Nuechterlein on “My Core Convictions,” Part 4

Last revised: February 18, 2012

My Core Convictions:
Nonviolence and the Christian Faith

Part IV: Major Theses for the Life of the Church

1 In light of the above First Principals and the two-part essay regarding Jesus’ faith and apocalyptic preaching, I invite the reader to confess with me that the Church remains in sore need of reformation, especially to the extent that it is called to sacramentally be a presence of peace in a world torn by violence.

1.1 Martin Luther, under the threat of violence from the church of his day, called the church to return to faith in a God of grace and love. Yet he still seemed to miss the most essential point about this gracious God who sent the Son into the world to save us from our own human violence. This is not so much to blame him. He made a valiant effort at evangelical theology. But here’s the point: an evangelical anthropology was still lacking, and so Luther’s theological insights fell victim to our idols of violence, which have continued to support our human violence against one another. The process of doing theology at the time of the Reformation even became violent itself, succumbing to a constant over-againstness towards one’s opponent’s theology.

1.2 A fully adequate evangelical anthropology has not really been possible until, under the influence of the Paraclete’s push for truth, modern science came into being,1 with its abilities to research and study vast amounts of data and so can move toward more universal, global understandings of the truth about human nature and human culture. With the evangelical anthropology of René Girard we finally have an anthropology conversant with scientific hypotheses and adequate to the task of reformation in the Church.

1.3 So this is what the Church finally needs to see: that reformation around the issue of violence, especially sanctioned violence, is the pivotal issue for reform in the Church. Since Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion, Christians have been more aligned with the human way of violence than with Christ’s way of peace.

1.4 At the beginning of the 21st Century, after the bloodiest century in human history, Westerners are so scandalized by the violence connected with the long history of Christendom (that period of Western history since Constantine), that they have forsaken the Christian faith in huge numbers. And I submit that our failure to be peacemakers is the number one reason for such mass defections. It is not only our failures in the face of massive bloodshed at times of war, Crusades, etc. It is also the smaller, everyday failures. When I converse with unchurched folks who once were churched, they almost always tell me a story of being deeply hurt — most often by someone breaking the commandment on bearing false witness, namely, gossip. See James 3:5ff. for an account of the violent destruction wreaked by our tongues: that “the tongue is a fire…, and is itself set on fire by hell” (James 3:6). Doesn’t this reference to hell make sense in terms of Satan the Accuser? But as disciples of the One who exposed the work of Satan, shouldn’t we in the church have also done a better job over the centuries of not so often succumbing to the violence of gossip?

1.5 Of primary concern to the Christian faith should be the common perception in the modern world that the Christian religion is the most violent of all. This state of affairs ought to be a sign of how far off-course the church has veered, when it comes to the crucial reality of human violence. (See my sermon for Good Friday 2003.)

2 Re-formation of the Christian faith might be envisioned as happening around a focus on the “faith of Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22; 5:1; Gal. 2:16; 3:12; Phil. 3:9; verses crucial to the original Reformation; see the webpage for Reformation Sunday). Christ’s faith is the true way of being human in the world. The possibility of anyone else living in such faith is dependent on his faith.

2.1 First of all, we need to deal with a problem of Bible translation. We need to agree that the better translation of the Greek pisteos Iesou Christou in the above verses (Rom. 3:22, etc.) is “faith of Jesus Christ,” instead of the more common translation these days of “faith in Jesus Christ.” I first came across this issue of translation in Charles B. Cousar‘s A Theology of the Cross,2 where he summarizes the point I am trying to make: “that the concern in Romans 3 is not between two human activities, obedience to the law or believing in Christ, but between a human activity and the activity of Christ.” The “activity” in question in this essay is how to respond to violence. Human beings have a fallen way of responding, either fight or flight. Jesus Christ came with God’s response, the only response truly different, and thus the only response capable of saving us from our violence. In Jesus Christ, God submits to our violence on the Cross and shows it to be impotent in the Resurrection. Christ was the one who was finally faithful to a God who “desires mercy not sacrifice” (Jesus’ words in Matt. 9:13; 12:7, quoting Hos. 6:6). It is his faithfulness that saves us.

