The Violence of the Law Which Killed Christ

The depiction of Matthew is that the violent would take the kingdom of God by force (Matt. 11:12). This verse marks the transition from Jesus to John the Baptist, which in John is accompanied with the comment that “the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (Jn. 1:17). According to Paul, the period of violence, in which the kingdom would be violently manipulated through the “hostility” of the law is exposed and defeated by the one who “is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).  As John the Baptist explains upon seeing Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Here is the victim of violence who takes away the violence of the world; the Lamb who absorbs and defeats the violence. The explanation comes in verse 18: “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18). Jesus is the full explanation or message or exegesis of God. The difference between Jesus and the law defines his message: the law does not take away violence and sin, but in John’s depiction violent men will kill Jesus following their understanding of the dictates of the law. In this killing and being killed is the problem and solution of sin.

As Walter Benjamin depicts the law, it is established through violence and enforced through violence and apart from violence there would be no law.[1] This may seem an unlikely statement, but Benjamin demonstrates the law obscures its inherent violence.

In the notion of natural law (a body of unchanging moral principles), the end point of the law is to establish justice and morality, and violence is a justified means to this end. The violence cannot be posited as part of the goal (as an end) but is presumed to be the means to an end.  For example, the Jews invade the promised land and commit genocide so that their nation and law might be established. White people came to the Americas and obliterated the populations of brown and red people who are excluded by this founding of the law. The law is being inaugurated from out of this originary violence. The question does not arise in natural law whether violence “could be a moral means even to just ends” but violence is taken as a raw datum – a fact of nature or a necessary means. The deployment of violent means to just ends is “no greater problem than perceived in a man’s right to move his body in the direction of a desired goal.” The way you get from point A to point B is the movement of violence. Violence is a “raw material” or means “the use of which is in no way problematical unless force is misused for unjust ends.”

Though Benjamin sees this as a problem predating the modern, he references Darwinian evolution as “rekindling” the presumed naturalness of violence in the modern age. Darwin’s biology, he maintains, “regards violence as the only original means, besides natural selection, appropriate to all the vital ends of nature.” It is a short step from the popular notion of natural history “to the still cruder one of legal philosophy, which holds that the violence that is, almost alone, appropriate to natural ends is thereby also legal.” Just as peace is established through war so too final justice calls for final solutions. And of course, the holocaust (the final solution of the Nazis) looms around Benjamin’s text in our backward-looking perspective.

On the other hand, positive law or those laws created by and passed down through human institutions, presume that violence is a product of history. Violence is certainly part of the means in positive law, but the violence is thought to be a regulative violence. This “limited” violence is judged legal according to its application and who applies it. Where natural law judges in terms of ends, positive law is focused on means. The presumption is that just means will automatically bring about just ends. Where in natural law, the ends justify the means, in positive law, the means justifies the end. The paradox or blindness is created in the two sides of the law, in which in neither instance is the role of violence ultimately questioned.

The inherent injustice is rendered visible when natural law and positive law are set side by side. The understanding that the inauguration of law is through an originary law-making violence exposes the true nature of law-preserving violence. For example, the United States constitutes itself as a legal entity only in denying or deconstituting subjection to the British monarch. If the United States had lost the Revolutionary War, the entire notion of independence would have been illegal. Perhaps the chief perpetrator of the crimes against the monarchy, George Washington, would have been declared the chief criminal, and executed according to the law (law-preserving). To constitute a state is to simultaneously defy the law, and to imagine a people not yet formed as the constituting entity. The violence will have been legal only in the case of victory.

This founding violence is not disconnected from law-preserving violence, as it is always possible for violence to get out of hand. The laws of the state must be enforced for the state to continue to exist. The law founds and preserves the state through the same violence, so that law enforcement is foundational both at the beginning and in the continuation of the state. Benjamin’s point is that what seems to be two forms of violence (law founding and law enforcement) cannot be separated. The law is always in the process of being constituted and legitimated through violence.

 The modern police force demonstrates the overlap in that, though they are thought to be about law enforcement, certain situations call for discretionary judgements which, like the founding violence of the law, will have been made legitimate (in hindsight) because the police embody the law. Just as a king is not able to break the law (he is the embodiment of the law), unless his rule is overturned, so too the police retain a semblance of this original embodiment, if not in theory at least in practice. They are always in the business of establishing the law, and in establishing it making it legitimate.

