It’s not about sacrifice


Certainly the Passion is presented to us in the Gospels as an act that brings salvation to humanity. But it is in no way presented as a sacrifice.

If you have followed my argument up to this point, you will already realize that from our particular perspective the sacrificial interpretation of the Passion must be criticized and exposed as a most enormous and paradoxical misunderstanding – and at the same time as something necessary – and as the most revealing indication of mankind’s radical incapacity to understand its own violence, even when that violence is conveyed in the most explicit fashion.

Of all the reappraisals we must make in the course of these interviews, none is more important. It is no mere consequence of the anthropological perspective we have adopted. Our perspective is rooted in the Gospels themselves, in their own subversion of sacrifice, which restores the original text, disengaging the hypothesis of the scapegoat and enabling it to be transmitted to the human sciences.

I am not speaking of my own personal experience here. I am referring to something very much larger, to the framework of all the intellectual experiences that we are capable of having. Thanks to the sacrificial reading it has been possible for what we call Christendom to exist for fifteen or twenty centuries; that is to say, a culture has existed that is based, like all cultures (at least up to a certain point) on the mythological forms engendered by the founding mechanism.

Paradoxically, in the sacrificial reading the Christian text that explicitly reveals the founding mechanism to reestablish cultural forms which remain sacrificial and to engender a society that, by virtue of this misunderstanding, takes its place in the sequence of all other cultures, still clinging to the sacrificial vision that the Gospels reject.


Once again, we must judge the interpretation that is being developed by the results it will offer. By rejecting the sacrificial definition of the Passion, we arrive at a simpler, more direct, and more coherent reading, enabling us to integrate all the Gospel themes into a seamless totality…

If we can rid ourselves of the vestiges of the sacrificial mentality that soil and darken the recesses of our minds, we shall see that we now have all the elements [at] hand for understanding that the death of Jesus takes place for reasons that have nothing to do with sacrifice.


Men killed Jesus because they were not capable of becoming reconciled without killing. But by this stage, even the death of the just no longer had the power to reconcile them. Hence they are exposed to a limitless violence that they themselves have brought about and that has nothing to do with the anger or vengeance of any god.

When Jesus says: “Your will be done and not mind,” it is really a question of dying. But it is not a question of showing obedience to an incomprehensible demand for sacrifice. Jesus has to die because continuing the live would mean a compromise with violence. I will be told that “it comes to the same thing.” But it does not at all come to the same thing. In the usual writings on the subject, the death of Jesus derives, in the final analysis, from God and not from men – which is why the enemies of Christianity can use the argument that it belongs within the same schema as all the other primitive religions.

Rene Girard in The Rene Girard Reader (ed. James G. Williams, 1996)

Crucifixion of the Warrior God: Pre-review


It’s out. Ten years of research and too many manic all-nighters to count. Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG) is out and folks are diving in. I finished it this past weekend. I suspect the reviews will begin lighting up blogs. But if producing thoughtful responses was like making coffee, I’d be a ‘percolator’ as opposed to an ‘espresso machine’. I need to let things simmer and then let a response grow up around what strike me as the key points. Derek Flood is going to blog his way through as he reads. Should be fun. There are a couple of summaries out there already. Lord knows Greg himself has blogged and talked about it plenty over the past ten years. So the final arrival of CWG is a bit like the birth of a baby we’ve all gotten to watch gestate in vitro through videos and sonograms. Still, it’s only a labor of love that got it finished and delivered. So congrats again to Greg.

I know Greg would want CWG to receive careful, thoughtful and passionate reviews. He would want to see this come up against the best arguments against it. So I hope all you doctors of theology out there bring your best game. I’m a hack, but I plan on reviewing CWG as best I can. But like I said, it’ll take me some time to percolate. In the meantime, however, there are a few initial things I’d like to share, not as a review (I’m not there yet), but as a pre-review – just to express where I was when I closed vol. 2.

First, to those intimidated by the length (2 vols, 1,400+ pages). If you take off 350 pages of appendices, index, and bibliography, you’re only talking a bit more than 1,000 pages. And with tons of footnotes (thanks to Paul Eddy I’m sure) taking on average 1/3 of each page, you’re really talking just over 700 pages to read. Not bad. Obviously, I’m not saying the footnotes are pointless. Anything but. I’m just saying you can get through a first reading more quickly than you think. Don’t be intimidated by two heavy volumes and 1,400 pages.

