Coffee is black

coffee

Black men enter, white people get fearful;
911 call – now more mothers get tearful.
Want me to be quiet? Hell naw, here’s an earful
Spillin’ thoughts over the top like I got my beer full.

Shout out my brothers and sisters, watchin the PoPo,
Predators roamin’ the streets like they hobo
Against people of color; it’s a war on the low-low
While the indifferent sip latte in Starbucks up in SoHo.

How many more brothers gotta give up they rights
Just to make sure that they live till the end of the night?
How many more sisters should we allow you to kill?
Maybe if we put the heat to you, that’ll allow you to chill?

Naw. But tensions continue to rise,
Anger is seethin’, we so damn tired of the lies;
I know the system, not the victims, is the thing I despise,
But sometimes the vision gets blurry from the tears in my eyes.

(Dwayne Polk)

Advertisements

Seeing all things in Christ

StFrancisJohnAugustSwansonWIt is common for Christians to speak of our being “in Christ” but also of all things being in him. I was recently asked what I have in mind when I speak of seeing all things in Christ. I thought I’d reflect on it some.

When I speak of all things being “in Christ” I’m talking primarily how the contemplation of anything can become the occasion for a transformational encounter with God. I don’t just mean that contemplating the existence of contingent things can lead one logically to conclude there is a God and then withdrawing from being fully present to thing and travel off and search for God in some argument. I mean to say that the things we contemplate are where God is met, that God is inseparably present in the being of things without being reducible to them so there is a immediacy of divine presence coterminous with the proper contemplation of things (contemplated as created, as good, as beautiful, as sustained by God, etc.). God’s presence and the presence of created things become convertible with each other.

This includes experiencing myself within the contemplation of things. The contemplation of things becomes the contemplation of oneself. It really is an experience of self-transcendence, because the beauty and goodness of your own existence is irreducible to the things you contemplate. This is opened up through perhaps the most important discipline of spiritual insight there is – silence. “Be still” says the Psalmist, “and know that I’m God.” That’s where I integrate the deepest truth of things into how I view the world and myself in it. The structure of it emerges precisely as St. Paul describes: “I, not I, but Christ.” (Gal 2.20)

This self-transcending approach to the contemplation of things is where one experiences not the abstract truth of God’s existence given the contingency of all things. You’re not contemplating a syllogism at this point, but the living presence of Christ as the ever-speaking Word of the Father. It’s what the contemplatives all report – when one quiets oneself and attends to the irreducible goodness and beauty of things, and when one listens there, one will find oneself (as Sarah Coakley says) being caught up in a conversation and eventually being addressed within that conversation.

Christ is ‘in’ things (sustaining them, reflected in them, etc.), and so are all things in him (sustained and held together). That’s something one can contemplate third person as it were, as a philosophical or theological construct. But you can also experience this as one’s own truth, the deepest and truest thing about you. At some point – and there’s no easy way to say this – Christ is not just ‘in’ things but ‘as’ things, ‘as’ them in the sense that however deep you go into the constitution of things, that conversation that addressed you is already there – as if Christ just is the being of things. How then do you peel apart “I” and “Christ” in St. Paul’s “I, not I, but Christ”? How do you put distance between yourself and Christ when deepest truth of who you are is (inside) the deepest truth of who he is. What else does Paul mean when he says we are given the Son’s own eternal cry of “Abba, Father!”? Who we are is on the inside of who he is. One sees “from” Christ (where one is) “to” Christ in all things. This is how one comes to see oneself in all things (again, language strains), because if I am in Christ, and Christ is in all things. I am in all things. It’s not “I” who embrace all things. Rather, I am embraced by the One who embraces all things. And the act by which he embraces all things in himself cannot be dissembled into discrete acts. There’s no distance between you and I because there’s no distance in Christ in whom you and I are.

