- Catholic Common Ground Initiative - https://catholiccommonground.org -

2006 Msgr. Philip J. Murnion Lecture of the Catholic Common Ground Initiative

Keynote Speaker:  Roberto S. Goizueta, Boston College
Response by Margaret Pfeil, University of Notre Dame

June 24, 2006


More than forty-five years had passed since I had last peered out an airplane window at the turquoise terminal building. It was exactly as I remembered it. So were the huge white block letters on the façade: “Aeropuerto Internacional Jose Martí—Habana.” Back then, I was a six-year-old awaiting a flight to who-knows-where for who-knows-how-long. Through that impenetrable airplane window, I waved anxiously at my father and grandfather, not knowing if or when I would see them again. The scene would remain forever seared in my memory.

By the grace of God, our family was eventually reunited in Miami. And now, more than four decades later, I myself was returning to be reunited with a land and a people that had given me birth. I had no idea how I, who had fled with my family and found success in the United States, would be received by the Cubans on the island. Like an orphan returning to meet his parents after forty-five years, I was deeply anxious. After all, during those four decades the people of Cuba and the Cuban exile community in the United States had seemingly become estranged. Even as many Cuban-Americans had achieved economic and political success in the U.S., a large number also harbored tremendous animosity toward Cubans on the island, identifying them with the dictatorial regime under which they lived. How would the impoverished, beaten-down Cuban people who struggled to survive in such desperate circumstances, receive me, who had fled with his family? Would they resent me? Would they feel that I, along with the other hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles, had abandoned them to their plight?

It did not take long for my fears to be assuaged. Wherever I went on the island, the Cuban people’s response to my visit was the same: “Thank you for not forgetting us; thank you for remembering us.” Whatever “survivor’s guilt” I may have experienced in steeling myself for the trip dissipated in the face of the stunning hospitality of the people. I, who in some very real sense had abandoned them, was now being welcomed back with open arms, no questions asked—not with a “how dare you” but with a “thank you.” Everywhere I went, the message I received was the same: “You are one of us; welcome back.”

My experience of being welcomed by those who themselves were victims was, of course, hardly unique. Only two months ago, the Boston Globe published the story of young Kai Leigh Harriott, a 5-year-old African American girl who had been paralyzed when a stray bullet severed her spine as she sat playing on the porch of her house in inner-city Boston. The Globe described the scene at the trial of Anthony Warren, the man who had shot Kai Leigh:

The little girl said the word porch and then began sobbing loudly. After her mother comforted her, 5-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott looked up from her blue wheelchair in the hushed courtroom yesterday and faced the man who fired the stray gunshot that paralyzed her nearly three years ago. “What you done to me was wrong,” the dimpled girl with purple and yellow plastic ties in her braids said softly. “But I still forgive him.” . . . Yesterday, in emotionally wrenching victim-impact statements that left many spectators in tears, Kai and four members of her family told a Suffolk Superior Court judge that the shooting had changed their lives forever, but had also shown them the value of forgiveness. “We’re not victims here; we’re victors,” said Kai’s mother, Tonya David, addressing the court. Moments later, Warren, 29, a convicted felon who pleaded guilty yesterday to avoid a trial, approached Kai and her family and, in barely audible tones, apologized. David recalled his words later. “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you and your family,” she said Warren told her. “I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons.” David shook his handcuffed right hand and embraced him.(1) [1]

The following day’s newspaper article then reported the following exchange: “Asked by a reporter why she [Kai] forgave the man who shot her, she shyly but clearly said: ‘I wanted him to tell the world the truth.’ Warren had for three years denied the shooting, but changed his plea Thursday.”(2) [2]

Among the victims of our society and world, that is, among the very persons in whom one would expect to find a profound anger and resentment, what one often discovers is an astonishing hospitality, gratitude, and forgiveness. Ironically, it is more often the powerful who harbor anger and resentment against the powerless, rather than the reverse. It is the successful Cuban-American who resents the Cuban who “stayed behind.” It is the successful suburbanite who is enraged at the “demands” of the urban poor. It is the successful third-generation immigrant who attacks the recent immigrant. It is the “upstanding citizen” who refuses to forgive the African American man who shot Kai Leigh.