When the police rob and terrorize citizens, as happened over a long period in Baltimore, it becomes very difficult to bring the law to bear upon the law. In Baltimore, as in the Nation as a whole, this was largely due to the fact that police brutality was focused on the black population. “The fact that the legal order not only countenanced but sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation’s history-and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order-set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day.”[2] The black population bears similarities to the Jewish population in Nazi Germany or the Native American population in the period of discovery and settlement. The force of the law makes its primary mark in excluding those who fall outside of the law’s protection.

In the New Testament, Ephesians brings out the inherent hostility of the Jewish law in the portrayal of antagonism of Jews toward Gentiles. Christ “broke down the barrier of the diving wall” as he “abolished the enmity, which is the Law” (Eph. 2:14-15). The Jewish law was built upon exclusion of Gentiles, as this exclusion was definitive of what it meant to be a Jew. The markers of the law in sabbath keeping, in the food laws, and in circumcision, marked out the Jews. The Jews were marked in the flesh, they were marked through special time, and they were marked by special food. Gentiles did not fall within but stood outside of Jewish law. Roman law functioned in a similar manner through the special mark of crucifixion. Roman citizens were those protected from crucifixion and those who could be put on crosses were not counted as citizens.

This explains who killed Christ (the law enforcers) and why. The sabbath law, the laws of cleanliness and restricted association (no Samaritans or Gentiles allowed), the rules governing the sacredness of the Temple, and the laws against blasphemy are all going to be leveraged by the Jews to kill Christ. As Jesus explains, this is a fulfillment of their law: “But they have done this to fulfill the word that is written in their Law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (John 15:25). Their use of the law blinds them to their violence.

The Psalm Jesus is referencing directly links the action of the persecutors to a lie: “More in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; mighty are those who would destroy me, those who attack me with lies” (Ps. 69.4). As the Psalm describes, those doing the persecuting have a murderous zeal for the temple which consumes their victim (69:9). It is their zeal for the sacrificial system rather than a true understanding of God’s desire that has them persecute and oppress this messianic figure. The prayer of the Psalm is answered in Christ as “their own table before them [has] become a snare” and “their sacrificial feasts [have] become a trap” (v. 22). The Jews would destroy the true Temple and the true embodiment of the law to preserve their law. In the end, the Jews forsake their own religion and national messianic hopes by proclaiming, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). In order to fulfill their zeal for the law by killing Jesus, they forsake their law and religion.

 The Romans, in the person of Pilate, would mock Jewish pretensions to independent nationalism by declaring Jesus the Jewish King and then having him beaten and crowned with thorns. The crown of thorns, the royal robes, the declaration of Jesus as King of the Jews, may be Pilates means of deriding all things Jewish. The Romans are going to do their part in destroying the Temple, as Pilate is concerned to quell an insurrection by enforcing Roman justice, despite his own declaration that Jesus is innocent (John 19:4). He is afraid of uncontrolled violence should insurrection occur.

When the Jews appear before Pilate, he tells them to judge him according to their own law (John 18:31). They later indicate that this is precisely what they have done: “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God’” (John 19:7). This frightens Pilate, as this is to usurp not only Jewish law but the foundation of Roman law, embodied in the son of God – Caesar. Roman law and Jewish law converge then, in the necessity of killing Jesus. The Jewish high priest speaks for both Jews and Romans in proclaiming, “it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (John 11:50).

In Giorgio Agamben’s depiction, the supposed universal condition of law 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.” The power of the state or sovereign power establishes itself through this power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built.[3] 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.

Jesus dies outside of the city, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to bare life. Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and law are constructed.

“For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:14-16).

Jewish law, Roman law, and the universal violence of law are defeated, for he has abolished the enmity of the law, he has broken down the hostility of the law, and he Himself is our peace. Law-founding and law-preserving combine to destroy the One who embodies the true law of love but, as indicated in the Temple incident, out of this destruction Christ raises up the true Temple of peace.


[1] Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Vol. 1 19-3-1926 (The Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England 1996) this single article can be accessed at https://fswg.files.wordpress.com/2015/04/benjamin-critique-of-violence-new-translation.pdf What may be less obvious is how the United States “War on Terror” or even the “War on Drugs” implies and justifies holocaust like violence as a justified means toward a just end. For a goal as illusive as a pure race, the destruction of all terrorists, the end of the drug trade, all out and continual violence is seemingly justified.

[2] Hubert Williams and Patrick V. Murphy, “The Evolving Strategy of Police: A Minority View” in Perspectives on Policing, (Published by the U. S. Department of Justice, no. 13, January  1990).

