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)

God’s judgment: “Peace be with you!”

desente-aux-enfersFantastic passage from Raymund Schwager (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation: Toward a Biblical Doctrine of Redemption). Schwager (Swiss Jesuite) and Girard carried on a rich and now published correspondence discussing the theological implications of Girard’s anthropology. Schwager was the first to attempt to integrate these implication with orthodox Christian claims. In this passage he contemplates the Father’s activity in Christ’s condemnation.

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The way to approach the inner problematic of the resurrection, arising from the consideration of Jesus’ fate, was succinctly expressed in the first epistle of Peter: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; he suffered, but did not threaten; but he handed himself over to the righteous judge” (1Pet. 2:23). The action of the Father at Easter is to be understood as a judgment by which he takes up a position in the conflict between the claim of Jesus and the verdict of his opponents. This statement is central and at the same time liable to misinterpretation, as it could suggest a return to traditional conceptions of judgment and thereby to a distorting horizon of interpretation. In order correctly to understand the judging activity of the heavenly Father at Easter, we must first of all remind ourselves that Jesus in his proclamation of judgment took back nothing from his message of the goodness of God, but rather uncovered the possibility which threatened that people would close themselves off absolutely. Further, we must consider that Jesus, faced with a violent death, gave himself completely for the opponents of God’s kingdom, who had closed themselves off. In the resurrection brought about by the Father it is consequently not enough to see merely a verdict for his Son and against those who opposed him. Certainly, this view is correct, as Jesus’ opponents are convicted as sinners. But the verdict of the heavenly Father is above all a decision for the Son who gave himself up to death for his opponents. It is therefore, when considered more deeply, also a verdict in favor of sinners. The opponents of the kingdom of God, closing themselves off, had the way to salvation once more opened for them by the Son, who allowed himself to be drawn into their darkness and distance from God. Although they had already turned their backs, as far as they were concerned, the self-giving of the Son got around this hardening of hearts once more, insofar as he allowed himself to be made the victim of their self-condemnation.

The saving dimension of the Easter message, and the revelation of God contained in it, can be clarified from yet another angle. In the parable of the wicked winegrowers (Mark 12:1-12 and parallels) a lord is presented who at first acts with unfathomable goodness, in that, after the rejection and killing of several servants, he even risks his own son. This goodness however comes to an end, for after the murder of his beloved son it is transformed into retribution, and the violent winegrowers are in their turn killed. But the heavenly Father in his Easter “judgment” acted differently from the master of the vineyard in the parable. Even the murder of his son did not provoke in him a reaction of vengeful retribution, but he sent the risen one back with the message “Peace be with you!” (Luke 24:36; see also John 20:19, 26) to those disciples who at the critical moment had allowed themselves to be drawn into the camp of the opponents of the kingdom of God. The judge’s verdict at Easter was consequently not only a retrospective confirmation of the message of Jesus, but it also contained a completely new element, namely, forgiveness for those who had rejected the offer of pure forgiveness itself and persecuted the Son. Through the Easter message of peace there came about a redoubling of that readiness to forgive expressed in the message of the basileia, a pardon for the earlier nonacceptance of pardon. It could be summed up in that saying from the Old Testament, which, taken together with the parable of the wicked wine-growers and seen in the light of Easter, says something quite new and can serve as the hermeneutical key to the Gospels: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was accomplished by the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Mark 12:10). The miracle of Good Friday and of Easter once again embraces those people who hardened their hearts and made their decision against the Son. A rightly understood doctrine of the atoning death is therefore, even when seen from the viewpoint of Easter, not in opposition to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. On the contrary, it is precisely the peace of Easter which shows how the Father of Jesus willingly forgives, even in the face of people’s hardened hearts.

