The Cross and the transformation of evil

sac2I’ve been enjoying recent conversations about the Cross. These have centered on Rene Girard’s critique of sacrifice and the work of Girard’s close friend, Swiss Jesuit Raymund Schwager whose appropriation of Girard’s work to biblical studies and theology is most clearly worked out in Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, from which is taken the passage below.

The question concerns the nature of the Cross as sacrifice when read against the background of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice and from which economy we cannot extract the Cross. The letter to the Hebrews figures in hugely here for it so obviously compares and contrasts Christ’s death against this OT background. How are we to understand the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make? Is the Cross even an instance of Israel’s economy of blood sacrifice, or does it subvert and expose that economy? We unequivocally condemn the evil of Christ’s crucifixion, and yet the language of ‘sacrifice’ has been embedded in Christian worship and ascetic practice throughout its entire history.

David Bentley Hart urges us not to view the Cross as “a” sacrifice but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice,” that the sacrifice Christ makes and the sacrifice those who crucify him make are these two opposed orders of sacrifice, that “[t]he crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event.” (emphasis mine) Here are two “currents of stress,” notes Hart, within Israel’s faith, and they are imposed upon us by the clear presence in the Old Testament of two contrary perspectives on sacrifice, one which affirms and celebrates (and portrays God as affirming and celebrating) Israel’s blood rituals, and another which unambiguously condemns and subverts that economy as such. These are not easy currents to separate, or even always to identify. But surely worship and ascetic practice are finally free of the “stress” Hart notes so that we may celebrate the sacrifice Christ makes without affirming the sacrifice those who crucify him make. To that end, let’s consider some of what Schwager has to say on the subject.

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On the question of the understanding of sacrifice in the Old Testament there is another issue to consider, which makes things ever more complex. We are faced here not only with a cultic institution which is hard to interpret, but also an equally strong criticism of sacrifice, especially by the prophets. The great crisis in Israel which manifested itself at first in the destruction of the northern kingdom (721 B.C.) and then led to the long-drawn agony which lasted until the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple (587 B.C.), stirred up faith in Yahweh in its inmost depths and called forth the great messages of the prophets. Faced with the threat, the prophets expected no help from God through the sacrificial cult, rather they saw in it an expression of that falsehood and mendacity which was responsible for the fatal crisis. In the name of Yahweh they proclaimed: “I hate your festivals, I loathe them and cannot smell your solemn assemblies. Even though you present burnt offerings to me, I take no pleasure in your gifts and I will not look at your fat peace offerings” (Amos 5:21-22). Jeremiah even disputed that the sacrificial cult went back to a command of God: “Add burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the flesh! For I said nothing to your fathers when I led them out of Egypt and I commanded nothing concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. Instead I gave them this command: hearken to my voice, for then I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jer. 7:21-23; 6:20; Amos 5:25). The prophets called for true knowledge of god, justice and love, not in addition to the sacrifices but in opposition to them: “I want steadfast love and not sacrifice, knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Mic. 6:6-8; Isa. 1:10-17; Ps. 40:7ff)…

…The unsolved problem of the Old Testament sacrificial cult would seem to make it impossible to develop a systematic interpretation of the death of Christ from that starting point. Certainly, the letter to the Hebrews sees the cross explicitly against the background of the cult, and it describes Christ as the high priest who offered a sacrifice. But the letter to the Hebrews can make these statements only because, by the use of numerous antitheses, it totally alters the concepts of both priest and sacrifice. First of all it separates Christ from the great, broad tradition of the Aaronic and Levite priesthood and links him with the priest king Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-24), who is a marginal figure in the Old Testament and is mentioned there only briefly on two occasions (Gen. 14:18; Ps 110:4) As high priest according to the order of Melchizedek, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant (Heb. 7:22; 8:1-13; 9:15), and to him belongs also a quite new priestly order. He does not have to offer sacrifices day after day for himself and the people (Heb. 7:25-28), nor does he enter an earthy sanctuary in order to sprinkle it with the blood of he-goats and bulls. Rather, he brought about a redemption once for all, and entered into the heavenly sanctuary (Heb. 9:11-10:18). From the viewpoint of this new sacrifice it can be seen that the cultic sacrifices of the Old Testament brought about atonement only in the sense that people because “purified in the flesh” (Heb. 9:13). The letter to the Hebrews, then, expressly restricts the effectiveness of the earlier sacrifices to the realm of external cultic purity, whose purpose was to remind people of their sins, without being able to bring about any inner healing: “But through these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins year after year, for the blood of bulls and goats cannot possible take away sins” (Heb. 10:3ff). The verdict on the sacrificial cult is unambiguous: it was unable to bring about any actual purification from sins. This is why the letter to the Hebrews, despite its explicit relationship to the tradition of sacrifice, is able to take a critical line of thought on sacrifice and to note the paradoxical fact that Psalm 40:7-9 talks of God not demanding sacrifices and talking no pleasure in them, even though “these are offered according to the law” (Heb. 10:8). The letter to the Hebrews resolves the contradictory evidence of the Old Testament by relating the criticism of sacrifice directly to Christ, who with these words abolished the existing order and set up over against it obedience. The continuity of content between the Old and New Testament runs not through the cultic line, but through the line of criticism of the cult, which emphasizes obedience.