Second, if you are already on board with the belief that “God is love” is a predicate of God, that it describes God’s essential, triune being, and that divine love is truly non-violent, then you may not need Parts 1 and 2 of vol. 1. These parts are good and have a lot of great stuff in them, but they’re designed to get people “on board” with the idea that “God is love” means God is non-violent love. If folks have any doubt about the extent and depth of violence in the OT (what CWG is all about), they need to read Ch 7 (a kind of crime scene investigation of God’s bloody behavior in the OT) and ponder that slowly so they appreciate the problem. Chs 8 and 9 outline two standard responses to this violence. Folks who aren’t already familiar with these standard approaches will want to see how their explanations of biblical violence resemble existing models.

Third, I didn’t agree carte blanche with Parts 1 and 2, partly because so much of where Greg ends up is in Parts 1 and 2. This was one of the things that frustrated me about this work. But I was already on board with the conviction that God is love and God doesn’t do violence to creation. So all I needed from vol. 1 I got in Part 3 (Chs 10-12, just 140 pages) which is the nuts and bolts of the Cruciform Hermeneutic. Similarly for vol. 2, I felt like Part 5 (what he does Christologically/Trinity-wise to ground his Principle of Redemptive Withdrawal) was the key. If he’s right on this, the rest is dominoes. If he’s wrong – well, then only others who disagree will know it, because after ten years of his working on this, I can’t imagine there’s any dissuading Greg at this point. Part VI’s Cosmic Conflict is a hard sell – not because nobody grants the reality of spiritual warfare, but because Greg insists on formulating it in terms that make Satan into a functional demiurge ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’.

DisputationFourth, I said to myself repeatedly while reading through this, “There’s nothing new here.” That’s not a criticism by the way. Greg admits several times in the book that there’s nothing really new going on. There’s just a new application or appropriation of what’s been said by others to the question of divine violence. As Chs 8 and 9 also show, attempts to address that violence aren’t new either. Christians have been trying to put some distance between God and OT violence for a long time. So there isn’t anything new in the basic beliefs that create the conundrum for Greg, i.e., that God is non-violent love (on the one hand) and (on the other hand) the texts that attribute so much violence to God are this non-violent God’s inspired words. The truth of these two convictions creates his conundrum. But how Greg resolves that tension is definitely new. He doesn’t want to dump the OT and line up with liberals and Marcionites. But he also doesn’t want simply to allegorize them either. He wants to take these violent passages as ‘pointing’ (non-allegorically) to the non-violent God of love. What to do? That’s what CWG is about. My favorite part of vol. 1 was Ch 10’s section on Origen. Very interesting.

As Greg got into the most objectionable aspects of his theology (his kenoticism, the idea that the Father abandoning the Son ad intra/essentially so that the divine nature comes to be defined by godforsakenness, his quasi-penal substitutionary view of the cross), I also thought to myself that none of this is new. Then it dawned on me that what might be the unique virtue of this book is not any particular belief in it (this or that belief any number of people can agree or disagree with), but its place in the history of Evangelical theological thought as being where all these various streams of belief within Evangelical thought finally converge to form their most definitive picture of God. There have always been kenoticists in Evangelicalism. There have always been Evangelicals who affirm the non-violent love of God. There have always been Evangelicals who knew God wasn’t really doing all that violence the Bible ascribes to God. But it might be the unique accomplishment of Greg to have brought all these divergent thoughts together within the embrace of Kenotic Christology (for what it’s worth theologically – which is nothing, but never mind that for now) to its fullest, most consistent Evangelical expression.

Fifth, it’s true of my conversations with Greg that I always come away better and truly challenged to assess what I believe and why I believe it. So as deeply as I disagree with him on some of his fundamental convictions, I do come away learning something new and pushed to think through my own convictions afresh.

Sixth, in general the most frustrating thing about Greg’s arguments is his tendency to not discriminate between beliefs or aspects of a position that are essential to that position and those that aren’t when arguing why a position should be rejected. Examples will have to wait for a fuller review.

Seventh, one particular weakness of the book that I think leaves it basically incomplete is the complete absence of any definition of violence. That struck me as very odd. One might suppose it’s safe to take that definition for granted. Don’t we all instinctively know what ‘violence’ is? Not really, no. When you’re publishing a major hermeneutical/theological work on the nature of God and violence, it would help to define ‘violence’ (theologically speaking). I wonder if this absence opens up Greg’s thesis to unhelpful ambiguities.

Eighth, five pages to Rene Girard. Really? The man who has done more than anyone in the last 100 years to expose the violent tendencies at work in Christian thinking and argue a truly non-violent vision of God and atonement, gets five pages out of 1,400? I was extremely surprised. When I get around to a full review, I’ll explain why I think Girard finally proves not to be an ally to Greg in this project. Nor surprisingly, it has to do with Christology.

