Daniel Bell and (the failure of) forgiveness as resistance

Here is an excerpt from a much longer essay I completed this term entitled ‘Liberation Theology: Problems and Possibilities; Between Pragmatism and Metaphysics’. This section is a critical evaluation of Daneil Bell’s response to the liberation theology in his work ‘Liberation Theology After the End of History’ which was published in the radical orthodoxy book series.


2.2 Daniel Bell and forgiveness as resistance


Another voice emerging from within the radical orthodoxy movement in regards to liberation theology is Daniel Bell, who in his work Liberation Theology After the End of History[1] develops a full length critique of contemporary liberation theology in relation to the domination of western capitalism. Along with a critique, Bell identifies a potential future trajectory the liberationists could take to ‘save’ their movement; Bell identifies this as the ‘refusal to cease suffering’.

Among Bell’s major criticisms of liberation theology, and one very much in line with the previously mentioned critiques offered by Milbank, is that it lacks the ecclesiology[2] necessary to enact real liberation. Bell carries out this critique by drawing on both Deleuze and Foucault to show how the church has failed to provide ‘technologies of desire’ capable of forming individuals free from the ontological influence of capitalism. Bell identifies one of the major failures of the liberationists in their acceptance of the disciplines offered by capitalism.[3] For Bell, liberation theology has thus far failed to recognize that capitalism is more than just a political and economic system; it is in fact an inherently ontological system[4] that has shaped the way in which the modern individual perceives reality in itself. In a sense, Bell acknowledges the ‘victory’ of global capitalism, and hopes that the liberationist would realize this victory as well and move past any aspiration to resist or overthrow the systems in power.

Instead of any directly political opposition to capitalism, Bell instead argues that the church needs to oppose capitalism through the enacting of alternative technologies of desire for the purpose of enabling an alternative social, political, and economic formation.[5] In this way the church’s alternative technologies would teach individuals to ‘re-focus’ their desire, which has previously been formed through capitalism. Bell identifies confession, repentance, and penance as the key technologies of desire to be used by the church in opposition to the technologies of desire enacted by the capitalist order. These alternative technologies offered by the church are crucial for Bell because each involves the formation of forgiveness, which Bell notes is the “form of Christian resistance to capitalism”[6], as well as the condition of possibility for justice, which for Bell must always come after forgiveness.

These alternative technologies of desire enable the church to become what Bell refers to as the ‘crucified people’, which Bell locates among the base communities in Latin America.[7] These people are characterized by their ‘refusal to cease suffering’ and their radical and unconditional extending of forgiveness[8] towards any and all of their victimizers and oppressors. This model for the church is characterized by its use of forgiveness as a tool of resistance, which lies in opposition to the historical emphasis of the liberationists on justice, rather than forgiveness. Thus, the future of liberation theology envisioned by Bell is one in which the Church would not be militant in their opposition to the ruling economic, social, and political powers but would instead militantly forgive these powers for their continued oppression.

One of the glaring problems with Bell’s assessment, specifically in regards to capitalism, is his assumption that the church can somehow ‘escape’ capitalism and “succeed where very other social body has failed”.[9] Interestingly enough, Bell’s assessment sounds remarkably similar to the thesis put forward by philosopher Simon Critchley in his recent book Infinitely Demanding, where he argues that any new politics must exist at a distance from the state, and rather than attempting to abolish the state, this new politics must instead resist by bombarding the state with an infinite amount of impossible demands, not in order to do away with the state, but in order to ‘better’ it. In a review article of Critichley’s book, Slavoj Žižek asks, “[…] if the state is here to stay, if it is impossible to abolish it (or capitalism), why retreat from it? Why not act with(in) the state?”[10] Žižek goes on to give the example of individuals protesting against the US attack on Iraq that took place in 2003, and the way in which their ‘resistance’ did nothing but further encourage those in power. This passage is worth quoting at length:


“The protestors saved their beautiful souls: they made it clear that they don’t agree with the government’s policy on Iraq. Those in power calmly accepted it, even profited from it: not only did the protests in no way prevent the already-made decision to attack Iraq; they also served to legitimize it. Thus George Bush’s reaction to mass demonstrations protesting his visit to London, in effect: ‘You see, this is what we are fighting for, so that what people are doing here – protesting against their government – will be possible also in Iraq!’”[11]


