Monday, May 02, 2011

Christianity’s Perversion: Zizek and Latin American Liberation Theology

Here is my last term paper at Claremont. It needs more polishing, but I'm proud of it. The second subtitle is: Or Why Osama Bin Laden's Death Bothers Me.

It is also what I wish my Easter Sermon would have been.

PDF version here.


Christianity’s Perversion:
Zizek and Latin American Liberation Theology

The next to final scene in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart features several minutes of the protagonist, William Wallace (played by Mel Gibson), being beaten, choked, racked, castrated, disemboweled, and finally beheaded in front of a cheering fourteenth-century English crowd. Taken by itself, the scene would be akin to a snuff film or contemporary horror “torture-porn” (like Eli Roth’s Hostel). Instead, however, it evokes a powerful reaction from the viewer because of the context in which Wallace’s torture and death is given in the movie. For nearly three hours before this violent presentation we are shown the exploits of Wallace as he rallies the peasants of Scotland together to fight against England’s King Edward in an attempt to gain their freedom. Fearing Wallace as a threat to his power, Edward sees that he is eventually captured and sentenced to death. With this long background, the climactic scene is not just difficult to watch because of its violence, but because of that which led up to these final moments. His death points to his life and is presented as a testimony to his cause.
In The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity, Slavoj Zizek concludes that the “perverse core” of Christianity is the message that Christianity is the “religion of atheism” wherein when “Christ dies, what dies with him is the . . . hope that there is a father.”[1] Though they would hardly consider themselves advocates of a religion of atheism, liberation theologians from Latin America[2] have made similar departures from the traditional understandings of the cross,[3] sharing with Zizek the view that “in theological terms, . . . it is not we, humans, who can rely on the help of God—on the contrary, we must help God.[4] In this paper I hope to compare and contrast the departures of Zizek and Latin American liberation theologies as they both contrast themselves from the more traditional theology of the cross—a contrast that is particularly evident in a comparison of Braveheart with Mel Gibson’s other blockbuster, The Passion of the Christ.

That Wallace in Braveheart is portrayed as a Christ-figure is abundantly evident throughout the film—both are betrayed by their own (Wallace by the Scottish nobles and his disciple, Robert the Bruce; Jesus by the Jewish elite and his disciple, Judas), both are sentenced to death by representatives of the British or Roman empires, both are carried on crosses (Wallace before his torture, and Jesus following his torture), both are executed before taunting masses and solemn disciples, and, although Wallace rides into town on a horse before his betrayal, the sound of a donkey braying is added to the scene, evoking the imagery of Christ riding into Jerusalem on both a colt and an ass. And yet the Real of the torture and deaths of the protagonists in both Braveheart and The Passion are strikingly different. According to Zizek,
It was God Himself who made a Pascalian wager: by dying on the Cross, He made a risky gesture with no guaranteed final outcome. . . . Far from providing the conclusive dot on the I, the divine act stands, rather, for the openness of a New Beginning, and it is up to humanity to live up to it, to decide its meaning, to make something of it. . . . [T]he Event is a pure-empty sign, and we have to work to generate its meaning.[5]

In both the Middle Ages of England and (what became) the meridian of time of Jerusalem, execution by the government was a common affair—even entertainment (wherein today we go to the theatres to watch these executions reenacted on screen). How, then, were the deaths of Christ-Wallace and Christ-Jesus any different—or, how did they get their meaning?
As Zizek points out, the real meaning of their deaths, or what is posited as the Real, “is not external to the Symbolic [their torture and death]: the Real is the Symbolic itself. . . . [T]o step into the Real does not entail abandoning language, throwing oneself into the abyss of the chaotic Real, but, on the contrary, dropping the very allusion to some external point of reference which eludes the Symbolic.”[6] In other words, the meaning of the symbol, the Real, must be understood in and through the terms of the symbol itself—instead of projecting its real meaning outside of the symbolic and even outside of language, to some ineffable, unreachable Real.
This, however, does not mean that the Real is self-evident, or that the symbolic carries or shows its meaning by itself. After describing two identical maps of a tribal village drawn by both some of the elites who live in the area more central to the temple and the less individuals who are pushed to the outskirts of town, Zizek points out that while the two maps may be identical, what those maps mean and symbolize can be very different. While one group may see an equally dispersed layout, the other may see an invisible, but present, line delineating the elites of the village from the rest. He writes,
It is here that we can see in what precise sense the Real intervenes through anamorphosis. First we have the “actual,” “objective” arrangement of the houses, and then its two different symbolizations that both distort, in an anamorphic way, the actual arrangement. The “Real” here, however, is not the actual arrangement, but the traumatic core of the social antagonism that distorts the tribe members’ view of the actual antagonism.[7]