In this paper, I want to present an extended reflection on the theological and ethical significance of the victim’s offer of forgiveness and reconciliation to his or her oppressor. First, I will suggest that, when we read the gospel narratives through the lens of this experience, we discover that the victim’s offer of forgiveness and the subsequent reconciliation are at the very heart of the Christian understanding of resurrection; Jesus Christ’s resurrection makes possible our reconciliation to God and to each other precisely as the innocent, crucified victim’s offer of forgiveness to those who have crucified him. Secondly, this means that, after the resurrection, the basis of reconciliation can no longer be justice—not even justice for the victim; forgiveness, or mercy, now becomes the ground of communion with God and each other. Thirdly, the peculiarly Christian approach to social justice can be defined as, in the words of Daniel Bell, Jr., “the refusal to cease suffering.” And finally, God’s reconciling mercy is mediated by the ecclesia crucis, the suffering Body of Christ in the world, embodied particularly in those whom Ignacio Ellacuría called “the crucified people.” Needless to say, these are all ambiguous statements that must be accompanied by important qualifications, which I will adumbrate later in this paper. Nevertheless, the necessity for such qualifications should not blind us to the central Christian claim that the person of Jesus Christ presents a radically new form of reconciliation, one whose ground is the crucified and risen Victim, the Lamb of God.

“Put Your Finger Here . . .”

As Christians, we believe, of course, that we are reconciled to God and to each other through the person of Jesus Christ, particularly through Christ’s death and resurrection. In the various narratives of Christ’s passion, death, and post-resurrection appearances, therefore, the Gospel itself already sets forth a paradigm for reconciliation. Of all those persons who shared responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion, surely none contributed more to Jesus’ agony than the apostles themselves, those fair-weather friends who abandoned Jesus to his fate precisely at the moment when he most needed them. And surely what was most devastating about Jesus’ passion and death was not only the physical agony itself but, especially, the emotional and spiritual agony of experiencing himself abandoned by his closest friends and even by God.

Consequently, there is high drama in the risen Jesus’ appearances to his old friends, the apostles. How would he confront them? Would he excoriate them? Would he demand justice? How, in turn, would they react to the utterly unexpected appearance of the man whom they had betrayed? After all, they likely remained convinced that it was he who had in fact betrayed them by asking them to trade a throne for a cross. In Luke’s gospel, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples in Jerusalem, in the room where they had gathered in fear of the Roman authorities. Here we read that:

[Jesus] stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them (Lk 24:36-43).

If we read this account not simply as an appearance of Jesus to the disciples, but as an encounter between Jesus and the disciples, we gain some insight into the significance of Jesus’ wounds in this narrative. The wounds are not merely the evidence of Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That they are indeed, but the wounds are also the evidence of the apostles’ betrayal and abandonment of Jesus on the way to Calvary. Confronted by the still-visible wounds on Jesus’ glorified body, the apostles are forced to make the connection, not only between this risen Jesus now standing before them and the man who had been crucified, but they are also forced to draw the connection between their own behavior, their abandonment of Jesus, and Jesus’ crucifixion. By fleeing, the apostles had abandoned Jesus to the Roman soldiers and to his eventual death. No wonder, then, that, when the Jesus whom they had betrayed approaches them openly displaying the wounds in his hands and side, the apostles are “terrified.” Had Jesus returned to exact justice or condemn them? Jesus’ response to their understandable fear is as utterly unexpected as was his resurrection: his first words are “Peace be with you,” and then he asks, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.” In other words, Jesus offers them peace before they’ve even acknowledged him (much less repented), then he invites himself over for dinner. That is his revenge for their betrayal; he asks them to share a meal with him.