2.1.1 If the Reformation insight is that we are saved by God’s grace, then the first focus of that gift from God should be on Christ’s faith, not on ours. Again, it is an emphasis on Christ’s activity that helps us most appreciate the graciousness of God’s gift.

2.1.2 If the emphasis is the other way around — namely, on our faith in Christ, as it has seemingly become since the Reformation — then the tendency is to make a “works righteousness” out of our acts of believing and on the contents of our beliefs — all abstracted away from the faithfulness of Jesus Christ in its historical incarnation.

2.1.3 And if the emphasis is backwards, then the faith of the historical Jesus can then also be readily exchanged for the “Christ of faith,” that is to say, the Christ in whom the Church came to believe. This is Rudolf Bultmann‘s basic move in reading the Gospels, a move that has dominated New Testament interpretation over the last century. Instead of Jesus’ faith, we talk about Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s faith in Jesus. This is the same move that N. T. Wright is so earnestly trying to undo (see my summary of Wright’s work in Part III): that what Jesus believed about God takes a back seat to what persons believe about Jesus, an approach that is completely backwards.

2.1.4 If, on the other hand, we correctly translate and emphasize the “faith of Jesus Christ,” then the historical incarnation of Christ’s faith makes all the difference in the world. And we have characterized the faith of Christ in these “Core Convictions” as a faith in God’s way of nonviolent love even in the face of the satanic powers of righteous violence and death. Jesus Christ’s faith took him to the Cross, an event par excellence of righteous human violence; and his was a faith which was then vindicated in the life-giving power of the Resurrection.

2.2 Let’s not get things backwards, then: Christ’s faith in God comes first as the pre-condition of our faith in Christ. The role of human faith in Christ, therefore, is the secondary role of receiving the power of Christ’s faith through the gracious work of the Holy Spirit. This work can be most readily seen through the traditional “means of grace,” namely, God’s Word and the Sacraments. These remain basic to the life of the Church, and some brief remarks are in order in light of the proposed reforming influence of evangelical anthropology.

2.2.1 God’s Word. My hope is that the work of René Girard and his students, myself included, is a sign of an encounter with Scripture renewed by the perspective of an evangelical anthropology. Does this perspective bear the fruit of renewing the church’s encounter with the Word? I humbly offer my work on “Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary” as undertaken with this hope.

2.2.2 Baptism is a daily dying and rising with Christ so that Christ (his faith included) lives in us and we in him. Since we have already died and risen with him, we need not fear the satanic powers of violence and death as we have characterized them here. We are empowered to live in the faith of Christ such that we would sooner sacrifice ourselves to those powers than to become a conduit for inflicting them on others. With the help of Christ’s faith through the Holy Spirit, we do our best in faith to live the way of nonviolent love.

2.2.3 Baptism is also an eschatological (the fancy theological word for “future-oriented”) washing of our sin-born selves, such that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. As such, we are not the ones who will save the world. To the extent that we are saved, we have the exciting call to participate in God’s saving the world in Christ. But we do not live the way of nonviolence as a means or strategy to ourselves bring about the fulfillment of Creation. Baptismal life is living the way of nonviolence as eschatological signs (sacraments) of God’s reign of peace breaking into the world. In other words, we live nonviolently because we have seen the ending of the story, that it is God’s nonviolent love in Jesus Christ which wins the victory. Our lives of nonviolence can continue to be signs of that victory in this world in anticipation of its peaceful conclusion.

2.2.4 The Eucharist is participation in Christ’s kenosis, his self-emptying, that paradoxically fills us, such that we might be eschatological signs (sacraments) of Christ’s self-emptying love as it fills the world. It is a participation, a liturgy, that anticipates and celebrates fulfillment of Creation such that we are nourished and filled for self-emptying, loving service in the as-yet broken world. I agree with Gandhi’s assessment that “Poverty is the worst form of violence” — which also fits the biblical emphasis on reaching out in loving service to the poor.