Rene Schwager

Schwager (left) and Girard (right)

The letter to the Hebrews is able, through a massive hermeneutical reinterpretation, to take up on the one hand the whole metaphorical and symbolic meaning of the cult, but on the other hand to express something which is completely new in content. Through the confrontation of the cultic tradition with the tradition critical of sacrifice, it succeeds in creating, out of a problematic at the heart of the Old Testament, a complex symbol for the divine action and the divine will: God by the law commanded something which he himself did not specifically want, but which – in awakening consciousness of sin – was temporarily needed for humankind. This command to offer sacrifices was promulgated by the law because of its pedagogic and linguist function and not because of its atoning effect. The new teaching is tied in which the cult only as an illustration, whereas the criticism of sacrifice is spelled out as Christ’s own worlds (Heb. 10:18ff.). What was a tradition competing with the cult in the Old Testament becomes in the letter to the Hebrews an authoritative pronouncement about this whole past practice of sacrifice.

There is, it is true, one point where the question arises as to whether the letter to the Hebrews might, after all, recognize a certain continuity of content between the Old Testament sacrifices and the death of Christ. The cult operated through blood (Heb. 9:7, 18-22), and Christ too offered himself as a sacrifice through his blood (Heb. 9:14). The Aaronic and Levite priests sprinkled with others’ blood (that of he-goats and bulls), whereas Christ entered the sanctuary with his own (Heb. 9:12; 10:19; 12:24). But does this difference (others’ or one’s own blood) abolish the continuity between the cult and Christ’s death, or is there a certain common basis in the shedding of blood?

The issue of the shedding of blood, so important for the letter to the Hebrews, points first to the need to examine and interrogate from a Christian perspective those theories of sacrifice arising from the study of religion which also emphasize the shedding of blood (the act of killing). The explicit statement that Christ offered a sacrifice with his own blood shows, moreover, that the problematic with which we began our reflections on sacrifice is in fact central. At the beginning of this section we asked how self-sacrifice is to be understood. If Christ identified himself not with the evil will of his opponents, but with their concrete actions (crucifixion), did he not therefore fully agree to his being killed? Can one not also take the statement that Christ sacrificed himself as high priest “with his own blood” as an indication of the indirect killing of himself? In considering the fate of Jesus we have often come across the them of God’s nonviolence. But now the more subtle question arises, whether we have to understand this concept in such a way that Christ, although he shunned all violence against others, finally turned that violence against himself – in self-sacrifice. Seeing things this way, could one not very easily link up the great Old Testament themes of judgment and God’s vengeance, the tradition of cultic killing, and also many New Testament utterances about judgment, with the message of nonviolence (toward others)? The cross would then be a sacrifice in the sense that the priest (Christ) did in fact kill something, namely, himself…Is there consequently a self-aggression in the service of the higher good? Because of this question we must once more go into the problematic of judgment at a new and deeper level. If the thesis that God in his anger directly struck and destroyed his Son by means of sinners (K. Barth) did not stand up to scrutiny, the more subtle problematic still remains, namely, whether he led the crucified one through obedience to self-aggression and thereby judged him. Christ would then have taken on himself the self-judgment of sinners in the sense that he did in full consciousness and freedom what sinners do in their blindness: judge and destroy themselves.

This question is not easy to answer, since we would need to feel our way into the inner attitude of Jesus and the New Testament utterances make use of words which come up in different contexts and can therefore be interpreted in different ways. However the question one with very great consequences. If the outcome is affirmative, then everything which we have worked out so far has to be looked at again in a completely fresh light, with considerable consequences for Christian spirituality and the practice of the faith.

