An Apocalyptic Atonement

(Part 2 Introducing the Course on Sin and Salvation)

Once sin is defined as a deception with cosmic implications (e.g., as in cosmic bondage to oppressive structures of racism, nationalism, capitalism, etc.) an apocalyptic breaking in of truth and redemption is the only alternative. It is apocalypticism, in contrast to legal theory (which accommodates the structures of oppression), that takes full account of real-world evil and its defeat and gives full accord to Christ as the center of history. But what sort of Apocalyptic? Apocalyptic theology, as an alternative to a Lutheran (contractual) reading, or a salvation history approach (represented by N. T. Wright and others), presents a largely unified front in what it is not. While this departure (from the legalistic/historic) is key, there has been less work done in providing a full coherence to an apocalyptic approach. A focus on bondage to deception and liberation through Christocentric truth fills out this need.

Filling Out the Coherence and Positive Aspect of Apocalyptic Theology

In Paul’s depiction, deception explains the simultaneous possibility for cosmic (all creation is subject to futility) and personal alienation (they exchanged the truth for a lie) and enslavement. To claim that we are fostered in deception and darkness might seem to be a religious abstraction, but concrete descriptions of how we are captive to culture, to capitalism, nationalism, sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, paints a picture of seemingly inescapable determinism. So too, it may seem unlikely that satanic forces (literal or metaphorical) control the world but then description of the enslaving force as elementary principles of the world, thrones and political powers, spiritual and human forces, the very way we think, might result in the counter-inclination to claim this matrix (constituting the Subject) is impenetrable and irredeemable. So, apocalypse takes seriously the problem resolved through an apocalyptic breaking in.

The widespread notion in the ancient world, which Paul is clearly opposing (in Gal. 3:28 and 6:15), is that the origins or the fundamental building blocks of the universe are based on opposed pairs. As Louis Martyn notes, “He is denying real existence to an antinomy in order to show what it means to say that the old cosmos has suffered its death. He says in effect that the foundation of the cosmos has been subjected to a volcanic explosion that has scattered the pieces into new and confusing patterns.” The cosmos founded on opposed pairs (which for Paul was universal), no longer exists. “For when all of you were baptized into Christ, you put on Christ as though he were your clothing. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female; for all of you are One in Christ Jesus” (3:27–28). Those in Christ, in rightly recognizing the condition, have suffered the loss of the cosmos for the unity (the new cosmic order) found in Christ.

Of course, what is lost is not God’s good creation but a punishing order of understanding (the opposed pairs need oppression). The work of the cross breaks the captive power of the old age (in which death and law reigned), and in his life Jesus enacts the peaceful life (the disempowering cruciform identity) which, as Mary’s song proclaims, “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty’” (Luke 1:52-3). Jesus can walk through the barriers put up by the symbolic order as easily as walking through doors or as permanently as being raised from the dead. The resurrection type life (which Paul describes “as if not” in regard to cosmic law) suspends the violent necessity of the old dialectic age. The Hutterites will refer to this experience as Gelassenheit, a term carried over from mysticism which means “having-let-go-ness.” As with Paul’s “as if not” there is an abandonment of self-concern or self-affirmation and a relinquishing of the desire to be in charge or to rule over things. This view from the bottom puts all things in a new perspective.

The Cross Exposing the Lynching Tree

In the American experience it is not Jew/Gentile so much as white/black which grounds the symbolic order. As James Baldwin describes it, “I was also able to see that the principles governing the rites and customs of the churches in which I grew up did not differ from the principles governing the rites and customs of other churches, white.” The punishing law is still in place. “I would love to believe that the principles were Faith, Hope, and Charity, but this is clearly not so for most Christians, or for what we call the Christian world.” Baldwin describes a Christianity that “has operated with an unmitigated arrogance and cruelty” as it has identified itself with “the realm of power.” The dominance of the value system of the ruling culture emptied the gospel for Baldwin and he is left under the crushing weight of the symbolic order thrust upon him.

James Cone however, describes the cross as enabling the lifting of the anger and pain entailed in black oppression. “The more I read about and looked at what whites did to powerless blacks, the angrier I became. Paradoxically, anger soon gave way to a profound feeling of liberation. The countless acts of violence enacted on black bodies in lynching and murder brought Cone to a definitive choice: “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, suffering and excluded. “Being able to write about lynching liberated me from being confined by it. The cross helped me to deal with the brutal legacy of the lynching tree, and the lynching tree helped me to understand the tragic meaning of the cross.” 

 Law establishes itself through the power of exclusion, the exception upon which the rule is built (e.g., the exclusion of blacks, or Jews, or strangers).  In confronting the law, Christ suffers the ultimate exclusion, and is not afforded the protection of Jewish or Roman law. Homo sacer (the one excluded from humanity) 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 rule and rulers of the city. This, of course, describes who killed Christ and why. He dies outside the city of man, beyond law and religion, reduced on the cross to bare life (biological life, not fully human). Christ as the exception, however, forever exposes the basis upon which inclusion and universality are constructed.  The Subject dependent upon the law and dependent on the city of man requires homo sacer, the lynched, the crucified, the erased, as this violence secures his identity. In Paul’s depiction, the wall of hostility which constitutes the lawful Subject has been broken down by Christ.

The Violent Subject Exposed by the Cross

This is a psychological and anthropological insight (inclusive of epistemological insight), grasped by Søren Kierkegaard (if expressed in a slightly different idiom). Do we learn this truth (of Christ), Kierkegaard asks, as if we are constituted a learning Subject prior to the founding of this subjectivity? This knowing does not reason to the truth but from the truth. The truth determines the form of reason. The truth, Kierkegaard concludes is in the relation to God, who constituted the whole relation, and falsehood or the sickness unto death (the violence of the Subject) is to imagine that this one who relates would found the relation within himself (that the truth is in self-relation, a cosmic truth). His so-called “fideism” is the apocalyptic refusal to subject God’s Self-revelation to a method incapable of receiving knowledge of God. God has acted in his Self-revelation to constitute new Subjects.

Recreation From Nothing

The encounter with Christ is not simply an improvement on the present human situation. It is not simply the attainment of forgiveness or relief from guilt, nor is Christ’s death a vicarious payment for sin. In this contractual understanding, the law, the cosmos, or the old order, provides an entry point into the new creation. Paul is arguing that no one has any ground left to stand on. In fact, all of these explanations of Christ (in Galatians) could be framed as part of the false gospel being taught by the teachers Paul is opposing. They want to make of the Gospel a covenantal nomism, in which Christ has met the requirements of the law, so righteousness has been obtained on the basis of keeping covenant through the law. Paul’s Gospel opposes this partial gospel with the pronouncement that the malevolent grasp of the old-world order is finished. Christ has liberated from slavery through his cross. The lie is displaced by the truth, as “by the cross the cosmos has been crucified to me and I have been crucified to the cosmos” (Gal. 2:19; 5:24; 6:14). Circumcision is nothing, Jewishness is nothing, Gentileness is nothing, gender is nothing, ethnicity is nothing, philosophy is nothing, as what is taking place is on the order of creation from nothing, but the nothing is exposed in light of the new creation: “For neither is circumcision anything nor is uncircumcision anything. What is something is the new creation” (6:14–15; my translation).

Enroll in the course, Sin and Salvation: An in-depth study of sin and salvation with a focus on the meaning of the atonement (2022/1/31–2022/3/25).

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.