2.2.5 The Eucharist, in anticipating the fulfillment of Creation, is eschatologically inclusive of all. As St. Paul warns the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 11:17-34, practices of the Lord’s Supper which exclude others cannot truly be the Lord’s Supper. Instead of Holy Communion, St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they practice their own unholy communions to their own detriment and sickness. And so do we, to the extent that we exclude others. Holy Communion, akin to Jesus’ own table fellowship with “sinners,” is especially inclusive of all those people most commonly marginalized by humankind’s unholy communions.

3 A re-formation of faith — like the one I am calling for, that counts on the Paraclete’s recent work of evangelical anthropology — also effects a revitalization of faith’s theological content. Crucial doctrines that have long become entrenched in the typical faith of Christendom can be seen in new light. Following is a short (non-exhaustive) list of such doctrines.

3.1 Atonement. Perhaps chief among the erroneous doctrines are the traditional substitutionary doctrines of atonement. Evangelical anthropology helps us to see that the Cross exposes all idolatries which make God involved in our sacred violence. Traditional doctrines of atonement largely bring us right back into such idolatries, having Christ save us from divine violence that would otherwise be directed at us. It’s not only evangelical anthropology but also the Gospels that clearly paint a different picture. All of Jesus’ own Passion predictions, as well as the apostles first sermons, make clear that it is we human beings who kill and God who raises up. (See the first five recorded sermons in the history of the church. Although they come on diverse occasions, they all ring out the theme that we human beings kill, and God raises to life: Acts 2:23-24; 3:15; 4:10; 5:30; and 10:39-40.) Traditional atonement doctrines create so many problems that it is among the most urgent business for the church to get clear about. And it has been among the most frequent uses of evangelical anthropology to help clear up. See my webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”

3.2 Original Sin. I am calling for reform in these pages, but what follows in the next paragraphs might actually be judged (by those with a better historical knowledge of the 16th century theology than me) as closer to the Catholic position on Original Sin — as officially posed in the Council of Trent’s reaction to Augsburg — than to the Reformed position. Catholics and Lutherans have agreed in recent years on a theology of grace. In terms of official doctrines, I would venture that they never really differed on this score, despite the fact that Protestants still like to identify themselves by their theology of grace. I would like to suggest that where Catholics and Protestants have differed, and perhaps still differ, is regards to anthropology and the doctrine of original sin.3 The doctrine of Original Sin must always have an anthropological component since it fundamentally involves human nature.

3.2.1 So what guidance might an evangelical anthropology informed by mimetic theory give us? In this essay, the groundwork is laid, I believe, in Part I beginning with §3. There we established that human desire is an essential part of human nature. As such, it is created good, that is to say, created in the image of God as that which gives us the ability to follow in the loving desire of our Creator for the whole creation.

3.2.2 But mimetic theory helps us to understand that human desire is not itself created as a loving desire for Creation. Rather, it is created in the “image.” It is created as the ability to imitate personal desires such as those revealed between the Father and the Son. The crucial question always involves whose desire we imitate, given our ability. The story of the Fall in Genesis 3 shows us that, since the beginnings of our existence, humankind has imitated the desire of other creatures rather than of God, leading into the way of envy instead of the way of love. Far short of a loving desire for the abundance of God’s Creation, we imitate in one another a competitive desire for the same objects, which appear scarce to us precisely because we are competing for them. (For example: when two children imitate each other’s desire for the same teddy bear, they experience that teddy bear as scarce, even if they fight over it in a room full of teddy bears.)

3.2.3 Thus, in Part I §3.1 above, we described human desire as a created potentiality. Depending upon whose desire we imitate, human beings have the potential for the way of envy and conflict or the way of love and peace. The story of the Fall relates to us the path onto which we have fallen, namely, of course, the way of envy — or, in the terms of that good biblical word, the way of covetousness.

3.2.4 The Ten Commandments share this picture of sin. The first and last commandments combine to show us the way of covetousness. In substituting our neighbor as our models of desire — taking them essentially as other gods in substitution for following the loving desire of the one true God — we are constantly falling into covetous desire, and so we fall into rivalry and the ensuing ways of violence: tearing down one another’s reputations (“bearing false witness”), stealing, adultery, and killing, the middle commandments.4

3.2.5 I believe that the evangelical anthropology sketched out here is highly resonant with St. Paul’s typological way of speaking in the Letter to the Romans (and Galatians). The way of covetousness is to live “according to the flesh.”5 To begin living in the way of love, on the other hand, is to begin to live “according to the Spirit.” Because of the First Adam humankind had become trapped in living according to the flesh. But because of God’s gracious sending of the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, we can now begin to live according to the Spirit.