There’s a truth to “Christ in all things” that can be apprehended on a philosophical level. That’s helpful. But the heart longs for more. There is an encounter with the reality to which such truths point. The transition from one to the other travels along the path of the persistent contemplation of the goodness, beauty and giftedness of things, the truth of the gospel as the unity of all things in Christ. This may be why Paul is careful in 1Cor 15 to say that in the end “God becomes all in all.” Not just “in all” — which is already true — but “all in all.” Might this suggest our perceiving God in all as the explicit truth of things? It’s one thing for God to see you. That’s always true. It’s another thing to know God sees you. But it’s transformational finally to see God seeing you. That, is seems to me, is of the same species of God’s being all in all.

Battling to the end

apocalypse

The only Christians who still talk about the apocalypse are fundamentalists, but they have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. They have no sense of humor.

(From Battling to the End by (2010; Achever Clausewitz, 2007) by Rene Girard, in which he turns the focus of his mimetic insights from the history of human culture and religion to the future of humankind and the crucial importance of Christianity’s apocalyptic vision. You can find Girard’s own summary of it at First Things.)

Satisfaction, exchange, and our natural indebtedness to God

creation

Anselm equates the impossibility of our satisfying God’s honor with our infinite guilt deriving from infinite offense. I hinted at a different take on this in the immediately preceding post, and here I’d like to expand upon that thought for a moment.

Anselm is surely right to say we are absolutely incapable of satisfying God’s honor and so obtaining the happiness we are created for. But Anselm grounds this inability in our having infinitely offended God. I’d like to suggest that this overlooks the truth that we are naturally unable to yield God the honor he is due and that our need for grace is absolute irrespective of offense and guilt. We are not infinitely indebted to God on account of our sin; we are infinitely indebted to him on account of our finitude. Our absolute ontological poverty and our infinite indebtedness to God (for grace to achieve our end in him) are one and the same reality. It is to our createdness or finitude, not to the dynamics of guilt, offense and punishment, where we must go to answer Anselm’s question ‘Cur Deus Home?’ (Why did God become man?). God becomes a man not primarily to save sinners but to perfect human beings as such. That we are fallen adds a dimension to the job-description of the Incarnate One, yes. His career must address human enslavement to sin and violence. But that is a contingent aspect of humanity’s natural infinite indebtedness to God.

Making this adjustment makes it possible to understand satisfaction in terms of the peaceful order of creation rather than in terms of guilt, punishment and violence. What “needs to be seen” regarding justice (to pick up Anselm’s concern) is thus not that the deserved punishment is seen to be borne. Even if it’s born by an innocent person who freely offers to bear the consequences for the guilty (as one Christian model has it), how many victims would feel justice was “seen to be done”? None that I can imagine.

Rutledge (in a passage that I want to believe doesn’t reflect the general aim of her overall argument) insists that ‘something is owed the victims’ of human violence and atrocity. But what notion of justice would be satisfied by an innocent person’s suffering what the guilty deserve even if the innocent person freely offered to suffer what the guilty deserve? Even Anselm admits that ‘it is not just for God to inflict misery upon the innocent’. So this can’t be what the Cross is about. But that Anselm construes the Incarnation in terms of satisfying an infinite indebtedness deriving from guilt and offense and not in terms of nature and finitude per se may subvert some of his own points; for though he grants that God does not inflict misery upon the innocent, he does suggest that satisfaction is met if an innocent person freely offers himself to suffer the misery deserved by the guilty. But does this really suffice? I don’t see that it does. Would the parents of a murdered child be satisfied that “justice was seen to be done” were they to see an innocent person freely take the electric chair in the place of their child’s murderer? I can’t imagine so. I fear that some insist on our natural moral intuitions (or ‘common human expectations’) about justice when it comes to establishing guilt and merit, but then abandon those intuitions when it comes to suffering the consequences.

