If the country had begun locking down cities and limiting social contact on March 1, 83 percent of the nation’s deaths would have been avoided, researchers estimated. President Trump called Columbia University a “liberal, disgraceful institution” after it released the study.   

Vanity Fair reports that heading into the Memorial Day weekend, Trump complained that he was COVID-19’s biggest victim. “This is so unfair to me! Everything was going great. We were cruising to reelection!” Trump said to an adviser.

There are many ways to bring on asphyxiation but the most well-known is crucifixion. Pierre Barbet describes crucifixion as “death by asphyxiation.” The crucified have severe difficulty inhaling, as the chest, with arms outstretched, is expanded and unable to take in more air. The struggle is to pull the body up, either with the arms or the legs (which explains why breaking the legs insured a quick death), so as to be able to take in air, but one becomes exhausted. As with COVID-19, it is actually the attempt to fight for life that kills. It is a slow process of exhaustion and suffocation, very much like having a knee thrust into the throat so as to shut off oxygen. The more one cries out the greater the loss of oxygen. Crucifixion was preserved for those considered less than human and it was deployed as a means to frighten slaves into maintaining their station without rebellion or complaint.

The state requires sacrifice so as to maintain an ordered world – that of the slave or capitalistic economy. The knee of state, literal or metaphorical, requires the asphyxiation of the most vulnerable. The question is whether to identify with the powers that would vie for the economy, for “law and order,” or whether to identify with the vulnerable being asphyxiated.  

Jason Rodenbeck challenges us to do the right thing:

kill me with George Floyd

murdered in public by
the powers’ enforcers over
vague accusations before
mobs of bystanders, some
begging for mercy, he gasped

“I can’t breathe.”

and then he died.
what terrible crime must he have done
to be worthy of such treatment?
would it have even mattered if
he was innocent?

murdered in public by
the powers’ enforcers over
vague accusations before
mobs of bystanders, some
begging for mercy, he gasped

“I’m thirsty.”

and, when he had
asked forgiveness for them,
then he died. alone.

what terrible crime had he done?
nothing more than loving George Floyd.
and on his cross he gasped with George
on the pavement.

it didn’t even matter that
he was innocent.

I suppose it’s easy at 3 AM from the
quiet safety of my dining room to say
“I’d rather die with George Floyd than
suffer another to die alone.”

I’m sure it will be much harder to speak
when it happens in front of me,
and I am tempted to retreat to the
quiet safety of my whiteness.

but I hope in my heart that,
if that time comes I will
have the courage say to those officers

“if you really must kill someone,
kill me with George Floyd.”[1]


[1] Found On His Blog, “Thinking Peacefully,” https://jasonrodenbeck.wordpress.com/2020/05/27/kill-me-with-george-floyd/?fbclid=IwAR2gWip5xURX_8l4ZNacvPDnJIzCVDNlPgYADeDXQptGMWtWC9ooftdOycY

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

The Gospel as the Mystery Revealed Versus Calvin’s “Incomprehensible” Anti-Gospel

That which was once hidden (“hidden since the foundation of the world”) but which has been revealed is not an esoteric secret on the order of Scientology (how to “go clear” of the body) or Mormonism (induction into the secrets of the Mormon Temple), or a secret on the order of the Gnostic mystery cults (a secret knowledge or experience), but it is a secret like Poe’s purloined letter – hidden in plain sight. It is a secret hidden in plain sight in the Old Testament, in the parables of Jesus, and in human experience. This mystery is one we inhabit in the way we organize ourselves into nations and religions, it is a mystery of interpretation (of the Old Testament but of reality in general), it is a mystery concerning the relationship between creation and Creator. Paul depicts the opening of this secret or the passage from “once hidden” to “now revealed” as marking a new historical consciousness as to the purposes of creation.

According to Ephesians, it pertains to “things in heaven” and “things on earth” and to God’s predetermined purposes for all things. Paul will refer to the broad sweep of history in Romans 9-11 as the unfolding of this mystery and he will refer to the breaking down of the “dividing wall” between Jews and Gentiles as pertaining to a fulfilled cosmic order previously hidden (Eph 2:14). This reference to the breaking of a literal wall in the Temple taken as a cosmic representation, such that divided people will be made one but also that the divide between heaven and earth will be broken down, is itself a deployment of the revealed hermeneutic apart from which the mystery remained. Paul’s allegorizing or spiritualizing interpretation of the most sacred precincts (the literal inner core) of Judaism (a mode he will apply to Hebrew Scriptures) pertains cosmically and personally. People are reconstituted as a singular family in which their personhood involves a new consciousness – holistic and personal. This new family fulfills the temple purposes of the cosmos in which heaven comes to earth: “in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit” (Eph 2:21–22). Gentiles and Jews are no longer divided, the individual is no longer divided and heaven and earth are no longer divided in this fulfilled cosmic arrangement. As Paul describes it in Galatians, the binaries (Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female), which are not simply a convention of language but a mode of identity and understanding, no longer pertain in this new mode of identity and thought.  