Finally, from this perspective it is also understandable why the heavenly Father “held back” in his Easter judgment and why he did not powerfully authenticate his Son before the whole world. Jesus made the claim, by his proclamation and by his lived decision not to meet the violence of his opponents on their own level, that God’s action is not identical with action on this earth which brings immediate victory. He was not able himself to prove this claim, since it led him by an inner logic to earthly defeat. But even the Father was unable to endorse him in a graphic way, since a demonstrative, public intervention in favor of the Son would have worked precisely against his message. The action of God and a historical, public victory would have appeared once again as identical values, and the way of surrender to death would have shown itself to be merely a passing episode. This style of endorsement would have contradicted what was to be endorsed. Rather, what was needed was a sign which on the one hand made explicit the unrestricted divine “yes” to Jesus and on the other hand was “reserved,” so that it was not tantamount to a public victory. Both demands were met by the appearances of the risen one before the women and his disciples. What from the historical-critical viewpoint may be felt to be unsatisfying shows itself to be most appropriate at the level of the inner coherence of content. Thus it emerges once more that the cryptic presuppositions of the historical-critical method do not match the reality which came to expression for the first time in the fate of Jesus.

No, not that scapegoat

180px-The_Scapegoat,_film_posterI was thinking through the letter to the Hebrews in light of Girard’s early opinion that the author, though a Christ-follower, had nonetheless lapsed into a violent-sacrificial reading of the gospel. Girard later admitted this was rash and conceded a non-sacrificial reading of the letter was possible, though he never described how such a reading should proceed. I happened upon Hebrews 9.22 which states that “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” and recorded my thoughts in the margins:

“Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” does not mean sacrificial blood is the price paid to make forgiveness possible. Shedding of blood is the offense needing forgiveness, not a means to forgiveness, but forgiveness is manifest in the bearing of the offense. It is forgiveness, then, not justice, which must be seen to be done. Unless our violence is seen to exhaust itself upon the One who in turn forgives, forgiveness is not manifest. The Cross is where forgiveness is revealed not where it is achieved. In other words, you cannot demonstrate that you forgive someone their violence without suffering that violence, but this is very different from saying you suffer the punishment their violence deserves.

Battling to the end

apocalypse

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

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

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.

_____________________

sac2

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

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

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

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

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)

Getting to know Rene Girard

Girard, Rene

There are a few audio/video resources I repeatedly benefit from in trying to better understand Girard’s thought, besides Girard’s books of course. Please read the man himself. Girard noted (in the second interview I list below) that there was a time, before Girard established himself, when people actually read him but none quoted him. Today it seems that since his views are fashionable, people quote him who don’t actually read him. But if you’re reading the man himself, then I suggest a few other helpful resources.

 

 

Things Hidden

desireI’m finishing up Cynthia Haven’s biography of Rene Girard, Evolution of Desire. It’s a wonderful window into Girard’s life and the evolution of his thought. In talking about what a game-changer Girard’s Things Hidden (1987) was, she recalls a conversation:

The distaste and resistance that Girard’s theory has sometimes provoked reflects today’s postmodern bias against the cornerstone of Western civilization—and the situation was even worse in France.

At the Stanford Bookstore café in his half-hour afternoon break between classes and meetings, Jean-Pierre Dupuy…explained to me why he felt his colleague and friend is completely ostracized in French intellectual circles. He quickly listed three big reasons for the rejection of Girard and what he has to say:

Reason #1: “He believes in God, and he says it.” Dupuy said that laïcité in France means, in practice, “a public hatred of religion,” which makes Girard a jolting departure from the norm. “If a French leader said, ‘God bless France’, people would take to the streets. It would be the revolution again,” said Dupuy.

Reason #2: “He believes in the possibility of a science of man,” he said. Post-structuralisim, and other “isms,” have denied the possibility of knowing truth, or at least devalued it. There in France, he said, “truth is no longer legal tender.”

Reason #3: Finally, what he called the last straw: “#1 and #2 are the same reason.” That is, “if it’s possible to reach the truth, it’s because truth is given by God, and the incarnation of God is Jesus Christ.”

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 2

DBH

In his critique of Rene Girard (see Part 1), David Bentley Hart argues that Girard draws too absolute a distinction between the sacrificial violence of scapegoating and the non-violent forms of sacrifice present within Israel’s faith and history. For Girard, Hart points out, to speak of Christ’s death “as a sacrifice” legitimizes sacred violence. One can see this in Girard’s reading of the book of Hebrews as a violent, and so false, reading of the gospel whose sacrificial motifs implicate God in the persecution of the victim. Hart argues that Girard fails to appreciate how foundational the language of “sacrifice” is to God’s covenant with Israel (a covenant which Christ fulfills), and that Christianity’s soteriological vision is too bound up with sacrificial themes and motifs to dismiss such language. Not all talk of sacrifice describes an economy of exchange and propitiation that Girard rightly seeks to expose as violent.