3.2.6 In terms of the historical debates, then, does the evangelical anthropology of mimetic theory lend some further clarity? It agrees with a theology of grace: humankind, mimetically following in the way of the First Adam, would remain trapped in life according to the flesh if not for the gracious sending of the Second Adam, who alone fulfills our human potentiality for living according to the loving desire of our Creator, our heavenly Father. We are forgiven nothing less than our way of death which put the Second Adam on the cross. In the resurrection, he returns as God’s forgiveness, which alone can begin to set us on a different path, the path of imitating Christ, the path of being his disciples, the path of living according to his Holy Spirit. The latter might be described as “grace perfecting nature,” as a life of sanctification. Once justified by the grace of God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ, we are able to begin living a life of sanctification in the Holy Spirit. We are able to begin living according to our potentiality for imitating the loving desire of our Creator.

3.3 Creation. The doctrine of Original Sin which we have just outlined is also very much dependent on a doctrine of ongoing Creation which holds both the protological and the eschatological (beginnings and endings) in creative tension.6

3.3.1 By emphasizing the word “ongoing,” I mean to distinguish this from the kind of thinking which is protologically stuck. By this I mean the kind of approach that sees Creation as a done deal “in the beginning.” We then get the kind of salvation history which goes something like this: God created the world in the beginning as good; humankind sinned and corrupted everything to the core; Jesus took our sentence of death on the cross; God forgives us in raising Jesus from the dead; and so now we human beings can go to heaven to be with Jesus forever when we die.

3.3.2 For one thing, this scheme anticipates our next doctrinal ‘correction’ below on heaven. So many popular Christian accounts of salvation include the rest of Creation in the corruption and death caused by humanity’s sin, but then they leave it completely out of the salvation rendered, in favor of the otherworldly view of human souls going to a place called heaven. We will address this further in a moment.

3.3.3 The doctrine of Original Sin outlined above requires a thinking about creation as ongoing, that is, as a process of coming to fulfillment. What fulfillment? The fulfillment of God’s loving desire as put forth in Part 1 §2. God is Love, and Love is creative, especially of new relationships with the potential (but only potential since love also requires freedom) for returning love. Human beings are those creatures made in the image of God who are able to return God’s love for Creation. The story of the Fall recounts how the First Adam failed to return that love and fell onto the way of envy. We who are descendants of the First Adam remain stuck in that way of envy and conflict since our beginnings. Our falling is also ongoing. But the Fall did not somehow erase our potential for love. Thus, with the advent of the Second Adam who has fulfilled that potential for sharing God’s loving desire, another way, the way of love, has finally been established as part of Creation’s ongoing process of coming to the fulfillment of God’s Love.

3.3.4 Human beings who live in faith for the way of Christ thus begin to live as creatures who are part of Creation’s ongoing process of coming to fulfillment. In this created time between the beginnings and endings of Creation, we are thus, to the extent that we live in Christ, both saints and sinners. We are creatures who began in the way of the First Adam, the way of envy and conflict, but we are also creatures who, in the gracious forgiveness of the Second Adam, are beginning to live toward our fulfillment in the way of love. We begin to live according to the power of the resurrection, the power of life, on the way of being freed from our powers of death that have bound us.

