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How divine solidarity liberates

  • Justin Ashworth (a1)


Many people have argued that God experiences the suffering of the oppressed, but does divine solidarity liberate? This article answers this question with incarnation-focused sketches of the doctrines of salvation, atonement and mission: God gives life and communion with God and neighbour (salvation) by living and communing with us in Jesus Christ (atonement); and God continues to give life and restore communion as the Spirit sent by the Father joins us to God and each other in Jesus Christ (mission). These doctrines are made explicitly liberationist by emphasising the sociopolitical dimensions and imperatives of life and communion with God and neighbour.


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1 Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Letters and Papers from Prison, trans. Fuller, Reginald (New York: Touchstone, 1997), p. 361.

2 Moltmann, Jürgen, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. Wilson, R. A. and Bowden, John (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), p. 222.

3 Torrance, Thomas F., Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ, ed. Walker, Robert T. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 227.

4 Ward, Michael, ‘Theopaschitism: Is Jesus Christ Able or Unable to Suffer in his Divine Nature?’, in Quash, Ben and Ward, Michael (eds), Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it Matters What Christians Believe (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 61. See also Hart, David Bentley, ‘No Shadow of Turning: On Divine Impassibility’, Pro Ecclesia 11/2 (2002), pp. 184206; and Smith, J. Warren, ‘Suffering Impassibly: Christ's Passion in Cyril of Alexandria's Christology’, Pro Ecclesia 11/4 (2002), pp. 463–83.

5 For a traditional account of impassibility, see Creel, Richard E., Divine Impassibility: An Essay in Philosophical Theology (New York: CUP, 1986). Creel defines impassibility as the inability to ‘be affected by an outside force’ and suggests that there are four ways in which God can be said to be impassible: in nature, will, knowledge and feelings. Strict impassibilists say not only that God's nature as love, God's will to rescue humanity and God's knowledge cannot be affected from outside, for example by acts of human faithfulness (prayer) or unfaithfulness (the Holocaust). They will also say, ‘God's feelings … cannot be affected by an outside force’ (p. 11).

6 Nancy Pineda-Madrid summarises this view: ‘a distorted Anselmian theology of the cross has been used to prolong, if not tacitly condone, situations of domestic violence and many other forms of violence – all under the banner of “carrying one's cross”’. Pineda-Madrid, Nancy, Suffering and Salvation in Ciudad Juárez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), p. 86.

7 Williams, Delores S., ‘Black Women's Surrogacy Experience and the Christian Notion of Redemption’, in Trelstad, Marit (ed.), Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 32. While Williams provides valuable critical insight into the problem of the cross for moral (mal-)formation and for helping us see the whole life of Jesus as saving, her reduction of salvation to little more than inspiring knowledge seems overly restrictive in the face of the majority Christian view that there is indeed something salvific about the cross.

8 Moltmann, The Crucified God, p. 278.

9 Espín, Orlando O., The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), pp. 1131.

10 Cone, James H., God of the Oppressed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1997), p. 31.

11 Cone, James H., A Black Theology of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990), p. 121.

12 I have learned to speak of God's ‘mission into’ (rather than ‘in’) the world from John G. Flett, The Witness of God: The Trinity, Dei, Missio, Karl Barth, and the Nature of Christian Community (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2010).

13 For more on this stream in the doctrine of atonement, see Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ‘Atonement’, in Kapic, Kelly M. and McCormack, Bruce L. (eds), Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), pp. 181–4.

14 While my work is indebted to Flett (see n. 12 above) and other US authors considered ‘missional theologians’ (such as Darrell L. Guder), José Míguez Bonino features prominently in my missiological reflections below. On missional theology, see Craig Ott (ed.), The Mission of the Church: Five Views in Conversation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016).

15 Gutiérrez, Gustavo, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, trans. and ed. Inda, Sister Caridad and Eagleson, John (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), p. 103.

16 Ibid. Communion is cosmic as well, as Paul suggests in Rom 8:19–23. For this reminder, as for so much else, I am indebted to Tiffany Ashworth.

17 Aulén, Gustaf, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement, trans. Herbert, A. G. (New York: Macmillan, 1969).

18 Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 212. Cone also noted that Aulén's model needed to be ‘radicalized politically’ to highlight the political dimensions of Jesus’ life, ministry, death and resurrection.

19 Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, p. 91.

20 For Gutiérrez's denial of ‘historical immanentism’, see Theology of Liberation, p. xxxix. God establishes the kingdom ‘gratuitously’. See also p. 99: ‘the growth of the Kingdom goes beyond temporal progress’.

21 Ibid., p. 91.

22 Ibid., pp. 103–4.

23 Ibid., p. 75.

24 Ibid.

25 Torrance, Incarnation, p. 45.

26 By ‘solidarity’ Torrance means the union of the Word with sinners (Incarnation, pp. 112, 137). Liberation theologians expand our understanding of divine solidarity by adding that human life – including Jesus’ – is lived in contexts shaped by legal, economic and political structures brought about through human agency. The political dimensions of the whole life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus are important in this account of atonement.