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

The God of Empire Versus the God of Passion

There is something of an endless debate about God within the major branches of the Christian faith – What role for Greek conceptions of God? Does the Spirit proceed from the Father or from the Father and the Son? How is the Father involved in the work of the Son and how do we conceive their difference, etc. etc.? East, West, Protestant, Lutheran, Calvinist, are largely defined by the perceived differences (real and imagined) in regard to fundamental issues about how and what we know about God. These divisions though, may be shaped by more subtle sociological concerns. Sarah Coakley, following Ernst Troeltsch, divides the sociological contexts between church, sect, and mysticism and sees the sociological as throwing additional light on theological emphasis. She sees certain forms of trinitarianism as cohering with particular types of ecclesiastical organization. For example, focus on pneumatology is unlikely to accompany strong patriarchal social and political contexts – given the individualistic, mystical, and “feminine” role of the Spirit. [1] Throughout the history of the church, the more settled the institution (the church type), the more unmoved, settled, and distant, the conception and perceived experience of God. The focus on the Spirit and the experientialism of mysticism have tended to be segregated from the theology of the church type. The adaptation of the Aristotelian concept of God (the Unmoved Mover), came with adaptation to empire, hierarchy, and institutions meant to endure by dint of their alignment with worldly power.

Giorgio Agamben describes the rise of two orders of church, each consisting of its own conceptual and experiential reality. In the biblical mandate, the church is to dwell on the earth as an exile or sojourner captured in the Greek verb paroikein, as in the description of I Peter 1:17 – “the time of sojourning.” In this imagery truth is discovered along the way – or truth is the way (viatorum). The sojourner church stands in contrast to the settled church, which takes on the look of a city, state, kingdom, or empire – captured in the Greek verb katoikein. The katoikia church is built to last, and as opposed to the paroikein church, is not geared to the parousia or the coming of Christ, as it has put down roots in the world. The parousia, in Agamben’s conception, is not in the future or deferred but speaks of the immediate experience of time (fundamental human experience).  In the true church (Agamben counts the institution as we have it an imposter), every moment bears the possibility of the inbreaking of the Messiah, made impossible by the katoikia church.[2]

Agamben locates the point of departure from the biblical church within early debates about the Trinity. The distinction between the immanent (ad intra – or God’s self-relation) and economic (God’s relation to creation) Trinity accounts for the development of western politics and economics. However, according to Agamben, this secularizes theology even before there is a secular order: “from the beginning theology conceives divine life and the history of humanity as an oikonomia (economy), that is, that theology is itself ‘economic’ and did not simply become so at a later time through secularization.” Where the political order can lay claim to a first order power relation, Christian’s (through this theological maneuvering) only have to do with an economy (a second order of experience).[3] While one may not agree with the sweep of Agamben’s critique, his depiction parallels Coakley’s sociological contextualization of theology.  

In the 20th century there have been a variety of attempts to correct this theological failure precisely where it had the greatest impact. Where the church (at least the church type, with its institutions) failed in Germany with National Socialism, this gave rise to striking theological innovation. Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer turn from the characteristic church type dogmatic speculation to a Christocentric point of departure.

 Bonhoeffer in his lectures on Christology locates the Logos, not in the realm of the transcendent. He claims “this will inevitably constitute that Logos as an object for human logos, locating it within the territory of things about which we can ask ‘how is it possible?’ or ‘how does it work?'” As Bonhoeffer puts it, “the question is no longer ‘how?’ but ‘who?’ Who is it that I confront when I look at Jesus? But also, and equally importantly, ‘Who am I?'”[4]

Bonhoeffer depicts the question of the person of Christ as challenging his self-understanding: “When a human being confronts Jesus, the human being must either die or kill Jesus.”[5] The reality of Jesus creates its own context and terms of engagement. Jesus is not Socrates, reminding us of what we already know, but he creates the conditions for knowing him as these conditions do not otherwise exist. He is what he teaches.

Picturing the Logos as on the order of the Aristotelian difference (the apathetic God) is simply to accommodate divine revelation to the human word. “The divine revealed as overwhelming power or unconstrained agency as we understand those things will not recreate us, re-beget us; it will not require the death of our logos.” This sort of God simply accommodates our instincts about the absolute Other, the humanly conceived difference of divinity. If we do not accept the death of the human logos, we will deploy it in defeat of the divine Logos.[6]

Of course Christ allows for his death. He is not a rival to my will or my word. It is precisely his kenotic humility – “taking the form of a slave” (not just being incarnate) that challenges the foundation (foundationalism) of my selfhood. Though it is not as if there is any actually existing foundation – this is simply the “poisonous fiction” that must die or the pride that must fail.[7]