The scheme of “once hidden” and “now revealed,” in taking in the full scope of history, may encompass “the age of the cosmos” in which people were “dead in their trespasses” (Eph 2:1-2), but is the mystery of that former age constituted by “the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience” (2:2). Is the mystery simply a result of sin’s deceit or darkness? If the mystery is equated with the darkness of sin, then the mystery revealed would be reduced to the overcoming of sin (the reduction of some theological systems). But Paul connects the mystery to two epochs of history inclusive of creation and its fulfillment, such that the mystery or the concealment disclosed by the revelation of the Gospel is part of the divine plan.

 In Ephesians 5 Paul connects the mystery to a primal goodness which precedes sin; which is not to say that Paul equates the mystery with the one-flesh relationship of marriage (described in Gen 2:24 and which he quotes) but the unity or oneness of the marriage relationship partakes of the mystery unfolded or fulfilled in Christ (5:31-32). Like the valence between creation and fulfillment, the once hidden significance of marital oneness is disclosed in the relation between Christ and the Church – an order inclusive of all humanity. It is not that the union between Christ and the Church, like the unity of marriage, is incomprehensible. What is revealed in this union, is the cosmic breadth of the marriage like unity brought about in Christ. Creations purpose remained an undisclosed and unfulfilled mystery which is now disclosed (made known, preached, realized, in a new unity) and realized in the Spirit.

This “Spiritual” understanding penetrates or unveils the mystery at two key junctures: the mystery of the Anointed “has now been revealed to His holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit” (Eph 3:5); and this revealing works on the inward person “who is strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man” (3:16) so as to plumb new depths of comprehension (3:18-19). Spirit is interwoven with the realization of the revealed mystery in each of its appearances in Ephesians (1:11; 3:16; 5:26 speaks of a spiritual washing; and 6:19 evokes the power of the Spirit to work in Paul in making the mystery known) so that it is clear that the Spirit is the means to unity – inward and outward, cosmic and local.  The unity of Christ and the Church, the unity of Jews and Gentiles, the unity realized in “the inward man,” is a reconciliation in Christ sealed by the Spirit summed up as peace. This peace is not simply an interlude between wars but is a state of unity and participation in God.  Being “in Christ” means participation in the cosmic plan unfolding in a unified humanity founded in peace.

All of this seems to refer back to the fact that, “He made known to us the mystery of His will” (Eph 1:9). The Gospel is nothing less than an opening up of the will of God to human understanding. We now understand what God has foreordained or predestined for the world through his Son. Strange then that there is another gospel which claims that God’s plan or his reasons for predestination are wholly internal to his being and are opaque to humanity – completely incomprehensible.  

Calvin maintains that God’s predestination is mysterious and “utterly incomprehensible.” He believed this impenetrable mystery will inspire wonder and reverence in that confounding people, God’s mysterious decrees will be revered in their “wonderful depth.” Calvin warns in the opening of his chapter on predestination that we must restrain curiosity and not ask after the secret things of God, as these are forbidden. “Let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning. Rather let us willingly abstain from the search after knowledge, to which it is both foolish as well as perilous, and even fatal to aspire.”[1] In this alternative gospel, Calvin determined (from Ephesians 1:4) that there is no passage from hidden mystery to mystery disclosed; rather God’s mysterious predestination is to elect some (and to damn others) and this election is equated with holiness. There is no room for living out this inward and outward unity, lest these achievements be confused with meritorious works. For Calvin then, the gospel is not so much a mystery revealed as a mystery compounded. The question is if a gospel that misses Christ’s disclosure and fulfillment of cosmic purposes, preordained before the foundation of the world, qualifies as Gospel, or is it in fact a counter-gospel or anti-gospel?

In Paul’s depiction the Gospel is a revealing of God’s purposes for all of creation. In Romans, Paul equates “the Gospel of God” with that “which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures” (Ro 1:1-2) – the Hebrew scriptures. In the scriptures the Gospel was present but concealed until Christ retroactively brings out or delineates their prophetic element. As T.J. Lang puts it, “This does not diminish the revelatory function of the scriptures; it simply means that the Christ event is hermeneutically determinative, restructuring the perception of reality on either side of its occurrence.”[2]  In Paul’s depiction, what Christ does for the Hebrew scriptures, is what he does for all of  creation and for the Temple (a microcosm) and its religion. Just as the secret of the Old Testament is disclosed in Christ, so to Christ becomes the hermeneutic key for understanding human and cosmic purposes. It is not only the scriptures but God’s will for time, for all reality that are summed up or opened up in Christ: “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Eph 1:9-10). The mystery disclosed pertains to all things and this is the Gospel.