What to do? Ground the infinite indebtedness of human beings to God in humanity’s natural state as created. We’re unable to honor God as he deserves, not on account of our sin as Anselm supposed, but on account of creaturely finitude as such. Sin will explain why we require Christ’s violent death (viz., because in our enslavement to violence we would not have it any other way), and it will enlighten us regarding the depths to which the Incarnate One is willing to humble himself in order to bear his (and our) humanity to God on our behalf (‘on our behalf’ reflecting the peaceful economy of creation’s natural need for God met by God, not a special dispensation called into being by our guilt) in a demonstration of love which violence killed but could destroy and which is thus capable of “putting right” (that is, “putting into right relationship”) victims and victimizers. But the bearing of our humanity by the grace of Incarnation to satisfy our indebtedness to God is entirely antecedent to any of the violent complications our sin introduces into an otherwise peaceful economy of exchange. There is indeed a real satisfaction and exchange to affirm, but it is not reducible to redemption from sin. Satisfaction and exchange are called into being peacefully by a good creation naturally indebted to God. They occur quite in spite of sin, not on account of it. What saves us from our enslavement to sin, then, is what God was always planning on doing for us regardless of sin.

Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, cross for cross?

prodigal

This post is me in process, OK? I’m still thinking through whether or not I understanding Rutledge (or Anselm for that matter). When Anselm says “justice must be seen to be done,” I sense there is an important truth being expressed though I’m sure this rarely gets expressed truthfully, especially when we interpret it as requiring an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime; the idea being that we’ve offended an infinitely worthy God and so an infinitely valuable consequence suffered is how justice is satisfied.

Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? I’m sure I’m in the minority here, but I think not. God is infinitely valuable, of course. But does the severity or magnitude of a finite agency’s offense derive from the value of the offended party? Get caught stealing from a poor beggar and justice is satisfied with you’re being reprimanded. Get caught stealing from the King and you pay big-time. How much you deserve to suffer is proportionate to the value of the one you offend. That’s certainly the sense of justice in the Middle East I lived in for half my life. Steal from me, do public serve. Steal from King Hussein, go to jail. So, as the logic goes, steal from God and suffer infinitely.

I think this is wrong-headed. I agree all value is God’s, diversely reflected in created things and that, ultimately, it is God against whom we sin. But it seems as clear to me that the severity and magnitude of an offense is judged based on the understanding and context of the offending party. The magnitude of my offense against God derives (at least in part) from the depth of my understanding. It is not simply convertible with the value of God. And since no finite perspective could possibly comprehend the infinitude of God’s value, no offense against God can be as great as God.

This is important to Anselm, because he understands our inability to make satisfaction as derived from the infinitude of our offense. But it isn’t obvious to me that only infinitely offensive failures render us helpless before God. The view I’ve propounded here for some time is that we’re helpless by nature. Sin doesn’t render us unable to satisfy our calling to “honor” God (to go with Anselm’s word), we are by nature absolutely in need of grace to participate in the happiness God created us for. We are poverty stricken as such. That we are also fallen and wrecked certainly complicates our predicament, and it does call for a just and proportional moral order that links consequence to choice, but it is not our sinning that marks the point at which we begin requiring the grace of God to satisfy our destiny. It is our finitude that constitutes that need.

I suppose one could argue that the only offense against God that approaches being infinite would be the utter rejection of God by one in possession of the beatific vision, for only here could one be thought of as sinning “with eyes wide open” so to speak. But it’s also true that the beatific vision makes offending God inconceivable, for in order to misrelate to God responsibly one has to be able to construct some reason for doing so. The beatific vision, however, is epistemic closure regarding the ends and values of things. So, I take it that infinitely offending God is in fact impossible. But there’s no need to think this a Pelagian mistake. We are by nature absolutely destitute of the ability to secure our truest happiness apart from the undeserved grace of God.

