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.

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.

Christ as the True Vitruvian Man: An Affirmation of the Cosmic Christ and a Critique of Richard Rohr

Not all visions of the Cosmic Christ are of equal value and some stray off into the panentheistic “flow” to such a degree that one might mistake his dog for Christ or the creature for the Creator. Perhaps I need to restate and clarify my previous blog. While the Franciscans and Barth in the West have retained and developed elements of an Eastern Orthodox sensibility (my previous point), I did not mean to conflate Duns Scotus’s understanding, for example, with the best of Eastern Christology. The accusation leveled at Scotus is that his univocity of being led to the notion that an immanent frame of understanding is self-grounding and adequate. The argument of Radical Orthodoxy is that Scotus’s conception of the univocity of being led to the Enlightenment expulsion of God, as nature’s explanation lies within.

Richard Rohr’s embrace and development of Scotus’s univocity of being illustrates precisely what John Milbank and his Radical Orthodox colleagues warned, rightly or wrongly, are implicit in Scotus’s thought. As Rohr boils it down, because Scotus “believed we can speak ‘with one voice’ (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God” we arrive at the conclusion, “Our DNA is . . . divine.”[1] The implication is that just as a swimmer should “be able to be the river” we are all in the flow of God and we need to realize we are God (Rohr slightly nuances this). This reading of Scotus seems to fall under John Milbank’s critique, that Scotism seems to put God and man in competition in the same space for power – a notion connected to the rise of secularism.

As Daniel Horan has pointed out in his book length work on Milbank and Scotus, Milbank presumes univocity constitutes a metaphysics but Scotus deploys this understanding only in discussions of logic, semantics, and epistemology, not as an alternative to analogy, but as an explanation of analogy.[2] Radical Orthodoxy however, would be unimpressed with Horan’s fine distinction, as in Milbank’s view it is not possible to separate epistemology from metaphysics as epistemology implies a particular metaphysics. But my point is not to defend Milbank’s reading of Scotus.

If Milbank’s critique does not to apply to Scotus, it would seem that it hits the mark with Rohr, who claims to be an expositor of Scotus.  Rohr concludes that univocity refers precisely to metaphysics: “We are already connected to everything—inherently, objectively, metaphysically, ontologically, and theologically.” [3] While Rohr seems intent on reenchanting the universe he has struck upon an odd formula, the very formula many point to as giving rise to the disenchanting of the universe in the first place. Whether the genealogy of secularism runs directly through Scotus, or Scotus and Occam to Protestantism, the point is that the very thing Scotus is accused of is precisely the way Rohr understands him.

This is a long way from Maximus the Confessor’s presentation of cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, finding harmony in a unified Christology. Maximus maintains that the creation reflects the glory of God and that humans can raise the degree of creation’s participation in this glory. As Lars Thunberg states, “His system of theology was in fact a spiritual vision of the cosmos, of human life within that cosmos, and therefore of the economy of salvation, the salvific interplay between the human and the divine.”[4] There is participation, interplay, a lifting up into participation in the divine. This participation contrasts with Rohr’s notion of univocity in which, “We all participate in the same being. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), and thus reality is one too (Ephesians 4:3-5).”[5] The participation seems to be automatic and built in and is not simply analogous reflection and a participation to which one rises. No subtleties here. Which brings me to my point in illustrating the Cosmic Christ as a displacement of the Vitruvian Man.

My illustration of the Cosmic Christ as the true Vitruvian Man (in my previous blog), Jonathan pointed out to me, is riddled with problems (a discussion we take up with Matt in our upcoming podcast). The potential problems Jonathan had with my illustration are not so different from the problems I would have with some of Richard Rohr’s illustrations and conceptions. So, not so much in an effort to answer Jonathan’s objections or to save my illustration but to point to the issues at stake in how we comprehend the Cosmic Christ, I want to defend my argument for displacing the Vitruvian Man with Christ. I have no particular attachment to the illustration, but the very issues it raises pertain to a proper comprehension of the Cosmic Christ.

What Leonardo, or Vitruvius before him, were attempting (implicitly if unconsciously) in the Vitruvian Man, was to describe the coherence of things presumed in Christianity but they sought this coherence within an immanent frame (the human frame quite literally). The secularizing element (which would develop with the Enlightenment) was to arrive at an abstraction of man so as to translate this abstract ratio to both architecture and to the world. These ratios only work in the abstract, and the point is not in reference to any particular man, but to the ideal man. As Jonathan rightly points out, the Vitruvian Man in representing the dimensions of the human body as a microcosm is focused on the disincarnate mathematical dimensions of the body (e.g. a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a man, a pace is four cubits, a man is 24 palms, etc.). My point in putting Christ in place of the Vitruvian Man is precisely to maintain the positive developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment while avoiding the failures.

There is a sense in which all that was good and true (the coherence of the world and the human ability to follow its logic) and all that was wrong with the ideas which would blossom in the Enlightenment (anthropocentrism, chauvinism, the turn to mechanics, and ultimately secularism or the presumption of a self-grounding world) are represented in seed form in the Vitruvian Man. In displacing the Vitruvian Man with the Cosmic Christ there is an acknowledgement of coherence, a readability of the universe, without the singular focus on the model of mathematics and mechanics and without the chauvinism entailed in privileging a class of bodies (white, European, males). There is an appreciation for a recapturing of a classical focus on the senses (particularly sight) and the body without a desensitizing turn from the auditory revelation found in the historical Jesus.

It is telling that at points, Leonardo’s reading of the body onto the world sounds like Rohr or vice versa. In a notebook from 1492, Leonardo mused, “By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth.” The universals are within and the divine need play no role. Rohr simply extends the immanent frame so as to include the divine: “we can speak “with one voice” (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God.” While this may seem to be an affirmation of the material it is the loss of the material world in the shared abstraction of being. The immanent presence of the divine within this univocal being is also constituted an empty abstraction. Rohr maintains, “Creation is the Body of God” and he wants to downplay the particular body of God found in Jesus. He holds that “Jesus” must vanish that “Christ” may come forth. Rohr’s Christ, dispossessed of Jesus, takes on the abstraction of all being which has no specific historical characteristics but which blends with all matter and bodies.  

There is an equilibrium contained in the name of Jesus combined with Christ in which the cosmic, preexistent, reality is made specific and accessible through the incarnate Jesus. The notion of a singular logic, the coherence of the universe, and its accessibility are implicit in Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But, as with Maximus, there is not a given metaphysical univocity of being, but a participation in the divine being through Christ that is not inherently available in the material universe. There is a specific necessity for the historical Jesus, the specifics of the shared body of Christ. It is not that Jesus affirms every story, every body, every form of material existence equally. It is the cruciform life of Jesus that is the point of access to the Cosmic Christ.


[1] Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/the-univocity-of-being-2015-05-27/.

[2] See Peter Leithart, “The Scotus Story” in January 19, 2015 Patheos.

[3] Rohr, Ibid.

[4] Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: the Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985. p. 31. Quoted from https://orthochristian.com/96486.html

[5] Rohr, Ibid.