[1] Calvin, Institutes Book 3 chapter 21.

[2] T. J. Lang, Mystery and the Making of a Christian Historical Consciousness: From Paul to the Second Century, https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37749844.pdf

Paul’s “Futility” Versus Hegelian Dialectics

Given creation ex nihilo (creation from nothing), one can either recognize with Paul (in Romans 8) and Gregory of Nyssa, Origin, and Maximus, that creation continues toward an eschatological realization of pleroma or fullness in which the nihilo (the chaos, disorder) is reduced and eventually has no place, or one can assume the nothing is part of a cosmic dualism giving rise to fullness (fullness of knowledge or a fullness of salvation). The difference pertains to two readings of Scripture and two modes of ordering reality. Do we read from creation to Christ and understand who Christ is on the basis of creation or do we apprehend creation as being fulfilled or completed through Christ?

Our reading will make a world of difference in how we define sin and evil and how we picture the work of Christ. The Hegelian mistake, in that it sums up the human mistake in giving first place to an immanent frame within creation, is key in regard to the nihilo. Hegel’s dialectic fully articulates Paul’s depiction of the reign of death through the reifying of nothing. Given subjection to this understanding our tendency will be to misread Paul (in the manner of the Western theological tradition?) and to imagine Romans 8 depiction of futility and its defeat pertains simply to sin (a sin reduced to the individual). To put it anachronistically, the world is with Hegel (and by extension the forebears and heirs of Luther) in Paul, while salvation is deliverance from out of this order.

Nonetheless, there is a certain value to be gained in engaging Hegel through Paul. The theological concepts of sin and evil tend either toward reductions to misdeeds and perverse thoughts or toward abstractions of cosmic battle which do not easily translate into the fabric of human experience. Even in our reading of the New Testament we may be so focused on individual transgression that we miss how sin can be definitive, not simply of some experience, but of experience per se as it is filtered to us through our world (so much so that it becomes a mode of reading the Bible). In Marx’s language, we might recognize the failures of the bank robber and even of the banker, but we tend to miss the definitive role of capitalism, which gives us both (bankers and bank robbers). Understood rightly, the nihilo of creation ex nihilo (a key point of departure for understanding God) is not simply an abstraction about the order of creation in relation to God but concerns the “fleshing out” or the overcoming of futility accomplished by Christ. If evil is a privation or a nothing given its opportunity in the manner of creation (i.e. it is without any metaphysical or ontological ground but a parasite on the good), this not only locates sin’s origin in the contingency of creation but its ongoing point of access in human experience as a “counter-force” or absence. Hegel gives full and positive articulation to this understanding.

The point at which Hegel and Paul converge pertains to the psychological or experiential reality of this imagined dualism (nothing and futility as a necessary something) in its constitution of human experience. Both will refer to it as a form of enslavement – even agreeing upon its point of entry in and through human cognition. For Hegel, “we are the activity that thought is.”[1] For Paul, human words and thought are deployed in an attempt to displace God and found an independent realm. Its specific point of entry is futile or deceived thought: “they became futile in their speculations” (1:21). Ματαιόω – is “to present what is vain” or “to deceive.”[2] Though Romans 8:20 (“the creation was subjected to futility”) does not “solve the metaphysical and logical problems raised” by this futility it explains that it has a beginning and end.[3] It arises with finitude and contingency and taken as an end in itself this lie turned them into fools (1:22). But this futility is delimited in those who put on Christ: “the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (8:21).

Paul consigns this force to its original contingency as part of the unfolding of creation: “For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (8:22). The pain of childbirth is no more necessary to the fully formed child than the nihilo is to creation. To assign death, futility, and suffering, to part of the constitution of the finished product is to serve the futility. It is to hollow out reality with the unreality of a lie. Creations purpose fulfilled in Christ consigns this futility to a passage through suffering forgotten or subsumed by the eschatological end point of creation: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Ro 8:18).

Paul, in an appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures, depicts the advance of futility through empty human speech and its embodiment as a lie incarnate: “THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE, WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,” “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”; “WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS” (Ro 3:13–14). Paul describes the phenomenology of the lie as characterizing all forms of humanity (the original contexts of his quotations point to both Jews and Gentiles), originating as part of the universal man (the first Adam in Ro 5) and as definitive of individual human experience (Ro 7). Collective experience, universal experience, individual experience, which is inclusive of human religiosity, human sexuality, and human ethics, all fall under this futility – the exchange of the truth for a lie (Ro 1:21-23).