That said, what’s it then mean to say that in “setting things right” (“rectifying” the fallen world, to go with Rutledge’s translation) justice “must be seen to be done”? Rutledge writes:

Forgiveness is too weak a word to embrace the full scope of what Christ has done and what he calls us too. How can we begin to speak even of forgiveness, let alone transformation, in the worst of the worst situations? The extermination of millions does not cry out for forgiveness. Never mind millions; what about just one baby burned up in a microwave over by its own father? After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Forgiveness is not enough. There must be justice too…

Something is owed to the victims of such atrocity. No one needs to have it explained to them what is meant by the language. It is common human expectation that there should be justice, and that justice should be in some way related to the magnitude of the loss…

If when we see an injustice, our blood does not boil at some point, we have not yet understood the depths of God.

forgive

I sense something amiss here, because what is also “common human expectation” regarding justice is that forgiveness is not part of the deal. What’s expected is that those guilty for the most heinous crimes ought to suffer the equivalent to what they’ve done to others. This is no different than (lex talionis) ‘eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth’ justice Christ calls us to not participate in. He calls our “common human expectation” and “blood boiling” into question. It is also not a part of our “common human expectation” that someone else suffer what I deserve to suffer on my behalf, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to check our common human expectations.

What about justice for all the innocent babies abused and monstrous evils done to the poor, the weak and the defenseless? How is that “put right”? How’s it accounted for? It gets accounted for by Christ who is the only truly Innocent One suffering torture and rejection, not as a substitute for the punishment perpetrators of violence deserve, but as the consummate instance of the violence they perpetrate – consummate on account of Christ’s unique innocence – being forgiven in this case by the victim. As David Hart says, it is Christ’s innocence that saves us. Let us consider saying in addition that this would remain true had we, hypothetically, never fallen. It’s not only sinful human beings who are united by grace and faith to God through Incarnation. We don’t need God more as sinners than we needed him in any imagined, originally righteous state. Christ’s humanity was perfected by grace too. Let that sink in.

Moreover, it is what Christ does as victim of the guilty that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims (moreso because he alone is truly innocent), he is in a place to offer us a means of both receiving and extending forgiveness through participation in his suffering. Only Christ as the Innocent One can offer victims a mode of identification with him that can contextualize their victimization within his own (rather than, as typically understood, by contextualizing his victimization within theirs) and thus empower victims in the forgiveness of others. At the same time, only Christ as the “forgiving victim” (thank you James Alison) offers victimizers a mode of identification in his suffering which identifies and exposes both their guilt and forgiveness. But the world is not, I don’t think, “put right” by Jesus suffering “what the persecutors deserve.” Justice is served when Jesus suffers what victims experience and forgives in return. So to answer Rutledge’s passionate call to the “boiling of blood” over evil and to the call for a suffering that is “owed” victims – which sounds very like retribution to me – I don’t know how analogously to conceive of the boiling of the blood of the impassible God of delight, and if God’s blood isn’t boiling, why should ours boil? Right here I suspect that if we consider this to be a pitiless disregard for the suffering of victims, it may be due to lack of our own participation in God’s impassible delight.

So does Jesus suffer what is “owed” the victims? God forbid. I rather suspect he suffers in a manner that is able to free us from such equations. Forgiveness – if it’s real at all – suggests an entirely different economy of relations, and so must the justice we embrace challenge our shared expectations, especially if those expectations require our blood to boil or ask us to make proportionate compensation of eyes for eyes and teeth for teeth. I may be missing Rutledge’s point here. My apologizes. But if not her, there are others who do adopt such a view of things.

If we construe forgiveness as Christ’s suffering the ultimate consequence we deserve, then our legal indebtedness (Col 2.14) is not in fact “canceled” or “erased.” Rather, it is stamped “paid,” which is not what Paul says. Nor was it true (2Cor 5.19) that “God was in Christ…not counting our sins against us.” Rather, God was counting those sins, prosecuting the case against us, and exacting just payment. That Jesus suffered rather than us doesn’t obviate the fact that nothing is actually ‘forgiven’. Is not the point of Paul’s language here to subvert the very economy of indebtedness under which he dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological, not of divine origin.

