ChristologySufferingTheology & Spirituality

Godforsakenness and Redemption PT. 2: The Cry of Solidarity

“Eloi, Eloi, lama Sabachthani?” by Ann Kim Oil Stick on canvas, 1998, 50″ x 70″ link

In my previous article 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 Black people. In this article I move beyond Cone and investigate 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 the next and final article in this series 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. 

The crowd’s shout ‘Crucify him!’ (Mk 15:14) anticipated the white mob’s shout ‘Lynch him!’ Jesus’ agonizing final cry of abandonment from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mk 15:34), was similar to the lynched victim Sam Hose’s awful scream as he drew his last breath, ‘Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.’ In each case, it was a cruel, agonizing, and contemptible death. [1]

In this article I first describe the experience I call “Godforsakenness,” and then provide an analysis of the cry of dereliction (when Jesus cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross) in the gospels. I aim to show that within Jesus’ cry of dereliction, Jesus both experiences Godforsakenness and, in solidarity with those who have experienced Godforsakenness, opens up the possibility of redeeming this experience that is the worst that humans can suffer. Here I am building on and expanding Cone’s work in The Cross and the Lynching Tree through an examination of what the cry of dereliction and Jesus’ solidarity with the oppressed entails for God’s redemption of Godforsakenness.

 

The Experience of Being Forsaken by God

The mystery of God’s absence in oppression has long confounded even the wise: 

Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed—with no one to comfort them!… And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

In the passage above Qoheleth, the pseudonymous author of Ecclesiastes, wrestles with the question of God’s absence in oppression, and concludes that it would be preferable to not exist if the alternative was to experience oppression in the absence of anyone to provide comfort. Though Qoheleth does not ultimately recommend non-existence, it is telling that the experience of oppression without hope leads him to advocate for non-being. What he names here, the experience of being abandoned by God and all others in the midst of oppression, is a helpful starting point for unpacking my understanding of Godforsakenness. 

The concept of “horrendous evil,” defined by philosopher and theologian Marilyn McCord Adams also aids in describing Godforsakenness. She defines “horrendous evils” as, “evils the participation in which (that is, the doing or suffering of which) constitutes prima facie reason to doubt whether the participant’s life could (given their inclusion in it) be a great good to him/her on the whole.” [2] Stated in less technical language, horrendous evil for Adams is evil that makes it seem like the person experiencing it does not possess a life that is worth living. Adams further fleshes out this concept stating: 

Horrendous evils seem prima facie, not only to balance off but to engulf any positive value in the participant’s life… In most (if not all cases) their destructive power reaches beyond their concrete disvalue (such as the pain and material deprivation they involve), into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making, seemingly to defeat the individual’s value as a person, to degrade him/her to subhuman status. [3]

Here, Adams points out that horrendous evils seem to affect a person on a metaphysical level—they call into question the person’s very humanity and dignity.

Bringing Qoheleth and Adams together, I define Godforsaken as an experience of suffering and oppression such that redemption seems impossible because the person has experienced something so evil that it seems that they have been abandoned by God. Godforsakenness is an existential category (i.e. it is based on an individual’s experience of the world), and it represents the very worst of human suffering and oppression. What could be worse than the experience of irredeemable suffering and oppression due to the fact that God is no longer present? Godforsakenness is the sort of experience named by Job when wishes he was stillborn (Job 3:16), or Jeremiah who laments that his mother was able to give birth (Jeremiah 15:10), or Sam Hose’s aforementioned scream as he breathed his last in the midst of a hateful lynch mob “Oh, my God! Oh, Jesus.” 

It is important to note, however, that Godforsakenness is an existential, not ontological category. Put differently, Godforsakenness represents the feeling of being abandoned by God, not God actually abandoning that person. For, though the experience of being Godforsaken threatens the humanity, the Being, of the Godforsaken, I ultimately argue that Jesus’ cry of dereliction guarantees God’s presence in the midst of Godforsakenness and opens up the possibility of redemption. Cone says something similar to this, namely that Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed at the cross makes the redemption of unspeakable evil possible. However, Cone does not go into detail regarding what this solidarity means. Here I want to go into more depth regarding what Christ’s solidarity with the oppressed looks like in the gospels. How does Christ enter into Godforsakenness and ultimately redeem it? 