Though Girard doesn’t intend as much, still in the end, Hart contends, one is left with a savior who is more gnostic than the Jew who fulfills and mediates Israel’s covenants in history, a savior who establishes not a way of being in the world but a path of escape from it, and so a savior who gives victims “no story to tell” within history. Though Hart agrees with Girard’s overall intent to establish a truly benevolent, non-violent view of God and God’s redemptive presence in the world, he feels Girard’s methodology is too negatively shaped by the force of prophetic fervor. Hart goes on to offer, beautifully as always, a non-violent reading of the Cross as sacrifice.

I’d like to respond a bit to Hart’s criticisms of Girard, because while some of his criticisms could describe the early Girard (given the texts Hart depends on), they are not true of the late Girard, as I’ll show. At the time Hart assessed Girard, Girard would have agreed with Hart’s non-violent account of Christ’s death, even as sacrifice, as being consistent with his overall theories on mimetic desire and sacred violence.

In an interview with Rebecca Adams (“Violence, Difference, Sacrifice: A Conversation with Rene Girard,” Religion & Literature [Vol. 25, No. 2] Summer, 1993), subsequent to the works of Girard that Hart basis his critique upon but prior to the publication of Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI|2003), Girard addresses the core of Hart’s concerns. The interview is quite revealing.

Take for example Hart’s mention of Girard’s dismissal of the book of Hebrews (and ‘sacrificial’ language as such) as a violent reading of the Cross implicating God in persecuting the victim. There’s no doubt this is Girard’s view in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978 in French, 1987 in English). In that book (228) Girard writes:

According to this Epistle, there is certainly a difference between Christ’s Passion and the sacrifices that have gone before. But this difference is still defined within the context of the sacrificial, and consequently the real essence of the sacrificial is never examined. Like all the variants that are to follow, this first attempt at a sacrificial theology is based on analogies between the form of the Passion and the form of all other sacrifices, but it allows the essential feature to escape.

Certainly the believer rightly sees an enormous difference between Christianity and the sacrifices of the Old Testament. But he can give no justification for this difference as long as he continues to define everything in sacrificial terms…As long as the Christian difference is defined in sacrificial terms, as all former differences among religions have been defined, it will eventually be effaced.

To sum up: the Epistle to the Hebrews re-enacts what is re-enacted in all earlier formulations of sacrifice. It discharges human violence, but to a lesser degree. It restates God’s responsibility for the death of the victim….

But when asked about this by Adams in 1993, Girard repents of “having scapegoated Hebrews” and all talk of “sacrifice.” Here’s a portion of the conversation:

Girard: I agree entirely with you that there are problems with my treatment of Hebrews. It’s a problem of language: the language of the “last sacrifice,” even though in Things Hidden I say, ultimately, that the word “sacrifice” doesn’t matter that much. But I say it too briefly. And I give too much importance to that word. That’s one of the reasons for my misinterpreting Hebrews. I was aware of these great things in it, especially in the quotation of the Psalms.

Adams: You’re saying that you dismissed Hebrews too quickly?

Girard: Yes, sure. I was completely wrong. And I don’t know what happened to me, really, because I was pretty careful not to do that, generally.

Adams: Hebrews is one of the main sources, of course, for sacrificial theology. And so it deserves careful treatment.

Girard: Yes, it deserves careful treatment. And its concept of the “last sacrifice” can be very easily interpreted, made to fit, the view I propose. There is no serious problem. But in Things Hidden I ask Hebrews to use the same vocabulary I do, which is just plain ridiculous.

Adams: We’ll look for further work on Hebrews, then?

Girard: That’s true. That’s one part of Things Hidden that I would like to change.

Adams: Let’s continue then with the question of “sacrifice” as a developing and fluid concept.