It is important to note the similarity between this act of political ‘resistance’ and the ‘refusal to cease suffering’ encouraged by Bell. What oppressive government wouldn’t want their poor and oppressed to ‘resist’ through forgiveness! How magnificent for the systems in power! They can continue to oppress the poor and marginalized of society, but rather than worry about potential uprisings, they can instead rely on the continued forgiveness of the people. Even better, these oppressive governments can instead ‘use’ their capitalist economic framework to develop new policies and programs that will encourage ‘development’ in the two-thirds world. In this way the ‘crucified people’ can continue to cease suffering, while the capitalist state can continue to increase its political and economic domination.

Before moving on it is necessary that we take heed of Ivan Petrella’s critique of Bell’s project, in which he emphasizes that:


“[…]the very notion of the refusal to cease suffering downplays the material plight of the Latin American (and world’s) poor. At stake is not just suffering or non-suffering but, as liberation theologians repeatedly stress, life and death. In this case, the refusal to cease suffering emerges as a death sentence. In life one may refuse to cease suffering, until death.” [12]


If liberation thought regards life as primary, then it is clear that Bell has little to offer the future of liberation theology.


[1] Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Liberation Theology After the End of History (London; Routledge, 2001)

[2] Ibid., p.3

[3] Ibid., p.8

[4] Ibid., p.9

[5] Ibid., p.72

[6] Ibid., p.186

[7] Ibid., pp.168-170

[8] Ibid., pp.192-193

[9] Ivan Petrella, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto (New York; Orbis Books, 2004), p.123

[10] Zizek, Slavoj. Resistance is Surrender, London Review of Books, 15 November 2007. Accessed: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n22/zize01_.html

[11] Ibid., p.5

[12] Petrella, The Future of Liberation Theology: An Argument and Manifesto, p.132, emphasis mine

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8 thoughts on “Daniel Bell and (the failure of) forgiveness as resistance

  1. Matthew says:

    This is very interesting… what are your thoughts on how the New Testament’s (Paul in particular) summons to cruciformity fits in here? – How does the commitment to “take up one’s cross” and “turn the other cheek” and “submit to authorities” relate to the need to change unjust structures in one’s own society? I’m always intrigued by the fact that in Philippi, Paul didn’t reveal that he was a Roman citizen until they had already flogged him…

  2. Dan says:

    I would be interested to see where you go with this. I liked what I read of Bell’s book (the first two chapters) a lot, not to say it shouldn’t be critically engaged. I also appreciated what Zizek had to say about the protests in his interview–thanks to your suggestion–how it legitimized both sides in the war effort, and appreciate that you brought it into dialogue with Bell’s work. The danger, as I see it but I have been reading alot of Hauerwas, is in the need to be effective. I am not sure that I fully agree with Hauerwas and Yoder on everything but surely that the Christian must be willing to die rather than kill, even if it is under an unjust system. I am also not sure that we can chalk up Paul’s refusal to change unjust systems to his robust eschatology. Or was his letter to Onesimus a challenging of the system of slavery in itself? A non-violent but surely coercive one, some would say not enough. Maybe we should still have such an eschatology. Is that even possible after two thousand years? I am starting to sound annoying.

    Zizek reminds me of the Menonites response to the Iraq war. Many flew over to Iraq to act as human shields in the hope that Bush wouldn’t start bombing since American’s were there. When this didn’t work they started smuggling Iraqi’s into Jordan. Maybe Bell’s problem is that he asked the wrong people to refuse to cease suffering. Maybe he should have asked us in the West to start suffering. Maybe he did–I only read the first two chapters. If we believe in the resurrection than maybe we can follow Jesus and embrace faithfulness over effectiveness when we can’t have both. This may look like sheer foolishness to those with normative secular assumptions ( ie those who think that life is all there is and thus all that matters) and surely it is with in a secular discourse, but as Christians with a robust eschatology maybe we should be so foolish. Maybe Bell’s call to such a refusal short circuits our ability to continue imagining news ways to be effective and faithful by defaulting to early to faithfulness. Either way I would like to see where you land on this. Damn I am too long winded.

  3. Dan says:

    Maybe I shouldn’t say maybe so much.