The Gospel of John also recounts that the risen Jesus appears to the disciples and “showed then his hands and his side” (Jn 20:20). John’s account then depicts the famous “Doubting Thomas” scene:

Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Now a week later his disciples were again inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, although the doors were locked, and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:24-28).

Once again, it is helpful to read this account not only as a post-resurrection appearance but also as a post-resurrection encounter—here, between Jesus and Thomas. Again, the wounds can then be seen not only as evidence of the bodily resurrection but as the instruments of reconciliation; Jesus’ invitation to “put your finger here . . .” is what makes possible Thomas’ response, “My Lord and my God!” Indeed, there is no indication that Thomas ever did touch the wound. Jesus’ invitation itself provokes conversion. Jesus’ invitation to touch and see his wounds is put forth not as a sign of condemnation for Thomas’ betrayal and unbelief but as an overture of forgiveness and reconciliation: “Peace be with you.”

When the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ are thus interpreted not only as events in the life of the individual Jesus Christ, but as events in the life of Jesus Christ as the head of the community he founded, we see that what the resurrection embodies is not simply the victory of individual life over death but the victory of communal life over estrangement, the possibility of reconciliation in the face of abandonment. And that reconciliation is made possible by: 1) the fact that the physical wounds of betrayal remain visible on the body of the risen Christ, 2) the risen victim’s invitation to touch and see his wounds, 3) the character of that invitation as an offer of pardon and reconciliation rather than a demand for the justice due the victim, 4) the apostles’ acceptance of Jesus’ offer (“They gave him a piece of baked fish” . . . “My Lord and my God”), and, finally 5) the radical transformation of the apostles from a group of cowering cowards to a courageous band of disciples willing to literally lay down their lives for their crucified and risen friend and for each other.(3) [3]

A New Logic

In his passion, death, and resurrection, Jesus Christ thus incarnates, lives out, and makes historical the parable of the Prodigal Son. Jesus here becomes the prodigal father who, though having been abandoned, rushes out to welcome home his wayward son before the son even has a chance to say “I’m sorry.” That story, too, ends with a meal, a celebration. True reconciliation, true community, is made possible only when the demands of justice are transformed by an extravagant, gratuitous love that, still bearing the wounds of betrayal, pardons without counting the cost. It is thus the victim who makes possible the reconciled community.

We can now begin to see the intrinsic relationship between the demands of social solidarity and justice, on the one hand, and the imperative of forgiveness on the other. Indeed, Gustavo Gutierrez argues that the two principal themes of the Scriptures are: the gratuity of God’s love, and God’s preferential love for the poor. Jesus Christ reveals the privileged position of the innocent victim as the mediator of God’s extravagant, unexpected mercy. The ability to receive that mercy is thus dependent on our solidarity with the victims. If God’s mercy is unanticipated it will be encountered, above all, in those places and among those persons whom our society has deemed ungodly, unlovable. In wholly unexpected ways, they become the bearers of God’s mercy. In the words of the Salvadoran martyr Ellacuria, these are the “crucified people” through whom we encounter the crucified and risen Christ today—not because of who they are, since they are not inherently any more saintly or any less sinners than anyone else, but because of where they are located, on the cross alongside Jesus. Through the innocent victims of history, Jesus thus extends a forgiveness that transforms the logic of justice, the logic of suum cuique (“to each what is due him or her”). The economy of human rights is transformed by the aneconomy of the gift, which cannot be demanded but can only be received:

Jesus’ teaching is about how freedom involves not being moved by any over-against, not being creatures of reaction. . . . The teaching is about how to relate to the social other as a gift, rather than a burden which defines and limits us. That which makes this movement possible is the forgiving victim, mediated to us in the transformation of human relationality.(4) [4]