Girard: I say at the end of Things Hidden – and I think this is the right attitude to develop – that the changes in the meaning of the word “sacrifice” contain a whole history, religious history, of mankind. So when we say “sacrifice” today inside a church or religious context, we mean something which has nothing to do with primitive religion. Of course I was full of primitive religion at the time of the writing of the book, and my main theme was the difference between primitive religion and Christianity, so I reserved the word “sacrifice” completely for the primitive.

Adams: So you scapegoated Hebrews within the canon of Scripture.

Girard: So I scapegoated Hebrews and I scapegoated the word “sacrifice.” I assumed it should have some kind of constant meaning, which is contrary to the mainstream of my own thinking…

girardWith respect to the notion that mimetic desire is inherently acquisitive and violent, Girard makes it clear that he always believed mimetic desire to be capable of peaceful and non-violent fulfillment. He in fact agreed that mimetic desire is that which opens us up (positively) to God and others.

Adams: But again, that’s the idea of renunciation of the will, isn’t it?

Girard: The idea of renunciation has, no doubt, been overdone by the Puritans and the Jansenists, but the blanket hostility that now prevails against it is even worse. The idea that renunciation in all its forms should be renounced once and for all may well be the most flagrant nonsense any human culture has ever devised. But as to whether I am advocating “renunciation” of mimetic desire, yes and no. Not the renunciation of mimetic desire itself, because what Jesus advocates is mimetic desire. Imitate me, and imitate the father through me, he says, so it’s twice mimetic. Jesus seems to say that the only way to avoid violence is to imitate me, and imitate the Father. So the idea that mimetic desire itself is bad makes no sense. It is true, however, that occasionally I say “mimetic desire’ when I really mean only the type of mimetic desire that generates mimetic rivalry and, in turn, is generated by it.

Adams: This is an important clarification. It seems that it wouldn’t make sense, in light of your theory itself, to say mimetic desire should be renounced…

Girard: A simple renunciation of desire I don’t think is Christian. It’s more Buddhist. Undoubtedly there are similarities between what I am saying and Buddhism. If you read the descriptions of Buddhism, they are very profound; they are very aware of mimetic desire, and of contagion, and of all the things that matter in human relations. Like all great religious writing. The thing that is unique about Christianity is that it wants to go back to the origin, to the sacrificial origin, and uncover it. Buddhism is not interested in doing this at all. And Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether. Christianity never does that. Christianity says, the cross will be there for you, inevitably. But that kind of renunciation is very different.

…I would say that mimetic desire, even when bad, is intrinsically good, in the sense that far from being merely imitative in a small sense, it’s the opening out of oneself.

Note, finally, in Girard’s objections to Buddhism an answer to those who see in Girard a gnostic tendency to see salvation as an escape from the world and time. “Buddhism advocates getting out of the world altogether,” Girard insists, “Christianity never does that.” Adams brings up the charge of Gnosticism:

Adams: I’d like to ask now about your understanding of history, and how you interpret both sacrifice itself and Christianity within the movement of history. It seems as if your thought tends toward Gnosticism, in the sense that it is knowledge which eventually saves us, history is a process of coming to greater and greater knowledge of the victimage mechanism, and there is some point toward which we are progressing, at which we will be enlightened in a definitive sense.

Girard: Yes, but don’t forget that I say that this knowledge is very ambivalent in the way it works with people, that there are always perversions of this knowledge.

Adams: So history is not a straight line, a humanistic progress toward an end goal, or something like that.

Girard: No, no.

Adams: And yet you do seem to have a sense of progression.

Girard: I do. The nineteenth century had too much of this sense; our age has too little of it. We are a big reaction against the nineteenth century, and in many ways that’s very positive. But in some ways it’s excessive: all the pessimism against our own religion, against our own culture, against everything which is ours. So I think that’s a problem as well.

Adams: You are referring to multiculturalism, at least in some of the extreme separatist or punitive forms it takes?

Girard: Yes, and that sort of thing.

Adams: Because we’re reacting against our own ethnocentrism, and that’s a healthy impulse, but what we are doing essentially is scapegoating our own culture in the process, and that’s problematic.