Hegel (and I presume Hegel is indeed the master thinker – truly summing up the alternative to Paul and the New Testament) gives primacy to human knowing (it is the true creation or outworking of spirit) while Paul presumes that this incarnate lie is an enslaving power and is not part of a creative dialectic. For Hegel enslavement necessarily precedes freedom; slave/master, nothing/something, evil/good are the terms of truth and freedom but also the substance of experience. For Paul, this presumed dualism and its defeat explains his form of dialectic in Romans 7 and Romans 9-11. There is for the individual, the law of the mind and the law of the body constituting the law of sin and death which gives way to the body of Christ (7-8), and there is the corporate experience of Jews and Gentiles fluctuating between disobedience and mercy which results in a Pauline synthesis: “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (11:32). This is not a dialectic between nothing and something but a false dialectic of the lie and disobedience defeated individually, corporately, and cosmically. The lie (disobedience, misorientation to death and the law) is countered by the truth or by the Word (the final Word of creation, the completion or fullness of creation).

The opening to Romans 6 points to sin as the slaveholder but it also indicates the perversity of the Hegelian notion that maintains the necessity of this enslavement for freedom (Ro 6:1). Even those who recognize “sin reigned in death” (5:21), are in danger of positing a dialectic between sin and grace: “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” (6:1). In both Paul and Hegel the dialectic of sin is definitive of human experience. For Hegel, perhaps the archetypical sort of Christian perverter of the Gospel Paul has in mind, the dialectic of sin is normative for Christian thought. Paul recognizes dialectic is liable to be carried over into Christian understanding at key points in 6-7. “Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” This is to allow sin to “be master over you” (6:14-15). For Hegel this explains why history is necessarily a “slaughter bench” while for Paul the violence of history definitive of human activity (3:9-18) is a futility overcome in Christ.

Paul’s description of how the dialectic arises through an orientation to the law gives rise to his pithiest dialectic formula: “Is the Law sin?” (7:7). He seems to have recognized the danger of pitting grace against law, such that the law itself is perceived as the problem (perhaps a succinct formula for the Protestant dilemma). But of course, it is not that law is the problem but sin coopts even the law of God. It is not simply that the Jewish law, due to this lie, reduces to the law of sin but all human religious and ethical striving – even the best, even that built upon God’s law, is sin possessed. Thus, Paul concludes that all are unrighteousness and all are misoriented to the law. In the progressive argument of Romans there is a flattening out of all law to the law of sin and death.

The difficulty, where sin and evil are pervasive, is to be able to name this thing – to name and recognize the idol (the ideology, the politic, the value system, or even the theology by which Paul is read) by which we measure and experience. Paul does not presume to have a place from which to begin to describe sin apart from the Gospel. The law provides an opening to sin and serves as a point of revelation only in conjunction with the Gospel. Romans opens with the good news (a proclamation of everything being made right) and part of this news concerns the universal reign of sin and death. God’s saving power (1:16-17) to redeem all of creation (8:19-23) simultaneously reveals that the world spirit is not God but the enemy defeated by Christ.

In David Bentley Hart’s depiction, for Paul we are living in the midst of transition between two worlds: “we are living in the final days of one world-age that is rapidly passing and awaiting the dawn of another that will differ from it radically in every dimension: heavenly and terrestrial, spiritual and physical.” This is a story of “invasion, conquest, spoliation, and triumph” in which “nothing less than the cosmos is at stake.”[4] The world has been made subject to death in and through some form of malign governance (“angelic” or “demonic”). These archons, or what Paul calls Thrones, Powers and Dominions, divide us off from God. Whether arising from a sub-personal or demonic realm, Christ exposed these powers and this exposure is part of their defeat. Given that evil’s modus operandi is a lie, exposure is the beginning of defeat.

Indicators that we have to do with a deadly lie, with philosophy gone bad, with corrupt powers of state, is that sin’s defeat is through life giving truth; it has to do with the transformation of the mind enabling a capacity to know and do God’s will (12:1-2), which is integrated with and gained in new forms of human community (12-15). The futility of the nihilo is displaced with hope (5:1-5; 8:24), peace displaces bloodshed (5:1; 14:17; 15:13), and joy and love displace despair and condemnation (8:1ff; 15:13). While this describes a radical alteration of human experience it is a difference grounded in an alternative reality and alternative world.

The resurrection is the opening and summing up of this world as it defeats and exposes the reign of death which saturates this world order. Cosmic and individual enslavement is a servitude to death definitive of sin and Christ’s death and resurrection dethrone death so that his followers can now face down the powers. The death dealing power can no longer separate from God.  “Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” or being “slaughtered as sheep” separate from the love of Christ? (8:35-36). There is a confrontation that continues between Jesus followers and the principalities and powers, but Jesus Christ, “He who died, yes, rather who was raised” has determined the outcome of this confrontation (8:34). “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro 8:38-39).