In the Old Testament, with the exception of Isaiah 52:13-53:12, violent death was understood to imply only judgment and curse, while the New Testament sees the cross of Christ as positive. How is this difference to be understood? Since the Old Testament cult also attributes a positive atoning effect to the sacrificial death of animals, we must look into the question already addressed earlier in this investigation, namely, whether the formal element in atonement resides in the act of killing. The difference between the old and new order would consist in this, that in the former animals were killed daily, whereas in the latter Christ sacrificed and (indirectly) killed himself once for all.

Since the letter to the Hebrews understands Melchizedek as king of peace (Heb. 7:1ff.), such a view immediately causes problems But peace could be understood as a paradoxical result of “aggressivity turned in upon itself.” A useful indication is given by the letter to the Hebrews where it takes up the Old Testament’s critical line against sacrifice and, putting words into Christ’s mouth, also makes him say that he comes in order to do the divine will. Subsequently, the letter goes on: “And by that will we have been sanctified once and for all by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ” (dia tes prosphoras tou somatos Iesou Christou, Heb. 10:10). The sanctification was brought about fundamentally through the will of God, fulfilled by Christ. The agreement of wills was decisive. But what is meant by the addition ‘through the offering of the body”? Could it be that God wanted not the concrete burnt offering for sin but instead that element in this sacrifice, the killing, which pointed to the self-sacrifice of Christ? Even the apparently unambiguous text about the abolition of cultic sacrifice and about sanctification through the divine will can consequently be read in two different, even opposed directions.

Another passage in the letter to the Hebrews runs:

For by a single sacrifice he has perfected forever those who are sanctified. The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their heart and write them on their minds”; then he adds, “I will remember their sins and transgressions no more.” Where sins are forgiven, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Heb. 10:14-18)

The New Testament letter makes a direct connection in this passage between the unique sacrifice of Christ and the saying of the prophet Jeremiah about the new covenant. The will of Christ in his surrender is hereby formally identified with the new law which God inscribes on our innermost hearts. But self-aggression could not have a place under this new, inner, law, for otherwise disturbing consequences would follow for our understanding of God’s kingdom and of the life of completeness with God.

sac1A further text finally gives us a pointer to the answer we have been seeking: “For if the blood of goats…sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the power of the eternal Spirit offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, purify our conscience from dead words so that we may serve the living God” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on our hearts; it came about also ‘by the power of the eternal Spirit.” The nature of this Spirit we have already seen fully in the second part of this work. It is the Spirit of freedom (2 Cor. 3:17), of love (1 Cor. 13), of joy, of peace, of forbearance, and of gentleness (Gal. 5:22ff.). It does not make us into slaves (torturing ourselves), but into sons of God, and calls out from with us “Abba” (Rom. 8:15). A will to self-destruction is totally at odds with the working of the Spirit. If Christ surrendered himself in this Spirit, then his sacrifice cannot in any way be seen as (indirect) self-destruction. The working of the Spirit after Easter throws the decisive light on the innermost mystery of Christ’s will in his passion. The Spirit is never a spirit of aggression or self-aggression; it works rather from within the victims of violence; it stands by the persecuted in their need and protects them from inner subjection to their adversaries (Mark 13:11 and parallels).

For the true understanding of Christ’s sacrifice we must consequently look for a different solution from that of self-destruction. The persistent question is this: how was the crucified one able to identify himself with the actions of his opponents (condemnation and crucifixion) if he did not wish (indirectly) to destroy himself? Ethnology and the study of sacrificial cults in the different religions point not only to the act of killing but also to the important theme of transformation from the profane to the sacred…

…The ”conversion” and transformation of evil began with Jesus including his opponents in his being killed, and thus consciously living through on their behalf that dimension in their action which enable us to say that the act of crucifying him was in fact something suffered. But he had not yet achieved the decisive act, for suffering would only have had a positive sense if we had to assume that God directly will such suffering as a punishment, which, however, we have already excluded. The crucial point was the transformation of passivity through his surrender. Because of his unreserved acceptance of the suffering which came to him, it was already more than something merely undergone. Suffering which is affirmed becomes a new form of activity.

