Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption: The Prince of This World book event

pid_23793Let’s start at the end. The end of Adam Kotsko’s timely and compelling book and the end of my general exams. In fact, we might start at the beginning of the end of my exams when I finished a review of Kotsko’s book for the Anglican Theological Review the weekend before starting my exams. This could have been a tedious trainwreck of bad planning (and there was some extra stress due to my terribly bad planning), but I mostly found it helpful for thinking about some key questions that have emerged in my own graduate study—questions that shaped my examination papers and which I keep returning to as the shell of world continues to slowly collapse in on itself. These questions primarily center on the conclusions and the constructive push that Kotsko offers. In many ways it is a constructive turn that feel at odds with the very convincing story of the Devil’s rise and fall. This tension is not, I think, because the constructive piece is a bad one but because I wonder whether there is a more radical conclusion that would take more seriously. Having read Jared’s response to the book, I was even more struck by the notion that thinking seriously about race and coloniality in the Devil’s story may lead us to push further than the Devil’s redemption and think more about God’s responsibility for evil.

But first, the end. The big reveal of The Prince of This World is Kotsko’s suggestion that after all that Satan has been through, we should consider whether even the Devil might be redeemed. Kotsko posits this conclusion as a risky one that “might mean asking what it would look like to free the devil of the burden of being the devil—in other words, what it would mean for the devil to be saved” (206). It is not quite this simple, of course. Tracing the invention of the devil from the Hebrew biblical tradition to our current secular age, Kotsko highlights how the devil went from being a figure who enabled a suffering minority community to make meaning to being a scapegoat of the empire who justified the infliction of violence and oppression on minority groups.

A most intriguing aspect of Kotsko’s analysis is his examination of freedom as a trap. Free will and human freedom are both shown by Kotsko to be crucial in the damning of the devil and the demonization of others. Why did Satan fall? Free will. Why do bad things happen to good people? Free will? Why did we start a war in Iraq? For freedom. Freedom is the ultimate value of Christian salvation and this value is inherited by the secular world. More than the inheritance of a value, freedom is the inheritance of a social bond. Determined to uphold the value of freedom, we become willing to justify a great deal of violence and victim blaming, scapegoating and enslavement. This relationship between freedom and blameworthiness or freedom and slavery is where my interest stayed throughout the book. In particular, I wondered about the references Kotsko makes to black studies and black theology and whether thinking with them troubles the final conclusion. Part of my attempt to think about black studies and black theology in relationship to this book is because of how much the story of the devil resonated with another story I was reading at the time.

At the beginning of the end of my exams, I was finishing a paper on Toni Morrison’s Sula. While I won’t go into a full recounting of the narrative here, it is a book that plays with many of the questions of social bonds and social undesirables. The tensions of freedom and their relationship to the figure of the pariah. Sula is a scapegoat in the community. Her freedom is seen as source of this blameworthiness. She’s held responsible for evil that she seemingly has nothing to do with. Still, what was interesting to me about reading Sula and TPOTW alongside one another was that Sula’s status as pariah is not met by the community’s attempts to govern her freedom. Instead, she is understood as simply a part of the world to be navigated. This ambivalent acceptance of Sula in the neighborhood is tied to a theology that is not afraid to place responsibility for evil in God’s hands:

In their world, aberrations were as much a part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their days, and it wasn’t that they believed God would take care of them. It was rather that they knew God had a brother and that brother hadn’t spared God’s son, so why should he spare them?

There was no creature so ungodly as to make them destroy it. They could kill easily if provoked to anger, but not by design, which explained why they could not ‘mob kill’ anyone. To do so was not only unnatural, it was undignified. The presence of evil was something to be first recognized, then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over. (118)

Troubling a trinitarian orthodoxy, Morrison here reveals the triune God as a trickster with a hidden brother (perhaps providing interesting resonances with Jared’s reading of TPOTW). Instead of a God whose providence frees him from responsibility, Morrison argues that God’s providence goes hand in hand with God’s responsibility. In short, the inhabitants of the Bottom aren’t afraid to make God responsible for the evil of the world.

So here, at the end of this response, perhaps we can push Kotsko’s (admittedly tentative) conclusion which still seems to hold on to freedom as an end that is possible for the devil. But perhaps, rather than thinking about whether the devil can be saved, we can consider whether God can be held responsible for evil and why such an acceptance is so often seen as requiring one give up theological inquiry. An author like Delores Williams, for instance, manages to hold up the indifference and ambivalence of God towards Hagar as precisely the point at which theological inquiry becomes urgent and necessary. Rather than leaving the logic of redemptive suffering to work its magic and buy freedom on the backs of black women, Williams argues that a quality of life and survival ethic become the measure for salvation. Perhaps these kinds of values offer a real possibility of life for the Devil. Rather than trying to escape the reality of suffering by reproducing a freedom built on the slavery of the demonized and disparaged, such reflection would require us to continually examine the inequitable distribution of blame that makes life and survival damn near impossible for so many.

One thought on “Freedom, Responsibility, and Redemption: The Prince of This World book event

  1. Thanks Amaryah — and as a seasoned discussion facilitator, I’m also glad to see the participants directly responding to each other instead of just to me! I’ll be honest, as I was reading your response I thought, “Where is she getting this idea that I want freedom for the devil?” Then it hit me — and I kind of can’t believe I chose to phrase that last sentence to include the word “free”! When I hit on that last sentence, I felt like it was obviously right and couldn’t be changed, but at the same time it is admittedly more of an intuition about a future possibility than a programmatic statement. And I suppose that slipping the word “free” in there (as a verb rather than an adjective, at least!) is appropriate, because I really don’t think that we can escape some concept of freedom at this late date. To refer back to my comment on Jared’s excellent post, I suspect that a salvation that could include the devil would be very different than standard accounts of salvation — and here all the defensive theologians who hate the idea seem to confirm my suspicion — and freeing the devil of the burden of being the devil would correspondingly represent a different idea of freedom from freedom-as-blame-generator (since this latter could very well be a summary of what it means to be the devil).

    I am really intrigued by the idea of a constructive theology that would admit God is responsible for evil. In the early modern period, figures like Spinoza were pilloried as atheists, not for disbelieving in God as such (clearly Spinoza “believes in God” in some sense), but precisely for rejecting conventional notions of providence. It’s as though for traditional theology, a God who could be responsible for evil is obviously not a God worth having, perhaps parallel with the idea that a devil who could be saved is obviously not a devil worth having. What I have characterized as “protest atheism” in a different context certainly seems to agree — and though I don’t expend a lot of intellectual energy on whether I personally “believe” in something called “God,” perhaps your reading of my text shows that I believe that, too, on some level.

    A colleague has suggested that the obvious result of my critique of monotheism in TPOTW is to return to polytheism — and a salient feature of polytheism is that virtually every god is at some point openly and unashamedly responsible for evil and destruction. So perhaps the benefit of polytheism isn’t the multiplicity so much as the possibility of holding the divine responsible for evil. But in the monotheistic world, that has already been tried, insofar as the God of the Qur’an seems quite comfortable with the fact that divine omnipotence implies that he has caused evil too and he also directly commissions or at least explicitly approves Iblis (Satan)’s mission to mislead humanity. I don’t know enough about subsequent Islamic theology to be sure they don’t wind up falling back into something like the providential model, though.

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