Ninth, another particular thing that concerned me (and this won’t concern anyone who isn’t already familiar with Greg’s published PhD dissertation Trinity and Process) was his repeated favorable referencing (in the footnotes to both vols) of Trinity and Process (TP). At different points Greg refers to TP’s claims that God doesn’t need the world, that God creates freely, or that God is essentially triune without the world (all true) when reassuring readers, for example, that his belief that the Father truly abandons/forsakes the Son (ad intra) doesn’t mean he’s unorthodox on the question God’s being essentially, unchangingly, triune. God only ceases to “experience” himself as triune, loving oneness, but he doesn’t cease to “be” unchangeably triune. (An impossible view of uncreated, necessary being, but where else is Greg going to go on this?)

TP is a wonderful philosophical work on God’s essential (triune) relatedness. But it’s not TP’s overall claims (e.g., ‘God is necessarily-essentially triune’) that can help Greg presently. Nobody wanting to remain remotely within the scope of orthodox Christianity is going to say God takes a break from being essentially triune. So yes, Greg says the right thing: “God is essentially triune and that can’t change.” The issue is that it’s TP’s arguments for why and how God is essentially triune that make problematic Greg’s calling TP to the witness stand on behalf of CWG. Why? Because when you appeal to a work in support of arguments you’re making, you reference that work’s arguments, and the arguments Greg makes in TP for what it is about God that makes him essentially triune are arguments Greg no longer believes. Some of us have read TP and we’ve talked about it here, and the idea that ‘godforsakenness’ should define God’s essential experience of himself contradicts the core understanding of the unity of God’s uncreated being as Greg argues it in TP. So when I see Greg referencing TP to support arguments he was making which contradict TP, I’m concerned.

These are a few of the initial thoughts I had as I closed vol. 2. Other opinions are still forming that a second reading will help me clarify, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Greg is as passionate and motivated a thinker as any you’ll ever know, and that the finality of God’s revelation of himself in Christ is the defining center of that passion and motivation. And there’s no faulting him there. How he fills that out with what he thinks God’s being love implies is a different matter.

Congrats Greg! You’re wrong, but congrats!

The wrong paradox


Permit me one final quote from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. I heartily recommend this book to you. Coupled with other Girard resources I’ve been looking at, this Lent/Easter season is turning into a kind of second conversion to Christianity for me. I quite serious, but more on that later. I’d like to close out looking at Mark Heim’s book with a quote from chapter ten in which he summarizes the various arguments he’s been making. In this passage he brings a non-sacrificial (Girardian) reading of the Cross into conversation with the standard sacrificial reading among Christians.

At a later time when I get around to reviewing Greg Boyd’s new work Crucifixion of the Warrior God (2 vols), Girard will figure significantly into my assessment. In the end, in spite of Greg’s desire to establish a non-violent (non-sacrifical|non penal-substitionary) reading of the Cross, all goes well until he insists that the Father himself must abandon his Son who has become sin and that Jesus must suffer the punishment we deserve (Godforsakenness). This is essentially a sacrificial reading of the Cross. As Heim describes Anselm’s view, the parallels to Greg are clear. One need only adjust a few terms (Heim’s “blow” which the Father “strikes” Jesus with to Greg’s “withdrawal”) to accommodate Heim’s critique of Anselm to Boyd’s theory of the Father’s visiting upon the Son the Godforsakenness we deserve. The logic between the two is the same.

Often opponents of the penal substitutionary view of the atonement summarize what they dislike about this view in terms of its making God “bloodthirsty,” picturing the Father wanting his “pound of flesh” or needing “more blood,” of Jesus “saving us from the Father,” or the Father’s feeling for Jesus the hatred he has for sin. But as Heim’s passage here shows, these extreme claims can be rejected while leaving one essentially within the grip of their sacrificial-scapegoating logic. Heim writes:

22879What I have tried to say in this book is that there is a concrete rescue in the cross. There is the rescue and vindication of a victim of scapegoating sacrifice, and more broadly, there is a rescue of all of us from the thoughtless bondage to that violent way of maintaining peace and unity. This is a saving transaction, in which God is willing to be subjected to our persecution in order to deprive it of future victims and end its power. That is the simple rescue, on which the other meanings of the cross are built.