Girard: It is the little compensation we can give to the people who have been historically scapegoated. But we are then turning around and scapegoating our own tradition. Scapegoating and betraying our own tradition has become an absolute duty, especially when it is done in the name of Christian charity, of course.

Girard - Things Hidden__________________________

It may be that Girard is driven by a certain prophetic fervor to expose the violence that has crept into so much of Christian thought and self-understanding. But this is, after all, the prophetic calling. One could similarly accuse Israel’s prophets of being too one-sided, too over-invested in negative assessments, too eager to find fault but not to map out what a redeemed human culture looks like, etc. Girard did not map out an ecclesiology of how the Church embodies within the world all the cultural forms of human solidarity that God realizes in and through it. This is an incompleteness to be sure, but to suspect him of latent gnostic tendencies seems a bit much, to say nothing of the fact that Girard directly addressed that question.

It’s one thing to admit non-violent senses of sacrificial language in the ways Hart describes – as expressive of the loving self-surrender and reception that defines Father, Son and Spirit as the God who is love. But does this tell us how to distinguish those “currents of stress” within Israel’s faith and history which Hart and Girard both see in Israel’s texts? Near the end of discussing Girard, Hart notes that we should not speak of the Cross “as a sacrifice” but as “the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” That sounds perfectly Girardian (later in his life)! And the convergence cannot be allowed to blend together to become a third thing. The “radical opposition” has to remain clear and definable throughout or no truly non-violent account of the gospel is possible – and Hart wants that as much as Girard.

So what are the two opposing orders? One is Israel’s entire sacrificial economy with every requirement of blood sacrifice. The other is the peaceful surrendering of Christ’s life to God – a life we can describe as a ‘sacrifice’ in the positive, peaceful sense Hart champions (and which we now know Girard himself celebrated). But as Hart agrees, Christ does not require the Cross to constitute the event of his life as gift surrendered/sacrificed to God, however completely his life of surrender is revealed in the demands which being crucified make of him. Thus, the sacrifice which Christ makes and the sacrifice which they who crucify him make are the “two radically opposed orders of sacrifice.” crosss“The crucifixion,” Hart describes, “is what happens to this sacrifice [viz., the sacrifice that is Christ’s peaceful and loving life lived in surrender to God], even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event” (emphasis mine). Thanks to Rebecca Adams, we know that there’s nothing here the late Girard would have disagreed with, so I take Hart’s criticisms of Girard in BOI to be answered. Had Hart engaged Girard’s later reflections published by Adams, I’m guessing Hart’s assessment of Girard would have been different.

What Hart doesn’t address in his critique of Girard’s thoughts on Israel’s sacrificial cult is whether or not he (Hart) thinks God really directed Israel’s development of sacrificial rituals. It’s a fair question. Does God’s being non-violent extend to the treatment of animals used in sacrifice to God or to the arguably inevitable corruption of faith and thought that so bloody an approach would precipitate? It would arguably be impossible to secure a non-violent reading of the gospel if one believes God ordained and directed the slaughter of vast numbers of animals. If the “event” of God’s triune fullness is an infinitely accomplished peace which Christ’s life reveals, whence the divine requirement for blood? Hart seems to agree with Girard that there is none. So are the prophets who rebuke Israel merely objecting to an improper heart attitude that spoiled blood sacrifices God was otherwise looking forward to enjoying? Or is the final truth that Christ reveals anticipated more by the occasional but unmistakably radical sentiment of Ps 51.17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings”? The writer doesn’t appear to believe that sacrifice is the proper response even of a transformed heart. On the contrary, once the heart becomes the explicit scene of grace’s transformation, there’s no need for sacrifice. As he says, “…else I would bring it.” Hosea 6.6 as well: “For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings” But one might ask why not both mercy and sacrifice if all that’s wrong with blood sacrifice is the absence of a merciful disposition in the worshiper? Or Heb 10.8: “‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’, though they were offered in accordance with the law,” and so forth.

