Liberation Theology, Satan, and Reconciliation

A couple of months ago I read Douglas’ The Black Christ. This works reviews the history of slave religion and the development of black liberation theology. In the last chapter, Douglas sketches her proposal for a womanist Christology. Something I found interesting in her work was her review of three major black liberation theologians: Albert Cleage, James Cone, and J. D. Roberts.

All three men have different views of theology and reconciliation. However, I only want to discuss the divide that separates Cone from Roberts. Cone, relying on Tillich’s ontology, argued that Christ was ontologically black because he was Jewish. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection indicate God’s absolute solidarity with all marginalized groups. In A Black Theology of Liberation Cone emphatically writes, “If God is not for us, if God is not against white racists, then God is a murderer, and we had better kill God” (28). Roberts had a much less offensive view arguing that reconciliation was primarily about whites and black being reconciled. His idea of reconciliation was much more universal in scope, while Cone believed reconciliation was primarily was about eliminating white racism not about befriending whites.

This tension separating both authors is a common disagreement one encounters in liberation theology between particularity and universality. On the one hand, we have the more radical theologians arguing for the liberation of the oppressed people’s by any means necessary. On the other hand, the more liberal theologians will argue for the universal humanity connecting all men. One also finds this debate amongst Christians when discussing the famous passage in Galatians where Paul writes, “there is neither Jew nor gentile…in Christ Jesus”. It is quite common that those in power often jump to this verse too quickly when someone raises the questions of inequalities. Those in power often argue that ultimately we’re all the same and that nothing separates us, despite the obvious privileges that are conferred upon certain groups in society.

To explore this tension more, I want to use Adam’s book Politics of Redemption, especially his discussion of the devil’s role in atonement in patristic theology. One of his major moves is to resurrect the important position the devil occupies in the tradition especially in relation to the doctrine of atonement. I want to review briefly his section on Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of atonement. Gregory conceived of humanity as being enslaved to the devil because of the devil’s deceptiveness. The devil was then duped into trying to kill Christ not recognizing his divinity. Ultimately, Christ liberates man from the oppressive rule of the devil and brings reconciliation. Perhaps surprisingly, Gregory of Nyssa and Origen both argue that even the devil will ultimately be saved in the eschaton.

This model offers us new resources to think about the conflict between Cone and Roberts. Roberts wants reconciliation to eventually lead to the reconciliation of whites (oppressors) and blacks (oppressed). What Roberts fails to understand is that that the oppressors cannot immediately lose their addiction to power and violence. Time is needed. I would argue that patristic idea of the redemption of Satan could serve as a helpful paradigm through which the oppressed try and liberate the oppressors from their enslavement to the will-to power. The oppressed do not want to occupy the position of oppressors, the same tyrannical position Satan occupied over humanity. Ideally that position of power and authority will be dissolved when the Kingdom comes. After Christ wins our salvation and usurps Satan’s reign, the devil cannot immediately join humanity in the Kingdom. The devil will eventually enter the Kingdom but not until time has passed during which the devil can divest himself of his addiction to domination, abuse, and power. However, his salvation is guaranteed in the eschaton.

This can help make sense of why Cone is correct in arguing that the focus of liberation theology should be on the elimination of oppression not on the reconciliation of the oppressed and the oppressors. The emphasis cannot be on reconciling strained relationships between the oppressed and oppressors. Those addicted to power cannot be trusted to simply give up power. There needs to be a time of waiting until they can join the community after the oppressed have been disabused of their will-to-power. Eventually all will be reconciled, but it naïve to think the oppressed will voluntarily give up power and join the egalitarian community.

6 thoughts on “Liberation Theology, Satan, and Reconciliation

  1. Great thoughts on the differences between Cone and Roberts, Jeremy. I would like to add that the primary difference between Cone’s definition of reconciliation and Roberts’ was that Cone believed that liberation was an absolute necessity in coming prior to any sort of reconciliation, and that Cone’s major concern was the terms in which reconciliation would be had. Roberts’ leaned more towards a more mutual understanding between oppressed and oppressor, while Cone, from The God of the Oppressed, responds to Roberts, saying that reconciliation needed to happen on the terms defined by the Oppressed.

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Rod. From my reading of Douglas, I also got the impression that Cone critiqued Roberts for not realizing the divine initiative in reconciliation (2 Cor 5).

  3. Very glad you’ve posted. Now it’s official! (I’ve added a “read more” link, by the way — we like to use them so that more posts are easily visible.) Also very flattered you drew on my book. I think that this reading vis-a-vis black theology and the question of reconciliation actually fits surprisingly well with Gregory’s theology elsewhere. In the “Great Catechism” (or whatever of its other fifty names you prefer) and other texts, he makes the point that some kind of purification process is necessary — not because God is vengeful (Gregory embraces universal salvation to the radical extent of including even the devil), but because that’s just the way things are. The soul that has been damaged needs to be repaired, and that takes time and sometimes hurts. Applying this to the devil and the black theology debate you discuss, we would have to take seriously the idea that being oppressive damages you. The devil can’t suddenly change his mind and become a good person through sheer force of will — it’s a process. (This aspect of Gregory’s theology draws a lot on his understanding of the practice of medicine, which seems to have been a special passion of his, and I think that’s what brings it its kind of “common sense” realism. These things take time.)

  4. I think this whole notion of process and struggles fits in quite well with the idea of God as being persuasive in patristic thought. As you argue in the book, God cannot suddenly overthrow the devil lest he appears to be tyrannical.

    The whole notion that oppression actually damages you complements what I was trying to articulate when it comes comes to discussions of Galatians 3. I know we’ve all had conversations where people argue that race does not exist but is a social construct, which is true but I believe the wrong conclusion are often drawn. Too often those in power want to flatten out the actual differences that divide us by claiming that all our identities are subordinated to our identity in Christ. However, this seems like a clever ploy so that the marginalized are kept in their place. The logic seems to be that since “we all knows that these differences no longer matter, do we really need to have a shift in power/leadership?”. But if the oppressors need themselves to be purged of their lust for power and healed, it will be necessary to the community’s success to have those in power take a backseat and let the formerly oppressed run the show. This notion I think also fits in with your whole idea that these groups have an epistemological advantage because they cannot avoid but witnessing how oppression operates.

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