The wrong paradox


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Economics of atonement


Most Christians I know, even those who don’t adopt a penal-substitutionary theory of the sufferings of Christ, believe that God’s sufferings in Christ accomplish or effect something in God which makes our theosis a possibility for God. God contemplates his suffering (not just the incarnation as such, but his suffering as such) and the contemplation of this pain is that about God which opens space in God for us. I used to see things this way myself. I now think this is entirely mistaken. I don’t think violence or evil do anything on the divine side of the equation (so to speak) to create space in God for us or otherwise make it possible for God to forgive us or to secure our union with him. The sufferings of Christ are entirely an economic manifestation within our fallen context exclusively for our sake because we, not God, require it.