I liken Israel’s entire sacrificial cult as similar to Israel’s monarchy (see Israel’s request for a king in 1Sam 8), or for that matter to God’s permitting divorce (Mt 19:8) – as something God never wanted, something which was essentially a misrelation to God’s intentions and desires, a violation of an economy of peace God sought to establish, but something which God permitted due to the hardened heart of Israel, God’s covenant partner. Consider how this plays out with Israel’s insistence upon having a king. God never wanted Israel to have a king, and the very request, Samuel warns, amounted to a rejection of God by Israel. And yet God gave them what they wanted, complete with instructions on how to manage the monarchy within the framework of Israel’s covenant. Eventually Israel’s hopes for salvation become inseparable from the language of monarchy and later Christian thought and worship come to express themselves in the same terms. But the “radical opposition” never gets resolved into a peaceful economy. However natural it feels to celebrate later achievements wrought by grace through such accommodations (whether blood sacrifice or monarchy or what have you), the accommodations remain obstacles that are overcome, contingencies in spite of which God brings his salvation.

For the present it is the Church’s calling to realize, via the Spirit, what God intends human solidarity to look like, all the while maintaining the “radically opposed orders” of sacrifice. There’s no way to read straight off Israel’s history the one story God is writing, however tied to Israel’s history we must be. Does God’s good story include divorce since God permitted divorce? Hardly. Does it include monarchy since God tolerated that? Not in light of Israel’s reassessment of her own history. Does it include animal sacrifice since God accommodated blood sacrifice? Does it include the Cross since God submitted to it? Here, with Girard, I have to follow the logic of peaceful love. The story we tell, the story victims tell, is the story of our shared participation in the “event” (Hart’s word) of God’s peaceful, self-surrender. The revelation of this event always occurs in a violent, less than ideal world, a world which is both the means of revelation and the object which revelation addresses and seeks to transform. That may not be an easy history to parse, but (the late) Girard manages it as well as any, better than most.

The Hart of Rene Girard—Part 1

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There’s a Youtube interview (never mind the link) with David Bentley Hart in which Hart discusses Rene Girard’s work. Unfortunately the audio recording makes understanding Hart impossible.

I’ve kept an open ear online for announcements of an interview or essay in which Hart describes his appreciation for and criticisms of Girard, but nothing forthcoming. I did, however, manage to find enough of Hart’s thoughts on Girard in Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite (BOI, 347-353), relevant portions of which I’ve reproduced below. I’ll leave this Part 1 to Hart and return with a Part 2 to reflect upon his assessment. If you have BOI and are a fan of Girard as I am, take advantage of the whole passage. Hart writes:

The myth of the cosmos as a precarious equilibrium of countervailing forces, an island of order amidst and infinite ocean of violent energy – which is also the myth of the polis or the empire – belongs principally to a sacral order that seeks to contain nature’s violence within the stabilizing forms of a more orderly kind of violence: the sheer waste and destructiveness of the cosmos must be held at bay and controlled, by a motion at once apotropaic – repelling chaos by appeasing its chthonian [pronounced /Kthounian/ or /Thounian/, meaning “pertaining to the underworld”] energies and rationalizing them in structures of Apollonian order – and economic – recuperating what is lost or sacrificed in the form of a transcendent credit, a numinous power reinforcing the regime that sacrifice serves…This is the sacrificial logic that theology is called upon to reject: the commerce of the totality, which is overcome by the infinite gesture of Christ’s sacrifice.