He further adds that “the ‘truth’ is not the ‘real’ state of things, that is, the ‘direct’ view of the object without perspectival distortion, but the very Real of the antagonism that causes perspectival distortion. . . .” In other words, the truth of the Real is not a hard objective kernel that we attain by peeling away subjective perspective. Instead it is the truth of the reality of those perspectives. As with Wallace’s death, the truth is not the facts of his torture and death, but rather, the truth is the experience of his torture and death through the eyes of his disciples who have participated in his revolutionary battles with him. Zizek continues, “There is a truth; everything is not relative—but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not the truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective.”[8] Again, for Wallace’s disciples, there was one truth of his death—the truth of his revolutionary cause—not a series of truths, each gained from differing perspectives of his death. For the disciples, the one truth denied all others.
So what then of the cross? For both Latin American liberation theology and the traditional theology of the cross there are also truths of perspectival distortions that reveal the Real symbolized in the cross. For the liberation theologian, this distortion is seen in what Gustavo Gutierrez has termed, the “preferential option for the poor.”[9] Growing out of the mid-twentieth century, liberation theology arose as a result of theologians in Latin America, primarily Catholic, asking what it is that Christ and Christianity had to do with the gross systemic poverty and injustice plaguing their countries.  As Roberto Oliveros writes,
As we turn to the world of the Latin American popular masses and open our eyes to see those masses, we find ourselves face to face with the results of centuries of institutionalized injustice. Millions upon millions of persons are subjected to an inhuman, demeaning poverty. We run up against this unjust poverty with every step we take, and the collision deeply shakes the hearts of Christians of goodwill. . . .
What seminal experience and intuition has given the rise to the theology of liberation? Purely and simply, the daily experience of the unjust poverty in which millions of our fellow Latin Americans are obliged to live. In and from this experience emerges the shattering word of the God of Moses and of Jesus: this situation is not the will of that God.[10]

Taking literally Jesus’s announcement that he is the anointed one to “bring good news to the poor, . . . to proclaim release to the captives . . . , [and] to let the oppressed go free” (Luke 4:18), liberation theology contends that the gross reality of poverty and oppression requires that we understand the Christian message through a hermeneutic or perspectival distortion of relieving the poor. This means that all aspects of Christ, the Gospel, and Christianity need to be understood  through this perspective in terms of how it addresses the plight of the poor—including Jesus’s life, the Cross, and resurrection, soteriology, ecclesiology, evangelization, scripture, sacraments, and community.
Thus, through this distortion to understand the meaning of the cross—the Real of Jesus’s suffering and death—one must understand the cross in terms of Jesus’s work for the poor. As mentioned earlier, the meaning that Wallace’s torture and death for his disciples at the end of Braveheart was not in the violence itself—the object without perspectival distortion—but must be understood in terms of the revolutionary life that led to his death. In similar terms, Ignacio Ellacuría argues that the meaning of the cross must be understood in terms of the life that led to Jesus’s death. According to him, the question “‘Why did Jesus die’ is inseparable from the [question] ‘why did they kill him.’”[11] To this latter question he answers that Jesus “is killed . . . because of the historic life he led, a life of deeds and words that those who represented and held the reins of the religious, socioeconomic, and political situation could not tolerate.”[12]
Like the Christ of Ellacuría’s liberation theology, Wallace upset the social order and made his death nearly inevitable. By rejecting the offers to join with the Scottish nobles, he made enemies with both the English royalty and the Scottish nobility, and frustrated the latter’s plan to insert their own oppressive reign and control over the poor under the guise of mitigating the English rule. Though Wallace’s death did not happen out of logical necessity (he could have chosen to join with the nobles, or not fight at all), by earning the threats from both the English and Scottish elites Wallace made their conjoined efforts against him unavoidable.
It is this inevitability of death by the hands of the oppressors that Ellacuría calls the historic necessity of Christ’s death. According to Ellacuría, “We may admit that the death of Jesus and the crucifixion of the people are necessary, but only if we speak of a necessity in history and not a merely natural necessity.”[13] Christ’s death by natural necessity would mean that the world was such that his death by the hands of the rulers would have occurred by some sort of causal law. This, Ellacuría argues, “would entail both eliminating the responsibility of those who kill prophets and those who crucify humankind, thereby veiling the aspect of sin in historic evil.”[14] Rather than appealing to some sort of abstract evil that inevitably acts in the world, for Ellacuría, Jesus’s death was a historic necessity that resulted from his free acts in a world where historic persons also acted: “Necessity in history, on the other hand forces us to emphasize the determining causes of what happens.”[15] Just as Wallace’s fight against the English oppressors and his rejection of the Scottish nobility would result in his death, for Jesus the “resistance of the oppressive powers and the struggle for liberation in history brought [him] persecution and death.”[16] For Ellacuría, a historic necessity of Jesus’s death can only be seen “after the fact. Neither his disciples nor he himself saw in the beginning and not through the reflection on scripture, that the proclamation and victory of the Reign had to go by way of death.”[17] This view of the present as free but the past as historically necessary in retrospect is what Zizek calls “the existentialist “common place,” which he argues must be inverted:
One should thus invert the existentialist commonplace according to which, when we are engaged in a present historical process, we perceive it as full of possibilities, and ourselves as agents free to choose among them; while, to a retrospective view, the same process appears as fully determined and necessary, with no room for alternatives: on the contrary, it is the engaged agents who perceive themselves as caught in a Destiny, merely reacting to it, while, retrospectively, from the standpoint of later observation, we can discern alternatives in the past, possibilities of events taking a different path.

