The God Of History

From “God of the Oppressed”
by James H. Cone, 1938–2018

According to the Bible, reconciliation is primarily an act of God.

“God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself,” says Paul in II Corinthians 5:19.

And in Ephesians 1:10, emphasising a similar point, he concludes that God has sent Jesus Christ “to unite all things in him. things in heaven and things on earth”.

In both passages, Paul stresses the objective reality of reconciliation, grounded in God’s initiative and affecting the entire cosmos. Reconciliation is not a human quality or potentiality, although it affects human relationships. It is a divine action that embraces the whole world, changing our relationship with God and making us new creatures. Formerly we were slaves, but reconciliation means that we are free. Formerly we were separated from God, alienated from God’s will and enslaved to the evils of this world. Now we are reconciled; fellowship with God is now possible because Christ through his death and resurrection has liberated us from the principalities and powers and the rulers of this present world. Formerly our knowledge of our identity was defined by those who had power over life and death in this world. Now God has redeemed and reconciled us so that we know that true life is found only in him who conquered death on the cross and was resurrected on the third day.

In the Bible, the objective reality of reconciliation is connected with divine liberation. This means that human fellowship with God is made possible through God’s activity in history, setting people free from economic, social, and political bondage. God’s act of reconciliation is not mystical communion with the divine; nor is it a pietistic state of inwardness bestowed upon the believer. God’s reconciliation is a new relationship with people created by God’s concrete involvement in the political affairs of the world, taking sides with the weak and the helpless. Israel, reflecting on its covenant relationship initiated by divine action, summed up its meaning in a liturgical confession:

“My father was a homeless Aramaean who went down to Egypt with a small company and lived there until they became a great, powerful and numerous nation. But the Egyptians ill-treated us, humiliated us and imposed cruel slavery upon us. Then we cried to the Lord the God of our fathers for help, and he listened to us and saw our humiliation, our hardship and distress; and so the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying deeds, and with signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
(Deuteronomy 26:25-10)

The point is clear: Israel’s covenant relationship with God is made possible because of God’s liberating activity. Israel is Yahweh’s people and Yahweh is their God because, and only because, Yahweh has delivered them from the bondage of political slavery and brought them through the wilderness to the land of Canaan. There could have been no covenant at Sinai without the Exodus from Egypt, no reconciliation without liberation. Liberation is what God does to effect reconciliation and without the former the latter is impossible. To be liberated is to be delivered from the state of unfreedom to freedom: it is to have the chains struck off the body and mind so that the creature of God can be who he or she is. Reconciliation is that bestowal of freedom and life with God which takes place on the basis of God’s liberating deads. Liberation and reconciliation are tied together and have meaning only through God’s initiative. They tell us that humans cannot be human and God refuses to be God unless the creature of God is delivered from that which is enslaving and dehumanising.

If we take seriously the objective reality of divine liberation as a precondition for reconciliation, then it becomes clear that God’s salvation is intended for the poor and the helpless and it is identical with their liberation from oppression. That is why salvation is defined in political terms in the Old Testament and why the prophets take their stand on the side of the poor within the community of Israel. As we have demonstrated, throughout the biblical story, God stands with the weak and against the strong. Thus fellowship with God is made possible by God’s righteous activity in the world to set right the conditions for reconciliation. God’s setting right the conditions for divine-human fellowship is liberation, without which fellowship would be impossible. To speak of reconciliation apart from God’s liberating activity is to ignore the divine basis of the divine-human fellowship.

The close relationship between reconciliation and liberation is also found in the New Testament. Jesus is the Reconciler because he is first the Liberator. He was born in Bethlehem and “laid in a manger. because there was no place in the inn” (Luke 2:7). He was baptised with the sinners, the poor and the oppressed because he was the Oppressed One sent from God to give wholeness to broken and wretched lives. Jesus lived and worked among them and on the cross he died for them. In him God entered history and affirmed the condition of the oppressed as his own existence, thereby making clear that poverty and sickness contradict the divine intentions for humanity. The cross and the resurrection are God’s defeat of slavery. We are now free to be reconciled with God because God has destroyed the power of death and sin. We do not have to be afraid of death anymore. Our existence is reconciled with the Creator’s existence.

Unfortunately, this essential connection between liberation and reconciliation is virtually absent in the history of Christian thought. Theologians emphasised the objectivity of reconciliation but they lost sight of the fact that reconciliation is grounded in history. This tendency is undoubtedly due partly to the influence of Greek thought and the Church’s political status after Constantine. The former led to rationalism and the latter produced a “gospel” that was politically meaningless for the oppressed. Reconciliation was defined on timeless “rational” grounds and was thus separated from God‘s liberating deeds in history. The political status of the post-Constantinian church, involving both alliance and competition with the state, led to definitions of the atonement that favoured the powerful and excluded the interests of the poor.

But if classical theory is radicalised politically, then liberation and reconciliation can once again be grounded in history and related to God’s fight against the powers of enslavement. The principalities and powers of evil, mythically expressed in the figure of Satan, represent not only metaphysical realities but earthly realities as well. They are the American system. symbolised in President Gerald Ford and other government officials, who oppress the poor, humiliate the weak and make heroes out of rich capitalists. The principalities and powers are that system of government symbolised in the Pentagon, which bombed and killed helpless people in Vietnam and Cambodia and attributed such obscene atrocities to the accidents of war. They are that system, symbolised in the police departments and prison officials, which shoots and kills defenceless blacks for being black and for demanding their right to exist. As long as Atticas exist and George Jacksons are killed, then we know that Satan is not dead. He is alive in those who do his work. Satan is present in those powers, visible and invisible, that destroy humanity and enslave the weak and the helpless. And it is against Satan and his powers that Christ has given his life. Because Christ has been raised from the dead, we know that the decisive victory has been won. We have been redeemed, that is, set free from the powers of slavery and death. This is the objective side of the biblical view of reconciliation.

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