All the synoptic Gospels on the one hand emphasize the suffering of the crucified on and on the other they clearly describe his dying as an activity. We find in Mark: “Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed out the Spirit…(mark 15:37; Matt. 27:50). The loud cry was an expression of the most extreme desolation, and with the breathing out of his Spirit he indicated at the same time a revelatory event Mark 1:11; 9:7) which went out from Jesus as bearer of the Spirit. The breathing out of the Spirit is made even clearer in Luke: “And Jesus cried loudly, “Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit’” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrender and handing over the Spirit to the Father. Since Luke describes Jesus at the beginning of his ministry as the long awaited bearer of the Spirit (Luke 4:16-22; Acts 4:27; 10:38), the return of the Spirit to the Father means at the same time the fulfillment of the mission. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father consequently come together in the one event described by the letter to the Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.

Whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another person renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other, to whom he thereby entrusts himself without reserve in love. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life has its limits, arising at the least from the demands of one’s own life and one’s own identity. At the moment of dying, these limits can be broken down. But since in death all of a person’s strengths fail, death in itself is extremely ambiguous. Is it merely the passive undergoing of an inexorable limit, or can there be a surrender which goes beyond all previous limits? From the viewpoint of ordinary human experience, no clear answer is possible. However, Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit (Heb. 9:14) and, dying, entrusted his Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46)…

Whoever no longer determines himself by his own spirit, but entrusts this to the heavenly Father in order to allow himself to be totally determined by him, achieves a sort of openness and availability which go beyond our earthly experience….

(Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption)

“Inasmuch as”: impartation & participation

SRI LANKA-ATTACKSPredictably,  the attacks upon Sri Lankan Christians while they worshiped last Easter Sunday (both pictures in this post are of shrapnel-ridden, blood-stained statues from those attacks) have again brought front and center conversations about God’s goodness in our world. Tell us again exactly how it is God is perfectly and unfailingly benevolent and powerful in a world awash in such evil (natural and moral)? Each tragedy sees the same debate points posted and argued. With every renewal of this discussion it seems there are some from the ranks of every view on offer who defect to some other viewpoint. I’m not here to review the options or argue for a benevolent theism. Instead, I’d like to try to express an aspect of my own faith journey. Atheists, you’re excused for the time being. This is ‘siblings talk’ for the moment.

As I say, all I want to offer here is a description of how these attacks got me and Dwayne into considering as aspect of the Christian story and experience that I hadn’t previously contemplated. As Dwayne and I recently talked through these issues something dawned on me.

Let me begin a couple of curious passage that describe the intimacy of Christ’s identification with those who suffer. In Mt 25.31-46 (Parable of the Sheep and the Goats), Jesus bases God’s eschatological judgment of us on the loving service we render to the destitute (i.e., the hungry, the poor and the homeless, the sick and the imprisoned). You know the conclusion: “Inasmuch as” we provide food, clothing, care, etc., to the destitute and imprisoned, we “do it to Christ.” And equally, inasmuch as we do not care for the poor and needy, we do not care for Christ. In loving and caring for those in need, we love and care for Christ – actually, personally, really.

The same identification is behind Paul’s admonition (Col 3.23-24) that Christians do all they do “as unto the Lord,” and here Paul surprisingly adds “not unto men.” Not unto others? Surely we do unto others what we actually do unto them, even if Christ is also therein served (or not). But the adversative “not unto men” turns the tables on our priorities and the direction from which we view things. It is Christ who is first served or not, and others are therein implicated. Christ is the truer, more significant object of our intentions and actions than are others who are by virtue of Christ implicated in our actions. But who views themselves and the world this way?

This relating to Christ as the object of our actions (good or bad) is evident in Christ’s confrontation with Paul in his conversion experience (Acts 9). The risen Christ appears to Paul and asks him, “Why are you persecuting me?” and declares “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This is not unlike the Matthew 25 passage. The risen Christ identifies with his body – those who follow him (in Acts 9), but equally, even if more broadly, he identifies with all poor, all needy, and not, as some mistakenly read it, “poor Christians” (but not poor Muslims), or for dispensationalists (if there are any left) “poor Jews.” Does Jesus participate in the innocent suffering of the world? It would seem so. He is more truly present as the object of our actions than the poor and needy we perceive. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ is, after all, more truly present in every sense than any person allows him/herself to be present. He is present fully/completely, without diminishment of intention or perception due to selfishness or compromise. None of us is able to ‘show up’ so genuinely and unreservedly. In this way, our suffering becomes his own. But faith opens our eyes to this  presence and opens it to our participation.