Perhaps this inverse of Ellacuría is evident in Javier Jiménez Limón’s claim that “martyrdom is an important reality. . . . People are not being killed through hatred of the faith.” Instead, the world “kills those who try to make the faith genuine, by truly following Jesus Christ, in transforming solidarity with the poor, by prophetic unmasking of oppression and idolatry.”[18] In this sense, death for acting out on behalf of the poor is an inevitable result of true Christian faith, an avoidable destiny for some who try to follow Jesus—a sentiment that was clearly felt when Ellacuría and five of his associates were gunned down in their church by the Salvadoran military. On the other hand, in retrospect it is easy to see how this historic necessity could have been avoided, to see how free we really are—after all, if Ellacuría had chosen the life of a priest only concerned with transcendent sin, then he could easily be alive today. And in retrospect, Jesus could have easily avoided the cross if he had chosen to live another type of life (this is, of course, the plot of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, where Jesus sees what his life would have been like if he had gotten married and started a family instead of living the life that led to the cross).
Against liberation theology’s perspective of the cross as signifying the life of Jesus, is the one depicted in The Passion. Like Gibson’s other movie, we are again treated (entertained?) by a depiction of the protagonist—Jesus, this time played by Jim Caviezel—being mocked, beaten, whipped, choked, nailed, pierced, and dying from exhaustion on a cross before a Roman and Jewish crowd. However, unlike Braveheart, where Wallace’s torture and death comprises of only a short scene at end of the extended portrayal of his life, Jesus’s torture and death is the content of the entire film—leaving one critic to call it “a two-hour-and-six-minute snuff movie—The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre.”[19] In fact, beyond a few short flashbacks depicting brief scenes of Jesus’s life, such as him playfully interacting with his mother, forgiving the prostitute, and teaching his disciples at the Last Supper, nothing is shown concerning Jesus’s life to give the viewer any understanding as to why the Roman and Jewish elites would want to inflict such violence on him.
To be fair to Gibson, his depiction of Jesus’s death seems to be exemplary of many Christians’ perspective of the cross—where Jesus, as a happy, hippie-like dispenser of kindness and transcendent aphorisms, is beaten and killed for just being too kind. Reflecting on the perplexing notion of the Roman Empire and Jewish elites’ concern and effort to kill such a hippie-Jesus, Ellacuría’s friend, Jon Sobrino, writes,
Persons who preach an exclusively transcendent Reign [Kingdom] of God do not get themselves murdered. People who preach a Reign that is only a new relationship with God, or only “love,” or only “reconciliation,” or only “trust in God,” are not murdered. All these things may be legitimately regarded as elements accompanying the message of the Reign of God, but they alone do not explain Jesus’ death, and therefore they alone cannot be the central element of the Reign. The Reign of God must have had some bearing on the historico-social, not only the transcendent.[20]

According to Ellacuría and Sobrino, God as Jesus did not come to earth simply to be hung on the cross to absolve persons of some sort of transcendent or metaphysical sin with a transcendent or metaphysical grace. Rather than coming to earth to die, God came to earth to live a life that both confronted sin and taught his followers to do the same. By this, the cross is not a symbol of violent sacrificial death for the sake of sacrifice. Instead, to them the cross is signified in the question “why did they kill him?” It is when we ask this question that we come to realize that Jesus was not capitally punished for simply teaching of love and transcendence, but he was rather murdered for confronting oppressive systems and trying to liberate the oppressed from their suffering. The value of the cross is that it symbolizes, points to, and embodies the life that Jesus of Nazareth lived. Thus, Jesus was not only the transcendent God made immanent, but in his imminence, he did that which either the transcendent God could not—or would not—do.
Opening his book, Zizek ask, “What if eternity is a sterile, impotent lifeless domain of pure potentialities, which, in order fully to actualize itself, has to pass through temporal existence? What if God’s descent to man, far from being an act of grace toward humanity, is the only way for God to gain full actuality, and to liberate Himself from the suffocating constraints of Eternity?”[21] In other words, if to truly be free is to be able to affect material reality (as all humans can do), and if to be truly transcendent is to be wholly apart from material existence (and thus unable to touch and affect the material world), then in order for God to truly be free he had to dispose of his transcendence. Thus, Zizek writes, “true love is precisely the . . . forsaking of eternity for an imperfect individual.”[22]
For Ellacuría, the type of life that led to Christ’s death was a life of what he calls “historic soteriology.” This is a life that “seeks human promotion or human rights from the side of the oppressed, on their behalf, and in struggle against the side of the oppressors. In other words, his action is historical and concrete and goes to the roots of the oppression.”[23] Like Wallace, who was fighting with the oppressed Scots to gain their freedom from their oppressors, Ellacuría’s Jesus is foremost concerned with the historical and tangible suffering of the oppressed. It is they who are in direct and urgent need of salvation from their pains. Just as Yahweh in the Hebrew Bible was concerned with the historical and concrete enslavement and imprisonment of the Israelites, so too is Jesus foremost concerned with the historical oppression of others. To attempt to spiritualize their historical nature is to strip them of their importance. Ellacuría writes,
It would be a mutilation of the Hebrew scriptures to try to take from them only their religious spirit without their historical flesh; and to try to keep the spirit of the Christian scriptures without their historicity, or to use their sense of historicity only to support their spirit. In both testaments spirit and flesh, God and history, are so inseparably tied that the disappearance of one would disfigure or even destroy, the other.[24]