To miss this vision would seem to endanger the opportunity to “crush Satan under your feet” (16:20) and to instead give way in the conflict and be overcome by “deceitful men” who may pose as slaves of Christ. Paul warns, “such men are slaves, not of our Lord Christ but of their own appetites; and by their smooth and flattering speech they deceive the hearts of the unsuspecting” (16:18). These deceivers appear to be turning once again to a preference for human speech over God’s Word. How many have been drawn in by their “flattering speech” which would diminish sin and smooth it over through human speech or dialectic?

In summary, sin entered through the opening of nihilo and is accentuated and spread out through human futility. Death, the ultimate futility, entered through Adam and continues to reign through the offspring of Adam, who are its helpless victims. Sin is not a force to simply be forgiven, placated, or satisfied. It is not a force that God can overlook and it is certainly not a force humans can pass over. It is a beast before which one kneels (in the form of nations and kings), a value system by which one gauges all achievement (mammon), and an all-consuming impetus giving rise to human thought and action. It is a mode of thought passed on in this worlds wisdom and it constitutes a philosophical tradition (Colossians 2:8). It is a principal or power that is either served or defeated.

The question is if a Gospel focused on imputed righteousness (a dialectic between law and grace), penal substitution (a dialectic that presumes suffering and death accomplish God’s will through Christ), deliverance from an eternal torturous existence (a dialectic which gives primacy to futility), has anything left of the Gospel in it. In David Bentley Hart’s estimate such a gospel, may have terms “reminiscent” of those used by Paul, “at least as filtered through certain conventional translations”; but “it is a fantasy” to imagine it coincides with Paul’s Gospel. He concludes, “that a certain long history of misreadings of the Letter to the Romans . . . has created an impression of his theological concerns so entirely alien to the conceptual world he inhabited that the real Paul occupies scarcely any place at all in Christian memory.”[5] A recovery of the Gospel, lost as it has become in misreadings of Romans, will of necessity have to begin again with reading Romans.

The notion that sin primarily has to do with guilt and forgiveness or with personal deliverance or private spiritual blessing through a violent sacrifice is not simply inadequate but would seem to be part of the deception. It is deceived in its diminished depiction of sin and in its failure to realize the scope of salvation.


[1] https://scholars.unh.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1018&context=phil_facpub 105

[2] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans

[3] Bauernfeind, O. (1964–). μάταιος, ματαιότης, ματαιόω, μάτην, ματαιολογία, ματαιολόγος. G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley, & G. Friedrich (Eds.), Theological dictionary of the New Testament (electronic ed., Vol. 4, p. 523). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories, p. 373, University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

[5]Hart, p. 371-372.

Acknowledgement of the Problem of Evil as a Test of Authentic Christianity

John Piper apparently (I am quoting someone quoting – I do not have the willpower to look myself and hopefully it is all a lie) has a best-selling book explaining that the coronavirus is directly caused by God: “It is a bitter season. And God ordained it. God governs it.”[1] Piper maintains (according to my informant, who in a perfect universe would be pulling my leg), God is teaching a series of lessons (the horror of sin, divine judgment is coming, prepare for the second coming, no more self-pity, have joy, become a missionary, and I presume – vote for Trump) but of course as with all such lessons, God is having to kill off those who are paying the price for this somewhat confused lesson.  This sort of blasphemy has a specific genealogy, through John Calvin, that makes it plausible that there is such a book and such an author (to say nothing of his unfortunate readers).  

According to Calvin, what we would call evil, originates in the secret council of God: “The first man fell because the Lord deemed it meet that he should.”[2] “I freely acknowledge my doctrine to be this: that Adam fell, not only by the permission of God, but by His very secret, the council and decree …”[3] “God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.”[4] In this view, one must learn to delight in the evil caused by God and ultimately to spend an eternity rejoicing at the sight of the damned roasting in hell. There is a majority Christian tradition in which such notions were not open to consideration and if proposed would have been dismissed as sub-Christian or simply pagan. What Calvinism shares with most forms of paganism, is that evil (though it may exist as a word or a concept) is not really a problem but just part of reality (the reality of God in Calvin, or a necessary part of the cycles of karma in Hinduism).

