Editor’s Introduction: Ode to a Theologian of the Cross

[1] This issue of JLE is dedicated to Brazilian Lutheran theologian Vítor Westhelle who passed away in May of last year. Westhelle was a global theologian, although he probably would have preferred to say that he was a planetary theologian. Students came from all over the world to study with him and he went around the world to teach and study the Lutheran theology that he loved so much.

[2]  His contribution to Lutheran ethics was indirect but important. Perhaps one of his most impactful contributions to Lutheran theology and ethics is what could be called the turn to space and place in eschatology. He viewed with suspicion the excessive emphasis that western theology places on time and linear history vis-à-vis space rather than cyclical views of time more prevalent in the wisdom traditions of many indigenous and non-western peoples. Using space and place as interpretive keys he reexamined biblical symbols, theological doctrines, and Luther’s writings and was able to mine rich new meanings and applications for them. Eschatology, for instance, opens up new vistas when read not only as the end of time but also as the marginal ends and fissures of society. When understood in that sense what then does it mean to say that the parousia happens in the eschaton? Where is it then that the parousia takes place?  He witnessed it, for example, in an impromptu worship service among the landless peasants of the Amazonia on the literal margins (eschata, chora) of Brazil. Parousia, after all, is not a temporal category but one of presence, it means to be present with (akin to God’s presence in, with and under the Sacraments).

[3]  Another contribution that Westhelle has bequeathed to theological ethics is the importance of marginal and subjugated knowledges even in science. Those alternative epistemes reveal that all knowledge has a particular location and has unexamined assumptions, interests, and loyalties. The eruption of subjugated knowledges disrupts the hegemonic grip of totalizing systems of knowledge that are often used in the service of all forms of domination whether colonial, imperial, patriarchal, heteronormative, technocratic, etc. I believe that framed Westhelle’s understanding of the task of theology and especially Lutheran theology (in its origins as a marginal theology that emerged in the margins of the Holy Roman Empire) as a subjugated knowledge, or knowledges, with the power to unmask the idols that we mistake for just the way things are. By unmasking them as idols (or by opening a crack on their masks) new possibilities for transformation can then begin to be imagined and pursued. Thus he trained a whole generation of theologians to redirect their gaze to the margins, to the fissures, to the places outside the gates where the presence of the divine might be discovered even if hidden (sub contraria specie) as if on a cross in the midst of unspeakable injustice, suffering and abandonment.

[4]  Finally, I think that his most direct contribution to theological ethics was his idea of grace as a gift and its corollary of the practice of the resurrection. Westhelle was very fond of Kierkegaard’s notion that the only true gift is that which is given to someone who has died because only then one had effectively removed any possibilities of being paid back, which would deform the gift into something else, an exchange economy. It was the women of the resurrection narrative in the gospels, of whom he was very fond, that best embodied this principle. He explains that:

The connection of the resurrection to the cross is a pilgrimage to the tomb. The surprise comes when a labor of love and mourning is carried through. Only after one prepares the spices for a body that will not be able to utter even a word of thanks, only then might a surprise come about. But there is no guarantee issued in advance.[i]

[5]  I had those words in mind when I walked into his memorial service at the Lutheran School of Theology’s chapel in Chicago. When I sat down and opened the bulletin I was moved to tears. The bulletin had a note from Vítor’s wife and kids. It said that he had donated his corneas so that others could continue to see the world on his behalf. It also said that his body was not present at the service because it had been donated for cancer research in hope’s that something could be learned from his demise that might help save others or ease their suffering. In death Vítor had outdone Kierkegaard and himself. He proved them both wrong. The greatest gift was not the gift made to a dead one; the greatest gift is the gift that he gave, the gift of his own body so that others may live. What a fitting way for him to arrive at the end…or should we say eschaton?



Carmelo Santos



[i] Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 122.

Carmelo Santos

​Carmelo Santos, Ph.D., serves as associate pastor at St. Mark’s (San Marcos) Lutheran Church in Springfield, VA. He is also a lecturer at Georgetown University.