This brings me to the second set of curious passages. If the first set of passages describes the sense in which Christ is present in our suffering by virtue of his own participation in the innocent suffering of the world he loves and sustains, the second describes the sense in which our suffering becomes a transforming-redemptive participation in his own historical suffering. I’ve commented on these passages here and here, but let me quickly mention them. First, in Phil 3.8-11 Paul views the Cross as participable, as sufferings we are able to share in. Paul’s desire to “participate in Christ’s suffering, becoming like him in his death.” Secondly, in Col 1.24 Paul views his own suffering as “filling up in his flesh what is lacking in Christ’s sufferings,” a very curious perspective, but incomprehensible as participation if the Cross be understood in penal-substitutionary terms. Then in Rom 6.3-5 Paul again views the Cross as participable, and lastly in Heb 13.13 we are instructed to “go to Christ outside the city, bearing the disgrace he bore” which, whatever else it may be, invites us to participate in Christ’s sufferings. Participation, not substitution, is the transforming logic of the Cross.

Sri 5

I’d like to suggest that these two realities (Christ present in our sufferings, on the one hand, and our presence in his, on the other) form a single, transforming-redemptive unity – an asymmetrical relational unity which is itself the saving power of the Cross. We participate in the sufferings of the Cross by intentionally introducing the narrative of the Cross into our own meaning-making structure. This brings both the guilt and despair of sinners and the true nature of innocent suffering to light for transformational meaning-making as each receives its truth from Christ’s suffering. For the latter (the innocent victims) in this case, how Christ suffers becomes how we see ourselves as suffering, and so how the Father was with Christ in his sufferings (Jn 16.31-33) becomes how God is present with us in our suffering. It’s a relational unity because two subjects (Christ and us) are intimately related, so much so that both are objects of the same victimization. But the relationship is asymmetrical because one subject’s experience (Christ’s) alone has the power to define and transform the experience of those who interpret their suffering within the (transcendent) framework of meaning-making established by and offered to all in Christ.

However, participation in Christ’s sufferings defines not only how we self-perceive within our suffering (as essential as that is), it defines how we perceive and respond to others who persecute and victimize, i.e. forgiveness. Forgiveness is a necessary fruit of participation in Christ’s sufferings, and we have not participated in his sufferings until we, like him, extend forgiveness to our persecutors. It’s not enough to know I suffer innocently and to come to possess in Christ an enduring identity that no worldly suffering can deconstruct. What is this new identity if it is as unforgiving as the old? To participate in Christ’s sufferings is to be given his suffering as a place in which to experience my own, to suffer inside of his suffering, and what can this be but to suffer as he suffers, i.e. for others, in love, and to know that every victimizer is forgiven within the very event that establishes my own freedom from the victimizer. I am free from him and united to him at once, in Christ. So to not forgive is to have misrelated myself to Christ, and so to have failed to participate fully in his sufferings.

Of course, none of this is possible if one views the Cross in either penal-substitutionary terms (God pouring out our wrath-as-punishment upon Jesus) or in terms of God abandoning us existentially to suffer the consequences of sin as despair and godforsakenness (viz., Boyd’s view), for neither of these perspectives on Christ’s sufferings invites us to participate in the Christ’s sufferings. Both write us out of participation in the Cross, and to that extent they deliver not good news, but the worst news of all.

Vampires and Crosses

Cross 2019I recently started following Ethan and Wes’s Youtube channel ‘Mysterion’. They’ve just had Fr. Silviu Bunta (from Romania – hence “Vampires,” otherwise I would’ve never figured the title out).

I’m pondering how my own understanding of the Cross has radically changed the past decade or so. I haven’t run into anyone who publicly expressed things as well as Fr. Bunta. I hope you enjoy his comments (video below). If you grew up Evangelical, as did I, you’ll recognize how very different this view of the Cross is from anything you heard on Sunday growing up.