Of course, at the existential level all humans are confronted by real world evil, but it is the Christian religion that has the most acute problem in explaining evil (unless we are counting Calvinism as Christian on this point, which I would not). As Hume states it, the problem Christians have lies in their peculiar understanding of God: “God is omnipotent and yet animals prey on each other and humans suffer all sorts of ailments. If God is willing to prevent evil but does not, then he is not God. If he is able but not willing, God is not good. If he is both willing and able, then why is there evil?” Hume’s argument may not bring the full acuity of the problem of evil to bear, as one might simply conclude there is no God (which may have been his point – though it is not clear that he was an atheist), but of course if there is no God there really is no “problem of evil,” there are just events which might be good or bad but which do not call for explanation.  

One test of whether we still have to do with the Judeo-Christian religion might, in fact, pertain to the willingness to give full voice to the problem of evil. The earliest book of the Old Testament (according to some), the book of Job, goes Hume one better. There is God, there is evil, and the impetus to provide satisfactory explanation in human free will or human evil are pointedly dismissed by God. Job’s friends have a full explanation of evil (which more or less captures every subsequent attempt at theodicy, though even they do not stoop as low as Calvin and assign evil directly to God).

 As Phillip Nemo has put it, “There is an excess of evil – it exceeds the law of the world, it exceeds the scene of the world as a technical world.” Theory and explanation are refused in Job, but what is put in place of theory is the full existential realization of the human plight. As Nemo brilliantly describes, in Job we pass from “speculative aloofness” (the friends of Job – the makers of theodicies) to “anguished situatedness.” It is the difference between the simple judgment – life passes, death comes – to a judgment of value: life passes too quickly death comes too soon. “They were borne off before their time” (22:16). Swifter than a weaver’s shuttle my days have passed” (7:6). There is a maximum amount of anxiety (“While I am speaking, my suffering remains; and when I am not, do I suffer any less” (16:6).  “If I say, ‘My bed will comfort me, my couch will soothe my pain’, you frighten me with dreams and terrify me with visions” (7:13)) – “the personage of Job suddenly appears as eternal, truer than the world.”

The vision of Job is nothing less than the Christian hope vaguely imagined: “This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27). This is not an explanation but a vision, which means it is not within the horizon of technical understanding or theory but is more of an existential comfort. But the quandary of Job or his vision more concretely recognized in Christianity does not relieve the problem of evil, in fact the problem of evil is accentuated.

Augustine’s depiction of evil as a privation, that is it has no ontological ground (as in his former faith of Manichaeism), is a step closer to the truth and set in the right context properly accentuates the problem. Yet, I would suggest, Augustine’s theory of privation has given rise to two major problems: a false notion of the real world power of evil and a multiplication of theodicies. If something is presumed to be simultaneously removed from potency and from the good, this seems to be precisely contrary, according to David Roberts, to our experience: “the more evil something is, the more powerful its acts of destruction, the more we feel its actuality . . . and the more we realize the power before which we tremble is not nothing.”

Sin as a nothing, an incapacity, located in the will might be taken as an explanatory unreality – a ground of departure for a variety of theodicies, all of which will maintain either that evil is less real than the good or that evil is the pathway to a greater good. While, as John Milbank claims, this may be doing violence to Augustine, there is certainly a long history of imagining that under Augustinian terms the good makes sense of evil. This entails, as has been demonstrated in Western thought, adherence to the doctrine of progress and the idea that good ultimately triumphs over evil in and through the outworking of their interaction. Thus, someone like John Hick holds that each person progresses through evil to the good in his own life-time and the fall was a necessary inevitability in this journey. Many will assume that free will requires evil (as an alternative, as a result, or as implicit to freedom) – all of which seems to depend on a weak (post-Augustinian (?)) notion of evil. It is not too far off to see this as resulting in Hegelian notions of idealism (the good arises from out of its interaction with evil).

Assigning evil either to privation of the will or to the necessity endured in order to have a free will, as has been done in classical theodicies, seems to ignore the diabolical (Satan inspired) nature of evil in the Bible. The basic premise of Christianity, perhaps affirmed nowhere else but fundamental to this faith, is that the world is fallen, things are not as they should be, death is unnatural, and this evil is not needed as part of a theory of the good or an impetus to progress. Working backward from Christ, we can presume evil requires supernatural intervention, precisely because it is itself unnatural or sub-natural. As David Bentley Hart has put it, “that the universe languishes in bondage to the ‘powers’ and ‘principalities’ of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the Kingdom of God . . . is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.”[5]

The problem with theodicies is that in explaining evil they imagine the world is somehow ok the way it is, the cross is not really necessary, evil and Satan are not so serious, and we lose the real presence of God in his defeat of evil and our participation in that defeat. Topics I will take up next week.


[1] Thanks Justin.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 8.                           

[3] John Calvin, On the Secret Providence of God, 267.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Ch. 23, Sect. 7.