In our contemporary world, the economy of human rights necessarily remains trapped within the logic of an acquisitive, consumerist capitalism. Hence reconciliation is conceived as the proper distribution of rights, which are themselves viewed as commodities to be acquired and redistributed. Thus, even when the proper balance of rights is achieved, the underlying antagonism and competition remains, the agonistic logic of conflict still grounds the communal relationships. Only the victim’s act of forgiveness can rupture that logic: “capitalism does not know, short of repressing it, what to do with forgiveness . . .”(5) [5] So, for example:

at the end of the 1970’s in Latin America, when the weight of the growing external debt was beginning to be felt, the liturgy of both Catholic and Protestant Churches across the continent underwent a subtle alteration. The language of the Our Father was altered from “Forgive us our debts” to “Forgive us our offenses.” This change . . . was instigated by economic pressures. Capitalists feared that persons would begin to see that Christian forgiveness presented a direct challenge to the current economic order. They could not abide the Churches forming persons who, by receiving and extending the gift of forgiveness, would defy the justice of capitalism’s markets…(6) [6]

Moreover, not only is the logic of suum cuique unable to resist the logic of capitalist consumption, that logic will necessarily fail by its own criteria since, ultimately, one can never undo past injustice; the wounds will forever remain on the body of the risen Christ. The history of suffering remains forever an intrinsic part of the history of progress. The crowing cock and the pieces of silver remain forever inscribed in the history of the resurrection. The trail of tears and Jim Crow remain forever inscribed in the history of American progress. Thus, only the gift of forgiveness offers the possibility of a genuine novelty and hope:

By abandoning calculi of reciprocity and desert, forgiveness sets both the victim and the victimizer free from the unbearable burden of injustice. The victim is freed from the enmity that is born of a violation that cannot be undone; the victimizer is freed from the guilt and loathing that comes from never being able to undo the violation. Forgiveness places them both in a position to risk a new relationship. Ultimately forgiveness is an act of hope that denies the destructiveness of injustice the final word, instead insisting that something else is always possible.(7) [7]

Despite the ethical arguments for forgiveness, however, ultimately the warrant for the logic of gift over the logic of justice is explicitly and specifically theological: the logic of gift “more accurately reflects the character of God” as revealed in the crucified and risen Christ, and thus more accurately reflects the call to Christian discipleship.(8) [8]

Wither Justice?

Despite my argument thus far, I am well aware that justice is also at the heart of the Christian call to discipleship and reflects the character of God as this is revealed in Scripture, from the Prophets to the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. I am also aware that the logic of forgiveness is susceptible to all sorts of dangerous distortions which, in the past as today, have promoted passivity in the face of oppression and, indeed, undermined the process of reconciliation. One need not go very far to find examples of victims being exhorted to “forgive and forget,” whether Jews who are encouraged to “get over” the Holocaust, African Americans urged to let the bygones of slavery be bygones, or victims of abuse encouraged to “get on with their lives.”

The call to reconciliation in no way obviates the struggle for social justice in defense of the intrinsic dignity of the person and the rights that would safeguard that dignity. Rather, as Gustavo Gutierrez avers, we must “situate justice within the framework of God’s gratuitous love.”(9) [9] A praxis of solidarity with the poor in their struggle for justice is the means by which we receive God’s mercy and the gift of forgiveness. “Forgiveness may be gratuitous,” notes Christian Duquoc, “but it is not arbitrary; it calls for a change of attitude on the part of the offender or sinner, who enters into a new relationship with the person who forgives. This goes by the name of conversion.”(10) [10] This new relationship is one of solidarity in the struggle for justice, in what José González-Faus has called “the revolution of a forgiven people.”(11) [11] The victim and former oppressor now join the struggle not out of a sense of either duty or rights, which still imply an underlying conflict, but out of a shared gratitude for the unanticipated grace that made reconciliation possible. In their shared gratitude for the gift of reconciliation, both oppressor and victim are liberated. “The forgiveness of acceptance bestowed by Jesus in the gospel accounts,” observes Jon Sobrino, “is something not merely beneficial, but liberating.(12) [12] Both are liberated from themselves, argues Sobrino; “it is the gratitude of knowing oneself to be accepted,” he suggests, “that moves a person to a de-centering from self.”(13) [13]