And just as salvation must remain historical, so must the sin which salvation is directed upon. It also “cannot be studied abstractly” for it is also “concretely present in subtle forms that require more careful theological analysis.”[25]
Thus Ellacuría writes that “We must ask in all seriousness what the sin of the world is today, or in what forms the sin of the world appears today.” And to this he answers that “the sin of the world is sharply expressed today in what must be called unjust poverty.”[26] In other words, sin is not some transcendent Real or opposing Other that lies behind poverty and oppression, but is encountered through the very mask or material experience of such injustice. As Zizek puts it, such recognition is “to become aware that there is no mystery, no hidden true content, behind the mask (deceptive surface) of the Other.”[27] This is the same today as it was in the New Testament where “the poor themselves, impoverished and oppressed by injustice, have become the preferred locus of benevolence and grace, of God's faithful love.”[28] It is in this manner that the depiction of Wallace exemplifies how the historical sin of poverty and oppression and the historical salvific acts of seeking liberation are essential to Ellacuría’s discussion of Christ, in that both Wallace and Jesus were not concerned with fighting some ultimate sin that existed beyond oppression, but in the oppression itself.
On the other hand, the state of the poor and oppressed and their need for historic salvation play no role whatsoever in The Passion. Instead of symbolizing and giving truth to the plight of the poor and the revolutionary spirit, this latter movie instead portrays Jesus’s torture and death as the means by which transcendent sin is overcome. Whereas Braveheart begins with a depiction of King Edward’s ruthless oppression over the Scots, The Passion opens with Jesus being confronted by the androgynous Satan, taunting him: “No man can carry this burden, I tell you. It is far too heavy. Saving their souls is too costly.”[29] The implication here is that by being tortured and killed, Jesus will overcome transcendent sin. This sin is not the material, historical sin of poverty and oppression, but is rather the wholly other transcendent remnant of sin—a formless sticky residue that is beyond. Like Satan, whose own gender can’t be pinned down, this sin, also, lies behind all of its material variations.
Thus to subdue this transcendent sin and bring about peace, Jesus is offered as a violent sacrifice to bring about peace, the message being that true peace is achieved through true violence. “The ultimate fake of Christianity,” Zizek writes,
is that it sustains its official message of inner peace and redemption by a morbid excitation, namely, a fixation on the suffering, mutilated corpse of Christ. The very term passion here is revealing—as if the only thing that can arouse passion is the sick spectacle of passive suffering.[30]

The emphasis on the peace through violence is made quite explicit in The Passion. In an interview about the film Gibson said, “I don’t think other films have tapped into the real force of this story. I mean, have you seen any of the others? They are either inaccurate in their history, or they suffer from bad music or bad hair. This film will show the passion of Jesus Christ just the way it happened.” He adds, “There is no gratuitous violence in this film. I don’t think anyone under 12 should go see it—unless they’re a very mature 12-year-old. It’s pretty heavy. I think we have gotten too used to seeing pretty crucifixes on the wall and we forget what really happened. I mean, we know that Jesus was scourged, that he carried his cross, that he had nails put through his hands and feet, but we rarely think about what this means.”[31] The “real force,” of course is the grotesqueness in which Jesus’s suffering has been betrayed. And as Gibson implies, the passion can only be truly meaningful if it is as violent as possible—other depictions fail in that they don’t show enough blood, mutilated flesh, dislocated limbs, and severed eyeballs. The absurdity and gratuitous nature of Gibson’s depiction of Christ’s passion is evident, however, when one compares the treatment of the other two crucified persons as they remain rather unscathed as they carry only cross bars to Calvary—compared to Jesus who, already bloodied and beaten, is continually whipped and hit as he carries the entire heavier cross. (Ironically, in the director’s commentary accompanying the DVD release of Braveheart, Gibson notes that Wallace’s torture and execution scene was toned down because they felt it was too violent).
Midway through The Passion, Pilate (who is portrayed as an almost moral person—in that he is willing to command Jesus’s brutal torture to almost death, but does not want to actually command Jesus to death) has a conversation with his wife in which he asks: “What is truth, Claudia?. . . Do you want to know what my truth is, Claudia? If I don't condemn this man, I know Caiphas will start a rebellion. If I do condemn him, then his followers may. Either way, there will be bloodshed. Caesar has warned me, Claudia. Warned me twice. He swore that the next time the blood would be mine. That is my truth!” Like with Gibson, the truth for Pilate is also violence—either I inflict violence on Jesus or Caesar (Rome’s “Son of God”) will inflict violence on me. And like the Christian veneration of the violence of the passion, Pilate idolizes violence as the one true truth.
And while Gibson and Pilate (and much of Christianity) may venerate the idol of violence, according to Zizek there is a deeper idolization underlying the Christian passion: “the ultimate idolatry is not the idolizing of the mask of the image, itself, but the belief that there is some hidden positive content beyond the mask.”[32] With this in mind, what greater idolatry is there than the belief that there is a transcendent sin—the androgynous Satan—that even God must appease. Is not this the message of The Passion: that not even God could overcome (simply forgive) the demands of the transcendent sin, but had to instead offer himself up as a sacrifice to meet its demands. After all, if an enemy, stranger, or friend sin against me—even committing the most violent, vile, and betraying acts—it is within my power to forgive that person. However, with this transcendent sin, rather than sin succumbing to the demands of God, it is God who must succumb to the demands of sin. It is not God that is omnipotent, but rather sin that wears this crown. Sin/Satan determines how the game is played: either humanity or God’s son must suffer. And thus, while Jesus’s death is followed with Satan’s scream of disappointment (or is it a scream of victory?) it is God’s failure to beat Satan (his impotence) that is made manifest in the single tear dropping from heaven at the moment of His son’s death.
If one is going to say that God has beaten Satan, it is not in overpowering Satan, but in tricking Satan into believing that s/he is getting the better deal. Concerning sacrifice, Zizek writes, “one sacrifices not in order to get something from the Other, but in order to dupe the Other, in order to convince him or it that one is still missing something, that is, jouissance.”[33] In this sense, Satan’s cry at the end of the movie is a burst of frustration in realizing that s/he had been conned by God (or rather, was taken in by God’s marketing skills). While Satan wished for humanity, God flirted before Satan what s/he did not already have: the pleasure of watching God’s Son suffer with the hope of Him giving in. Just as with God’s earlier Old Testament bet with Satan over Job, the terms are the same: despite the vast amount of evil that can be afflicted, the chosen servant/Son will stay true to the transcendent divine Other and not give way to the transcendent sinful Other. That Satan finds pleasure in Jesus’s suffering is made clear in The Passion, as Satan is repeatedly shown in the background watching the violent scenes with his/her own passionate pleasure.
Seeing that God is incapable of simply overcoming the transcendent sin, the Christian viewer is asked to join in God’s con against Satan. In doing so, the Christian believer implicitly says: “Yes. Inflict whatever violence and pain upon Jesus, for he will not curse God’s face. After all, better He than me.” And thus, the believer takes in a hidden pleasure in watching Jesus suffer. There is a love and passion for his suffering as this suffering absolves the believer from all of his past, present, and future sins. The violence on Christ enables the believer to ultimately be untouched by the residual transcendent sin—despite the historical material sin that they may live in and actively support daily. According to Zizek,
far from being the religion of sacrifice, of the renunciation of earthly pleasures . . . , Christianity offers a devious stratagem for indulging our desires without having to pay the price for them, for enjoying life without the fear of decay and debilitating pain awaiting us at the end of the day. If we go to the limits in this direction, it would even be possible to maintain that this is the ultimate message of Christ’s sacrifice: you can indulge in your desires, and enjoy; I took the price for it upon myself!

