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)