Critics of atonement theology see in the account of Jesus’ death no literal redemptive example. And in a sense they are exactly right, for the Gospels themselves make this point. They dramatically emphasize that the crucifixion is wrong. The Gospel presentations stress that it is an evil act, and make no effort to soften that fact. As critics see it, the theology of the cross seems to suppose that the heavenly value of Jesus’ death increases in direct proportions to tis failure to do any earthly good. The cross does not present us with a parable of behavior that is admirable in some general sense. Rather than the concrete demonstration of a rescue, the passion narratives give us Jesus’ predictions of his death, an assurance that it will be offered for us. Critics do not find here any meaningful explanation of why that death would help. It is an “empty” death, and seems to invite or require the postulation of some hidden divine transaction to give it the meaning it lacks on the face of things

The Wrong Paradox
The classic penal substitutionary theology of atonement (we will take Anselm as its representative) constructs the terms of just such a hidden transaction. It posits a cosmic bargain that takes place on a plane quite distinct from the historical reality of the crucifixion. This mistaken move has decisive consequences. But before we explore those results in detail, we need to register the many authentic elements of the passion that Anselm incorporates in his vision. These are factors that account for the many positive effects that the teaching has had, despite its deep flaws. If the result is faulty, it is because the elements are misaligned, not because he starts with the wrong material.

In developing his theology Anselm fixes on a few details as crucial cues. Nearly all of them figure significantly also in the reading of the cross that I have been advocating. His doctrine of atonement builds around many of the key antimythical elements of the Gospels. He assumes, as scripture does, the injustice of the crucifixion, the falseness of the accusations, the innocence of the victim, and the uniqueness of the divine act that takes place in this event, separate from the intentions (explicit and implicit) of its human actors. On all these points Anselm is in line with the fundamental critique of historical sacrifice present in the Gospels. He stresses that it is not humans’ offering of someone else’s blood that is saving. That ancient human path is identified and condemned in the passion accounts. It is not the crowd’s thirst for Jesus’ blood, for a third party’s death, that saves us. It is God’s willingness to suffer in our place that is the unique and only transformative meaning for “sacrifice.” Anselm rejects any repetitive practice that exchanges some people’s suffering for others’ benefit…

Anselm clearly breaks with the foundational mythic scenario that assumes victims must be regularly offered to assure peace and harmony. He condemns that idea, because in his view this task can belong to only one person, the incarnate Word. All of Anselm’s arguments that are aimed to point up the human need for just such an extraordinary savior serve to make this point well. On the only point that matters, atonement for sin, human sacrifices are of no avail. They cannot redeem us. Our offering of others in sinful and in vain. Even our offering of ourselves, any self-immolation, would be equally futile. Like the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews, Anselm firmly grasps this point. Without Christ, no amount of self-sacrifice, no amount of innocent suffering offering in any way could save us. With Christ, not even the smallest increment from any others is needed.

imagesIn the wake of Christ, no innocent suffering can be propounded as required by God. Suffering may come. It may even be occasioned by obedience and faithfulness to God. But it has no role to play in “satisfying” God. That was done once for all. Insisting on the necessity of divine initiative and divine action for reconciliation, Anselm rejects the assumption that human action alone may be sufficient. One good reason to deny this assumption is that whenever it is granted it tends to lend support to the common human procedure for effective atonement – sacrifice and scapegoating. In these fundamental ways Anselm recognizes and affirms the antisacrificial trajectory of the passion narratives. It is the presence of all these elements in his theology that accounts for its many liberating as well as destructive effects. So, for instance, even a very sacrificial reading of the cross that treats Jesus as a divine scapegoat, often still powerfully deflects our tendency to cast our own guilt onto a human scapegoat, allowing it to be discharged instead by Christ. Those who have opposed sacred violence from within the Anselmian perspective have done so on the basis of these resources.

But the Anselmian view of the cross is defined by two major additional steps. The first is the decision to privilege legal images to represent the basic dynamic of “death for us.” Anselm senses the magnitude of God’s action in the cross. It is something unexpected, gracious, and of universal vicarious effect. It has the immense dimensions that earlier Christian writers often describe in the terms of a unique and final sacrifice. Anselm sought to define the scope of grace through a legal quantification of our moral debt and Christ’s merit.

The second step is to conflate this legal framework with a vision of divine justice that dictates God’s purposes in suffering death. If Christ steps in to intercept a blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasions by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general traditions). Anselm’s departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful and so God becomes the one to be punished on behalf of us all. God strikes the same blow that God protects us from.

In response to the criticisms of atonement in his day, which complained that only a weak or incompetent God would be compelled to go to the unseemly lengths of incarnation, and especially death by crucifixion, to redeem a wayward creation, Anselm explained the necessity of incarnation by focusing on the magnitude of the human offense, something only the infinite merit of God’s undeserved suffering could overbalance. The paradoxes of Anselm’s satisfaction theory attempt to reflect the paradox in the Gospels. The scriptural presentation of the crucifixion as both a bad thing and a good thing is translated to mean that the bad (undeserved) suffering of an innocent victim is finally a good thing, which it provides the merit to allow God to remit the punishment rightly due humanity. The debt to God can be paid only with what is not already owed. Jesus’ death can cover the bill because God’s justice cannot demand it, because it is so purely undeserved. The cross is necessary because it is not required. It works only because it is wrong. The wrongness is part of the solution.