 One of the sharpest German attempts at a revisionist understanding came from Jurgen Moltmann, who begins his book on the Trinity by recounting how Greek notions of God effectively corrupted the Christian faith. He suggests that where Greek philosophy has been deployed in conceiving of God, “then we have to exclude difference, diversity, movement and suffering from the divine nature.” He names the resultant heresy of nominalism (God cannot be known in his essence) as giving us a God that is so far from us (impassible and immovable in his remoteness), such that apathetic portrayal of God has trumped the importance of the person and work of Christ. He concludes that, “down to the present-day Christian theology has failed to develop a consistent Christian concept of God? And that instead . . . it has rather adopted the metaphysical tradition of Greek philosophy, which it understood as ‘natural theology’ and saw as its own foundation.” By allowing the “apathetic axiom” to prevail over the person and work of Christ, God became “the cold, silent and unloved heavenly power.”[8]

Moltmann poses the following choice: either the apathetic God prevails and the passion of Christ is seen as “the suffering of the good man from Nazareth,” or the passion of Christ prevails and divine apatheia is no longer determinative. Within this second alternative, Moltmann points out that his depiction of suffering entails a two-fold rejection: the Greek depiction of the divine incapacity for suffering, and suffering defined as incapacity or deficiency. “But there is a third form of suffering: active suffering – the voluntary laying oneself open to another and allowing oneself to be intimately affected by him; that is to say, the suffering of passionate love.”

Without passion God would be incapable of love. Moltmann develops the two-fold meaning of passion – inclusive of passionate desire and the suffering passion of Christ. If God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of any form of passion or love. As Aristotle puts it, he would at most be capable of loving himself, but not of loving another as himself. But if he is capable of loving something else, then he lays himself open to the suffering which love for another brings; yet, by virtue of his love, he remains master of the pain that love causes him to suffer. “God does not suffer out of deficiency of being, like created beings. To this extent he is ‘apathetic’. But he suffers from the love which is the superabundance and overflowing of his being. In so far he is ‘pathetic’.” [9] God is love and his is not a cold love (as if there is such a thing), but the passionate love revealed in Christ.

Sarah Coakley cites Moltmann as an influence in her turn to desire, sex and gender in conceptualization of the Trinity.[10] However, what Coakley avoids and Moltmann spells out, is the historical and theological challenge to notions of divine apathy entailed in discussions of passion. Moltmann finds in Jewish theology and Origen precedent for his depiction of the suffering of the Father as a necessary part of the love of God.

Origen describes the suffering of God in his exposition of Romans 8:32, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all.”  “In his mercy God suffers with us, for he is not heartless.” In his explanation, Origen equates the love of God with the necessity of suffering:

He (the Redeemer) descended to earth out of sympathy for the human race. He took our sufferings upon Himself before He endured the cross – indeed before He even deigned to take our flesh upon Himself; for if He had not felt these sufferings [beforehand] He would not have come to partake of our human life. First of all He suffered, then He descended and became visible to us. What is this passion which He suffered for us? It is the passion of love {Caritas est passio). And the Father Himself, the God of the universe, ‘slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy’ (Ps. 103.8), does He not also suffer in a certain way? Or know you not that He, when He condescends to men, suffers human suffering? For the Lord thy God has taken thy ways upon Him ‘as a man doth bear his son’ (Deut. 1.31). So God suffers our ways as the Son of God bears our sufferings. Even the Father is not incapable of suffering {Ipse pater non est itnpassibilis). When we call upon him, He is merciful and feels our pain with us. He suffers a suffering of love, becoming something which because of the greatness of his nature He cannot be, and endures human suffering for our sakes.[11]

As Moltmann explains, Origen’s talk of God’s suffering means the suffering of love; the compassion of mercy and pity. The merciful person taking pity on another participates in the suffering of the one he pities, “he takes the other’s sufferings on himself, he suffers for others.” For Origen this is the suffering of God, “the suffering of the Father who in giving up his ‘own Son’ (Rom. 8.32) suffers the pain of redemption.” The Father is not removed from the suffering of the Son, anymore than he can be said to be removed from the passion or desire of God. Origen depicts the divine passion of Christ as inclusive of the divine passion between the Father and the Son in the Trinity. “The suffering of love does not only affect the redeeming acts of God outwards; it also affects the trinitarian fellowship in God himself.”[12]

Origen predates the distinction and Moltmann and Coakley, in varying forms, would equate the economic and immanent Trinity. Moltmann notices in Origen what Coakley notices in Romans 8, that it is precisely in conjunction with suffering that the Trinitarian nature of God is most clearly delineated.  Like Coakley and Paul, Moltmann also locates the apprehension and participation in the suffering of God in prayer.