The gratuitous mercy of God compels a praxis of solidarity. The act of forgiveness generates repentance, conversion, and solidarity in the struggle for justice; Thomas’ “My Lord and my God” is preceded by Jesus’ “Peace be with you.” It is not repentance that brings about forgiveness, but the reverse. Sobrino explains that, in the person of Jesus Christ, forgiveness is always the starting point for any consideration of sin:

The divine mystagogia into a recognition of sin in all its seriousness operates from a point of departure in forgiveness. Nor let it be thought that this is somehow an easier, softer way. Human beings may well prefer to cling to that which is of themselves, be it their sin, rather than be delivered from it, if the price to be paid is to be forgiven gratuitously. . . . It is the acceptance that is forgiveness that adequately and wholly discloses the fact that I am a sinner and gives me the strength to acknowledge myself as such and change radically. The conversion demanded so radically by Jesus is preceded by the offer of God’s love. It is not conversion that requires God to accept the sinner; rather, just contrariwise, it is God’s acceptance that makes conversion possible.(14) [14]

The apostles remained paralyzed by fear until the crucified and risen Christ confronted them with his wounds, demanding that they acknowledge the wounds, yet offering pardon and reconciliation. Only then could Thomas confess, “My Lord and my God.” The convicted criminal Anthony Warren remained paralyzed by his fear of the law until his victim, the 5-year-old Kai Leigh Harriott confronted him with her wounds: “What you done to me was wrong, but I still forgive you.” Only then could Warren admit, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you and your family,” and declare that “I was known in the street for all the wrong reasons, and now I want to be known for the right reasons.” Forgiveness compels confession and repentance, and repentance implies a commitment to justice: “now I want to be known for the right reasons.” Genuine forgiveness is based on truth, on an “honesty about the real” (in Sobrino’s words). The offer and reception of God’s gratuitous mercy thus implies judgment and confession, not as extrinsic but as integral to the act of forgiveness itself.(15) [15]

Sobrino goes so far as to say that solidarity with the victim “constitutes a kind of reparation . . . for what was done in the past.”(16) [16] Ultimately, full reparation for past suffering is impossible; we can never undo past injustices, and those injustices will always remain part of our present and future. What we can do is to reconstitute our relationships on a completely different foundation based on mercy, confession, penance, and solidarity. Restoration can then be understood, not as a “making up” for what was done in the past, but as the process of reconciliation itself. This will indeed involve restitution, “giving back” or redistributing resources, but the goal of such redistribution will not be the establishment of a status quo ante—which is impossible, in any case—but the reconciliation of oppressor and oppressed, the constitution of a reconciled community; the focus is not on the “what” of restitution but on the “who.” Justice is ultimately not a question of protecting rights but of nurturing communion.(17) [17]

Characterized by this process of forgiveness, confession, penance, and solidarity, the struggle for justice is thus the mode in which we receive mercy. Since the act of forgiveness implies not only an offer but an acceptance, without justice there can be no forgiveness: “Forgiveness entails repentance. . . . Repentance, therefore, is not a condition of forgiveness but rather the means of its reception.”(18) [18] The commitment to justice is the expression of repentance and the means of a true reconciliation based on forgiveness.

The Refusal to Cease Suffering

Ultimately, the attainment of justice depends on the reception of forgiveness. And the crucified and risen Christ offers a forgiveness that overturns the logic of justice, the logic of suum cuique. So wherever innocent victims, the crucified people, extend an offer of forgiveness, that offer implies what Daniel Bell calls a “refusal to cease suffering”; by refusing to defend his or her rights, the victim forecloses an end to suffering but, in so doing, makes true reconciliation and liberation possible, a new way of relating based not on conflict and competition but on mercy. Again, such a refusal does not obviate but presupposes justice. Only a human person can suffer and share the suffering of another. The act of “suffering with” (com-passion) is thus the supremely human act through which persons express the indestructibility of their humanity. In a world that wants to destroy the poor, reduce them to unfeeling objects rather than human subjects, the victims’ own tears are the unassailable sign of their humanity. The victims’ offer of mercy thus constitutes a refusal to cease suffering and, as such, an affirmation of their humanity in a world that would rather the victim “get over it” and stop suffering, that is, cease being human subjects and become, instead, unfeeling objects. In such a context, the refusal to cease suffering is a refusal to cease being a person. The apostles would have much preferred to have the risen Christ appear to them without his wounds . . . but then true reconciliation would not have been possible. True reconciliation presupposes a forgiveness that includes the wounds: “What you done to me was wrong, but I still forgive you. . . . Put your finger here. . .”.