Being Holy Week, every pulpit in America is devoting its voice to proclaim the mystery of Cross but not all are sharing the same Cross. Not even close. Some will exalt this perspective:

…the Father had imputed to [Jesus] every sin of every one of his people…the most intense, dense concentration of evil ever experienced on this planet was exhibited. Jesus was the ultimate obscenity. So what happened? God is too holy to look at sin. He could not bear to look at that concentrated monumental condensation of evil, so he averted his eyes from his Son. The light of his countenance was turned off. All blessedness was removed from his Son, whom he loved, and in its place was the full measure of the divine curse… It was as if there was a cry from heaven, as if Jesus heard the words “God damn you,” because that’s what it meant to be cursed and under the anathema of the Father… [and] every person who has not been covered by the righteousness of Christ draws every breath under the curse of God. (R. C. Sproul)

I faintly remember believing such things. Jesus’ view of his own cross began to redefine it for me. On the eve of his crucifixion:

Do you now believe?” Jesus replied. “A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home. You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me. I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (Jn 16.31-33)

Interesting, no? Jesus wants his disciples to understand from how he suffers how they shall possess his peace in their own upcoming afflictions. That is, how the Father would be with Jesus in his suffering is thus how God is with us in our suffering – precisely the opposite point which interpreters make who view Jesus’ as experiencing utter spiritual dereliction and godforsakenness.

Again, on the evening of his betrayal (Jn 14.30-31), he lets his disciples know that:

The Prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on/in me, but he comes so that the world may learn that I love the Father and do exactly what my Father has commanded me.

Of course, some prefer to suppose Jesus was mistaken, that he in fact encountered on the Cross a horror he did not expect, namely, the realization that the Father had abandoned him, that the Father was not “with him” as he anticipated (Jn 16.31-33 above). Such a view has to assume Jesus is being described (after the fact, by John and others who believed in the resurrection) as having fundamentally misunderstood the nature of his own passion.

Jesus also makes the curious statement in v. 27:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

When is this true? Where is it true? How is it true? It’s true on the night of his betrayal when he utters these words, but will it be true for Jesus a few hours later as he hangs on the Cross? Here, I proposed, is an assurance Jesus leaves his disciples on the eve of his lynching, an interpretation on the Cross which we fail to connect to the Cross, or if we do make a connection it’s only to point out that the Cross is the one place where this assurance fails to define for Jesus the truth of his existence. We think this because we believe its failing to be true for him is the cost he must endure so it can be true for us.

Please take a fresh look this week. Approach the Cross this week from Jesus’ own perspective. Consider: What he promises on the eve of his crucifixion, his Cross actually demonstrates; that the peace Jesus leaves his disciples prior to being crucified he himself actually possesses and embodies as he is murdered, and that only if his own assurances are true for him then and there can they be true for us here and now.

You will leave me, but he won’t.
You feel abandoned, but I don’t.
You’ve heard it said “Cursed is he
who judged by us hangs on a tree.”
“Father, forgive!” is what I said.
You expect despair instead.
But the gospel there was writ by me
in the language of Our unity.
“But,” you ask, “What sort of diction
would utter cries of dereliction?”
“He hangs abandoned!” you surmise.
But I was ne’er alone — surprise!
Come closer then and take a look,
I got those words from your own Book!
I suffered what drives you insane,
drank it down, all the pain,
from inside it all to say,
“I am my Father’s anyway!”
Did you really think that Hell
would God’s defeat know how to spell?
Not in all eternity could conceivability
conjure up a way to severe
Son from Father. No, not ever.

A relevant post of my own that touches on this is The Cross: Substitution and Participation.

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.

The Crucifixion—Part 3

prodigal

I’m still thinking through whether or not I understand 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, but I don’t think this equates to an offering of proportionate value and magnitude to the crime. I’m sure I’m going against the mainstream.

Does it make sense to calculate the magnitude of our offense as infinite because God is of infinite value? Surprisingly, I don’t think so. 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 much of the world, certainly the Middle East I lived in for many years. Steal from me, do public service. 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.

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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 on my behalf what I deserve to suffer, even if such suffering is freely chosen. So there’s good reason to question 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 innocent victim that sets the world right. Because he suffered as did all innocent scapegoated victims, 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 indebtedness is not in fact “canceled” or “erased” (Col. 2.14). 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, making sure justice was seen to be done. That an innocent man suffered rather than us creates a drama that hides 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 Christ dies? That the indebtedness is “canceled” (Col 2) shows its power is mythological and not of divine origin. I think this post is entirely lost on Rutledge.

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 suffering. 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 is true). 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. But 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)

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.

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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.

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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’.

He will put those wretches to a miserable death!

51FQZ2wZv+L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_Re-reading Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice, I ran across this passage. I love how he reads Jesus’ response to the crowd’s answer to his question regarding how the owner will treat the tenants who murdered his son.