While many Christians would certainly balk at this—what Zizek calls “the perverse functioning of Christianity”—it is nevertheless the argument given against governmental welfare by many among the conservative Christian right (the intended audience of The Passion): that the welfare system removes accountability and incentivizes persons to be lazy and not work.
In an episode of Mr. Deity (an online series of short comedies depicting God creating the universe and implementing his plans), a meeting between God and Jesus is portrayed where God offers Jesus the opportunity to suffer and die for everyone’s sins. After receiving trite answers to the immediate problems that he sees in God’s plan (“Why can’t you just forgive them?” “If the rest of the people aren’t half-God, how is it fair for them to have the same expectations to not sin?” etc), Jesus nods his head: “I see. I finally understand… Haha. This is a good one… I’m being PUNKED! Where are the cameras? You can all come out now!”[34] The question, of course, that this begs us to ask is that if it is not Satan in The Passion that is being punked—or conned—but actually Jesus who is it at the butt of the scheme. In response to Jesus’s question, “Why is it that you can’t just forgive people?” Mr. Deity replies, “Well it’s just that sin thing.” If transcendent sin is the hidden idol behind the mask of material sin, and if Jesus’s torture and death is to appease that sin, then the joke is that Christians are sacrificing their God to a false idol.
For Zizek, this joke is the perverse core of Christianity: that when Jesus was on the cross and wondering if God had abandoned him, the reality was that God, as the omnipotent transcendent Other, was never there to begin with:
Christ’s “Father, why has thou forsaken me?” is not a complaint to the omnipotent capricious God-Father whose ways are indecipherable to us, mortal humans, but a complaint that hints at an impotent God: it is rather like a child who, having believed in his father’s powerfulness, discovers with horror that his father cannot help him. . . . In short, . . . it is God-the-Father who, in effect, dies, revealing His utter impotence.[35]