This is not to glorify suffering itself, which is always an evil. Indeed, true forgiveness implies an acknowledgment that the wounds are real and unjust, that the victim is indeed innocent: “What you done to me was wrong . . .”. The refusal to cease suffering is thus not an end in itself. Rather that refusal is the necessary corollary of the victim’s offer of forgiveness, the corollary of God’s gratuitous grace as embodied in the crucified and risen Savior. “The ultimate basis of God’s preference for the poor,” argues Gutiérrez, “is to be found in God’s own goodness and not in any analysis of society or in human compassion, however pertinent these reasons may be.”(19) [19] The ultimate basis for the struggle for justice is to be found in God, not in us; it is precisely this belief that is affirmed in the victim’s act of forgiveness. “Christian forgiveness,” argues Daniel Bell, “is not simply one of a handful of social strategies the Church has at its disposal for the sake of reducing conflict; it is primarily a witness to God and what God in Christ is doing in the world to overcome sin. . . . The refusal to cease suffering that is forgiveness is ultimately an act of hope in God.”(20) [20] Gutierrez refers to the crucified and risen Christ as God’s “wager”: “In sending his Son, the Father ‘wagered’ on the possibility of a faith and behavior characterized by gratuitousness and by a response to the demand that justice be established. When history’s ‘losers’ . . . follow in the steps of Jesus, they are seeing to it that the Lord wins his wager.”(21) [21] Bell, in turn, suggests that the refusal to cease suffering represents the crucified people’s own wager on God: “They are wagering that God is who the Gospel proclaims God to be, the one who defeats sin and wipes away every tear, not with the sword of a justice that upholds rights but with the gift of forgiveness in Christ.”(22) [22]

Consequently, the refusal to cease suffering is not a passive acquiescence in suffering that eschews the struggle for justice. The refusal to cease suffering is simply the acknowledgment that the struggle for justice is not an end in itself but is the mediator of God’s mercy in the world; the struggle for justice is the privileged place where we encounter and respond to a grace that overcomes the logic of suum cuique. As Gutierrez explains:

We in Latin America are also convinced . . . that in the liberation process we are capable of creating our own idols for ourselves. For example, the idol of justice: it might seem strange to say this but justice can become an idol if it is not placed in the context of gratuity . . . Gratuity is the framework for justice and gives it meaning in history. Social justice, no matter how important it is—and it is—can also be an idol, and we have to purify ourselves of this to affirm very clearly that only God suffices and to give justice itself the fullness of its meaning.(23) [23]

The refusal to cease suffering is our way of participating in God’s own gratuitous praxis in history, a praxis in which reconciliation is mediated by the wounds of crucifixion—but only when those wounds are acknowledged as real (“Put your finger here . .”) and when the offer of mercy is received through repentance and conversion (“My Lord and my God.”). Indeed, as noted above, where there is no repentance and conversion there is no true mercy, since the act of forgiveness implies both offer and reception. (If I am convinced that I am not a sinner, that I am in no need of forgiveness, I cannot be forgiven, no matter how much God, or my victim, may desire to forgive me; this is, by definition, the only “unforgivable sin.”) The refusal to cease suffering is a witness against the evil that is suffering. However, if it is perceived as such, such witness compels action. As Sobrino insists, reconciliation demands more than simply recognizing the wounds, more than simply asking “What have I done to crucify” the wounded victims; it also demands that I ask “What am I doing to take them down from the cross? What ought I to do that a crucified people may rise again?”(24) [24]