[5] David Bentley Hart, Theological Territories (Kindle Locations 1570-1577). University of Notre Dame Press. Kindle Edition.

Are Calvinists Saved?

The question of the title (above) is, in the first instance, a Calvinist question which Calvinists have about themselves. While some have assurance of salvation, where this assurance fails or is lacking, the results can be torturous or deadly. When Jonathan Edwards’ uncle slit his own throat in the absence of this assurance, this demonstrated to Edwards himself that the “devil took the advantage, and drove him into despairing thoughts.” Soon after, many in the community of Northampton were reporting suicidal ideations. The existential realization that one is predestined for eternal damnation, selected as a vessel of wrath, the object of sovereign hatred bound for an eternity of torture, has proven unbearable for many. To imagine that the all-powerful, omnipresent, power of heaven hates you, must be several times worse than a simple, atheistic nihilism which holds that the universe is indifferent toward you. In fact, to be able to rid oneself of belief in this monstrous God and achieve a more harmless atheism would seem to be a positive moral and mental achievement.  A good friend, who concluded that he was one of the objects of wrath, a vessel of destruction, describes his descent into drug addiction and two overdoses and near-death experiences, not as a departure from God or a descent into unbelief, but due to his belief in God. It was his belief that God hated him, the living proof of which was his poverty of spirit, his condition of feeling hated and not loved, which drove him deeper into self-destructive behavior.  If salvation is entry into the benefits of the love and goodness of God, the assurance that the true, the good and the beautiful, are determinative of ultimate reality and the determinative factor in human life and destiny then Calvinism, in the second instance, is indeed an obstruction to salvation. It specifically opposes this understanding and is an obstruction to the practical realization of this reality, as God’s decisions are rendered arbitrary and unpredictable. So, my question is not polemical or sectarian but a question evoked by Calvinists and a true concern that this may be one form of the Christian faith which most effectively obstructs the core teaching of the New Testament. Far from good news, this is the worst news possible.

Calvinism is not an assurance of love, a defeat of death or the destructive drive toward death, but it inscribes death and destruction into the eternal fabric of creation and into the very nature of God. Instead of Christ defeating death and undoing death’s fatal hold upon us, Calvinism would turn the creator into the eternal source of an everlasting living death in eternal hell, made a necessity so that his glory might shine forth. In his commentary on I John, Calvin states that God is not love in his essence. Love is an anthropomorphism while wrath is an attribute flowing from God’s definitive justice.  In book 3 of The Institutes, Calvin explains that even the Fall was predestined by God – so that the fate of both the saved and the damned are preordained by God. The implication is that God is beyond our comprehension to such a degree that he might be said to be both good and evil or merely a sovereign force that makes nonsense of such categories, and anyone who experiences God as love cannot be said to have entered into a realization of the true divine essence but it is simply descriptive (in Calvin’s explanation) of human experience. If one were to make Satan into one’s God, this might be an improvement over Calvinism, as we can at least read a singular intent and goal into evil personified in the devil. Satan is not arbitrary, unpredictable, all-powerful. God in Calvinism becomes an overwhelming and unavoidable malignancy, undefeatable, imperturbable and immovable in his wrath and hatred.

The logic and mechanical like structure reflected in TULIP, even in Calvin’s own estimate, is not so much a reflection on Scripture as it is a turn inward. The presumption is that “knowledge of God and of ourselves” are “connected together by many ties,” such that to examine the self is to arrive at God: “because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”  Good lawyer that he was, and being largely innocent of the countervailing tradition of the church in its reading of the New Testament, Calvin gives us the doctrine of sin as if it is the means to salvation. Sin is an orientation to the law, captured in Paul’s phrase “the law of sin and death,” in which life is presumed to be in the law which is presumed to be determinative of God and humans. Calvin turns to himself to find the logic of the law; the incontrovertible logic needing violence and blood, made up of vengeance and wrath. The predestined damnation of the derelict needs both the derelict and the damnation to prove the power of God. Just as Napoleon once called upon one of his officers to shoot himself in the head to demonstrate his power to a visiting dignitary, God depends upon damned derelicts to demonstrate his sovereignty. Calvin explains, in Book III of the Institutes, that this is why God predestined the Fall of man so that his greatness would show forth in both arbitrary salvation and damnation. Like death itself, this arbitrary divine power cannot allow for any competing liberty or freedom. God is the power behind all that happens to people, blessed be the name of God, the great unadulterated power.