With this, Jesus’s death on the cross was not a meaningful exchange between a transcendent ineffable God and transcendent ineffable sin. Comparing Jesus’s suffering to that of Job’s, Zizek argues that the revelation on God in the account of Job’s tribulation is one of silence. When Job is at the ends of despair and wishing that he had never been born, God can only boast of his own strength. He offers nothing to provide Job with a meaning to his suffering. Zizek writes, “So what we get is neither the good God letting Job know that his suffering was just an ordeal destined to test his faith, nor a dark God beyond the Law, . . . but rather a God who acts like someone caught in a moment of impotence . . . and tries to escape His predicament by empty boasting.”[36]
Thus, this impotence of God is also the great revelation of the cross—not that Jesus is God, but rather that God (Jesus) is man. According to Zizek, “This final reversal by means of which the founding Exception (God) falls into His own creation . . . is what is unique to Christianity, the mystery of incarnation, of God (not only appearing as a man, but) becoming a man.”[37] Far from showing us that God is the omnipotent divine transcendent Other who, by becoming like man, was able to conquer the sinful transcendent Other, Jesus shows us that God is incapable of saving humanity from the violence of the world (historic sin)—and is even a victim of it.
That God is impotent and unable to save humans from historic sin drives theologians to defend God through theodicies which, again, point to varying transcendent realities. One can imagine a kidnapped teen who, while being raped and tortured by her predator, calls out to God and asks: “Why me? Why is this happening to me?” (“Why hast thou forsaken me?”) In answer to her prayers, a philosopher of religion comes to her and answers: “God is allowing your suffering because he doesn’t want to interfere with this man’s free-will. While your pain is great, it is much more important that this man is able to do as he chooses.” Or perhaps the philosopher of religion tells her: “You are suffering unbearable pain. God certainly has the power to help you, but there is a greater good or some soul-making value that your pain and suffering is going to make possible for someone else.” Or perhaps, “This is terrible, but it’ll all be better in heaven.” Or perhaps, he puts it simply: “If you saw the big picture—God’s eternal plan— you would realize that you are merely one of millions that God has allowed to suffer for his ultimate goal. It is all for good.” Here the real, historic, suffering is countered with transcendent ideals and ineffable justifications: freedom, experience, the eschaton, and God’s invisible plan. Because God’s impotence prevents Him from compensating our temporal suffering with temporal sustenance, it must instead be a compensation of the wholly Other. It is for this reason that Zizek writes, “The real task is not to get compensation from those responsible, but to deprive them of the position that makes them responsible. Instead of asking compensation from God . . . , we should ask the question: do we really need God?”[38]
Instead of our asking the omnipotent God for help, it is the impotent God that must ask help from us. “What this means in theological terms, is that it is not we, humans, who can rely on the help of God—on the contrary, we must help God.[39] For Zizek, God needs help because he, as it has been revealed by the cross, is nothing: “So what is revealed in Christianity is not just the entire content, but, more specifically, that there is nothing—no secret—behind it to be revealed.”[40] Because there is nothing, no omnipotent Other to rely on, it is instead on humans to rise to the occasion.
In Braveheart, just before his betrayal and death, Wallace begins to take on a godlike status as rumors and legends about him spread throughout Scotland. His torture and death revealed exactly what the British wanted to reveal—that behind the rumors and legends was nothing. However, while his death may have revealed the void behind his legendary status, it also revealed the revolutionary spirit that drove his labors. Contrasting against Jesus’s final words, “It is accomplished. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit,” is Wallace’s cry of “Freedom!”—his revolutionary spirit, as it were, not sent to God but to his fellow Scots. This last word performs two functions. First, it denies the false and oppressive sovereignty of the English rule. The magistrate governing over his torture and execution expects Wallace to plea for mercy—a plea which would falsely acknowledge the English power as a source for salvation from suffering—and Wallace’s shout denies their desire. (Further contrasting The Passion, where it is Jesus’s death that brings about mercy, during Wallace’s torture it is the crowds’ call for mercy which ultimately brings about Wallace’s death.) Second, and more importantly, far from announcing any accomplishment or end goal, this shout points back to his life of fighting for the salvation and liberation of the oppressed, and points forward to the work that is yet to be done.
It is this last point—that his death marks a continuation of the work—that is made explicit in the final moments of the film. Although there is no physical bodily resurrection, a narrated voice-over describes that, while Wallace was dismembered and his limbs were displayed as a warning to others, “It did not have the effect that [the English] planned.” The final scene of the movie shows Wallace’s Scottish followers armed for battle against the English. Robert the Bruce, the Scottish noble who had previously betrayed Wallace, stands with them holding a cloth that symbolized Wallace’s historic push for the salvation of the oppressed Scottish. Addressing his fellow Scots he asks, “You have bled with Wallace. Now bleed with me,” and with that the Scots rush the English to fight for their freedom.
According to Ellacuría, “Jesus’s death is inseparately connected to the eschatological and historical coming of the Reign [Kingdom of God], and for that purpose the resurrection means not only a verification or consolation, but the assurance that this work must continue and that He remains alive to continue it.”[41]  Unlike Braveheart which depicts the resurrection of Wallace as a continuation of the reality of oppression and the work of those who are trying to liberate the oppressed, The Passion ends with a final scene that solely depicts the resurrection as a physical bodily resurrection, where, besides the nail prints, his naked body is perfect—including his trimmed beard and brushed hair. Along with the shrill of Satan which followed his death, this depiction of the resurrection (with its triumphant accompanying score) allows people to “live with the false assumption that the struggle against sin and death is over with the triumph of the resurrection.”[42]  Such a triumph “would leave unfulfilled Jesus’s message which predicted persecutions and death for those who were to continue his work.”[43] Rather than calling for a continuation of Jesus’s spirit, it assures the viewer that God’s work has been accomplished—and to not worry because all suffering turns out good in the end.
For Ellacuría, Jesus’s embodiment was not just in flesh, but
was incorporated in human history. . . . One could say that the true historical body of Christ, and therefore the preeminent locus of his embodiment and his incorporation is . . . the poor and the oppressed of the world. . . . [T]he church by its very nature is the church of the poor and that, as church of the poor, it is the historical body of Christ.[44]

Because the true historical body of Christ is more than just his physical body, but is the poor and oppressed who are working for the salvation of others, the true resurrection of the body of Christ is also more than the continued life of his physical body, but is the continued life of the historical body of Christ as the poor and oppressed who are proclaiming and working for the Kingdom of God. As Sobrino puts it:
If resurrection is life in its fullness, it can only be love in its fullness, it can only be love its fullness. How can one live in fullness in this life? The answer is simple: by repeating the following of Jesus in the spirit of Jews on this earth. The one who lives in this way lives even now as someone raised to life amid the very conditions of history.[45]