Let me offer this as carefully as I can – the innocent victims of injustice are not “owed” anything (in terms of proportionate justice), they are infinitely loved (which is much better), and they are called to free themselves from proportional economics by participating in Christ’s gratuitous suffering and forgiving response. What of the victimizers? They too are infinitely loved by the Forgiving Victim, Jesus, who calls them also to the same participation in an infinite impassibility that suffers without being harmed and forgives without needing compensation for the wrong done. Both victim and victimizer escape the violent math of proportional justice through the same Cross – approaching Christ either as his victimizer (which we all are on some level), or as a victim alongside him. Is justice pure fiction, then? Are we not longing for the good and the true when we cry out to see justice done? We are indeed! But the reality we long for is not what we get when we possess our desire in terms of proportional justice. When the parents of a murdered child see the perpetrator die in the electric chair, the relief they feel is not the satisfaction of justice God intends (not if the gospel defines justice for us). This is not to say that the renewed grief we experience when the guilty are acquitted is not a genuine longing for that justice which leaves nothing unreconciled. It is simply to say that justice is only finally satisfied when victims and victimizers transcend the distinction between justice and mercy in the gratuitous gift of Christ.

Let me suggest that justice be thought, then, simply as being brought to acknowledge the truth about one’s choices. The world is set right wherever the guilty confess, take responsibility for their choices, and are reconciled to their victims. The Cross makes this possible not by satisfying the deserved punishment, but because God in Christ suffers victimization and forgives. As James Alison says, Jesus becomes the “forgiving victim.” This “rectifies” the world. How? By creating space for both victimizers to be forgiven and victims to extend forgiveness. There’s no suffering that compensates for wrongs. What compensates, if we must speak in such terms, is the beatitude of Christ’s sufferings where victimizers and victims meet each other within an the impassible economy of God’s delight. What we need, then, is not proportional justice, i.e., victims seeing that their perpetrators are suffering a pain equal in magnitude to their crime, but proportional forgiveness, i.e., the consummate Innocent One forgiving his perpetrators and so empowering both victimizers (to take responsibility for their actions) and victims (to extend forgiveness in Christ).

(Prodigal Son by Oleg Korolev)

Creation as intra-trinitarian gift: Postscript

bubbles

I was rethinking through an old post of mine: Creation as intra-trinitarian gift. It begins:

Let’s conceive of creation as an intra-trinitarian gift. Take the rationale for incarnation out of the sphere of human salvation. Instead of finding a place for the incarnation within the larger act of creation, let’s turn it around and locate the rationale for creation within incarnation. In other words, creation occurs to make incarnation possible. Creation really is about God celebrating Godself. Creation is God’s gift to Godself. The cosmos is just the means by which God creatively expresses himself to himself for his own enjoyment. One might conclude that we humans are an afterthought, and in a qualified sense, yes, that’s exactly right…

I noticed no integration of Scripture in that post. That was an oversight, for at the time my thought was on 1Cor 15.22-28:

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all. (emphasis mine)

What is the end or telos of creation? God’s being “all in all.” This is achieved through Christ surrendering the Kingdom to the Father. So the entire redemptive economy ends with an intra-trinitarian gift – i.e., Christ giving the Kingdom (all of redeemed creation) to the Father. Eschatology and protology are a single revelation; the end reveals the beginning. If Christ’s giving fulfilled creation (which includes giving his own humanity as Incarnate) is the end, then that is what it was intended for from its beginning. And so, creation is intra-trinitarian gift.

Have a nice day thinking about it: You are God’s gift to himself.

A sacrifice to end all sacrifice

sac1I’ve tapped into Mark Heim’s wonderful book Saved from Sacrifice previously (here, here, here, here, and here) as an example of a nonviolent, nonsacrificial reading of the Cross. I appreciate Heim’s appropriation of Girard more than other Girardians doing theology because Heim doesn’t pretend that Girard is right about everything:

I do not think that Girard’s thought gives us the global truth about mythology, ancient religion, human psychology, and community that its more extreme devotees maintain. Likewise, I agree that if taken as an exclusive account of Christian theology or even as an exhaustive account of the cross, Girard’s writing can be faulted for tending toward the impression that all that is needed in Christ’s work is a particularly dramatic demonstration of a truth we need to learn, as opposed to a divine act by whose power we are transformed.