3.3.5 We see this most clearly, I think, in John’s Gospel. It is the Gospel which carefully frames itself by opening with a proclamation of the Word who was creating in the beginning. That Word became flesh, entering into the world on its way to death through the way of envy and conflict. (Was John’s Word, the Logos in Greek, intentionally offered as a foil to the philosopher Heraclitus’s Logos of violence? Heraclitus, after all, was the one who philosophically both expounded on the Logos and then also famously proclaimed that, “Conflict [polemos] is the father and king of all things.”7) John’s Jesus is also shown to be continuing that ongoing “work” of creation when healing,8 and it is clearly presented as a continuing process. Jesus says of his healing the lame man, “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17). In short, Creation is a work still in progress. The picture is even more dramatic in John 9. Jesus and his disciples happen upon a man born blind, and the disciples immediately want to take a protological view of Creation which then places a moralized version of Original Sin upon him: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Isn’t Jesus’ response [“Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:3-4)] made more clear by the doctrines of Original Sin and Creation being outlined here? In other words, Jesus came to open our eyes to a renewed way in which we can begin to experience Creation as God’s work. Instead of seeing it as forever trapped in the power of our sin, we can begin to come to see it as forever on its way to fulfillment. When our eyes are fixed on the cross in faith — remembering that in John’s Gospel, the cross is the lifting up that begins the Resurrection and Ascension (see John 3:13-14; 12:32-33; 20:17) — our eyes begin to open to the fulfillment of creation. Jesus cries out from the cross, “It is being fulfilled” (John 19:30; tetelestai in the Greek). For those who believe in Jesus, they thus are empowered to begin participating in God’s power of eternal life such that they “will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).

3.3.6 God’s plan of salvation is of one piece with God’s work of creation; it is an aspect of the ongoing process of bringing Creation to fulfillment. Doesn’t this also help to make sense of Romans 8? St. Paul indicates a certain ordering within the wider plan of Creation. The rest of Creation is dependant on the children of God — the creatures created with the ability to return God’s love — the rest of Creation is waiting for us to get our acts together. As we begin to live according to the Spirit, instead of living according to the flesh, Creation begins to move more decidedly towards its fulfillment. Which brings us to that matter of the popular notion of heaven as a destination which leaves the rest of Creation behind.

3.4 Heaven. N. T. Wright had originally planned to end Vol. 2, his work on the historical Jesus, with a chapter on the Resurrection. But he found popular Christian piety about heaven to be so off the mark that he ended up writing an entire 800-page volume on it, The Resurrection of the Son of God. His main point in this book is that the popular Christian thinking about heaven is more from Plato than it is from Jesus and our Jewish heritage. Most Christians think in terms of heaven as a separate place where one goes after death, accompanied by a hope along the lines of, ‘This earthly life is but a desert dreary, heaven is my home.’ The grave problem with this thinking is that a first-century Jew, namely, Jesus and all the apostles, would never have a hope in terms of devaluing the Creation. Their faith in God is faith in the Creator who lovingly created the heavens and the earth. Such a God would not scrap the earth in favor of a heaven as a holding tank for migrated souls (Plato’s hope). The Jewish/Christian hope is for resurrection of the body and the fulfillment of Creation. Popular Christian thinking prays that souls go to heaven when the body dies. The Lord’s Prayer prays that, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” In other words, it prays that heaven comes to us on earth, not that we go to heaven. Heaven is the unseen dimension of Creation where God’s will resides. We pray for God’s will, for heaven, to merge with earth and bring it to fulfillment. Devaluing the earth in favor of a heavenly home gives us an excuse to treat it sacrificially, that is, as another victim of our sacred violence.

3.5 Hell. Popular thinking has this as the partner place to heaven, an eternal repository for souls condemned by God. In the Gospels, the Greek word behind the English translation “hell” is most often Gehenna.9 It’s the Hellenized name for the valley of Ben Hinnom outside of Jerusalem, a place where we know that Israelites practiced child sacrifice; see Jer. 7:30-34. In short, the popular notions of hell once again try to shift the responsibility for violence from us to God. When Jesus says Gehenna in the Gospels (Matt. 5:22, 29f; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk. 9:43, 45, 47; Lk. 12:5), he is talking about suffering the consequences of our own sacrificial violence. When modern Christians speak of hell, they are generally talking about a place where souls eternally suffer the violence of God’s punishment for sin. Evangelical anthropology calls us to give up such idolatry. Jesus Christ came to save us from our own violence, not from God’s violence. Does this mean that there is no place of prolonged human punishment? Not necessarily. But it would be a punishment of our own making, for refusing to live by God’s grace and instead remaining entrenched in the consequences of our own human violence.