  4. Compelling. I haven’t read Bell but based on your treatment of him this comment is hopefully relevant: William Cavanaugh’s ROish critique of Liberation Theology is that they abandon Christ to a form/ethic to be imitated as opposed to a unique ontology that the Church participates in (Christ being the Incarnate Son of God). If he’s right, Liberation theologians seem to be a case in point for Critchley (which was a really helpful parrallel to make). They are dialectically “against” the state while still operating within its capitalist ontology (since that’s the only metaphysic left for them once Christ qua metaphysic has been left behind). Liberation theology is thus legitimizing the State in a way it needs to be legitimized (per Zizek in your example above). I guess I’m reacting to the fact that when I read you I wanted to say that Bell’s naivete concerning the singularity of the Church is the same “naivete” in holding to a creedal view of Christ. Maybe you’re OK with that, I don’t know, I’d have to read the rest of your paper.

    Also, where is Milbank’s critique of Liberation Theology that you referenced early on?

  5. michaeloneillburns says:

    Sorry for the slow responses! Guest from the states have pulled me away from all things academic! Here are my delayed responses to all the comments thus far…

    RE: The New Testament, obviously my in depth knowledge of the biblical theology at work here is weak at best; but, isn’t there a problem when we apply the teachings of Christ (specifically things like the sermon on the mount) to individuals but then exempt nation states and governments? I once heard Stanley Hauerwas (also not a NT scholar…) say that the problem with the way most people read the ethical calls of the NT is that they fail to apply its teachings not only to individuals, but to ‘Caesar’ himself. Also, it seems like while the biblical text don’t necessarily present an account of the early church’s ‘resistance’ against the nation state of their day, it does seem like there is a place for political subversion within the Church…but once again…this is your area and I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this issue.

    I appreciate your thoughts on this as well. I too was enjoying Bell’s book at the outset, but it just got worse and worse to me. Also, and this is an unrelated point, his reading of Deleuze seems to be bad, and useless. It’s almost as if he brings up Deleuze for the sake of having some sort of contemporary philosophical credibility, but its just bad…
    As for Hauerwas and his call for Christians to be willing to die rather than kill, I totally agree with him here! The problem is that Bell’s ‘refusal to cease suffering’ makes it sound like we should give the state license to do whatever it likes while we sit by and hope for heaven. The problem to me seems to be that Christians shouldn’t be willing to get murdered while ‘waiting’; they should instead be willing to give their lives in acts of subversion. I think it’s important to note the difference between subversion and resistance here; Bell fails to provide an account for the Church’s potential for political subversion. I’m still not sure where this critique ‘leads’ per se; but if you would like to read the 7,000 word essay this is pulled from let me know and I’ll send it to you.
    Also, I get your concern with the ‘need to be effective’; and I know there is a definite risk there; but when large scale populations are dying in horrible conditions largely due to the oppressive policy of nation states, I feel as if the Church must be effective, at least at providing a chance at life for its members.

    As for the Milbank critique, it’s in Theology and Social Theory; I don’t have the book near me now to quote the exact page, but the title of the section makes it pretty obvious.

    Also, I (mostly) agree with Cavanaugh’s critique, and in the paper this is pulled from I don’t consider him part of what I see as the ‘RO’ critique of liberation theology. I do agree that the liberationist for the most part fail to offer an alternative ontology from that of the state, and that this is the primary reason that for the most part liberation theology seems to have ‘failed’. This lack of an ontology distinct from that of capitalism is also the reason that no clear account of subjectivity has emerged within much liberation thought; and this lack has led to a risk of individualism that completely ruins much of liberation theologies political potential.

    I’m not sure I get what you mean when you say that “Bell’s naivete concerning the singularity of the Church is the same “naivete” in holding to a creedal view of Christ”…I don’t doubt that there is a ‘naivete’ in concerning the singuarlity of the church (and the creedal view of Christ); I just think there is also a (negative) naivete in offering ‘the refusal to cease suffering’ to people dying of poverty while you sit in your office at an American university. Maybe it’s my background as a social science undergraduate coming through here, but I just don’t see how a Thomistic metaphysic is going to help Christians (and people) in the third world survive under political and economic impression. Most liberation theology tends to be either pure sociology or pure metaphysics; I think what we need is a good bit of both. If you want let me know and I’m glad to send you the paper.