As Zizek points out, the apostle Paul’s witness of Christ was not in the stories of Jesus of Nazareth, but instead his witness was that of the cross and reality of Christ’s resurrection. Because in much of Christian tradition it is Paul who replaces the betraying Judas as Jesus’s apostle, it is important that the person who heralds the Christian community does so in the betrayer’s place. And thus, just as a betrayer carries on Wallace’s revolutionary spirit, it is Paul—in Judas’s position—who carries on the revolutionary spirit of the cross:
Paul more or less totally ignores Jesus’s particular acts, teachings, parables. . . . What matters to him is not Jesus as a historical figure, only the fact that he died on the Cross and rose from the dead—after confirming Jesus’s death and resurrection, Paul goes on to his true Leninist business, that of organizing the new party called the Christian community.[46]

So rather than being concerned with the traditional stories of Jesus, Paul is instead “a thoroughly engaged fighter who ignores distinctions that are not relevant to the struggle.”[47]
While Zizek and liberation theologians would differ on the importance of the historical figure of Christ, the latter would agree with Zizek that what emerges from the death of Christ “is the Holy Spirit, which is not Other, but the community (or, rather, collective) of believers: the ‘neighbor’ is a member of our collective.”[48] This
“Holy Spirit” designates a new collective held together . . . by a fidelity to a Cause . . . that runs across and suspends the distinctions of the existing social body. . . . [H]is universe is no longer that of the multitude of groups that want to “find their voice,” and assert their particular identity, their “way of life,” but that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism.[49]

From the perspective of liberation theology, this unconditional universalism is the option for the poor, the call that none should live under the oppression of poverty. And like Paul’s new community, liberation theology’s “crucified people” “transcends any embodiment in history that may take place for the sake of its salvation in history. . . . The crucified people thus remains somewhat imprecise insofar as it is not identified, at least formally, with a specific group in history.”[50]
For liberation theology, to have the spirit is to participate in the liberating spirit of Christ. As Jon Sobrino notes, “The spiritual life is not something ‘regional,’ and still less does it stand in opposition to another, ‘material’ kind of life. . . . No, spirituality is the spirit with which we confront the real. It is the spirit with which we confront the concrete history in which we live.”[51] This spirit, like Zizek’s Holy Spirit, is not a transcendent Other, but is rather the spirit of liberation as understood through distorting perspective of the preferential option of the poor. As such, while liberation theologians would not directly concur with Zizek’s conclusion that Christianity is the “religion of atheism,” they would agree that atheism—or at least certain types of atheism—are not precluded from Christian liberation. To the contrary, according to Pablo Richard,
What is really present and immediate to the great masses is what we call revolutionary atheism. This is the political, militant atheism of those who do battle for justice and are involved in the liberation practice. This type of atheism profoundly challenges Christian faith, but does not normally appear as an enemy of Christians. Indeed, believing and nonbelieving revolutionaries meet in a common practice, in a common historical project, and regard each other as comrades. Both revolutionary atheists and committed Christians, different though they may be in language and motivation, entertain a critical attitude toward religion.[52]

Adding to Richard, Sobrino notes that “the option for the poor is the heritage, not of Christians and believers alone, but of many other human beings as well.”[53]
For Zizek, his ultimate conclusion is in line with the critical attitude toward institutionalized religion. Closing up The Puppet and the Dwarf, he writes:
[I]t is possible today to redeem this core of Christianity only in the gesture of abandoning the shell of its institutional organization (and, even more so, of tis specific religious experience). . . . That is the ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity: in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself—like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge.[54]

It is here that the theologians of liberation would depart from Zizek. This is not to say, however, that they are not critical of the institutionalized—Catholic—Church, as they see the Church and traditional Christianity as part of the oppressive forces that liberation theology confronts. According to Ellacuría, the historical institutional church, far from being symbolic of the crucified people and the Kingdom of God, has largely been a force for the rich and oppressive. He writes: “the historical world and the church’s institutions have been universalized from a preferential option for the rich and powerful. . . . [T]he church has become worldly. That is, it has . . . shaped its message and even its institutions more from the standpoint of a power that dominates and controls than from that of a ministry that serves.”[55] However, far from calling out to kill the Church—to sacrifice it as Christ sacrificed himself—liberation theology instead seeks to transform the church to carry on what they believe that the cross of Christ pointed to: a life that sought to dissolve the emphasis of a higher transcendent salvation and replace it with an emphasis on the temporal salvation of the poor and oppressed.
Thus, rather than abandon the Church and its sacraments altogether, liberation theology seeks to understand them and symbolize them through the perspectival distortion of the preferential option for the poor. Recognizing that an emphasis on transcendence and eternity over imminence and temporality does, in fact, act as Marx’s opiate for the masses, Ellacuría urges that by reversing these emphases, “the Christian faith, far from becoming an opiate—and not only a social opiate—should establish itself for what it is: a principle of liberation.”[56]
In 1980, Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador and mentor of Ellacuría, gave a sermon in which he reflected on his work for the poor and the threats of violence that he was receiving for his work. He said, “I have frequently been threatened with death. I must tell you that, as a Christian, I do not believe in death, but in resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the Salvadoran people. . . . Martyrdom is a grace I do not think I deserve. But if God accepts my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon become reality.”[57] Like William Wallace’s dying words, these became his call for freedom from his cross as he was assassinated two weeks later while administering mass—a fate Ellacuría and several of his associates would experience nine years later.
The final lines of The Passion are from Roman soldiers reacting to the quaking earth which followed Jesus’s death in Matthew’s Gospel: “Cassius! Hurry! . . . He’s dead! . . . Make sure!” This “Make sure!” takes on a different meaning from different perspectival distortions from both Zizek and liberation theologians. Zizek’s response, along with the Roman soldiers, is to say “Yes! Make sure he is dead. Make sure the transcendent God is dead! And make sure that his Church dies as well! Replace him!” To the contrary, liberation theology cries out: “No! Make sure he lives—not in his physical body—but through his spirit in us! Make sure that his death was not in vane! Make sure that his fight for the poor lives on!”