Can, though, sacrifice defeat sacrifice? Is not the cross of Christ another myth of peace won through violence, of chaos and death subdued by a propitiatory offering, and of, indeed (as Nietzsche said), the infinite multiplication of debt rather than its discharge? One would obviously wish to say not, but one must also have a care that, in making one’s argument, one does not fail to account for the element of oblation in the story of salvation. A salutary example, both for good and ill, of how delicate a matter it is to argue against the idea of the cross as divine violence is Rene Girard; no one else has made so great an issue of the difference between the death of Christ and the death of the “sacrificial” victim. Girard’s most extensive treatment of propitiatory exclusion is found in The Scapegoat, where he draws an absolute distinction between the mythology that dictates that religions make room, on ritual occasions, for disorder in subordination to order and those biblical narratives that tell their story from the perspective of the victim of both that disorder and that order. Mythologies, according to Girard, generally reflect the thinking of the class of persecutors; and “[s]trong in their righteousness, and convinced that their victim is truly guilty, persecutors have no reason to be troubled” (104). Not that persecutors are always creatures of malice more often than not they are guardians of the public weal, whose prudence prevents violence from erupting into riot, warfare, or internecine strife. Their sacrificial economics is simply the art of responsible politics. Of Caiaphas’s remark that it is better that one die than that the nation perish, for instance, Girard writes: “Caiaphas is stating the…political reason…for the scapegoat: to limit violence as much as possible bot to turn to it, if necessary, as a last resort to avoid an even greater violence. Caiaphas is the incarnation of politics at its best, not its worst. No one has ever been a better politician (113). And so, “Caiaphas is the perfect sacrificer who puts victims to death to save those who live. By reminding us of this John emphasizes that every real cultural decision has a sacrificial character (decider, remember, is to cut the victim’s throat) that refers back to an unrevealed effect of the scapegoat, the sacred type of representation of persecution” (114). For Girard this means that theologians who speak of Christ’s death (at least in its salvific function) as a sacrifice “once more make sacred the violence that has been divested of its sacred character by the Gospel text (126); and in so doing they lose sight of the evangel that truly sets free: “The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand” (189). In Things Hidden Since the Foundations of the World Girard goes so far as to advocate a “non-sacrificial reading of the gospel text”: the Bible from the beginning seeks to unwind the narrative of sacrifice, he says, taking the side of Abel against Cain, whose violence is indeed the founding of cities; the crucifixion is, thus, in no sense a sacrifice (180); for the notion of divine violence is no part of the Gospel story (189). Girard sees the profound logic of Scripture, as a whole, as lying in its constant movement away from the mythology of sacrifice (205-6), even as the presence of sacrificial and exclusionary themes causes currents of contradiction to run through its texts: he contrasts (to the former’s discredit) the stories of humanity’s expulsion from Eden and that of Johns prologue, which speaks of God’s exclusion by a violent world (247-76); and he does not hesitate to take the book of Hebrews to task for trafficking in sacrificial motifs and for, in consequence, implicating God in the persecution of the victim (227-31).

That Girard’s arguments suffer from an occasional want of subtlety scarcely needs be said; in particular, his failure adequately to distinguish different senses of sacrifice from one another leads him all too often to treat the history of Israel’s faith as a stark opposition between a sacrificial cult and a prophetic tradition that has rejected sacrifice, causing him in consequence to overlook the manifold meanings inherent in Israel’s many sacrificial practices, the dependency of the prophetic tradition upon the language of sacrifice, and the ways in which the life and death of Christ are received in Christian thought as perfecting God’s covenant with Israel – even insofar as that covenant involves sacrifices. If Christ’s death overcomes a certain sacrificial order, it also fulfills one. Still, Girard’s observations must not be casually dismissed: it would obviously be repellent, for instance, for a Christian theologian to make of the crucifixion a kind of justification for capital punishment; but within a certain understanding of sacrifice, the immolation of the hostia and the execution of the criminal belong to the same motion of exclusion, the same inhibition of chaos, the same economic gesture; and this is a distinction that cannot be ignored. If the language of sacrifice in Christian thought did properly refer to an economy of exchange, such that God were appeased in the slaughter of a victim and his wrath were simply averted by way of a prudential violence of which he approved (and Flagellation of Christ, ca. 1900.who can deny that many Christians have imagined their faith in just these terms?), then indeed the Christian God would be a God of violence, and the Christian evangel of peace would simply dissemble another economy of violence and debt – one that, in fact (Nietzsche winning the field), has been monstrously magnified. Here, as nowhere else, this book’s initial question proves most perilous to ask: Does the language of sacrifice within Christian thought, inextirpable from Scripture, make of the gospel a tale that defeats itself in the telling, the beauty of whose rhetoric proves in the end to be another – and particularly meretricious – variant of the glamor of violence? And this is by no means an easy question to answer: contrary to Girard’s contention, the presence of sacrificial language in the New Testament is so deeply constitutive of Christian soteriology (even in its overcoming of sacrificial models of cosmic order) that it cannot simply be dispelled by drawing a firm demarcation between the site of the persecutor and the site of the victim, between the place of eminence and the place of abjection. Girard is right to make this distinction, of course, and even right to do so with a degree of prophetic fervor; but the dangers of his method are many: he risks leaving Israel behind and so, in consequence, the world.

