Daniel M. Bell, Jr.’s Liberation Theology after the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering

[1] Almost 10 years have passed since the publication of this interesting and challenging book from the pen of a theological ethicist in the “Radical Orthodoxy” circle of John Milbank. Bell’s work is at once a validation of the fundamentally Christian concerns of Latin American Liberation Theology and a penetrating theological critique of the latter for its debilitating entanglement in the very categories which it seeks so urgently to overcome. On its own merits, this is a book well worth discussing; it is long overdue for Lutheran theological appreciation and criticism. I hope to offer the reader both in what follows.

[2] Bell’s argument is lucid albeit complex, even dense, especially for those uninitiated in the ways of Radical Orthodoxy. “The heart of my argument,” Bell writes in summation, “is the claim that forgiveness is the form of Christian resistance to capitalism” (186, emphasis added). We can organize a description of Bell’s argument around each of the three italicized elements in this statement.

[3] Capitalism is not, for Bell, primarily an economic system; it is an ontology of the constitutive human power, which, following Deleuze, Bell regards as innocent, productive desire (e.g., 9, 13 et passim). As an ontology, however, capitalism “captures” desire for the market in the form of consumerism and “disciplines” it to conform to the imperatives of increased efficiency for the sake of maximal wealth extraction. This sounds like a version of the Marxist theory of the surplus theory of labor value. Indeed, it bears a family resemblance to it. But Bell draws far more on Deleuze and Foucault than Marx and Engels. He follows their rigorously non-teleological, anti-Hegelian account of capitalism.

[4] “Savage” capitalism (Hinkelammert) is the now dominant juggernaut of mindless production and consumption which is “savage” in that it relentlessly works the commodification of all things (31). Nothing is sacred; everything has its price; greed replaces charity as the categorical imperative of our age; the masses of the Lumpenproletariat become so much excess, garbage really, fit only to be discarded. Such capitalism is not, as Marx imagined, dialectically creating the industrial and technological presuppositions of socialism through the conquest of nature by science; socialism will not emerge from this gathering storm right on schedule when the contradictions of capitalism become unsustainable and implode, giving revolutionary birth to the new order of the ages. Rather, as an ontology, victorious capitalism (10!) is something far more sinister: it is a power of evil only to be resisted with no guarantee of success.

[5] Every attempt to co-opt capitalism fails — Marxism-Leninism being the prime example! Capitalism captures all: the nation state and civil society (70, 74) cannot control the market but are turned into its instruments. The pathetic church becomes its chaplaincy (98), lending succor to the battered selves who live by selling themselves day in and day out. Hence politics as statecraft, community organizing, church ministry and proclamation are all hopelessly compromised, unwitting agents of the “undulating snake.”

[6] The only hope to be found in this bleak Deleuzian picture is that underneath the ontology which has so captivated desire, desire itself remains innocent (151), anarchic, revolutionary, generative (33). Following Milbank, Bell assimilates this Deleuzian doctrine of primal, innocent desire to De Lubac’s doctrine of graced nature (58). Captivated desire can in principle be liberated and redirected to God as its true object. This move permits Bell the worry, as well it might, that Deleuze’s post-Marxist (i.e. non-teleological) account of capitalism leads only to “madness beyond madness,” which cannot fund any real resistance. He asks whether “madness intensified,” as Deleuze seems to commend, “finally collapse[s] back into the black hole of nihilism, where life becomes death and an absolute violence is unleashed?” (33). “Is there a path beyond madness to health?” Bell asks, “A therapy that will heal desire of the distortions and deformities inflicted by capitalist discipline?” (35).