This vision draws its power from points of genuine contact with the Gospel narratives of the cross. But it has gone badly astray, at a point where even a small difference can do great harm. The wrongful suffering Jesus is subjected to, the evil the passion is meant to end, becomes the essential good to be celebrated in it. The key error is to refer both the meaning and need of Jesus’ death to its character as an offering to God. What Anselm rejects at the level of human community, he re-creates at the level of community between God and humanity, a community whose reconciliation depends on the offering of an innocent victim. Most important, Anselm presents God as the one who requires this sacrifice and also as the one to whom it is offered.

Scapegoating is a human practice, and Anselm is clear that such a practice cannot solve our estrangement from God. But in his view God has taken over a human scapegoating sacrifice (the execution of Jesus) and turned it into a unique scapegoating sacrifice of unimaginable magnitude. God is doing what human sacrifice does, but on a much larger scale, and one time only. God has not stepped into the process to oppose it, but to perfect it. Sacrifice to end sacrifice is an accurate and biblical way to describe Jesus’ death, but it is an ambiguous and delicately poised idea. Anselm has taken it to mean that God does the same thing that human scapegoaters do, taking it to an ultimate extreme. Instead of God throwing a wrench into the gears of human sacrifice, Anselm’s God has endorsed that machinery, borrowing it to perform the biggest and most effective sacrifice of all. Jesus has become our all-purpose scapegoat, whose suffering generates an infinite reservoir of merit that, like his shed blood, can be dispensed through the sacraments.

These are fatal steps. Once these points become fixed, the dramatically deform the theology of the cross. To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God’s wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. In contrast, I have argued that the actual transaction at the cross is one in which God is handed over to our redemptive violence in order to liberate us from it, not the transaction between God’s left hand and right hand that Anselm pictures…

images (1)Anselm’s mistake is to make primary what is derivative. God did not become human only to die. And Christ did not die as he did to cancel an infinite of deserved punishment for humanity with the infinitely undeserved suffering of innocent divinity. The legal apparatus around the crucifixion is not there because God has a satisfaction case to prosecute and a punishment to enforce on humanity, but because the machinery of false accusation and political and religious legitimacy are part of the way sacred violence works. The death of Jesus follows the script of human persecution because that is the ongoing evil into whose path Jesus steps, to rescue us from sacrifice, to open the way to new community.

Anselm’s doctrine preserves paradox, but the wrong one. He has made the cross a celebration of the sacrifice it meant to overcome. We have seen in earlier chapters how two things are stereotypically overlaid in the passion narrative: a bare description of scapegoating sacrifice along with the rationale of its practitioners, and then a counterscript of criticism, rejection, and reversal of that practice. The second is the distinctive meaning of the cross. At a crucial point Anselm has crossed these wires and taken over part of the sacrificial rationale that was being rejected. In his vision there is a crisis of conflict that threatens to tear creation permanently apart. It is the conflict between humanity and God. Sin has put them at irreconcilable odds. The only way peace can be restored is for God and humanity to unite together in sacrificing an innocent victim. God, Judas, Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, Peter – all join in one unanimous crowd. This is straightforward sacrificial logic, borrowed from the script followed in the Gospels by those who kill Jesus. And Anselm has enlisted God on its side. But it is a logic the passion narratives subvert and the resurrection denies.

The obvious change Anselm must make when this sacrificial scenario migrates into his thought from the realm of mythical sacrifice is an inescapably Christian one. Given his commitment to scripture, the true nature of the sacrificial logic cannot remain invisible. It must be directly faced. In classical sacrifice the guilt of the scapegoat and the validity of the charges against him or her are assumed. The crowd celebrates the killing because they do not recognize any victim. Innocent suffering works to bring peace because it is invisible as such. For Anselm, since the Gospels have made the victim unavoidably visible, it is the acknowledged innocent suffering of the victim that becomes the hinge of the whole process. The effectiveness of Jesus’ death in reconciling us with God depends on our knowing full well that it is unjustified persecution. The Gospels pulled back the veil of unanimous accusation to show the hidden truth of sacrifice, the undeserved suffering of the innocent victim. What was revealed was what was wrong, and what must be changed. But Anselm insists that what we see behind the veil is right. God has become the proprietor of redemptive violence, and by that very act made it a good thing. This injustice becomes the whole purpose of the incarnation, and not one of the prime evils Christ came to defeat. Thus, at the last minute, things are turned backward. Rather than a strategic act of resistance to overthrow sacred violence, the cross becomes a divine endorsement of it. This is the missed connection, so close to the truth and yet so fatally far, that has tangled our thinking about substitutionary atonement.