 

Christ’s Embrace of Godforsakenness

To begin to answer the above question, I think we should examine Christ’s cry of dereliction. In this analysis, I first draw on the Markan account. Mark’s account of the crucifixion is laden with genuine agony and terror on the part of Jesus, and a continual ironic mocking of Jesus’ kingship by his torturers. Mark records no instances of Jesus being called a king prior to his trial and execution, yet during this process he is referred to as a king six times. According to New Testament scholar Joel Marcus, this is intentional on the part of the Markan author. Marcus states, 

These instances of βασιλεύς [Greek for King] are heavy with irony, since none of the characters—neither Pilate, nor the soldiers who mockingly dress Jesus in royal garb, nor the anonymous composer of the inscription “The King of the Jews,” nor the taunting passersby at Golgotha—really believes that Jesus is a king. [4]

Indeed, Marcus argues that not only is the Markan account laced heavily with irony, but that the Roman practice of crucifixion generally was meant to parody the pretension of those who aspired to honor beyond their station. [5] The Romans were torturing Jesus with faux royal implements and raising him up upon a cross, in effect stating, “You think yourself a king? Well then we’ll treat you like one.” In the Markan account there is good reason to believe that even the centurion at the foot of the cross is not making a confession of faith when he states, “Truly this man was God’s Son!,” ( Mark 15:39) but rather is continuing to mock Jesus in death, because there is nothing miraculous in the Markan account to indicate Christ’s divinity at his death. [6]

Additionally, the nature of Jesus’ death in Mark is the most violent and terrifying. For example, “Mark uses the verb boan meaning ‘to scream’, expressing the violence of Jesus’ death and the desperation in his voice, while Luke uses the more gentle verb phõnein meaning ‘to cry out.’” [7] Both of the thieves crucified with Jesus in Mark mock him, and all of his apostles have abandoned him. Given this, in Mark we have a “disturbing presentation of Jesus’ death, in agony and utterly deserted.” [8]

Thus, in the Markan account, we have the most reason to conclude that when Jesus screams and interrogatively accuses the Father of abandoning him, we should take his words at face value. That is, I argue that on the cross Jesus genuinely experienced Godforsakenness, and came to know what it is to be alone in unimaginable pain in a world of sin and death. [9] However, once Christ was in this experience, his divine nature intervened, thereafter giving warrant for hope to those even in the most hopeless of circumstances. What Christ demonstrates in his cry from the cross is that God is present even in those spaces where God’s absence seems clear. To quote the Psalmist, “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psalm 139:8).

 

Christ’s Paradoxical Redemption 

In Mark’s account, then, we see clearly one side of divine solidarity, we see the lynched God who knows the troubles of his people, including those cruelly hung, tortured, and burned on trees in the American South. However, Christ is not just present with those suffering, he is working to redeem that suffering, to bring it to an end. If we turn to Matthew, the other gospel account that records the cry of dereliction, we can see this taking place. In Matthew’s account many miraculous signs accompany Jesus’ cry, such as an earthquake and the coming to life of bodies of the saints (Matthew 27:52). So, in Matthew, the centurion has ample reason to believe that he has indeed witnessed the death of God’s Son. And, in the Lukan account of Jesus’ death, Jesus does not quote from Psalm 22, but rather Psalm 31, stating “Into your hand I commit my spirit,” which in the psalm is directly followed by, “you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God” ( Psalm 31:5). Do these more hopeful accounts of Jesus’ death signal that the authors of Matthew and Luke rejected the implication of the Markan account and were unwilling to let their savior die an ignoble death? Though some have suggested this [10], I argue that instead this speaks to the paradox of divine redemption I explore below, namely that by entering into the experience of being abandoned by God, Jesus guaranteed God’s presence and the hope of redemption for all who experience Godforsakenness.

We can even see glimpses of this redemption in the Markan account. For example, Biblical scholar Holly Carey argues in her important monograph Jesus’ Cry from the Cross, that Jesus’ cry of dereliction must be read not only as a quotation of a single verse of Psalm 22, but in light of the entirety of the Psalm. [11] Thus, when Jesus cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we ought to not hear this in isolation, but in the context of the rest of the psalm, in which the psalmist vacillates between despair and hope: 

“Our fathers trusted in You… and You delivered them,” (vs. 4) “But I am a worm and no man,” (vs. 6) “From my mother’s womb, You have been my God,” (vs. 10) “For trouble is near; For there is none to help,” (vs. 11) “You have brought me to the dust of death,” (vs. 15) “You have answered Me. I will declare Your name to My brethren… For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted” (vs. 21-24), ultimately ending with a hope for the future, “A posterity shall serve Him… They will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born” (vs. 30-31).

Thus, if Carey is correct—her many arguments cannot be expounded here [12]—that both the author of Mark and early readers of Mark would have read the cry of dereliction within the context of the entirety of Psalm 22, Jesus’ cry points not only to his presence with the Godforsaken, but also the ultimate hope of resurrection and liberation, just as the psalm itself expresses both Godforsakenness—“For trouble is near; there is none to help” (vs. 11)—and God’s redemption—“You have answered Me… He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted” (vs. 21-24). That is, the cry paradoxically represents both Christ’s entering into Godforsakenness and simultaneously redeeming it, much as Christ paradoxically defeated death by dying on the cross. [13]

In the next article in this series I continue to explore Christ’s redemption of Godforsakenness. In this final article I return to Marilyn McCord Adams and what she calls “divine defilement,” where God meets us in our defilement and makes us clean. I additionally explore the role of the Trinity in infusing the experience of Godforsakenness with God’s presence and redemptive love that ultimately defeats even the worst fate that humans can endure. 


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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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