  6. Ya, my comment was ambiguous. What I was trying to say is that it would not be all that crazy for a bunch of people who believe Jesus of Nazereth possessed the unique ontology of the Incarante Son to believe the Church might “succeed where very other social body has failed” (especially in light of Paul’s habit of calling the Church the body of Christ). Indeed, if historic Christianity is right about Jesus it would seem that every other social body would fail.

    The problem with all this is of course that the Church doesn’t always function as such. I think this is why Milbank goes to such trouble in the final chapter of Theology and Social Theory to argue the Church arises historically as the truly peaceful society, and probably also why Cavanaugh wants to parse that and say that the Church arises as the peaceful society insofar as the Eucharist makes the Church. Thus when we’re not acting “Eucharistically” we’re not functioning as the Church anyway (though I’ve never been totally convinced by either argument, but I’d like to be). I’d certainly want to go with Cavanaugh over Bell in affirming the Eucharist as the locus of Christian political vision as opposed to forgiveness in and of itself. Outside of the Eucharist/Church forgiveness makes no sense and neither does a refusal to cease suffering.
    Regarding your comment that you “don’t see how a Thomistic metaphysic is going to help Christians (and people) in the third world survive under political and economic impression,” I’m attracted to the RO argument that there are only two basic metaphysical options: the Christian metaphysic and a nihilism that leads to destruction, given these options I’m going to side with the Thomists.
    Also, I don’t have an office in America (but I do get a thesis carol soon) and my profs keep hinting that if I keep reading and writing on Milbank and RO I may never have an office (or job) in America, but its far more interesting than the rest of the theology I run into and that’s why we Americans are keeping you away from your studies with our questions.
    I’d appreciate the entire paper if its all as thoughtful as what’s above.

  7. Matthew says:

    Hi Mike… I think this is a really important issue – and one that I would like to do a lot more thinking about. At the moment, the reflections that arise out of my work on 1 Corinthians are along these lines:

    The ‘ontology of the incarnate Son’ is presently ‘hidden’, and awaiting full manifestation at the time of Jesus’ ‘appearing’ (parousia). This is perhaps illustrated in the fact that, as you’ve said (elsewhere), ‘phenomenologically speaking, nothing happens at the eucharist’… The presence of Jesus through Spirit, Word, and Sacrament is nevertheless a ‘partial’ (1 Cor 13), pre-parousia presence.

    And so Paul really does want the Corinthians to be oriented toward the future – not toward a soulish heaven, but toward the resurrection of this creation: The time when Jesus will be ‘manifest’ and finally we will ‘know him even as we are fully known’.

    If the church were supposed to be oriented toward a future soulish heaven, then, as you’ve said, there would be nothing to do in the present but sit around and wait… but because, according to 1 Corinthians, the church should be oriented toward future resurrection, the present should especially involve cruciformity – a cruciformity that is passionately engaged with this world. After all, crucifixion is the pre-requisite for resurrection. In practice, this ‘cruciformity’ will involve self-restraint and active love.

    Of course, you’re right to say that this call is not just to individuals, but I’m more hesitant about the idea of co-opting Caesar into this vision, in this pre-parousia age… I’m open to change my mind about this – but at the moment my thinking is that it is the CHURCH that is called to cruciformity… which includes me: I am called, with the church, to give up my plenty, my control, my right to retaliate, and give myself in love for others. This, too, is where acts of subversion would fit in.

    This is the direction I’m looking in at the moment, but like I say, I’ve got a long way to go with these issues – and I’m glad you’re looking into this stuff… we need more people thinking creatively about this

  8. 4854derrida says:


    I’ve just uploaded two rare interviews with the Catholic activist Dorothy Day. One was made for the Christophers [1971]–i.e., Christopher Closeup– and the other for WCVB-TV Boston [1974].

    Day had begun her service to the poor in New York City during the Depression with Peter Maurin, and it continued until her death in 1980. Their dedication to administering to the homeless, elderly, and disenfranchised continues with Catholic Worker homes in many parts of the world.

    Please post or announce the availability of these videos for those who may be interested in hearing this remarkable lay minister.

    They may be located here:


    Thank you

    Dean Taylor

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