Calvinism does not speak of the undoing of death but succumbs to a worship like that of Mot, Thanatos, Santa Muerte, or the worship of death itself in that in defending the absolute sovereignty of God, transcendence collapses into identity with the realities of the world (clearly ruled by death). Tsunamis, viruses, accidents, homicides, suicides, or the inevitable march to the grave are all the will of God. The world does not possess its own liberty, people have no freedom, but everything is a product of divine power and divine power most superbly expresses itself in death, destruction, and wrath, with love reduced to a human fabrication. As David Bentley Hart notes, “God is simply the totality of all that is and all that happens; there is no creation, but only an oddly pantheistic expression of God’s unadulterated power.”

The law of sin and death taken as God’s law, results in a religion which takes on a resemblance to various cults of the dead but also to a Lacanian psychoanalytic orientation which presumes the real or death drive is the unchangeable reality of the human condition. The infinite struggle with sin posed by Calvinism is precisely the Lacanian picture of the symbolic order of the law pitted against the imaginary or egoistic order. As in Paul’s explanation, law is felt as the inexorable controlling power in life so that all of one’s desires, all of one’s mental and bodily effort, might be described as a working out (an agonistic fight with oneself) of this seemingly sovereign power in one’s life. God is mistaken for the law in Paul’s definition of sin, and this means that one must reinforce the good through the evil. Paul gives some four formulas for this perverse understanding each of which might be mistaken for Calvinist doctrine: evil establishes the good, sin makes grace abound, or the law is sin itself. This dualism is read into God and is lived out in the struggle for salvation – a continual grasping after an ultimately unattainable object – which Paul describes as being subject to the “body of death.”

A mind conditioned to imagine this wickedness is Christianity is in a worse estate than a sincere pagan who has never heard but may still hear of the good news. The good news of God’s love falls on deaf ears as this Calvinist mind has been twisted to believe that a moral hideousness is a paradox that one must swallow so as to be saved. Only the blessed have this insight, and I suppose as with the satisfaction of belonging to the most elite club, part of the satisfaction (as Calvin testifies) is to delight in the suffering of the masses. This translates into the health and wealth notion that the blessing of possessing wealth is made clear by those who are dispossessed – after-all money only works in a zero-sum game. So too Calvinist salvation, the few, the elect, possess at the expense and through contrast with the damned.  

The price of admission to this elite club is to believe in the contradiction that this morally hideous God is good and then to submit to the notion that ultimate injustice is justice. This was demonstrated on Sunday to Faith and I in a documentary, I will not name, for fear someone may watch it. In this portrayal there are two options: one can either accept the basic tenets of Calvinism or one can give up on the true Christian faith. As John MacArthur puts it, if a person does not hold to penal substitution he cannot be saved. He acknowledges that one might not understand penal substitution and still make it in, but a clear sign that one is damned is if they reject this damnable doctrine. The focus of the documentary is to suggest that there are those (e.g. Rob Bell, Richard Rohr) who do not accept the Calvinist version of God’s justice and wrath, but they apparently do so on the basis of their own willfulness. No mention is made of the large majority of Christians in the world who are not Calvinist and who do not accept penal substitution. In place of this, one Calvinist after another gives us a “universal” opinion gained by sheer repetition and multiplied singular opinion.

The result was a feeling that these people were either dishonest or profoundly ignorant of world Christianity and Christian tradition. What the documentary succeeded in demonstrating to me, is the large population that imagines that their moral idiocy might only be appreciated by those who might mistake contradiction and incoherence for profundity. For the first time I appreciated how Richard Rohr, Rob Bell, or Bart Campolo (who is an honest atheist), might be taken as a breath of fresh air or a positive relief from the stifling religious nihilism being passed off as a more nuanced faith. Any voice, any counter narrative, any note of objection, came to be a relief from the noxious smugness and presumed moral superiority of the heretical proselytizing. Given the options posed by the film, I understood how happy flakiness is certainly preferable to moral and spiritual insipidness. If this is the actual option posed to most people, I think I better understand this cultural and political moment. But of course, this is a false choice.

The primary doctrine of biblical Christianity is that the law of sin and death and all that it includes – evil, suffering, violence, the orientation to death marking human moral failing – are not the tools of God but precisely that which Christ came to destroy and that which God opposes. The person of God made manifest in Christ reveals the life, love, beauty, and goodness of God, without admixture of evil. Where Calvin does not allow for any clear distinction between what God wills and what he permits (though he speaks of God’s permissive will it is still the will of God), the New Testament pictures a world in which human choice has profound consequences for both good and evil. God in Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world but to deliver it from willful evil, sin and death. In the words of Hart, “For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God.”[1]

Be assured the choice is not that maybe Jesus died for you or maybe he didn’t. In this understanding, statistically your chances are poor and experientially you may one day realize you are damned – or maybe you already have this confirmation. The good news is that God loves you, and there is no question, no qualification, no obstacle that can obstruct this love (Romans 8:38-39).


[1] The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?