ChristologySufferingTheology & SpiritualityTrinity

Godforsakenness and Redemption Pt. 3: Infinite Inescapable Triune Love

In the previous two articles in this series, I examined the linkages between crucifixion and lynching made by theologian James Cone and his argument that Christ’s crucifixion opens up the possibility of redemption despite atrocities like lynching that were designed to demonize and devastate the very humanity of a group of people. Additionally, I moved beyond Cone and investigated an experience I refer to as “Godforsakenness,” which is the feeling of being abandoned by God and therefore without hope. I argue that Jesus entered into Godforsakenness on the cross, which is specifically represented in Christ’s cry of dereliction. I then further argue that within the text of the gospels we see a paradoxical hope for redemption within the cry of dereliction. In this article, I further examine this hope for redemption, which involves the Trinitarian God coming to inhabit the very worst that humanity can experience and infusing that experience with God’s own redemptive presence.

Divine Defilement

At this point in this series, I have discussed the depths of human suffering, as well as Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed on the cross. What remains to be discussed is Christ’s divine nature, his status as the second person of the Trinity, and how Christ’s divine life provides redemption for the Godforsaken. At the end of my previous article I argued that in the gospel of Mark in particular, we see Jesus entering into the depths of human suffering, but that even within Mark’s particularly brutal account of the crucifixion and the cry of dereliction, the broader context of Psalm 22 gives us hope for God’s redemption. To further flesh out the redemptive nature of Jesus’ cry, I turn to Marilyn McCord Adams and her notion of  “divine defilement.” This is her response to horrendous evil, the sort of evil she names that calls into question a person’s dignity and humanity. Divine defilement is a response to this sort of evil because it involves God entering into the horrors of our world in order to redeem them. In her words, “When metaphysical straddlers won’t meet Him on holy ground, God takes the opposite approach of joining us in our defilement.” [1] Even given the worst evils imaginable in our world, the good news is that “God in Christ crucified becomes curse, the power of curse is canceled: curse cannot exile us from God anymore.” [2] Evil, when it is brought into God’s presence can no longer stand, and is washed away in the holiness of God. 

Throughout the Hebrew Bible we see glimpses of divine defilement. Perhaps the most well-known example comes from Isaiah chapter 6, where Isaiah “a man of unclean lips [who lives] among a people of unclean lips,” comes into contact with God’s holiness in the form of a blazing coal, and the result is Isaiah’s purification, not a defilement of the divine. [3] Similarly, in Ezekiel chapter 47, a small stream of water begins flowing out of the temple, and this stream grows in size and power until it empties into the Dead Sea, which is subsequently transformed such that,

the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live… Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear fruit, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing. [4]

In both of these cases, God’s holiness goes out into the world, seeking out what is unclean and purifying it without God’s holiness being negatively affected itself or God’s holiness destroying that which is unholy (The Bible Project has a really wonderful video about this). 

However, this purification does not consist in God unilaterally solving the world’s problems. After Isaiah is purified he still must prophesy to the people, and after the Dead Sea is transformed into the Living Sea, the trees must still grow, and people must pick the fruit for food and make use of the leaves to bring about healing. Thus, in both cases, God’s purification acts in such a way as to empower God’s creation to fulfill its intended purpose. This, then, is what I argue that Christ does when he takes Godforsakenness into himself. He stands in solidarity to empower the oppressed, even the most cruelly and brutally oppressed, to struggle for freedom and liberation, and ultimately guarantees their victory.

The Infinite Reach of the Triune God

Theologian David Bentley Hart discusses this idea of redemption within the cry of dereliction in his essay, “No Shadow of Turning.” In this essay, Hart defends the traditional doctrine of divine impassibility, which is the idea that God does not change, against Jürgen Moltmann and others who argue that the cry of dereliction involved a change or growth within God. This impulse to introduce change into the Godhead is generally motivated by an understandable desire to allow for God to empathize with our suffering. However, Hart argues that introducing change into the Godhead actually compromises God’s redemptive ability. Instead, God’s ability to bring healing rests upon God’s perfectly loving, unchanging nature that always already swallows up and exceeds sin and evil. Here it is worth quoting Hart at length:  

