God’s silence on the cross, as a silence that brings suffering to God himself, can be interpreted, very paradoxically, as solidarity with Jesus and the crucified of history —Sobrino, 246
In the last essay I wrote for The Pub, I said that racialized minorities bear the burden of racism, not the burden of proof (The Pub Vol. XVIII Issue 1, 25). I argued for reading scholarship and literature that does more; texts which challenge readers out of complacency and into action and out of busyness into contemplation. In this review, I bring to your attention a book that does just that: Jon Sobrino’s Jesus the Liberator (JL).
That racialized minorities need to prove nothing should be obvious. Racism is ingrained in white picket fences, encoded in the growth prerogatives of green lawns, and written in racist laws (19). But as White Supremacy continues turning blind eyes from the truth, it’s easy to be discouraged. The hurt hits from all angles, transforming the protest call of no justice, no peace from outraged invocation to tear-stained lamentation. Where is God amid the crucifixions of racialized, gendered bodies? In the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as stasis kills, oppresses, and starves the poor, black, and queer, where is God?
The racialized wounds leave deep theological scars, so it takes theological and pastoral words to begin the process of healing them. This last month I’ve seen how internalized racism assimilated my grandparents into whiteness. For the first time, I’ve heard stories of how my great-grandfather—Emilio Lazaro Garcia, whose name had been forgotten by my siblings and I —suffered as a worker, and I’ve sorrowed. Along the way, JL has been a phenomenally helpful and encouraging book. It points towards the distinctively historical Jesus—the Jesus who wanders with Israel in the desert, who travails with Israel in slavery and exile, who is present in small things and unknown crucifixions, who suffers and knows alongside oppressed people as they seek liberation (Ex. 2:25, Sobrino, 269).
A work of El Salvadoran theology published in 1991, JL exists on the horizon of historical crucifixions: 75,000 murdered El Salvadorans. More particularly, JL is written in the shadow of the martyrdom of the eight Jesuit priests who Sobrino called brothers. The ideas represented in JL led to cruciformity, to martyrdom. It is a Christology of gratitude and love formed in the midst of crucifixion, in the hope of liberation (1, 5). JL’s self-defined purpose is to be a liberative text that gestures towards Christ the Liberator, the second volume of Sobrino’s Christological work. In JL’s conclusion, Sobrino casually states that “the most complete way of bearing witness to the God of love, mercy and justice is to make God present through loving activity in history through works of mercy and justice” (269).
Sobrino succeeds at his task. Moved by the martyrdom of his friends and family, Sobrino’s theology reckons with God’s permission of injustice—permission epitomized by Jesus’s death. For Sobrino, where “God’s non-action in the face of the death of his beloved Son is a fact, and if this fact is not interpreted as extreme cruelty, then this non-action and silence can be interpreted as the negative way in which the cross affects God himself” (244). God is affected by suffering, and thus God’s embrace of suffering reveals supreme love for the oppressed. As Sobrino says, “in history there is no such thing as love without solidarity and no solidarity without incarnation” (245). Christ’s incarnate life proclaims the Kingdom of God in the face of the anti-Kingdom—the Roman, occupying oppressor. Jesus lives in the lives of victims of oppressive forces because Jesus is a victim. The mystery of Christ’s boundless love: God in the smallness of anonymous, crucified peoples.
Sobrino posits that the oppressor will struggle to see how Christ lives luminously in the victim. Jesus is the Suffering Servant, the one from whom others hide their faces. Recognition of such truth is difficult because such a searing vision “might disturb the false happiness of those who have produced the Servant, unmask the truth covered up by the euphemisms we invent every day” (Sobrino, 256-257). The victim reveals the oppressor’s status as the oppressor, thus opening the gate for the oppressor’s repentance and destabilizing worlds built on oppression.
Jesus the Liberator creates a liberative space to think theologically about oppression, justice, and mercy. In such a place, embodied practices that lead to martyrdom come in solidarity with the crucified people. Sobrino says those who are killed passively for being what they are, even when they say nothing, are “the greatest proof of injustice and the greatest protest against it” (258). Jesus was just that person, just as Breonna Taylor and all victims of racist killings are. Jesus’ cross becomes “the ultimate witness to God’s love, particularly for victims and against their oppressors” (269). Victims are the ultimate witnesses to Christ today. The true church exists where victims live free amid oppression. God’s reality is the victim's reality, not the perpetrator reality which too often hides comfortably in christian circles, misleading others and abusing power. To contemplate power dynamics in churches, institutions, and the U.S. legal system, I ask you read another piece: “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review” by Alan David Freeman. In Freeman’s article, you’ll see how adoption of the victim’s perspective is necessary for legal justice to be pursued. Adoption of the victim’s perspective must be necessary in the pursuit of theological justice. We must not see Christ from the eye of the perpetrator who looks only at discriminate acts of sin and pleads innocent, instead, we must encounter the Victim Christ who examines the diseased natures of our hearts, who knows our brokenness, who forgives.
I recommend reading Jesus the Liberator if you are interested in seeing theology do more than speculate about abstract ideological principles. Full of insight about sin, suffering, evil, and the person who Jesus was, Jesus the Liberator builds a framework to analyze power structures in the U.S. and abroad. Then, it draws attention to how Christ suffers in solidarity with victims of oppression, providing a nuanced theology of suffering. The words of Sobrino are healing. Read Sobrino as a wise theologian speaking on sin, evil, and suffering pastorally. There is only one Christ—Christ the Liberator incarnate in the life of Jesus and the lives of Crucified People.