[7] To this acute and timely question, Bell proposes the “bold” answer that “Jesus Christ, and the body of Christ that is the church of the poor, is about the work of liberating desire from the clutches of capitalism” (35). This is theology: “forgiveness as a means of resistance to capitalism remains a claim about who God is and the way God in Christ is working in the world to overcome sin” (162). This admirable theological assertion signals the reformist claim of Radical Orthodox ecclesiology, specifically, “if it is to fund resistance to capitalism, Christianity must shed its (modern) identity as an apolitical custodian of abstract values and preferential options and assume its proper place in the temporal realm as the true politics, the exemplary form of human community” (144).

[8] How can the church return to its true life as the Beloved Community in the flow of time? The church is paralyzed by the modern metaphysics into which it has unwittingly bought. Theology has to help the church think itself out of this debilitating entanglement in order that it learn again to resist the master that presently it serves.

[9] Bell sees the root of the problem in the modern adoption of Scotus’ doctrine of the univocity of being in preference to the Thomistic analogy of being. Thomas famously thought that creatures can truly signify the Creator in spite of infinite ontological distance because creatures live in an order which genuinely reflects its Creator. Moreover, difference here is not necessarily a competitive threat to anyone’s claim to possess (e.g., an identity, a territory, an intimate relationship, etc.), but rather a challenge to see how difference also comes as gift, hence a challenge to harmonize difference with the gift of my own existence, since both must be alike understood as expressions of divine generosity.

[10] With univocity, however, the God who gives cannot be spoken without the absurdity of predicating to Him creaturely terms in precisely the same sense as applies to creaturely objects, thus making God a creature alongside other creatures. Since the transcendent God who gives cannot be meaningfully spoken in absence of analogy to creatures, all that remains in univocity are immanent gods which figure particular intensities of desire (as Epicurus, who is in the distant background here, thought about the gods). Likewise, creatures as agents or subjects of their own existence, as imago Dei, also disappear here. In place of the vocation of Gen. 1:26-28 in the analogy, “Care for the earth as God cares for the cosmos,” ever- generative Dionysian Chaos underlies the “plane of immanence,” producing successive forms of life, not the singularity of the human creature called out by God to the vocation of making the earth a paradise. Difference here emerges randomly (anarchically, without any teleology, without vocation or agency) from the Chaos. Differences are differing degrees of Nietzsche’s “will-to-power,” which have to displace each other in playing out all possibilities in infinite sequence. Or, in Spinoza’s idiom, creatures, natura naturata, are successive modes of the one substance, the world as natura naturans. In univocity, we are wise to go with the flow and abandon all resistance.

[11] For Bell this Scotian move to univocity from analogy simultaneously denies Transcendence and encodes violence ontologically. The alternative he offers is the Christian-Thomistic vision of desire as the naturally graced thirst for the supernatural. This latter, provided it can be redeemed from its capitalist captivity, can “fund” real resistance to capitalism (161), since it provides the true therapy for disordered desire: the paradoxical refusal to cease suffering in the bearing of the cross of forgiveness of offenders, “redirecting desire toward its true end: the shared love that is friendship in God” (171).

[12] With a little bit of translation, we may discern just how profoundly Bell has led us into the communitarian worldview of medieval Catholicism, a fact which Bell makes explicit, not only in his appeal to the analogia entis, but also in his accounts of justice as the common good in Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians (89ff.) and his critique of modern Catholic social teaching on justice (102ff.). Capitalism, shorn of Marxist teleology, is exposed as just old-fashioned greed, now elevated to a motive power and de facto virtue; capitalism is systematized concupiscentia, disordered desire which takes the place of the love for God as one’s summum bonum. “Capitalism” here is not capitalism in the Marxist sense, but rather names modernity’s complex of individualism, materialism, atheism and secularism. The therapy of such disordered desire is equally old-fashioned confession and penance: “deconstruction of desire in its agonistic, proprietary (capitalist) modality that occurs in confession and repentance is accompanied by the construction of new, participatory relations in penance” (182). Finally, there is a similarly medieval summons to a new asceticism: “… penance will undoubtedly entail the redistribution of goods. Indeed, the liberationists stress that entering into solidarity with the poor entails voluntary poverty, the loving renunciation of privilege and assumption of the condition of the poor for the sake of struggling against it” (183).

