Chapter 15: Hunger for a Liberating God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 15: Hunger for a Liberating God

Impulses for developing a theological understanding that is liberating for victims of a variety of types of oppression burst on the scene almost simultaneously. Three that came to prominence in the 1970s were the struggles against patriarchal oppression of women, racial oppression of Blacks in the United States, and economic and political oppression of the underclass, especially in Latin American countries. The first of these has already been covered in the chapter on a post-patriarchal theology. It is time now to focus on the remaining two.

Mary Daly published Beyond God the Father in 1973. The English translation of Gustavo Gutiérrez’s A Theology of Liberation was published by Orbis in the same year. James Cone had brought out A Black Theology of Liberation a year before the original Spanish edition of Gutiérrez’s work. The Medellín Conference of Latin American Catholic bishops, oficially known as the Latin American Episcopal Council (CELAM II) took place in 1968 in Medellín, Columbia. Puebla (CELAM III) did not follow until 1979. The official statement from Puebla included the famous reference to God’s “preferential option for the poor.” Impetus can be clearly traced to the liberating atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Gutiérrez was already at work in 1964 in starting to develop the notion of theology as “critical reflection on praxis.”1


I begin here with an examination of James Cone’s work as highly influential and indicative of the direction Black liberation theology took, then turn to key representatives of Latin American theology of liberation. At the end of this exploration, I ask the paired questions: How fruitful has this effort turned out to be, and what limits its potential impact?


When James H. Cone (b. 1938) shocked readers by announcing that God, and Christ, are “black,” he was only doing what women theologians were also examining at the time: that the way to get beyond a narrow understanding of God as male, or white, is to conceive God as the opposite of that, as black, or female (“She Who Is”). We can move beyond a God of specific “color” only after inherited and implied notions of a White God have been punctured by concentration on a Black God, which Cone provided.

White theological critics initially overreacted to Cone out of fear, I think. Cone did not invent Black Power. He was merely interpreting to whites an already-existing and rather threatening movement by identifying that struggle with the Gospel. Except for his unquestioning dependence on the very white theologians who needed deconstructing, I think he hit the nail squarely on the head.

In 1969, Cone fired his opening salvo with Black Theology and Black Power. Jesus, he announced, “is God himself coming into the very depths of human existence for the sole purpose of striking off the chains of slavery, thereby freeing man from ungodly principalities and powers that hinder his relationship with God . . . Jesus’ work is essentially one of liberation.”2

Cone then went on to ask how it is possible to reconcile this focus on Black Power, and on emancipation at any cost, with Christ’s message of love.

For God to love the black man means that God has made him somebody. The black man does not need to hate himself because he is not white . . . hrough God’s love, the black man is given the power to become, the power to make others recognize him.3


In other words, blacks cannot even begin to consider loving their white oppressors until they can experience a love of self and other blacks that flows from God’s freely given agape.

Therefore the new black man refuses to speak of love without justice and power. Love without the power to guarantee justice in human relations is meaningless. Indeed, there is no place in Christian theology for sentimental love, love without risk or cost. Love demands all, the whole of one’s being. Thus, for the black man to believe the Word of God about his love revealed in Christ, he must be prepared to meet head-on the sentimental “Christian” love of whites, which would make him a nonperson.4

Repudiating utterly the notion that God directs the flow of history whatever twists and turns it may take, Cone asserted emphatically that Black theology “refuses to embrace any concept of God which makes black suffering the will of God.”5

In his subsequent publication of A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), Cone traced his position back to the liberating activity of Yahweh in the Old Testament and expanded his understanding of blackness to an ontoloigical symbol of all who are oppressed: Blackness “stands for all victims of oppression who realize that their humanity is inseparable from man’s liberation from whiteness.”6 Furthermore:

The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition his own condition . . . the liberation of the oppressed is part of the innermost nature of God himself. This means that liberation is not an afterthought, but the essence of divine activity. The blackness of God then means that the essence of the nature of God is to be found in the concept of liberation.7

In regard to this liberating activity in God, love is essential to God’s nature. But because of violations of God’s intentions among the oppressor, love must include the dimension of divine wrath.8 At this point, Cone really began to push the limits of understanding:

Black theology cannot accept a view of God which does not represent him as being for blacks and thus against whites . . . black [204] people have no time for a neutral God . . . There is no use for a God who loves whites the same as blacks . . . What we need is the divine love as expressed in Black Power which is the power of black people to destroy their oppressors, here and now, by any means at their disposal. Unless God is participating in this holy activity, we must reject his love.9

Clearly this represents an awkward interpretation of the all-embracing quality of divine love, though it is not entirely beyond the pale of the scathing indictments by the Old Testament prophets concerning those who violate the covenant with God.

