I’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.
Each 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.
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.
Christ’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.
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’.