27 Tanner, Kathryn, Christ the Key (Cambridge: CUP, 2009), p. 254. There is no reason to assume that God communicates all of God's attributes to human beings, so that omnipresence, for instance, could be predicated of Jesus’ humanity, as Lutheran sacramentology holds.

28 Athanasius, , ‘On the Incarnation of the Word’, in Hardy, Edward Rochie (ed.), Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), p. 107. I note this genealogy not to endorse theosis but to highlight the sources of the ideas that (1) the incarnation itself is salvific, and (2) it is salvific because there God became one with humanity and made humanity one with God in a way that necessarily gives humanity life. Thus, we can say that the Word became flesh, not so that we might become God (or like God), but rather so that we might have fellowship with God. This seems to be what Torrance meant when he said, ‘He comes to be God for man in order to remake man for God’ (Incarnation, p. 109). On ‘participation’ among reformed theologians, see Neder, Adam, Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth's Church Dogmatics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009); and Webster, John, ‘“The Visible Attests the Invisible”’, in Husbands, Mark and Treier, Daniel J. (eds), The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2005), pp. 96113. My friend Tanner Capps has helped clarify my thought on these matters.

29 Tanner, Christ the Key, p. 256.

30 Ibid., p. 257.

31 Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 109.

32 Cone mentions this docetic tendency at several points; see, for example, God of the Oppressed, pp. 107, 109.

33 Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 121.

34 Jesus was the son of an artisan, not a beggar; he spoke of the poor and the rich ‘as groups of which he [was] not personally a member (Mark 14.7; Luke 6.20, 24)’ (Bryan, Christopher, Render to Caesar: Jesus, the Early Church, and the Roman Superpower (New York: OUP, 2005), p. 39); and he was supported by women of means (Luke 8:1–3). He may have had nowhere to lay his head, but this could mean either that he could not call anywhere home or that he was in fact poor. Either way, although Jesus was not the poorest of the poor, his circumstances were more precarious than those of the ‘leading men’ of his day.

35 On this, among biblical scholars, see Wilson, Brittany E., ‘Gender Disrupted: Jesus as a “Man” in the Fourfold Gospel’, Word and World 36/1 (1 Jan. 2016), p. 31. Sarah Coakley has offered an account of Jesus’ kenosis (self-emptying) as his ‘choosing never to have certain (false and worldly) forms of power, sometimes wrongly construed as “divine”’ (Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy, and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), p. 11). Later in the same essay she categorises such ‘forms of power’ as ‘masculinist’ (p. 32).

36 Much like lynching in the United States, crucifixion was an ‘instrument of public terrorism’, as Elliott, Neil says in Liberating Paul: The Justice of God and the Politics of the Apostle (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), p. 95. On these matters more generally, see Hengel, Martin, Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross, trans. Bowden, John (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977).

37 Torrance, Incarnation, p. 109.

38 Gutiérrez, Theology of Liberation, p. xxxix.

39 Cone, James H., The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011). It is worth noting, however, that while the cross is closer to the lynching tree, the two are not identical, since Jesus was sentenced to the cross following a trial, whereas lynchings were extrajudicial.

40 Cited in Sobrino, Jon, Christ the Liberator: A View from the Victims, trans. Burns, Paul (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001), p. 233.

41 Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, p. 124.

42 Moltmann, Jürgen, ‘On Latin American Liberation Theology: An Open Letter to José Míguez Bonino’, Christianity and Crisis 36/5 (29 Mar. 1976), p. 58.

43 Cone, God of the Oppressed, p. 106. See also Elizondo, Virgilio, Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), p. 47: ‘[b]y discovering how [Jesus] functioned then, we will discover how he functions today’.

44 On Western mission in Latin America and Africa, see, among many others, Rivera, Luis N., A Violent Evangelism: The Political and Religious Conquest of the Americas (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992); Bonino, José Míguez, Faces of Latin American Protestantism, trans. Stockwell, Eugene L. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1997); and Jennings, Willie J., The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).

45 Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism, p. 115.

46 Ibid., p. 124. One might say there is a third aspect of God's mission, namely, God's being within Godself a permanent conversation and communion of love (as Míguez Bonino put it). To say this, however, might suggest that God's being in se can be separated from God's being ad extra, as if God's work in the world were merely incidental to God's identity. I think John Flett is right that ‘God's movement into the economy belongs to his being from all eternity’, since God is eternally the triune God whose eternal will is for the Son and Spirit to be sent by the Father to draw creatures into God's own communal life. Flett, The Witness of God, p. 208.

47 Goizueta, Roberto S., Christ our Companion: Toward a Theological Aesthetics of Liberation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), p. 23.

48 Míguez Bonino, Faces of Latin American Protestantism, p. 141. The quotes from Goizueta and Bonino correspond to Gutiérrez's exhortation to solidarity and protest, respectively, in Theology of Liberation, pp. 171–3.

49 Bonino, José Míguez, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 142.

50 I am grateful to Tanner Capps for reading a full draft of this article. His questions and suggestions made it better than it would otherwise have been.


How divine solidarity liberates

  • Justin Ashworth (a1)


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