Dr. J. Kameron Carter
Associate Professor of Theology and
Black Church Studies
Duke Divinity School
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (St. Matt. 27.45–46)
Jesus’ life was a becoming. It is constituted by which it was going, not by what was behind. Thus, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The life of Jesus was movement. It was ever pressing towards the moment spoken of in this, the first of Jesus’ sayings from the Cross. The moment of the Cross, and thus this saying from the Cross, was not superadded to Jesus’ identity. It was not some additional to who he was. No, not all. The Cross, the moment of Jesus’ death, is an expression of his identity as God with Us, his identity as Emmanuel (Isa. 7:14). He is the God, who in and as this man in solidarity with us, has stepped into the human condition, into our becoming. Again, “the Word became flesh.” And now from the Cross we have a new vantage point on our condition. It is one of Godforsakenness.
But what is Godforsakenness? Many a Christian thinker has tried to plumb its meaning. But perhaps more than anyone else, Harriet A. Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)—according to many literature scholars, this is the first female authored slave narrative—gives us some sense of what Godforsakenness means. Her experience of New World slavery and sexual exploitation through rape offers us something of a parable of Godforsakennes.
For 7 year, Jacobs was confined to a coffin-sized roof-top garret or attic to avoid the sexual advances of her master, Dr. Norcomb. Her only contact with the outside world was the sight afforded her through a loophole in the roof to still keep an eye on her children, still slaves themselves. This “loophole of retreat,” as Jacobs called her place of incarceration, was a place of abandonment, of Godforsakenness. Indeed, Jacobs invokes the scriptural language about Jesus’ own death and entombment to describe her situation.
I contend that Jacobs’ story of her experience as a slave girl, her experience of social death poised on the brink of actual death, gives us a window into the social processes, and thus is a parable, of “Godforsakenness.” It points to what Godforsakenness looks like on the ground, as the hidden reality of the everyday life of slaves. Godforsakenness is the situation of abject abandonment, the situation in which identity is constituted through hiddenness, invisibility, and death. Godforsakenness is to have one’s identity bounded on all sides by death. One ever stands on the precipice of death.
It is precisely this situation that God, as the man Jesus of Nazareth, entered into, for this is the condition that has befallen the creature in its will to be like the Creator. What we hear in this first word from the Cross is God having taken up this condition on our behalf.
We rejoice, however, that this is the not the last of Jesus’ words, and thus Godforsakeness, while being taken seriously, is not the final word, the final verdict on the human condition. There are yet six more words to be heard from the Cross. With these words we further hear of God’s entry in Jesus into our condition. God wills to see our condition through to the end, even unto death, and thereby drain our condition of the poison of death that has come to mark it. God wills to carve out a space of life in the tight spaces of death, in the spaces of Godforsakenness.