Cone affirmed the doctrine of divine omnipotence, but with a twist. “Omnipotence does not refer to God’s absolute power to accomplish what he wants . . . God’s omnipotence is the power to let black people stand out from whiteness and to be.”10

In God of the Oppressed (1975), Cone finally got around to addressing directly the issue of theodicy, expanding on the problem of a presumably all-powerful God. “The persistence of suffering seems to require us to deny either God’s perfect goodness or his unlimited power.” He began by observing that taking an either/or stand regarding God’s power and God’s “goodness” is unacceptable: “It is a violation of black faith to weaken either divine love or divine power.”11 Cone acknowledged that, in fact, his position is “in company with all the classic theologies of the Christian tradition,” though, of course, with a different point of departure: the plight of the oppressed.12 Biblically, he focused on the redemptive suffering of Jesus (coupled with his resurrection as a defeat of suffering) and expressed the eschatological point that God has in fact defeated the powers of evil even though we still encounter them and are called to fight against them, “becoming God’s suffering servants in the world.”13

“God’s power and judgment,” Cone insisted, “will create justice and order out of chaos.”14 The question, of course, is: How? What is the actual nature of God’s liberating power? The problem for Cone was that he was too dependent upon the traditions of the very White theology he was seeking to repudiate, finding no way to reconceive the nature of divine power that matched the vigor with which he challenged [205] conventional notions of the purposes to which God directs that power. Discussions in the chapter previous to this have shown how that impasse has already begun to be surmounted.


It is almost treasonous to deal with Latin American theologies of liberation by lifting up individual thinkers who successfully wrote for publication. At its heart, the movement that undergirds these written reflections arose out of the gatherings and shared reflections of the oppressed poor themselves, in groups called comunidades eclesiales de base—communities of the Christian wretched who met together to study scripture in light of their own impoverished situations and reflect on how each one informs the other (praxis).15 But our access to their groundbreaking work is through the printed page, and so I proceed with a full awareness that the persons under consideration here are as much reporters as originators.


Our Idea of God was originally published in 1968, shortly after CELEM II in Medellín. It is a transitional work, recognizing the growing importance of the issues liberation theology would deal with but still developed as a theology from the groves of academe, not from the barrio. Its author, the Uruguayan Jesuit Juan Luis Segundo (1925–96), was particularly concerned with rejecting North American death-of-God theology, but already present were the beginnings of an awareness that the church needs to lend its resources not to the reinforcement of society and its present (repressive) values but to its liberation.16

Segundo focused his attentions sharply on God as trinitarian, but he recognized that the Christian conviction that God is love starts in the interrelationships of the Trinity but hardly ends there.17 God’s love toward us is, indeed, liberating: “The poor, the sick, the marginal people do construct the future earth, if they expend their forces to the limit in the work of liberating love . . . in the history we share with God no love is lost.”18 Segundo emphasized that any “conception of God, which [206] views him solely as some immutable, self-sufficient nature without any real interest in what he himself brought about, is nothing but the rationalization of our own alienated societal relationships.”19

On the relationship between love and violence, Segundo was insightful:

Love and violence are the two opposite poles of any interpersonal relationship. To love is to give something to a person. To do violence is to obtain something from a person. To love is to make that person the center of our action. To do violence is to make that person an instrument for obtaining something.20

Gustavo Gutiérrez (b. 1928) is a Dominican from Peru who is widely regarded as the initiator of Latin American liberation theology. Although his premiere work, A Theology of Liberation,21 appeared originally in 1971, it is to two later works that I turn for a clearer picture of his key contributions: The Power of the Poor in History (in Spanish: 1979) and The God of Life (in Spanish: 1989).

Jesus Christ “is the full manifestation of the God who is love: the Father.”22 In fact, Jesus “is precisely God become poor.”23 This points Gutiérrez in the direction of where God as love is to be recognized in our presence: “To believe in the God who reveals himself in history, and pitches his tent in its midst, means to live in this tent—in Christ Jesus—and to proclaim from there the liberating love of the Father.”24

A decade later, Gutiérrez offered up a series of riffs on key biblical passages that extensively spell out the background perspective on God that informs his earlier explorations into liberation theology. Part One is entitled “God Is Love” and begins with the 1 John 4:8 quote, specifically tying this understanding of God as love to Jesus’ proclamation of God as Abba, Father—actually, “papa” or “daddy.”25 Quoting Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Hosea, he lifted up the God of tender love, womb love.26 On the basis of these reflections, Gutiérrez sharply criticized his church’s Thomistic predominance, based on the philosophy of Aristotle, that finds it “difficult to say that God is love.”27