Heim notes George Hunsinger’s criticism that Girard offers an “essentially ‘Pelagian’ solution to an inherently ‘Augustinian’ problem.” It’s a mistake to think that if we just had more “information” we can right ourselves. But this criticism doesn’t stick to Girard. When Girard talks about the necessity of Christ as a “model” to follow, he doesn’t deny that transforming one’s life requires the presence of divine grace, the actual presence of the model, in this case Christ, within one’s life as the animating power of his example. Heim notes that Girard’s latter work especially avoids Hunsinger’s criticism, recalling Girard’s own statement:

There is an anthropological dimension to the text of the Gospels. I have never claimed that it constituted the whole of Christian revelation. But without it, Christianity could scarcely be truly itself, and would be incoherent in areas where it need not be. To lose this dimension is to lose an essential aspect of the very humanity of Christ, of the incarnation. We would not see clearly in Christ a victim of people such as we all are, and we would be in danger of relapsing into the religion of persecution.

My own sense is that the transformation we require is about ‘information’, but only in the sense that “the truth shall set you free” itself involves information. When the ‘information’ is the ‘truth’ about God, ourselves, the lies that enslave us, etc., then it’s a mistake to divorce grace from the freedom that truth brings. What’s the information in this case? That God is in reality incarnate, that he suffers on our behalf, that the risen Christ dwells in the human heart and makes Christ present, etc. The information relays the truth of saving events undertaken by God himself. Recall that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.”

So to complain that the “particularly dramatic demonstration of truth” is just information and not grace is to fail to appreciate how revealed truth is welcomed by the human heart and appropriated in relational and transformational ways. That’s a work of grace, and it’s no denial of grace, Heim notes, to point out that there is an “empirical level on which the cross illuminates and affects human history, a level that can be grasped rationally and is not a matter of subjective belief.” That Christ is innocent and that he exposes the mythology behind sacred violence is indeed a bit of ‘information’ one can perceive without the regenerating work of grace in one’s life. However, to perceive that ‘God’ is the victim in this case, and that he suffers in love, and that this victim rose from the dead and extends forgiveness to all – these are not obviously perceivable on an empirical level. They represent an objective work of grace that transforms the human heart. There’s no denial of grace inherent to the application of Girard’s insights to our reading of the gospel.

sac5Each time I return to Heim’s book I leave it thinking that it’s the best reading of Scripture in light of Girard’s insights that there is. In this post I’d like to share a portion of it where Heim summarizes a nonsacrificial reading of the Cross as we find it expounded upon by the author of the book of Hebrews. Hebrews, after all, is the real testing ground for Girardian apprpriations. Girard himself admitted to having mistakenly dismissed Hebrews as a sacrificial reading of the Cross that essentially betrays the gospel by reducing it to being an instance of sacred violence. He confessed this was a mistake and that Hebrews (and sacrificial language itself) can in fact be read as compatible with his views. It’s a challenge to do with Hebrews. Here’s what Heim has to say about it.

____________________________

Sacrifice to End Sacrifice
We will take one more example. If there is one book in the New Testament that appears to prove our approach wrong, it is the Letter to the Hebrews. The book’s single overpowering theme is the importance of Jesus’ death as a sacrificial offering. The writer understands that death through detailed parallels with the practice of temple sacrifice in Jerusalem. The benefits of Christ’s death are exalted. His blood establishes a new covenant and is the foundation of our salvation. The whole history of sacrifice is reinforced in the cross, and the importance of the cross is that it is a supersacrifice.