The Crucified People and the Ecclesia Crucis

The preferential option for the poor is nothing other than the assertion that the crucified people of history are the privileged mediators of God’s mercy in the Church and the world.(25) [25] The crucified people are the privileged historical mediation of the crucified and risen Christ in the world. When they offer forgiveness they embody Christ’s own offer to the apostles after the resurrection: “Peace be with you.” It is a forgiveness that judges even as it reconciles. Yet, in doing so, the crucified people embody the good news that “there is another way to live.”(26) [26]

As mediators of the crucified and risen Christ not only in the world, but also in the Church, the crucified people also remind us that suffering is one of the marks of the Church. Indeed, it may be time to emphasize again the biblical notion of the ecclesia crucis (so central for St. Paul and Luther):

No other single ecclesiological theme receives the attention that the suffering of the church receives in our textual sources. For centuries theology has maintained that the true marks of the church are the four that are named in the Nicene Creed: “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” . . . . Each of these notae ecclesia can find some biblical basis, but none of them can claim a fraction of the attention paid to the theme of the church’s suffering in these sacred writings. . . . The earliest and most prominent manner of discerning the true church and distinguishing it from false claims to Christian identity was to observe the nature and extent of the suffering experienced by a community of faith. Why? Because, of course, as Paul makes clear . . . if you claim to be a disciple of the crucified one you must expect to participate in his sufferings; . . . you will have to become a community of the cross.(27) [27]

To the extent, therefore, that the crucified people reveal the Church as a crucified Church, they mediate Christ’s own mercy in the world and in the Church.”Now this has consequences!,” observes British Catholic theologian James Alison, “It means that holiness is our dependence on the forgiveness of the victim. That is to say, our being holy is dependent on the resurrection of the forgiving victim.”(28) [28] The preferential option for the poor, for the victims, is thus always a preferential option for all, since we are all dependent on the victims’ forgiveness if we are to live freely in a reconciled community where there is no need for victims; this is what Christ himself offered his disciples as he appeared to them after his resurrection:

what is given in Christ’s victim death is a subversion of the old human way of belonging, and the possibility of our induction into a new human way of belonging, of being-with, without any over-against. This means that justification by faith belongs, in the first place, to the new community, the group receiving as a given its unity from the forgiving victim. It is exactly this making present of the beginnings of a new reconciled humanity which is the making present of justification by faith in the world.(29) [29]

This indeed is what the risen Jesus offers his estranged apostles when he greets them: “Peace be with you.” The ecclesia is thus at its heart an ecclesia crucis precisely insofar as it is the community constituted by the forgiving victim.

Christ’s resurrection necessarily implies the reconstitution of his community, the gathering together of those disciples who had earlier abandoned him in order, now, to found a community based on forgiveness. Therefore, salvation itself is necessarily relational and communal; there can be no salvation except in and through renewed relationships:

We find it difficult to understand that justification by grace through faith is necessarily a collective phenomenon. It is collective because the only sort of salvation we have been given is the beginnings of the unity of the whole of humanity in a new society founded on the forgiveness of the risen victim. Grace is automatically collective: there is no grace that does not tend towards the construction of this new Israel of God. There is no faith in Jesus that is not intrinsically related to his founding and edifying this new humanity, and there is no making righteous that does not involve a movement away from a certain sort of social ‘belonging,’ kept safe by casting out victims, and a simultaneous movement towards the fraternal construction of the people of the victim present in all the world….(30) [30]

This is not to suggest, however, that the crucified people are themselves identical with the crucified and risen Christ. As Gutierrez warns, the poor themselves are called to make a preferential option for the poor; the poor themselves can be accomplices in victimization. Likewise, James Alison warns against a simplistic notion of victimhood that merely perpetuates an “us against them” mentality:

Now, again, the knowledge of Jesus, the crucified and risen victim makes a difference here. For if you know the crucified and risen victim, you know that you are not yourself the victim. The danger is much more that you are either actively, or by omission, or both, a victimizer. We have only one self-giving victim, whose self-giving was quite outside any contamination of human violence or exploitation. The rest of us are all involved with that violence. The person who thinks of himself or herself as the victim is quick to divide the world into ‘we’ and ‘they.’ In the knowledge of the risen victim there is only a ‘we,’ because we no longer need to define ourselves over against anyone at all.(31) [31]

Insofar as we succumb to the temptation to romanticize the victim, whether ourselves or others, we thus perpetuate the logic of suum cuique, which is fundamentally divisive and conflictive rather than unitive.