His overview of God’s fundamental concern for the poor and the suffering is summarized powerfully in this later book:


God’s preferential option for the poor, the weak, the least members of society, runs throughout the Bible and cannot be understood apart from the absolute freedom and gratuitousness of God’s love . . . Universality and preference mark the proclamation of the kingdom. God addresses a message of life to every human being without exception, while at the same time God shows preference for the poor and the oppressed . . . It is not easy to preserve both universality and preference, but that is the challenge we must meet if we would be faithful to the God of the kingdom that Jesus proclaims—namely, to be able to love every human being while retaining a preferential option for the poor and the oppressed.28


In words that will find strong support further along in this study, Juan Luis Segundo offered a very provocative notion at the very end of his book.

God is a continuing summons in our lives to a never-ending search for authentic solutions, for sincere solutions that are not a mixture of good and bad but a discovery of the good in all its purity . . . God is the unrest in us that does not allow us to be tranquil and content, that keeps prodding us toward the better course that remains ahead of us. It is in this unrest, in this anxious desire to arrive a authentic solutions, pure values, and uncompromised agreements, that we gradually come to know and recognize the God in whom we believe.29

This proposal that God “prods” us forward, generates “unrest” in us, seems to me to offer up a key element in the manner in which divine love works on us and in us to generate effective consequences, without overwhelming or overpowering us at the same time. I intend to “unpack” this more thoroughly to examine just how that process can be explained as an empowering one.30

One year after Segundo’s work appeared, the young Brazilian Protestant Rubem A. Alves (1933–2014) appropriated Jürgen Moltmann’s theology of hope for his constituents. Writing in Portugese but also fluent in English, with a Ph.D. from Princeton, he and his work [208] were perhaps less well known in Spanish-speaking Latin America than they should have been.

The central issue for Alves is the “freedom to create history.”31 And “the creation of history is possible only through power.” Therefore, language about God becomes “a language about events, their power and their promise.”32 In regard to the Israelites of the Old Testament, “where the events were expressions of liberating efficacy ‘in spite of ’, there was their God.”33 The Gospel is understood as “the annunciation of the historical reality of the ongoing politics of God, which expressed itself . . . as a power that invades history.”34

As the messianic events of liberation in the Old Testament were not a result of human efficacy but rather a gift, an act of power that transcended the given possibilities of history, the Christian communities saw in Jesus an act of God’s freedom . . . the power that creates a new future is something new, it is freedom from beyond history that is freedom for history. Only thus do the messianic power and hope for history remain as such.35

Moving marginally beyond Moltmann, Alves represented God as a presence of the ultimate Future putting pressure on the present to move toward the “new tomorrow” that is, in fact, “the sole determination of the present.”36

Alves seems conflicted on just what sense it makes to speak of God’s love as a powerful force moving the present toward its intended future. On the one hand, love cannot serve as a principle for liberating transformation. But, on the other, “Love is what God does in order to make man free.”37 Regarding, then, the interplay between power divine and human:

If action is the midwife of the future, then human activity can add the new to the world. It can indeed be an act of creation. God’s grace, instead of making human creativity superfluous or impossible, is therefore the politics that makes it possible and necessary. That is so because in the context of the politics of human liberation man encounters a God who remains open, who has not yet arrived, who is determined and helped by human activity. God needs man for the creation of his future.38


Thus the future “is not simply a future created by God for man, but by God and man, in historical dialogical cooperation.”39

Three years later, in Tomorrow’s Child, Alves contrasted “the love of power” that characterizes the predominant theme of our times with “the power of love,” and went on to state:

Love looks for effectiveness. Love demands power. The gifts of the future enjoyed in community must function like the preliminaries of love: they must create the excitement that prepares one for the great experience still to come. They are its sacrament, the aperitif of the absent, of the possible, of that which does not yet exist. And therefore they contain the ethical and political imperative of creative love.40

Gutiérrez picked up on this theme in an unresolved manner, stating that “God is a love that ever transcends us,” manifesting Godself as a “God of might” but most especially as “a God who dwells in the heart that can love.”41 Reaching into the Old Testament, he accepted equally that “God manifests himself in awe as a God of power (Exod. 19:18) or makes himself heard gently and discreetly in a breath of the wind (1 Kings 19:12).”42

In the final analysis, Gutiérrez could only acknowledge “the transcendence of God and the utter freedom with which God loves,” whereby “God will act, utterly freely, if it pleases God to do so.”43 There is no external conditioning of the activity of God in creation and history: “God’s reign is universal, over the cosmos . . . and over history.”44 But he did not stop there. The lack of a consistent resolution of the problem of how God acts is seen explicitly in an extended analysis of the dilemma of Job. Even though Job himself recognizes God as “all-powerful” (42:2), God’s “power is limited by human freedom . . . God’s love, like all true love, operates in a world not of cause and effect but of freedom and gratuitousness.”45

Unfortunately, it is clear that Gutiérrez was unable to move consistently away from traditional notions of the nature of God’s power. His alteration of focus was essentially in regard to those on whose behalf that power is wielded in history, namely, the poor and the oppressed. The dynamic of love/life/liberation and power remained insufficiently explored.