Anselm begins with the universal extent and profound depth of human sinfulness. Both are realities. But this general truth is not an adequate departure point for understanding the specific import of the cross. Rather it should be the other way around. We must start with the concrete nature of the sin in Jesus’ death in order to articulate its connection to our wider human condition. Treating guilt and sin as a single undifferentiated quantitative value was one of Anselm’s mistakes. After all, Jesus confronted the realities of sinfulness at every step in his prepassion life. And in every case he encountered those realities in concrete shapes, like greed or envy or deceit or pride. The general truth has a particular face in the case of the crucifixion as well. Specific understanding of the cross must begin not with the question of how God can be justified in forgiving the guilty. That is a second-level question. The beginning point is provided by the biblical context for the cross, the thread that runs through Abel and Joseph and Jonah and Job and Susanna and Daniel and the Psalms and the Prophets. Its question is, how can God be justified unless God sides with the unanimous victim, unless God vindicates and redeems the scapegoat?

Only the extraordinary conviction that God does in fact redeem the victim, coupled with the Gospel revelation that God has actually shared the place of the scapegoat, can lead to a further question. If God vindicates the sacrificed, if God has even been the object of our sacred persecution, then how can God be justified inn saving the guilty, i.e., the victimizers? And the guilty are all of us, because, Christ excepted, there is no one who is a scapegoat who would not or has not belonged to the crowd. Now the issue of guilt arises dramatically, for if God is to do justice for victims, how can God fail to do justice against their persecutors?

In seeing Christ on the cross, in the light of the resurrection, believers see what has happened…and not just to Jesus. What is revealed is not only the enormity of such violence against God, but the evil of our longstanding scapegoating against each other. We can no longer saw we know not what we do. And when this abyss opens before us, the order or magnitude of this sin appears virtually unlimited. It is the dimensions of grace that bring home to us the real nature of wrong. We see that Jesus does not deserve to be on the cross. That allows us to see that those we put on the cross in the same place Jesus occupied, for the same socially unifying purpose, do not deserve their scapegoating at our hands (whatever their real sins may be). And when this awareness comes to us, a third link falls into place. We are the ones who deserve the punishment we have readily meted out to others. We are the ones who deserve to be in Jesus’ place, but he has taken ours.

Jesus tells a parable in which the landlord of a vineyard sends messengers to collect his rent, only to have the tenants beat his messengers. When he finally sends his son, the tenants kill him and throw him out of the vineyard. At the conclusion of this parable in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus asks the crowd: When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? “They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time’” (Matt. 21:41).

…Jesus allows his listeners to draw their own conclusion about the wrath that should fall on the collective sin of the tenants. And then Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected / has become the cornerstone; / this was the Lord’s doing, / and it is amazing in our eyes’?” (Matt. 21:41).

When his listeners emphatically render a sentence of death against the tenants, they are condemning their own practice, and the practice that will claim Jesus. What does it mean for Jesus to respond to their outburst by quoting this passage from a psalm of deliverance? And particularly, why does Jesus introduce it as though it contradicts the judgment of wrath they have just pronounced: “Have you never read…?”

Jesus is the murdered son of the owner of the vineyard, and when he returns in the resurrection he does not do what the crowd who heard the parable expected and demanded. He does not put anyone to death. He brings mercy to the tenants and intends for the management of the vineyard, the kingdom of God, to be under a new lease, one without sacrifice…

Anselm is not wrong to link the scope of the wrong done to Christ with the scope of the fault among us. But he is wrong to suppose that God’s whole purpose was to somehow balance these out. We have rightly understood the wrong of the cross only when we realize it is the same as the wrong done to others. Like someone writing in ever larger letters, God has met our congenital blindness to our own sacrificial practice with an extreme demonstration. IF we can begin to see the truth here, then we can see it elsewhere.

I discuss this parable to illustrate that when we connect the story of Jesus’ death with a practice in which we participate, the reflexive response is a sense of our own guilt. As Girard puts it, “Christianity refers back to humanity the violence that humanity has always projected onto its gods. That is why we accuse Christianity of being so judgmental about our guilt…because in order to defend our victims the gospels are obliged to condemn their persecutors, that is to say, us.” The cross reveals the evil of scapegoating sacrifice so plainly that we spontaneously condemn it. And when we then see that this practice is our practice, our own judgment falls back upon us. The acute sense of responsibility for Jesus’ death is, then, one of the signs that one has been savingly affected by it. We do not clearly see our sin until we see how God has acted to save us from it. (emphasis mine)