But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tend (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! (Heb. 9:11-14)

This seems clear enough. Killing birds and goats and bulls may get you some benefits. Killing the Son of God will get you infinitely greater benefits. There is nothing antisacrificial about this. Rather than attacking the history of such rituals in Israel, the writer accepts it. “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (9:22)

Stephen and Paul look back through Israel’s history and draw a line to Jesus through the voices of scapegoats and victims, through the persecuted prophets and their words against sacrifice. The writer of Hebrews draws a line to Jesus through all of Israel’s prior sacrificial practices. These are quite different approaches. It is striking, then, that they reach the same conclusion: Christ has ended sacrifice. The one approach emphasizes that the cross has revealed what was always wrong with sacred violence. The other emphasizes that Christ’s sacrifice is better than all the others. It is the only truly effective offering and accomplishes what all the other never could. But these are not really opposed to each other. They are more like two sides of the same thing.

This is reflected in the ways the writer in Hebrews puts a finger on the particular things that were imperfect in prior sacrifice. “For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he wold have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age ot remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:24-26, emphasis mine).

These verses make a very explicit contrast between Christ’s death and a pattern that is not being followed. That pattern is illustrated in the action of the high priest who offers victims again and again. This offering, the text underlines, is made with blood that is not his own. If Jesus’ sacrifice were to be like that, he would have had to suffer again and again, since the foundation of the world. And, presumably, Jesus and other victims would have to go on suffering. What we have here is a capsule summary of the nature of sacrificial violence, presented as exactly what Jesus’ death is not about. Christ’s sacrifice is presented as the opposite and in fact the end of that dynamic. His sacrifice is meant to stop it. Christ, our high priest, has offered the one needful sacrifice and makes intercession in heaven for us. No further earthly sacrifice is expected, accepted, or even possible. Jesus, on the cross, speaks the one word that otherwise can never be said of sacrifice: “It is finished.” What sacrifice is always being repeated to achieve has actually been accomplished.

The writer accepts the past history of sacrifice in a highly qualified way. It was an imperfect response to an insoluble problem. “Thus it was necessary for the sketches of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves need better sacrifices than these.” (9:23) They could never succeed; “otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year” (10:2-3).

So the writer of Hebrews, this advocate of a sacrificial understanding of the cross, adopts some of the strongest antisacrificial language from the tradition.

For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, / but a body you have prepared for me; / in burnt offers and sin offerings / you have taken no pleasure. / Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ / (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:4-10, quoting Ps. 40).

These quotations from the Psalms and Isaiah are placed in Christ’s mouth. Christ has come to do God’s will, a will that does not take pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings. He has come to establish God’s will by abolishing such sacrifices, through the offering of his body, once for all.

sac4Christ’s death is completely unique. Strictly speaking, it cannot be imitated, and any purposeful repetition of it would go directly counter to the entire logic of the book of Hebrews. To think of doing it again would be certain proof you had no idea what you were talking about. The mythic pattern is an implicit formula that programs us to repeat the sacrifice with each new act of sacrifice generating the effective power. The New Testament, even in its most sacrificial terminology, reverses this relation by calling believers to constant recollection of Jesus as the one unjustly sacrificed, the one vindicated by God, the one who takes no retribution. The victim is remembered, and the explicit representation of his suffering is a caution against any repetition.

The writer of Hebrews declares that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant, based in “the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb. 12:24). Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice. Christ’s death speaks a different, better word than this. In the final chapter we are given one last extended image from the practice of sacrifice.

For the bodies of those animals whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest as a sacrifice for sin are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify the people by his own blood. Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come. Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (13:11-16)

If there is abuse to be suffered for standing with Jesus, it should be borne. But there is to be no more sacrifice…or only sacrifice of a different type, the sacrifice of praise, of doing good, and sharing what you have.

The book of Hebrews turns sacrifice inside out. Rather than deny ritual sacrifice any effect (for it has a very real effect) or reject all its practices in the past, this writer presses a koan-like conclusion. If you believe in sacrifice, then you can’t practice it anymore, because it has been done completely, perfectly, once for all. This was the sacrifice to end sacrifice. Hebrews is rife with the language of liturgy and ritual, but its premise is the very opposite of what ritual presumes: not repetition but finality.