[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003): 171.
[2] There are numerous liberation theologies that have arisen both along with and influenced by Latin American liberation theology—such as black liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, and queer liberation theology. For the purposes of this paper I use the term “liberation theology” to refer exclusively to the liberation theology of Latin America that developed in the mid- to late-twentieth century. Unless otherwise noted, all cited liberation theology articles are from Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino, eds., Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993).
[3] For the purposes of this paper I use ‘traditional theologies of the cross’ to refer to what Zizek calls the “two main interpretations of how Christ’s death deals with sin; sacrificial and participatory.” Zizek, Puppet and Dwarf, 102.
[4] Zizek, Puppet and the Dwarf, 137.
[5] Ibid., 136.
[6] Ibid., 69.
[7] Ibid., 75.
[8] Ibid., 78-79.
[9] Gustavo Guierrez, “Option for the Poor,” 235-50.
[10] Robert Oliveros, “History of Liberation Theology,” 4; emphasis added.
[11] Ignacio Ellacuría, “The Church of the Poor,” 547.
[12] Ignacio Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” 588.
[13] Ibid., 586
[14] Ibid., 587.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid., 586.
[17] Ibid., 588.
[18] Javier Jiménez Limón, “Suffering, Death, Cross, and Martyrdom,” 714.
[19] David Edelstein, “Jesus H. Christ: The Passion, Mel Gibson's Bloody Mess,” Slate Online, February 24, 2004. (accessed April 29, 2011).
[20] Jon Sobrino, “Central Position of the Reign of God,” 366.
[21] Zizek, Puppet and the Dwarf, 13.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ellacuría, “The Church of the Poor,” 557.
[24] Ignacio Ellacuría, “The Historicity of Christian Salvation,” 256.
[25] Ellacuría, “Historicity of Christian Salvation,” 276.
[26] Ibid., 278.
[27] Zizek, Puppet and Dwarf, 138.
[28] Ellacuría, “Historicity of Christian Salvation,” 279.
[29] This is from the English subtitles of the film, whereas the movie itself is all spoken in Latin and Aramaic. Gibson’s original plan was to play the film without subtitles, implying that the truth of the film was beyond language.
[30] Zizek, Puppet and Dwarf, 97-98.
[31] “Mel Gibson’s Great Passion: Christ’s Agony as You’ve Never Seen It,” Zenit Online. March 6, 2003 (accessed May 1, 2011).
[32] Zizek, Puppet and Dwarf, 138.
[33] Ibid., 51.
[34] “Mr. Deity and the Really Big Favor,” Mr. Deity, season 1, episode 2. (accessed April 30, 2011).
[35] Zizek, Puppet and Dwarf, 126.
[36] Ibid., 124-25.
[37] Ibid., 138.
[38] Ibid., 169.
[39] Ibid., 137.
[40] Ibid., 127.
[41] Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” 584.
[42] Ibid., 585.
[43] Ibid., 584.
[44] Ellacuría, “The Church of the Poor,” 546.
[45] Jon Sobrino, “Spirituality and the Following of Jesus, 696. This does not, however, mean that liberation theology completely denies the material bodily resurrection of Jesus. See Carlos Bravo, “Jesus of Nazareth, Christ the Liberator,” 436-38.
[46] Zizek, Puppet and the Dwarf, 9.
[47] Ibid., 112.
[48] Ibid., 138.
[49] Ibid., 130.
[50] Ellacuría, “The Crucified People,” 602.
[51] Sobrino, “Spirituality and the Following of Jesus,” 680-81.
[52] Pablo Richard, “Theology in the Theology of Liberation,” 155.
[53] Sobrino, “Central Position,” 374.
[54] Zizek, Puppet and the Dwarf, 171.
[55] Ignacio Ellacuría, “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” 303.
[56] Ellacuría, “The Church of the Poor,” 560.
[57] Qtd in Javier Jimenez Limon, “Suffering, Death, Cross, and Martyrdom,” 715.


  1. Good essay. I'm very sympathetic to liberation theology. However, I do feel that liberation theology is somewhat in tension with mainstream mormonism and the institutionalized church. As a fellow mormon, the question I put to you is, Is there space for liberation theology within Mormonism?

  2. Thanks. When I am done with grad school I plan on writing a book on Mormon liberation theology.


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