Not what you suppose


Jesus’ Cry of Dereliction is shorthand for the entirety of Ps 22 for which it is the opening line. Psalm 22 is a scapegoat psalm about an innocent servant abandoned and persecuted by his contemporaries but not abandoned by God. For Christ to reference this particular psalm on the Cross is for him to say quite the opposite of what many take his cry, divorced from its context, to mean. Many see here evidence that the Son is in fact abandoned by the Father, that the crowds are right in believing God to have abandoned and forsaken him. For these, this abandonment of sacred scapegoating defines God to the nitty-gritty of triniarian deity itself, that God’s own experience of himself, his own trinitarian oneness, was shattered as God forsook God. Nothing in God was not defined by this separation.

This is theological madness, of course. Seen in its proper context (see Rikk Watts on the use of the Psalms in Mark’s gospel), Jesus’s cry says just the opposite. By calling upon Psalm 22, quite literally Jesus is declaring:

“I am not forsaken by God — as you all think! I have not been abandoned by God — as you all suppose. God will vindicate me, just like he did the innocent servant of Psalm 22! Wait and see.”

All Jesus needs to say in order to declare this is what he actually says, Psalm 22’s opening line. Resurrection proved Jesus right, of course. God is not on the side of the scapegoating crowd abandoning Jesus. That’s not the what the Cry is about. Where is the Father while Jesus is on the Cross? He is right where Jesus said he would be — “…with me.” (John 16.31-33). I only wish my own (evangelical) tribe believed it.

The happiest, most wonderful Resurrection Sunday to you all!

Hopelessly two-storied

C9BF6uFW0AAG1PnGreg Boyd had a Q&A at Woodland Hills this past Sunday evening (with Dennis Edwards and Bruxy Cavey) about his new (2 vol) work The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (CWG). I couldn’t make it, but Dwayne did. We’ll get around to specifics in a future review, but I wanted to share some thoughts on the Q&A since the opening portion of it is available on Youtube. Quite interesting. Greg has Bruxy and Dennis provide their own summary of what they think CWG is about, then Greg responds. Questions follow. I want to be clear up front that in spite of deep disagreements, Greg says many things that we agree with and the work he put into CWG reflects a deep passion to address the violent portrayals of God deeply entrenched in western Christianity. So I hope CWG gets reviewed widely.

Canadian pastor/author Bruxy Cavey begins with his own summary (or criticism?) of CWG. He appears to read (or criticize?) Greg in Girardian terms: God hands himself over to the false, violent views of others to expose that entire scapegoating economy as false and impotent and in doing so frees us from its violent assumptions. Thus the Cross is a demonstration of love in that God submits himself to our fallen structures to disarm them and free us. Bruxy gives several examples from Acts (beginning in ch 2) that make the point explicit. “You killed him,” Peter says to his fellow Jews, “but God (note the adversative) raised him from the dead.” (Cf. minute 8:30 to 9:00). “Where,” Bruxy asks, “does God enter the crucifixion narrative? At the resurrection.” “You” crucified him. “God” raised him. I like that. All the agony/torture, Bruxy says (minutes 10:00 to 10:30) is “our” doing. That’s how Bruxy reads things. I love what Bruxy says and sense he’s moving from and toward a position we can get with.

Were this what CWG is about, that would be very good news indeed. But it’s not what CWG is about. It’s contrary to Greg’s entire project. How so? Because Greg makes it clear that there is an agony that Christ suffers on the Cross – the only agony that does the real saving work – which is not due to anything people do to Jesus. On the contrary, it’s the one thing that only the Father can do, and that is to abandon/forsake his Son. For Greg, the Father is intimately involved in the crucifixion narrative (not just the resurrection) in a highly specific and saving way, namely, forsaking his Son, and it’s the suffering of this abandonment, Greg believes, that saves us, not suffering crucifixion per se. Lots of people were crucified.

In addition, there’s something Greg says re: God’s glory being “the distance God is willing to go” to “become his antithesis on our behalf.” He talks about God’s “going the distance” a lot. This strikes me as very two-storied. God’s over there. We’re down here. God’s got to get up and cross the distance that separates us and that means vacating his present location and occupying ours.

This seems hopelessly two-storied.