Both outside and within the Church, the crucified people are the privileged locus for encountering today the extravagant, unexpected mercy of the wounded and resurrected Lord. In so mediating that mercy, the victims remind us that, precisely as the wounded and resurrected Body of Christ in the world, the Church herself is called to a cruciform existence in history. This is true not because the cross is the goal of Christian discipleship but precisely because it isn’t. Precisely because Christian discipleship is ultimately not about death but about life, not about justice but about mercy, not about respecting rights but about restoring communion, not about denying the reality of human suffering but about engaging it head on—precisely because all this is true—we also know that all resurrections are wounded resurrections. All resurrections participate in and are made possible by Christ’s own wounded resurrection: “For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord . . . But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God, and not to us. We are afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:5-11). The crucified people of our world make their preemptive offer of forgiveness and refuse to cease suffering “so that the life of Jesus,” the crucified and risen Jesus, may be manifested in our oh-so-broken world. By taking the victims down from the cross we become capable of receiving their offer of forgiveness and Christ’s own offer of life.

Also online: Full text of Margaret R. Pfeil’s response [32]


Roberto S. Goizueta is Professor of Theology at Boston College.  Dr. Goizueta holds degrees from Yale University, Marquette University, and an honorary degree from the University of San Francisco.  He is the author of over 50 scholarly articles, and his book, Caminemos con Jesús: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment, received a Catholic Press Association Book Award.  He is a past President of the Catholic Theological Society of America and the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians of the United States.  He has served on numerous editorial and governing boards and national advisory committees.  The National Catholic Reporter has named him one of the ten most influential Hispanic American educators, pastors, and theologians.  Dr. Goizueta is married and has three children.


  1. The Boston Globe, April 14, 2006.
  2. Ibid., April 15, 2006
  3. For a more extended treatment of this analysis of the Resurrection, see my “The Crucified and Risen Christ: From Calvary to Galilee,” Proceedings of the Catholic Theological Society of America, Vol. 60, pp. 57-71, an abridged version of which was also published in the April 17, 2006 issue of America.
  4. James Alison, Knowing Jesus (Springfield, IL: Templegate, 1994), p. 83.
  5. Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Liberation Theology After the End of History: The Refusal to Cease Suffering (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 152.
  6. Franz Hinkelammert cited in Ibid.
  7. Ibid., pp. 152-153.
  8. Ibid. p. 153.
  9. Gustavo Gutiérrez, On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1987), pp. 87-88.
  10. Duquoc in Bell, p. 178.
  11. In Bell, p. 178.
  12. Jon Sobrino, The Principle of Mercy: Taking the Crucified People from the Cross (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), p. 92.
  13. Ibid., p. 96.
  14. Ibid., pp. 89-90.
  15. Bell, p. 174.
  16. Sobrino, pp. 159-160.
  17. Bell, pp. 182-183, 188.
  18. Ibid., p. 164.
  19. Gutiérrez, On Job, p. xiii.
  20. Bell, p. 195.
  21. Gutiérrez, On Job, p. 103.
  22. Bell, p. 195.
  23. Gustavo Gutierrez, The Density of the Present: Selected Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), p. 141.
  24. Sobrino, p. 96.
  25. Bell, p. 168.
  26. José Ellacuría quoted in Bell, p. 171.
  27. Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 140.
  28. Alison, p. 81.
  29. Ibid., p. 82.
  30. Ibid., p. 84.
  31. Ibid., p. 92.