A good pollution

scapegoatI’ve been reading Catholic/Orthodox theologians for a while, but I’ve been reading them exclusively for a couple of years now. I may have tapped into a very few Protestants here are there during this time (Dallas Willard, James Loder, N. T. Wright, Robert Jenson) but not at any length, and the ones I just named are exceptions to what I typically find in Protestants of the standard, American Evangelical genre. If that seems unfair, it’s not because I’m being dishonest. That’s just been my experience. Last month I picked up a book by an American Evangelical (PhD, theologian, never mind who). He was writing on the Trinity. I fell asleep. I kid you not. It was in the middle of the day and I was not deprived of sleep the night before, and he was writing about the Trinity of all things. What’s not to like? I couldn’t keep my eyes open.

I’ve given up on Evangelical theologians by and large. But I’m happy to say that Evangelical Mark Heim’s book Saved from Sacrifice (outlined in the previous post) is a wonderful exception. When I picked it up I thought I’d race through the preface and conclusion, get the basic thrust of his (Girardian) thesis (which I already share as far as I’ve explored it), and launch into something else. Not this time. This is a slow and careful read from beginning to end. I already shared a portion from the preface that outlines the book. Here is another thoughtful and provocative section (under the subtitle of “Creation and Murder”) from chapter three:

The Genesis creation accounts are a striking exception to the prevalence of violence in the Bible. In comparison with the founding and creation myths of most traditions, no acts of expulsion, battle, or bloodshed are essential for creating the world. The text reflects clear awareness of myths of this type – Marduk’s slaying of the great water goddess Tiamat in the Babylonian creation story, for instance. But instead God moves over the face of the watery chaos and speaks through it to bring the universe into being. The world is not founded on violence or the expulsion of a cosmic scapegoat. Girard suggested that our social world is historically founded on human forms of sacrifice, and that myths of origin often misrepresent that fact by veiling it in symbols or transposing it into mythic space. At this crucial point the Bible insists that the true origin is a nonviolent one. And ontology of peace is more fundamental than the reality of conflict.

In almost the next breath, however, Adam and Eve fall away from the preconditions of peace and Genesis presents another story, the story of Cain and Abel. Here we do have a story of violent origins. But it is plainly a secondary story. The ultimate, divine origin was a peaceful one. In Cain and Abel we meet not the original sin, but the first murder: the original social sin. This is a story of the human origins of violence, and one told in concrete antimythical terms. One man kills another, in a field, for motives of rivalry and jealousy that are in some obscure way connected to their sacrificial practices (God “had regard” for Abel’s offering from his flock, but “had no regard” for Cain’s offering from his fields).

Cain is angry at what he sees as God’s preference for Abel, and commits murder. There is, famously, no explicitly explanation for the success of Abel’s offering and the failure of Cain’s, but interpreters have supplied them without end. God prefers herders with their animal offerings to farmers with their vegetable offerings. Blood sacrifice is the only effective kind. In any event, Cain is cautioned by God that in his anger sin is lying close at hand, but he must overcome it. Instead, he kills Abel. One simple way to read this story is that a successful sacrifice does not lead you to kill your brother, and an unsuccessful one does.

This “fall” of Adam and Eve addresses why we humans need sacrifice. Our capacities for deep empathy with each other are twisted to construct intentions and instigate conflict of a sort that did not exist before. The story of Cain and Abel reflects the fact that sacrifice is not the source of creation (as in some myths of origin) but is a strategy to deal with a fallen creation. And the story encapsulates the true nature of sacrifice, in which violence fends off violence. Abel’s bloody sacrifice does so. Cain’s nonbloody offering (despite God’s caution) does not. God is an enigmatic figure in this story. God says to Cain, who perceives that his sacrifice is unsatisfactory, “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” Does God mean that Cain should sacrifice animals like Abel and then things would be all right, but in the meantime he should take care not to fall into murder? Or does God mean that if Cain resists falling into violence his offering will be acceptable, but if he continues to view the situation as one of rivalry with Abel for God’s favor, then he risks falling into murder?

The story of Abraham and Isaac suggests that animal sacrifice arises as a way of backing off from human sacrifice. This text suggests something strikingly different. It pictures a time after sin had entered but when there was a kind of testing whether it might be restrained effectively with animal sacrifice or even with the more limited offering from the field, before it led to any murder at all. And it is in the train of this failed experiment that the full weight of sacred violence descends. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground. Confronted by God, and sentenced to be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth, Cain raises the specter of reciprocal violence (“whoever finds me will slay me”). God places a mark of protection on Cain, promising that if anyone kills him God will take vengeance against that person sevenfold – deterring killing with the threat of more killing. Abel’s murder becomes the occasion for a law against murder, whose prescribed punishment is multiple murder in return.

Cain goes on to build a city and to found civilization. The rest of the story is told only in the genealogy of his children and the occupations they invented, except for a brief song from his descendant Lamech: “I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Gen. 4:23-24 RSV). There could hardly be a clearer expression of progression from one murder to unlimited blood revenge. Death now is returned not for death but for a blow. With this hair trigger of escalating retaliation, society spirals quickly into such unbridled violence that God regrets the creation of humanity and contemplates the destruction of the entire world. We go quickly from Cain and Abel to Noah and the flood.