José Míguez Bonino (1924–2012) was an Argentinian Methodist who wrote Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Setting in 1975 and Toward a Christian Political Ethics eight years later. His key contribution to this inquiry is his understanding that the Reign of God in and over history is “a pressure that impels.”46 We speak of “‘love’, ‘liberation’, ‘the new man’ as the signs which allow us to identify the active sovereignty of God in history.”47

The Christian faith has always claimed that power belongs to God. But Míguez Bonino insists that omnipotence, as that has typically been understood, is not specifically present in the Bible and is never affirmed in the abstract. God is conveyed as an active presence who acts, in history and in creation, in faithfulness to humankind. God’s power “is the power that prevails over the chaos, that sets limits to the onslaught of the forces of destruction and ensures the conditions needed for human life and prosperity . . . God’s power is his ‘justice’ in action,” as exemplified particularly in the Magnificat.48

But two other features emerge in this biblical portrait:

God’s righteous power is affirmed in the midst of conflict. God is engaged in a struggle—his power is manifest in this struggle and is the guarantee of the final triumph of that righteousness of God which is disclosed and presently active in ‘the mighty acts’. Second, such acts are related to human agents . . . human mediation is the way in which God’s power operates in history.49

However, this mediation always eventually oversteps itself, absolutizing itself and negating justice. “Jesus understood his mission . . . as one of incarnating in a paradigmatic way God’s just and liberating rule.”50

The audacity of Leonardo Boff (b. 1938), a Brazilian Franciscan, in writing Church: Charism and Power (1981), got him in trouble with ecclesiastical authorities. It was so critical of the Roman Catholic Church’s use of ecclesial power that he was summoned to Rome and, for a time, silenced. Eventually he left the Franciscans and resigned his priesthood. He has worked since as a Catholic lay theologian.

Boff provides us with a perceptive historical overview of the church’s misuse of power. The early established church, after Constantine, did not abolish the existing order and the modes of power that sustained it; [211] instead the church itself adapted itself to that order. The key category is potestas, power. The church simply appropriated secular expressions of power from the Roman world and gave them a stamp of divine approval, a sacralization.51 This culminated in the eleventh century with Pope Gregory VII (Dictatus Papae, 1075), who instituted the ideology of the absolute power of the papacy.

Support for this was not the figure of the poor, humble, and weak jesus but rather God himself, omnipotent Lord of the universe and sole source of power. The Pope was to be understood as the unique reflection of divine power in creation, God’s vicar and representative . . . the Church’s exercise of power followed the patterns of pagan power in terms of domination, centralization, marginalization, triumphalism, human hybris beneath a sacred mantle.52

Boff’s contribution on this topic penetrates beyond what we have witnessed up to now in regard to the abandonment of all traces of sovereign divinity as classic omnipotence:

Jesus did not preach the Church but rather the Kingdom of God that included liberation for the poor, comfort for those who cry, justice, peace, forgiveness, and love . . . he did not call others to be rulers but to be submissive, humble, and loyal. He liberates for freedom and love that allow one to be submissive yet free, critical, and loyal without being servile, that call those in power to be servants and brothers free from the appetites for greater power. Fraternity, open communication with everyone, solidarity with all people, with the little ones, the least of the earth, sinners and even enemies, goodness, undiscriminating love, unlimited forgiveness are the great ideals put forth by Jesus. . . . The exousia, that is, the sovereignty, that appears in his attitudes and words in not power in terms of human power. It is the power of love . . . It is the power of God. . . . What is the power of God? . . . Power is the power to love. The power of love is different in nature from the power of domination; it is fragile, vulnerable, conquering through its weakness and its capacity for giving and forgiveness.53


In refusing to use divine power to alter his own impending death, Jesus “de-divinized power . . . It is in weakness that the love of God and the God of love are revealed (1 Cor 1:25; 2 Cor 13:4; Phil 2:7),”54

I find that Boff has gone the furthest in repudiating all vestiges of conventional power in lifting up the liberating work of God. He does not delve into the nagging question of how fragile and vulnerable love is powerful over against the forces of domination, but he sets us firmly on the right track. In that respect, he moves beyond the conceptual limitations that burdened his colleagues.