3.6 Judgment. “A punishment of our own making.” To continue this line of thinking from what we’ve said about hell, mimetic theory helps us to see how the biblical theme of judgment is subverted from within — namely, from the idolatrous view of a wrathful God judging us to the Gospel view of a loving God “handing us over” to the consequences of our own wrathful actions. In short, the biblical theme of judgment is realigned in Jesus Christ to a theme of self-judgment.

3.6.1 We have already seen this subversion from within, for example, in our exegesis of Paul’s reworking of the “wrath of God” in Romans (the end of Part II). It begins with God turning us over to the consequences of our idolatry in Romans 1:24, 26, 28. Eventually, the consequences of such idolatry always turn into our judging one another, and suffering our acts of wrath against each other (Rom. 2:1-5). When in 2:6 St. Paul says, “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds,” the theme of divine judgment is stated: “while for those who are self-seeking (eritheia) and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8). Whose wrath and fury? By now St. Paul has made it clear that it is our own human wrath and fury. The word eritheia is most often translated as “selfish ambition” in the NRSV; see Phil. 1:17; 2:3; Jam. 3:14, 16. In James it is paired both times with zelos, envy. And the simplest translation of eritheia might be “rivalry” — in short, those infamous twins of mimetic theory, envy and rivalry. In Rom. 2:8, rivalry (eritheia) is paired with obeying unrighteousness instead of the truth, and the predictable result, according to Paul (and mimetic theory), is wrath and fury. The judging one another of Rom. 2:1 becomes the self-judgment of Rom. 2:5-8.

3.6.2 Is self-judgment also the underlying reading of “Satan casting out Satan,” Part I.5 above? Human beings are under the spell of Satan casting out Satan, and so we are perpetually a house divided against ourselves. Satan casting out Satan is essentially our constant judging of one another, resulting in the self-judgment of never attaining lasting peace

3.6.3 John’s Gospel also seems to make clear the subversion of judgment into self-judgment. There almost seems to be a strange parallel to Mark’s Satan casting out Satan. In John 12:31, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” Similarly, John 16:8, 11: “And when the Paraclete comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” In both these sayings it is ambiguous, I think, who is “the ruler of this world.” Is it Satan who is judged by his own casting out of himself? Or is it Jesus, about to be condemned by Pilate, which the Paraclete makes clear is a judgment on our human judging? Mark has his brand of riddles and John has his.

3.6.4 Also working in tandem in John’s Gospel are 3:19: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” And Jesus remarks in 9:39 to the Pharisees who judge the man born blind and himself: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Both of these verses convey a strong sense of humanity’s self-judgment.

3.6.5 In several of the parables in the Synoptic Gospels, particularly Matthew’s “parables of judgment,” the theme of self-judgment may also be fleshed out. In the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-34), for example, the Unforgiving Servant experiences the incredible grace of being forgiven a huge debt. But he steps back into the world of keeping debts when he holds the meager debt of a fellow servant. His master’s judgment is according to the servant’s own actions. Invited into a world of incredible grace, the servant himself retreats back into the world of keeping debts. (See my sermon from Proper 19A, “The Parable of the Servant Who Chooses Hell.”)

3.6.6 Finally, let me recommend Raymund Schwager’s Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, one of whose central points is precisely that the drama of Jesus letting himself be judged is God’s salvation of humankind from its own self-judgment. More than any other Girardian, Schwager has helped to elucidate the Gospel subversion of God’s judgment into God’s salvation of humanity from its own self-judgment. (See, for example, the section “Apocalyptic and the Self-judgment of Humankind,” pp. 133-134; and the highly nuanced summary of his argument in this excerpt of pp. 195-196.)

4 Living in Christ’s way of peace has many implications for life in the Church. Evangelical anthropology sheds new light on age-old challenges for the life of Holy Communion. Following is a brief (non-exhaustive) list concerning practice of the Holy Life.

4.1 Being catholic in a world where the scapegoat mechanism continues to generate conventional culture raises great challenges for the church’s call to be cross-cultural and inclusive.