[13] The irony of Bell’s theological critique of Latin American Liberation Theology is that this latter theology remains too entangled in modernist assumptions about justice and rights, blind to its own tradition’s better insights. The liberationist’s “vision is insufficiently radical… remain[ing] circumscribed by the very capitalist order they hope to overcome…” (42). How is that? “Rights” are a capitalist invention, its cunning stratagem to eviscerate forms of social solidarity with atomizing individualism (126). Liberationists argue for social justice as equal rights, and unwittingly assume with liberalism that the sum of justice is the individualistic suum cuique (to each her due). But this is to overlook the crucial fact that “without shared love, the general virtue of justice has no end and hence is defunct” (110). Under these conditions, capitalism always wins. It always reduces the universal struggle for the common good in a just order to the desire of partial communities for a bigger piece of the pie as their “right” and “due.”

[14] The deeper, theological problem behind this debilitating entanglement with the enemy lies in the “liberationists’ understanding of the Church” as an abstract repository of value and hence its corresponding “misplaced” hope in politics as statecraft to force redistribution of goods. Bell argues instead for recovery of the Church as public in its own right (72), constituted by the message and practices of forgiveness (85-6). Poignantly, he concludes acknowledging the “risk of forgiveness” as an act of faith, not sight (189ff.), a risk which he elucidates with the powerful idea that forgiveness is a “refusal to cease suffering,” i.e., not to be bought off with the palliative of “rights” and “development,” but rather to bear witness to those whose greed harms them, seeking their reconciliation, not just their goods. This bearing of the offender’s sin “liberates desire from capitalism not simply by opposing its destructive force with an equally destructive force but rather by meeting it with a refusal, a refusal to cease suffering by shifting suffering on to others by embracing the terror of [retributive] justice” (190). This practice of Christ in the “church of the poor” is “costly,” an “act of hope,” a “wager on God,” namely, that “God is who the Gospel proclaims God to be” (190-3). It constitutes a defenseless “witness” in the train of the martyrs of old.

[15] Though Bell might likely bridle at the comparison, his concluding meditation is not unlike the young Reinhold Niebuhr’s thought about the “sublime madness of the soul” required of the “agents of redemption”1 when he too, though benefitting from Marxist insights into “capitalism,” abandoned Marxist teleology.

[16] My appreciation of Bell’s work is, I trust, evident, even as I have noted elsewhere how my own theological project parallels Radical Orthodoxy.2 The criticisms I am about to offer from my Lutheran theological perspective are intended, not to refute Bell, but rather to engage him and like-minded theologians and ethicists in a deliberation about the threatening global apocalypse of this modern order.3 Twenty some years have been squandered since the divine mercy of the collapse of Marxism-Leninism as a viable human future. Absolutely none of the globe’s basic problems have been solved in these years; rarely are the terms in which we debate them lucid or enlightening, but remain mired in the broken categories of the past. Latin American “liberationists” might well argue that many have been living under apocalyptic conditions for longer than 20 years, as indeed many have. But the nuance comes with the collapse of Marxist teleology, the confident Leninist interpretation of two-thirds world pauperization as merely the imperialist extension through colonization of the Western industrial crisis that Marx had originally diagnosed in the 19th century. No one with a brain believes in this script anymore, nor should anyone with a conscience.

[17] It is, of course, a fallacy (not only logical) to think that the refutation of Marxism-Leninism is the confirmation of global capitalism, the “end of history” which Francis Fukuyama confidently proclaimed on behalf of a New World Order. Indeed, liberated from that cunning dialectical teleology which provided revolutionaries with scientific assurance of a happy outcome after the necessary stage of capitalism and its final collapse, the fundamental Marxian insight into the insatiable appetite of the unrestrained market to commodify all things, human and nonhuman, remains. Indeed, it is the nightmare into which we have now entered. This nightmare without exit is what “capitalism” becomes absent the Marxist narrative which dialectically justified it as building the economic and technological presuppositions of socialism. How are we to sing the Lord’s song in this strange, strange land?