No one would suggest that Cain is a hero of the Bible and a model to believers. His story launches an acute diagnosis of the particular human evil we are concerned with. It unveils what myth hides. Rival brothers appear frequently in mythology. A well-known example would be the story of the brothers Romulus and Remus and the origins of the city of Rome. Romulus kills Remus for not respecting the boundaries he has set out for the new city. This is the founding event, looked back on in later Roman tradition not as a crime but as a sacred beginning. Romulus’s action is approved, and the account lacks entirely the supervening framework of condemnation and horror provided by God’s confrontation with Cain. The Bible looks back to Cain and Abel as a point at which things all went dramatically wrong, following on the original fall in the garden. The Romulus example demonstrates that we should not take it for granted that stories of a “first murder” would naturally have such a flavor. They were more likely to be seen as part of how things went right.

There is no foundational violence in God or God’s creation of the world. But the biblical God is quickly implicated in killing. In fact, the story of Cain and Abel beings a short, vivid portion of scripture in which God is caught up in the intensive spiral of violence at the end of which God destroys the entire world (save Noah and his ark) by flood. The explanation given for this is, “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Just as Cain’s descendants escalate their levels of retribution, God is recruited into this dynamic. God breaks out in violence…against violence. From Cain and Abel the world has spiraled into a relentless reciprocal destruction. The response is a massive attempt to drive out violence by violence, and attempt God then declares will never be repeated. The rainbow marks this unilateral covenant promise. To put it baldly, God too became subject to this disease, or was forced to violent judgment by it. By the end of the tenth chapter of Genesis, one response to the problem of human violence – greater and greater violence – has been tried both by humans and by God, and found wanting.

God is prompted to the rainbow promise when Noah sacrifices some animals as a burnt offering. “And when the Lord smelled the pleasing odor, the Lord said in his heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind…’” (Gen. 8:21). Human life is restored, and ritual blood sacrifice is at the center. It is the occasion for God to forswear manifold retribution against humanity. And in fact, God gives a new law: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed” (Gen. 9:6). This is a dramatic de-escalation of the sevenfold vengeance promised before. The act of sacrifice is associated with the restriction of runaway divine and human violence, with its limitation to a strict equal exchange.

What is striking about this is how sharply the opening verses of the Bible outline the fundamental human problem of violence. In the train of the first murder, the remedy of escalating revenge is tried (by humans and by God). This leads to total destruction. Then God and humanity begin again, with new limitations on the extent of both human and divine retaliation, a dispensation marked by Noah’s blood offerings. In some way these are substitutions for the now-forbidden violence. Humanity is given clear permission to sacrifice and eat animal (though not their blood). Perhaps this too is some kind of compensation. From a world of whole-sale violence we have entered the realm of proportioned violence, the realm of sacrifice. Though the problem of violence originates with humans, the response to it implicates both God and humanity. Caught up in a mimetic rivalry they attribute to God, humans then conceive God as the mirror imagine of their own escalating conflict. This chapter of the story ends with God destroying a world given over to violence. Then God appears as an enforcer of prohibitions to avoid the escalation of violence and a power who underwrites sacrifice to defuse it. If we are to judge from the Bible’s own plot, none of these representations gives a full or adequate characterization of God’s true nature. But they do tell fundamental truths about the human condition and our relation with God. Without such pictures, it is hard to see how we could grasp our situation, even if the full biblical story makes clear that we cannot stop with them.

A few chapters later we move from God’s destruction of an entire violence-ridden world, with only a tiny remnant saved, to Abraham’s intercessory argument with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:22-33). Now God agrees that if only ten righteous ones can be found in the city, all its guilty inhabitants will be spared. In contrast with the idea that the guilt of a few can contaminate and pollute an entire community and bring divine destruction on it (a classic scapegoating assumption), an alternative idea is introduced suggesting a positive contagion, a good pollution, in which the virtues of a minority can save a corrupt community.

I imagine some readers are scratching their heads wondering how contrary descriptions of God in the Bible can combine to give us a single, trustworthy character. As Heim himself says in this same chapter, such apparent inconsistencies are “often counted against the idea that the Bible contains revealed truth about God.” He enlarges on this point:

One (conventionally liberal) approach to biblical authority may find in scripture pearls of truth and revelation set amid errors and misapprehensions that never should have had a place there to begin with. Another (more conventionally conservative) approach may find the truth binding on us set amid inspired commandments that were God’s providential truth to their time but obsolete in ours. It falls somewhere between the two to suppose that there are portions of scripture that may have continuing revelatory content, though what they present is not something to be emulated or endorsed. The Bible, the faith that it expresses, and the God that it describes are all entangled in the dynamics of mythical sacrifice. To assume otherwise would suppose an absolute discontinuity to revelation, a truth dropped with no key to its context. If our human religious history has the qualities we have suggested, an alternative to the violent sacred could only be posed as an argument about God. And it must make reference to the only kind of god sacred violence knows, a sacrificial one. The Bible is engaged in a struggle over the sacred. It is a struggle waged in the substance of the texts themselves. (Link mine)

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One comment on “A good pollution

  1. pvcann says:

    I haven’t got to this book by Heim yet, several friends have recommended it. Your piece has spurred me on.

    Like

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