Maybe that’s where we differ. I think an essential aspect of a proper understanding of the Incarnation and the Cross is it being the case that “there is no distance,” and any perception of distance or separation is an illusion. It is what God is in himself, fully and actually triune, antecedent to the world (i.e., not defined by the world but defining the world’s very ground and being) but always already fully present in it, that dispels the illusions of separation that empower scapegoating and which fullness becomes the “beauty that glorifies” (Rom 8.18). God doesn’t have to “leave what he is” and “turn into something he’s not” (his “antithesis”) to travel the distance between God and a fallen creation. In the end, salvation doesn’t rest in God’s conforming to our fallen reality anyhow (God’s being defined essentially by alienation, separation, abandonment). It rests in our conforming to his reality. Incarnation is the ‘how’ of bringing creation into himself, yes, but there’s no “departure across a distance” for God in this (which is why Chalcedon is so important, but never mind that for now).

I get the feeling that Greg simply reduces how God saves to God’s being defined by the content of our fallen structures (which is precisely what Girard suggested isn’t the case). What Dwayne and I (and Orthodoxy as we understand it – could be wrong) take to be “illusions” (of distance, separation, abandonment, etc.), Greg sees as having independent reality. “Sin” is taken to be substantial and the triune relations must be defined by it (hence, the Father has to reject/forsake his own Logos who “becomes sin”) to secure our salvation. All this – i.e., Greg’s view – as opposed to God’s stepping into the circumstances (the victimization and abandonment of scapegoating) which we interpret as distance/separation from God in order to reveal that these interpretations are false and to demonstrate from within those same circumstances that God doesn’t abandon us, that there isn’t any ‘distance’ between us and God, and that nobody (not even God) needs to be ‘punished’ with God’s abandonment to secure our salvation. Penal substitution (even qualified the way Greg affirms it) is just Scapegoating 101 because it assumes God must ‘punish’ to save. So in the end, the ‘violence’ Greg wants to expose as unlike God and unnecessary to creation becomes necessary to God and creation in the worst kind of way.

(Part 2 of the Q&A)

Suffering servant

downloadOne more passage from Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. There are a dozen passages I’d like here to reproduce from this insightful book, but I’ll try to make this the final post and encourage you to acquire and read the book for yourself. In this section (from chapter three) Heim continues to trace the development of the theme of scapegoating in the Old Testament and how the Scriptures, though they are “thick with bodies [and] the voices of victims,” expose this economy of violence as bankrupt, even as that economy is adopted within and by Israel’s worship of God (also to be judged in light of the Cross). At times scapegoating is depicted from the perspective of the persecutors, those who employ scapegoating as a means of achieving and maintaining peace, while at other times that same process is described from the point of view of the scapegoat/victim. Heim’s section on Job is one example of scapegoating presented from the perspective of the victim who in Job’s case, argues Heim, is a failed sacrificial event. Here, however, I’d like to reproduce Heim’s treatment of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, which as we know was a source of understanding for the early Church’s understanding of the Cross.

For later Christians the revelation of persecuting sacrifice that is so deep in the Old Testament reaches a special climax in the “songs of the servant” in the book of Isaiah. Here in the figure of the suffering servant we find perhaps the single most prominent scriptural text for early Christian interpretation of the cross… [Heim’s here reproduces the fourth song, Isa. 52.13—53.12, which I’m omitting.]

These words are so familiar, and so freighted with tradition, that it is hard to hear them say anything new. But compare them with the description of the sacrificial scapegoat presented in our last chapter. This passage says concisely in a few sentences all that was contained there. Consider it first not as a mystical job description for a unique messiah, but as an anthropological account of a repeated reality. As Gil Bailie, says, “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace.”

This is presented in great detail. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him.” The persecuted one is likely chosen from the marginal or those whose appearance is marred, and so is more easily rejected. “He was despised.” The person chosen is without supporters, isolated and abandoned. “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.” The victim has been chosen and will suffer because of our problem, our collective disease of rivalry and conflict. The impetus comes not from some offense in the victim but from a need in us. “Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God.” We thought this, but we were wrong. Though the problem is ours, we believed it was this one who was the cause, this one who was hated by God, this one who deserved the Job and the Joseph and the Abel treatment.

“But he was wounded for our transgressions.” In fact, it is because we could not maintain peaceful relations that we require a sacrifice. We wound because of our iniquities. And wounding is another iniquity. “Upon him was the punishment that made us whole.” We are actually reconciled and freed by this violence, even though the victim is wrongly charged and we are the actual guilty ones. Hating together unites us, strops our divisions. What hurts him helps us. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We are all involved. We do this together; we have all turned to scapegoating. “By a perversion of justice he was taken away.” The entire procedure by which we carry out this killing may claim to have some moral basis, but there is no justice in it.

This is about as clear as it can be about religious scapegoating violence. It is an unequivocally bad thing, with undeniably good results. To perceive this sacrificial mechanism in others is unusual, a breakthrough. To face it explicitly in our own behavior may be, literally, miraculous.