[18] Bell is right not to indulge in teleological fantasies. He underscores the desperateness of our situation in terms genuinely reminiscent of the doctrine of Original Sin, where the loss of true fear, love and trust in God delivers us to the thrall of the idols and demons of our disordered desire. Correspondingly he can make evident afresh the “severe mercy” (Augustine) of Christian practices of resistance as the cross-bearing refusal to cease suffering, a refusal predicated on eschatological hope against hope, not worldly optimism but hope in God. But here a question arises. Why continue to call the land of our captivity “capitalism” at all, thus inevitably invoking the Marxian narrative? Why not just “greed,” no longer a Christian vice, but turned into a modern virtue and motive power? If we take “capitalism” as an ontology which captures desire, why not just call it Euro-American modernity: materialistic, secular, individualistic, atheistic, i.e. a desire for this world, for not-God? To what extent do we rhetorically trade on equivocation even by retaining the freighted word, “capitalism,” with all its emotional resonance and Marxian conceptual connotations, when we have otherwise consigned Marxism’s necessary stage on the road to socialism to the toxic ash-heap of intellectual history?

[19] That question aside, I have a fundamental theological criticism to make of Bell’s argument. It has to do with Bell’s account of forgiveness as the pure fiat in time of transcendental charity and how such forgiveness is not precisely or sufficiently grounded in the atoning passion of Christ on the cross, who must first break into the strong man’s house and bind him up before plundering his goods. We have an underlying agreement: the cross of Jesus, and of His Christians, should be at the center of our deliberations about how to resist the commodification of all things, since indeed “we are not our own, we have been bought with a price” so that “we may glorify God in our bodies” (1 Cor. 6: 20). Note well the economic metaphor here as elsewhere in the New Testament. The atoning work of Christ is not merely the assertion of a superior claim, even of grace. It works an exchange, a gracious exchange, a joyful exchange, but in any case something costly, something earned and hence rightfully claimed. What I have to say in criticism of Bell on this point will accordingly move in directions that Bell would likely reject: a relative vindication of democratic governance (including governance of markets!) and an emphatic plea for the (alas! “rightly understood”) Zweireichenlehre.

[20] Bell tends to adopt Milbank’s version of Anselm (147-8) on the atoning work of Christ. He tends to speak of Christ’s atoning work as annulling the (disordered human) order of retribution by a sheer act of divine self-donation (classically, the “active obedience” of the Incarnate Lord), though at times he can speak also of “exploding” the order of retribution by (over-) fulfilling its demands through “bearing the burden of sin” (classically, Luther’s “passive obedience,” when we understand the order of retribution as God’s own, 189). It is clear that Bell wants to conceive of forgiveness as “the renewal of desire as generosity that absorbs the debt created by offense and reaches out in a renewed effort at love, friendship, community” (179); what is not so clear is the status of this “debt” (how can debt be assessed without a standard of “rights” which have been violated?) and the manner by which it is “absorbed” (if “debt” just disappeared as if by the wave of a magic wand or is it paid?). It is also abundantly clear that Bell fears the “terror of justice” (181) as the orgy of violence in which the revolution devours its children in a never-ending cycle of retribution. He thus wants justice as rights to be replaced by forgiveness, which in turn will generate a new understanding of justice as grace. Here Bell sounds almost Barthian (though I find no discussion of Barth in this book): “God judges sin not in order to uphold the canons of ‘what is due,’ but in order to heal all desire (of both victim and perpetrator) that it might participate in the joyous sociality of love. Forgiveness is a judgment that abandons none and seeks to reconcile all. As such it is a judgment of grace” (172).