Moltmann though, references a Jewish mystical tradition in which praying the Shema is the uniting of God: “To acknowledge God’s unity – the Jew calls it uniting God. For this unity is, in that it becomes; it is a Becoming Unity. And this Becoming is laid on the soul of man and in his hands.”

Franz Rosenzweig takes up this notion to describe an Old Testament and Jewish conception of the suffering of God:

Mysticism builds its bridge between ‘the God of our fathers’ and ‘the remnant of Israel’ with the help of the doctrine of the Shekinah. The Shekinah, the descent of God to man and his dwelling among them, is thought of as a divorce which takes place in God himself. God himself cuts himself off from himself, he gives himself away to his people, he suffers with their sufferings, he goes with them into the misery of the foreign land, he wanders with their wanderings . . . God himself, by ‘selling himself to Israel – and what should be more natural for ‘the God of our Fathers’! – and by suffering her fate with her, makes himself in need of redemption. In this way, in this suffering, the relationship between God and the remnant points beyond itself.”[13]

Just as in Romans 8, so too in the Jewish conception, prayer inserts the one praying within the communion of God. The Jewish depiction is an estrangement or suffering into which God enters, and the estrangement is overcome through those reflecting the Shekinah to God through prayer. Moltmann explains, estrangement is also overcome “through the acts of the good, which are directed towards the overcoming of evil and the establishment of the future harmony of the one world. That is the meaning of the Hebrew word tikkun (world repair).”[14]

Theology proper (talk of God) cannot begin in the abstract, which inevitably depends upon the human logos, but in the fact that God has opened himself to human experience and human suffering, becoming human that humans might participate in the divine. But it is the primacy of God’s love and not human suffering that determines the course of God’s suffering love. The passion of Christ as point of departure suspends talk of an economic and immanent Trinity, with the first order (the ontological reality) of God removed from the contingencies of the second order (the economic). The economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, though as Coakley notes, this does not mean that God is reduced to what is revealed, as “there must be that which God is which eternally ‘precedes’ God’s manifestation to us.”[15] However, speculation about what “precedes” Christ cannot be given precedent over the revealed truth given in Christ.


[1] Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self (p. 156-157). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Giorgio Agamben, The Church and the Kingdom, trans. by Leland de la Durantaye (Seagull Books, 2012).

[3] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government (Meridian: Crossing Aesthetics) (p. 3). Stanford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[4] The Bonhoeffer Reader, ed. Clifford]. Green and Michael P. Dejonge, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013. Cited in Rowan Williams, Christ the Heart of Creation, (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2018), 185.

[5] Reader, 268.

[6] Williams, 187-188.

[7] Williams, 190-191.

[8] Jurgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (First Fortress Press edition, 1993) 21-22.

[9] Moltmann, 22-23.

[10] Sarah Coakley, “The Trinity and gender reconsidered,” in God’s Life in Trinity (ed. Miroslav Volf and Michael Welker, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2006).

[11] Homilia VI in Ezechielem (MPG XIII, 714 f). Cited in Moltmann, 24.

[12] Moltmann, 24.

[13] F. Rosenzweig, Der Stern der Erlösung, III, 3rd ed., Heidelberg 1954, pp. 192ff. Cited in Moltmann, 29.

[14] Moltmann, 29.

[15] Coakley

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.

Only One King Can Judge: Jesus “Trial” As the Suspension of Sovereign Judgment

In the trial of Jesus in the Gospel of John no judgment is ever formally declared. Beyond this, there is an ambiguity as to who is acting as judge. Jesus is not being judged by Pilate, at least in any formal sense, as Pilate is going to refuse to pronounce judgment.  Pilate attempts to follow his wife’s advice, to “have nothing to do with this man,” and so he “washes his hands” of the affair by simply turning the matter over to the Jews. He suggests to the Jews, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him” (19:6, NASB). This is more of a taunt on the part of Pilate, for he knows they have no power to crucify and are precisely forbidden by Roman law to try capital cases and their own law forbids crucifixion.  Pilate claims there is “no case” against the man and so he cannot pass judgment and there is to be no trial. When the Jews begin to yell, “Crucify him,” Pilate reiterates that there is “no case” against the man.  The Jewish leaders then suggest that, though he may not have broken Roman law, Jesus has broken Jewish law by claiming to be the Son of God.  For Pilate, this is one more turn of the screw, he becomes “even more afraid.”  Pilate, as I build the case below, seems to suspect he is the one undergoing trial and judgment.   Continue reading “Only One King Can Judge: Jesus “Trial” As the Suspension of Sovereign Judgment”