Of course, there is another element in the text, expressed most powerfully in two lines: “And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” and “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.” Otherwise the passage is giving an uncannily clear description of violent sacrifice as the unjust if fruitful persecution of an innocent victim, wrongly attributed to God rather than to our own evil. But these lines appear to turn around and say it is all God’s idea after all.

The different biblical voices we have been examining in various ways exposed and criticized this foundational religious dynamic, and set God against it. The trail of attention to scapegoats in the Bible leads to this moment of blinding clarity about what is going on. And at this point, it seems, the writer blinks, and in a few words draws the whole thing back under divine authorization. That long struggle to hear the voice of victims backslides into a passive acceptance, the surrender of a crushed Job who mumbles that it must be right after all.

Is that what’s going on? No. But let’s suppose for a moment that it were. If we stop there, we still have something completely new. In the past the participants in persecuting sacrifice, including the divine participants, endorsed it as something other than what it actually was. They accepted a mythical account, the validity of the accusations, the guilt of the victim. They did it because they thought it was right. What is proposed in this text would be a knowing acceptance of sacrifice for what it actually is. God knows and we know that it is the evil killing of an innocent, for our own benefit. This is the way the world works. We go ahead anyway. It’s wrong, but useful. This is a God who has read Nietzsche, and agrees.

But this isn’t what the text is saying. The writer is not talking about divine approval for sacrificial business as usual, and the sign is in the way God’s will is distinguished from the will of the persecutors. Isaiah says that we, the sacrificers, esteemed the victim stricken by God. But the whole tenor of the text is that it was wrong to think that. We are the ones who wounded and crushed the scapegoat with our iniquities. If what is being done is so clearly wrong, why would God support it? If it was wrong to think that God inflicted the punishment, what does it mean to turn around and say that God laid on him the iniquities of us all? It can mean only that there are two different things going on. When we inflict our iniquities on the victim, it is not the same event as when God lays those same iniquities on him. The writer of the servant song brings these two together with the suggestion that “the victim was allowed to be struck down by a God who counted his sufferings as an atonement for the faults of the very mob that inflicted them on him.”

imagesGod is doing something different from what the persecutors are doing. The Isaiah text gives us many plain indications of this shift. It ends with exaltation of the servant. And it begins with verses that already presume the vindication of the sacrificed one. “See, my servant shall prosper; / he shall be exalted and lifted up….” The victim’s cause will be upheld, in a way that will startle the nations, “for that which had not been told them they shall see, / and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.” Though what is happening is old and common (even if the blunt description of it is new), this instance of it is going to be dramatically different. It has a purpose counter to, but superimposed on, the standard purpose of sacrifice. This is powerfully reflected in the lines “By a perversion of justice he was taken away. / Who could have imagined his future?” Clearly, those doing the sacrifice do not imagine it, a sign that God is not playing the same game they are.

The text says, “When you make his life an offering for sin, / he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days, / through him the will of the Lord shall proper.” In other words, when you sacrifice him as a sin offering, it won’t work. Instead of falling into death and oblivion, the servant will live long and see descendants. Through him the will of the Lord – and not the will of his killers – will prosper. The servant will be blessed (“Out of his anguish he shall see light”) and will bless many others (“the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous”). Traditional sacrifice may accomplish something very real. It may still our strife for a time. One thing it cannot do is make its practitioners righteous, since they must sin to carry it out. Somehow the servant’s death is to save them from what led to the killing.

We can understand this better by comparing the servant in this passage with Job. Job is a full-scale resister to his scapegoating, but the servant is patient, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb. Job protests his personal innocence while the friends enlist God to argue his guilt, and the outcome is up in the air. The servant songs are crystal clear that the servant is suffering unjustly for other people’s sins, and it is a mistake to think the servant guilty. Job demands some kind of vindication from God. He does have his earthly prosperity restored, but gets no unequivocal verdict in his favor, no reply to his plea for an accounting from God. The entire episode of his suffering is still posed as a test proposed to God by Satan, an episode that turns out to be a test of God too. By contrast the servant song is framed by an affirmation of the victory of the victim. The servant does not protest, because the protest has been heard and validated by God. The song directly proclaims the innocence of the servant and the injustice of the persecution. The servant is in league with God to change this dynamic. This sacrifice is not meant to be one in a long line. The servant is a singular figure, and the effect of his life will be something new: “for that which had not been told them they shall see.” For a beginning, in this picture of the servant, the nations see what they had not been told about their own scapegoating practice.

The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat’s innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering inflicted, no doubt whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors, US. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in fact of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the man can be saved.