The Christian story of salvation concerns not the descent of some gnostic savior bearing tidings of an alien God, but the covenant that God makes with Israel and the covenant he makes, consequently, with all flesh; it is in the history of the world he elects; it is in his people, the Jews, that God instates an order of infinite giving that responds to the infinity of his gift in creating, and that stands apart from the hierarchies of worldly power. It is only in fulfilling – indeed, in being the substance of – this covenant that Christ makes the story that God tells concerning creation triumph over the false and violent stories that sinful humanity tells of the world. Girard’s treatment of the matter, however, in its most extreme moments, makes out the salvific motion of Christ’s life to be almost purely negative, a motion of alienation, running dialectically against history. Not that this is Girard’s intention: he intends that the story of the victim be recognized as a true story and one that must be liberated from the narratives of the persecutor; but the effect of his account of salvation is that Christ comes to look almost like a Marcionite savior, who does not so much inaugurate the liberating history of God with us as describe a path of flight from time. Rather than the form that stands in the midst of creation to declare the true shape of creation, Christ looks suspiciously like a figure who saves simply by pointing beyond every economy – and every world but society is exchange, giving and taking, even in some sense sacrificing one thing for another, offering one thing up for another. Does Christ then offer a new order of exchange and sacrifice, or is he simply the abnegation of human solidarity, a revolutionary outcry that forever interrupts the story of the world but tells no story of its own? Is salvation merely the liberation of souls from the bondage of the world? Again, Girard intends to say no such thing; but where, in the world, does the victim have a story of his own?…

There are many sacrificial moments in Israel’s response to God, of course, and so Israel’s cultic practices cannot be reduced to one essential thing univocally termed “sacrifice.” There are indeed practices of violence and exclusion, but also practices of sanctification and reconciliation, thanksgiving and adoration. Before all else, though, sacrifice is a qurban, a drawing nigh, an approach to God who graciously approaches his people in love. If there are currents of stress in the history of Israel’s cult, they do not run between the idea of sacrifice as such and a prophetic rejection of sacrifice, but between different ways of understanding the motion of sacrifice that Israel is, the gift it makes of itself – of its body – to the God who gives it its being and its name…

…For Christian thought the true order of sacrifice is that which corresponds to the motion of the divine perichoresis, the Father’s giving of the Son, the Son’s execution of all the Father is and wills, the Spirit’s eternal offering back up of the gift in endless variety, each person receiving from and giving to each other in infinite love. The pagan or secular sacrificial regime obeys the logic of the boundary, the “justice” of demarcations, the blow with which Romulus slays Renus; the sacrifice that Christ is obeys the life of the God who is apeiron, aperilepton, boundless, impossible to “leap over,” but crossing every boundary in absolute freedom to declare his love…

This is why the cross of Christ should be seen not simply as a sacrifice, but as the convergence of two radically opposed orders of sacrifice. It is pure crisis, a confrontation between worlds, the raising up of one out of the grip of the other. Within Israel’s history the most important practice of sacrifice is ultimately confined to the temple in Jerusalem alone, and this is entirely appropriate. Israel’s offering does not express a sacrificial logic simply inherent in being, practicable in any setting, for purposes of auspication or haruspication or private benefit, but is the single action of God’s people, the extraordinary motion of Israel’s ceaseless exodus toward God, to whom all being belongs, peacefully, and who therefore has no need for it to be portioned to him in an economy of violence. It is this same motion toward God that is made perfect in the life of Christ, in the gift he makes of himself to the Father by the entirety of who he is. The crucifixion is what happens to this sacrifice, even as its seal and perfect accomplishment, but not as such its event; the cross is the response of political power to Christ’s self-oblation, which is the entire kenotic and faithful unfolding of his mission. There is a double motion in the crucifixion, of gift and immolation: Christ giving himself to God in the entirety of his life lived toward the Father, unto death, and the violence of worldly power folding back upon this motion in an attempt to contain it.