Both Paul and the writer of Hebrews use sacrificial language as their primary medium to interpret Jesus’ death. In Hebrews this death is seen as a “perfect” sacrifice. While some validity is implicitly presumed for the sacrificial models that provide this analogy to apply to the cross, those models are rendered inoperative by the finality and completeness of this event. Sacrifice is ended by a culmination, we might say. For Paul the death of Christ is case also in sacrificial language but not so much as a culmination of past models. Instead Paul stresses the different mechanism operative in this event – the appropriation of God’s mercy through faith in the one unjustly sacrificed. That is, Paul casts the event against similarities in Jewish tradition, emphasizing that this takes place “apart from the law.” Although these two texts have contrasting tenors, then point to the same reality.

_____________________

sac2

I’m suspicious of Heim’s final paragraph there – of the notion that the use of sacrificial language implies a certain validity to the sacrificial models which are the source of the language. I understand Heim to argue the inherent invalidity of sacred violence, so I’m unsure what he means here. It’s not enough simply to say Israel’s sacrificial economy “culminates” in the Cross, for this is consistent with contradictory claims about the very nature of that economy and the nature of God. On the one view, this economy culminates in Christ in the sense that it finally succeeds because it finds ‘the right victim’ – Jesus. On the other view, it culminates by finally failing when Jesus submits himself to its terms and logic. In the former sense, sacrificial logic is fundamentally valid. In the latter sense it is proved fatally flawed because Jesus will not conform to its economy. Even if one takes the former view that Israel’s sacrificial economy is valid in the sense of being ordained by God to model spiritual truths that Jesus finally perfects, one still concedes that economy has passed away, and this is not enough. This kind of culmination is what we’re arguing against, for it matters a great deal if such fulfillment represents the truth about the kind of God we go on worshiping after the fact.

Heim’s suggestion that we have two different lines of approach or perspective (Paul and Hebrews) within which the Passion is narrated and which both end up at the same place (Christ ends all sacrificial economies) is fine so long as one perspective is recognized as true and one as false. That is, contrasting lines of approach can come together in a single person, Christ, such that we have not, as David Hart says, “a” sacrifice with Jesus but “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” So Paul may represent the failure of Israel’s sacrificial economy “apart from the law,” from God’s perspective one might say. Hebrews, on the other hand, views the failure of that same sacrificial economy from within that economy, presenting its abolishing within the language of its own terms and expectations. In Hebrews readers are led on a tour of sacred violence from within that sacrificial order. Sometimes the author re-presents this opposing order so matter-of-factly one might conclude he approves of it as something God requires and ordains. But as the tour proceeds, one sees that the very order one is viewing from the inside is contrary to God’s will and pleasure (Heb 10.4-10).

In my own tradition (Evangelical), Hebrews was (mis)read as making God out to be the patron and proprietor of Israel’s sacrificial economy and Jesus its finest and supreme instantiation. So the OT sacrificial system was entirely “valid.” It passed away because in Jesus it finally found ‘just the right sacrifice’ and so finally worked. Heim (and behind him Girard) argues a contrary view, namely, that Israel’s sacrificial economy passed away because in sacrificing Jesus it finally makes explicit its inherent failure. Heim writes:

Christ died for us. He did so first in the mythic, sacrificial sense that all scapegoated victims do, discharging the community’s conflicts in collective violence. Jesus also dies in our place, because it is literally true that any one of us, in the right circumstances, can be the scapegoat. That we know these things is already a sign that he died for us in a second sense, to save us from that very sin. As the letter to the Hebrews argues, Christ is a sacrifice to end sacrifice, who has died once for all. By mapping the crucifixion against the yearly sacrificial ritual of atonement for sin at the temple, Hebrews makes the stereoscopic view as plain as possible. With the parallel in view, it emphasizes what is different about Jesus’ death. It is not to take place year after year. It is not to conform to the pattern of suffering “from the foundation of the world.” The writer underlines the fact that the former reconciling ritual was always performed by one with “blood that is not his own.” But Jesus has offered his own, so that there should be no more of others’.