Because divine apatheia [God’s unchanging nature] is the infinite interval of the going forth of the Son from the Father in the light of the Spirit, every interval of estrangement we fabricate between ourselves and God—sin, ignorance, death itself—is always already exceeded in [God]: God has always gone infinitely farther in his own being as the God of self-outpouring charity than we can venture in our attempts to escape him, and our most abysmal sin is as nothing to the abyss of divine love. And as the Word possesses this Trinitarian impassibility in his eternal nature, and so as God cannot suffer, as a man he can suffer all things, bear any wound—indeed, bear it more fully than any other could—as an act of saving love: as Easter. And while God’s everlasting outpouring, which is for him a life of infinite joy, in assuming the intervals of our estrangement from God, appears for us now under the form of tragic pain and loss, the joy is the original and ultimate truth of who he is, is boundless, and cannot be interrupted—and so conquers all our sorrow; our abandonment of God, and the abandonment of the Son and of every soul in death, is always already surpassed by the sheer abandon with which the Father begets and breathes forth his being. And the terrible distance of Christ’s cry of human dereliction, despair, and utter godforsakenness—”My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—is enfolded within and overcome by the ever greater distance and always indissoluble unity of God’s triune love: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” [5]

I follow Hart in this reading, arguing that in the cry of dereliction, Jesus’ humanity plunged to the depths of Godforsakenness but Christ’s divinity remained tethered to the Father, the source of divinity, and rather than evil corrupting God, God’s divinity eternally flows into the worst imaginable suffering and oppression, making redemption available to all. Christ, then, who remains incarnate, continues to serve as a bridge, bringing the oppressed into the divine life by standing in solidarity with them. Hart unpacks this redemptive possibility in terms of “theosis, divinization, God becoming human that humans might become God,” arguing that the union of Jesus’ human nature with Christ’s divine life empowers humanity to be in communion with God. [6] Christ thus stands as a divine conduit, everlastingly bringing God’s infinite love and redemption to bear on even the most extreme evil and suffering. Regardless of what one experiences, God’s redemption is available through the cross of Christ. And, we can be assured that “evil and violence and all the cruelties of human history enjoy no metaphysical or divine warrant, but stand under the everlasting damnation of the cross,” due to the fact that God’s everlasting, infinite goodness is flowing into the depths of human depravity, and such goodness cannot change and thus cannot be corrupted. 

What Hart points us toward is the fact that in the cry of dereliction, Jesus reveals something at the very heart of God, namely God’s affinity for the oppressed and abandoned. In the moment of Jesus’ cry, which seems to portend the death of God and the end of hope all, and especially for the Godforsaken, divine love, grace, and power flow into the nadir of human existence, breaking the power of idolatrous, dehumanizing systems and rooting humanity in the cross of Christ. For, it is in the cross of Jesus that we—especially those of us who gain privilege and earthly power from systems of oppression—enter into solidarity with the oppressed, thereby joining Christ in the divine, Trinitarian life. 

Conclusion

Divine solidarity in the cry of dereliction, therefore, defeats the overarching purpose of lynching, namely to terrorize and dehumanize all Black persons. For, just as crucifixion was meant to be a message to any who dared defy the might of Rome, lynching was a public spectacle intended to instill in Black people a sense of fear and worthlessness. For example, James Cone records that Martin Luther King Sr. was witness to a lynching as a child and that the experience silenced and instilled crippling fear in him for many years. [7] Cone notes that “threats of lynching were often more effective than the act itself,” because the purpose of lynching was social control and defilement of Blackness—an attempt to secure the superiority of whiteness by debasing Blackness. [8] However, in the light of the cross and divine solidarity in the cry of dereliction, oppressed Black people and all who suffer defilement at the hands of evil, oppressive systems, can know that God was and is present with them even in the midst of terrible suffering and a culture of fear designed to break down their humanity. They could know that they served a God who could “make a way out of no way.” And, those individuals singled out for the torture and brutality of lynching could know that God’s divine life was pouring into their experience of Godforsakenness, that the divine life available to them would ultimately conquer the context of death in which they found themselves. 

Thus, I argue that the cry of dereliction bolsters  Cone’s account, discussed in more detail in my first article, by further fleshing out what it means for Christ to be in solidarity with the oppressed. The cry shows precisely how Christ is present to those seemingly abandoned by God, and how Christ’s forsaken death works to integrate them into the divine life of the Godhead. Christ’s cry from the cross shows that the oppressed and abandoned are actually at the heart of God, and welcomed into God’s divine life. Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed gives the possibility of hope, and Christ’s divine life gives assurance that the oppressed will be empowered and redeemed. Indeed, we serve a God who is in the process of making all things new. [9]

Featured Image: The Resurrection and the Life by Raymond Walker link


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David Justice

David Justice

My research focus is the theology and philosophy of Martin Luther King Jr. I primarily explore the fundamental transformation and, at times, destruction necessary to make the Beloved Community a reality. In making this argument I draw on his rootedness in the Black church and put King into conversation with feminist, Womanist, and decolonial thought. I am currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University in Theological Studies and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My wife Mariah and I have two kids who are adorable and love wearing us out. You can find me on social media @DavidtheJust

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