[21] The confusion of law and gospel here, as I see it, would take a treatise to untangle.4 Martin Luther King, Jr., once recalled that “the law cannot make you love me, but it sure can stop you from lynching me!” That lawful suppression of hostilities is not the peace of the Reign of God, but it preserves the world for the sake of that coming peace. But Bell forces a choice (163-4) between justice as rights and forgiveness as renunciation of rights, and consequently gives up the former for the sake of the latter. He does not coordinate these as the temporal and eternal works of the One God in a Two Kingdoms theology (properly understood, not the dualism of spheres that Bell rightly criticizes, 56ff.). This happens in part because he regards “justice as rights,” not as the Creator’s claim for the protection of His creature (Gen. 9:6!) in a fallen creation, but as the invention of capitalism, the diabolical reflex of disordered human desire. This makes for an honest, rigorous, but all the same desperate one-kingdom theology. Bell wrestles mightily with the weaknesses of this move (159ff., 192ff.), but in the end repudiates the “paradoxical form of love” (in reference to Sobrino, 158) in wrath against sin, the ira Dei, whose “love must be against what is against love” (Tillich).

[22] The long, difficult and still embattled work of the democratic revolution (as the political meaning of the Protestant Reformation) is to recognize and defend human rights on the theological basis of the imago Dei doctrine. At times this work requires morally limited coercion to disestablish entrenched tyrannies, even when the real, existing democracies at the same time fall painfully short of the justice of rights. Living with that ambiguity is possible because it is the same self-giving Christian love, forgiving for its own person, which also gives itself in defense of the oppressed neighbor in just wars and just police work, just prosecutions and just imprisonments, even, we may add today, just revolutions. Certainly, to deploy the “sword” in this fashion is never the work of the eternal kingdom of Christ; use of the sword is always a reminder of how far we still are from the Beloved Community. Still, the sword, as in Romans 13, remains the emergency work of God at work in the temporary kingdoms of Caesar, to which work Christians also, indeed Christians especially, are summoned. Just so, the sword is, or rather can be, undertaken as a work of God defending the creation against abuses so egregious as to threaten its very existence. For this task, and for such careful discrimination, we need a two-kingdoms theology, if we are not unwittingly to turn our suffering neighbor’s cheek along with our own, or to bless as God’s work whatever bombs the modern nation-state drops to “preserve our way of life.” That is why, as Reinhold Niebuhr famously wrote in summoning Christians to a just war to stop Hitlerism, “the Christian Church is not pacifist.”5

[23] John Milbank once wrote an essay on the “poverty of Niebuhrianism” in which he rightly claimed that there is “no independently available ‘real world’ against which we must test our Christian convictions, because these convictions are the most final, and at the same time the most basic, seeing of what the world is.”6 Agreed. Such seeing rather is Christian “realism,” and to the extent that Niebuhr depended on secular “realism,” Milbank’s criticism of impoverishment, and Bell’s one-kingdom theology, are justified protests. But that would be a rather one-dimensional account of Niebuhr, who may better be understood to have insisted in full measure on seeing the universal sinfulness revealed by the gospel. The dispute then between Niebuhr and Radical Orthodoxy would turn on whether Christians see a justified sinner, who is received into mercy in spite of continuing sinfulness, or a prospectively righteous saint, who forgives as she has been forgiven. As close as these two Christian visions of reality converge, they diverge into two-kingdom and one-kingdom theologies with rather different ways of mapping Christian responsibility in the fallen-but-to-be-redeemed creation.


1. Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960) 277.

2. Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Theology from Luther through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009) 2.

3. Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times (London & NY: Verso, 2010).

4. See Paul R. Hinlicky, Luther and the Beloved Community: A Path for Christian Theology after Christendom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010) 66-104.

5. Reinhold Niebhur, Why the Christian Church Is not Pacifist, Second Edition (London: SCM, 1940).

6. John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) 250.

Paul R. Hinlicky

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.