Elizabeth Johnson has observed perceptively that, with the work of the theologians of human liberation, “Naming God the liberator does not just craft one more symbol to add to the treasury of divine images. It puts a question mark next to every other idea of God that ignores the very concrete suffering of peoples due to economic, social, and politically structured deprivation.”55

By and large, however, it seems to me that the weakness in these proposals is that they do not challenge the conventional theistic notion of God’s power as that which ultimately will prevail. They merely—and this is a big “merely”—shift the focus of that power to divine activity on behalf of the black, the poor, the oppressed in history and in concrete historical settings. As we saw, Alves wrote of “the pressure of the spirit, of freedom, as it seeks its goal, [which] can never be stopped,”56 and Míguez Bonino wrote of a “pressure that impels.”57 The question remains whether, in their vision, this pressure ever slides over into the notion of irresistibility.

Except for Boff, I find the work of these dedicated individuals unsatisfying on this key point. There is certainly comfort to be found in the expectation that the work carried on in the midst of crushing oppression contributes to the intentionality of God to fulfill for all the promises to God’s chosen ones in the Exodus. But any assurance of a final outcome overtrumps the perception of the vulnerability of God’s empowering love.


  1. Leonardo Boff and Clodovis Boff, Introducing Liberation Theology, tr. Paul Burns (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1987), 66ff.
  2. James H. Cone, Black Theology and Black Power (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), 35.
  3. Ibid., 52.
  4. Ibid., 53f.
  5. Ibid., 124.
  6. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippencott Co., 1970), 28.
  7. Ibid., 121.
  8. Ibid., 130.
  9. Ibid., 131f.
  10. Ibid., 150.
  11. Cone, God of the Oppressed (New York: The Seabury Press, 1975), 163, both quotations.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., 177.
  14. Ibid., 9.
  15. See Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God, 73, and all of chapter four.
  16. Juan Luis Segundo, Our Idea of God, vol. 3 of A Theology for a New Humanity, tr. John Drury Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1973), 131–33.
  17. Ibid., 66.
  18. Ibid., 46.
  19. Ibid., 133.
  20. Ibid., 164. A few years later, Paulo Freire would observe: “Every relationship of domination, of exploitation, of oppression, is by definition violent, whether or not the violence is expressed by drastic means. In such a relationship, dominator and dominated alike are reduced to things—the former dehumanized by an excess of power, the latter by a lack of it. And things cannot love.” Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness, tr. Myra Bergman Ramos (New York: The Continuum Publishing Co., 1973), 10–11, footnote.
  21. Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and [214] Salvation, tr. Sr. Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1973).
  22. Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History, tr. Robert R. Barr (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1983), 12f.
  23. Ibid., 13, emphasis original.
  24. Ibid., 16.
  25. Gutiérrez, The God of Life, tr. Matthew J. O’Connell (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990), 1f.
  26. Ibid., 42–45.
  27. Ibid., xiii.
  28. Ibid., 116f.
  29. Segundo, op. cit., 181, emphases mine.
  30. I recast this perspective in my final chapter, 18, page 242, utilizing categories drawn from the philosophy of A. N. Whitehead.
  31. Rubem A. Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (Washington: Corpus Books, 1969), 12.
  32. Ibid., 90.
  33. Ibid., 91.
  34. Ibid., 92.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., 94.
  37. Ibid., 126, emphasis mine.
  38. Ibid., 144, emphasis mine.
  39. Ibid.
  40. Alves, Tomorrow’s Child: Imagination, Creativity, and the Rebirth of Culture (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 203, emphases original.
  41. Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History, 209.
  42. Ibid., 19,
  43. Gutiérrez, The God of Life, 80.
  44. Ibid., 108.
  45. Ibid., 161f.
  46. José Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 143, emphasis mine.
  47. Ibid., 138.
  48. Míguez Bonino, Toward a Christian Political Ethics (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983), 96.
  49. Ibid., 97.
  50. Ibid., 98.
  51. Leonardo Boff, Church: Charism and Power: Liberation Theology and the Institutional Church, tr. John W. Diercksmeier (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1986), 50f.
  52. Ibid., 56.
  53. Ibid., 59, emphases mine.
  54. Ibid., 60.
  55. Elizabeth Johnson, Quest for the Living God, 86.
  56. Alves, A Theology of Human Hope, 94.
  57. Míguez Bonino, Doing Theology in a Revolutionary Situation, 143.