4.1.1 One of the ironies of Western culture — namely, the culture in closest proximity to the Gospel for the longest time — has been its historical accident of having the Gospel work its way of Holy Communion from within. “Western culture” has seen unparalleled progress in learning to recognize our patterns of scapegoating along lines of race, religion, gender, physical and mental abilities, sexual preference, etc.

4.1.2 Yet the power of the scapegoating mechanism is such that the forms of scapegoating become even more subtle. White-males, for example, can find token ways of sharing some of the power while still essentially remaining in control, making sure that things continue to be done according to their basic terms. Evangelical anthropology understands that the satanic powers of sin run right to the core of what generates our cultures and institutions, in the first place. Christian conversion is thus about more than personal conversion. Institutional transformation generally proves to be an even more difficult aspect of living a life of sanctification.

4.2 Anti-racism continues to be a most difficult challenge in this regard. As Euro-American culture continues to push its culture globally, the phenomenon of “white racism,” now bolstered by global market capitalism, is the reigning, over-arching form of the scapegoat mechanism in our world.

4.2.1 One of white racism’s most insidious tactics is to promote “multi-culturalism” in racist ways, that is to say, the white-controlled power structure celebrating multi-culturalism to its own advantage. Well-meaning white churches, for example, can foster relationships with African-America congregations without even realizing how they continue to control the terms.

4.2.2 As with the power of sin in general, one cannot ordinarily begin to undo the power of white racism without intentional strategies that include the transformation of institutions from within. Racism goes far beyond personal prejudice. It involves the power of prejudice as having shaped our institutions, over several centuries, to privilege white people. Undoing such systemic racism thus involves institutions being intentional about realigning the way in which power and privilege happens. With white racism, this generally involves white people intentionally relinquishing their privilege in order to meaningfully share it with people of color.

4.2.3 Therefore, a ministry that is intentionally anti-racist goes to the very heart of the understanding of evangelical anthropology to allow God’s Culture to transform from within our human cultures formed by the scapegoating mechanism. It seeks to transform institutions from within so as not to privilege any group. This is no easy task. In today’s world, where “white racism” continues to go global as the reigning kingdom of Satan, anti-racism ministry is the epitome of communities in Christ truly seeking and finding themselves to be Holy Communions — namely, as communities based on the self-sacrifice of those with power, rather than based on the ancient way of sacrificing those with little power.

4.2.4 The issues of Capital Punishment and Restorative Justice vs. Punitive Justice are decidedly under the category of racism in contemporary North America. People of color are victims of capital punishment and of our current punitive justice system at rates far out of proportion to the overall population.

4.2.5 An excellent para-community ministry of supporting other communities in being anti-racist is Crossroads Antiracism of Chicago (see their website).

4.3 Anti-Sexism. In light of the scapegoat mechanism and scapegoating around gender, we can simply ask: Can church communities that do not allow the ordination of women ever achieve meaningful catholicity?

4.4 The place of gay and lesbian persons in the church. This raises a similar issue involving catholicity and scapegoating. Many contemporary church bodies are especially facing two specific policies as crucial: the blessing of monogamous gay relationships by the church, and the ordination of gay persons who openly live in such blessed relationships. Gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ rightly challenge their heterosexual friends that, if gays and lesbians must always follow in the terms dictated by fellow heterosexual members, can they truly be the body of Christ together?

4.4.1 “Straight” folks counter that, even though the evidence in Scripture is scant, it is consistent in its condemnation of “homosexual” behavior. In short, this issue of practive goes to the very heart of how we interpret our Holy Scriptures through Jesus Christ. At the risk of being too brief for such an important subject, I would like to at least point the reader in the direction of a reading informed by evangelical anthropology.

4.4.2 The most crucial passage is that of Romans 1:26-27 where homosexual behavior is clearly described, the only place in scripture where lesbian sexual acts are specified.10 Yet we have already highlighted this passage above in our arguments regarding Paul’s transformation of the “wrath of God.” In other words, Paul’s highlighting of homosexual behavior in 1:26-27 is at least partly in the service of making a wider, more crucial point. He uses the grossest examples of Gentile idolatry — which made liberal use of all kinds of sexual acts as part of their ritual religious practices of blood sacrifice — in order to make the point to his Jewish brothers and sisters in 2:1-2 that judging such idolatry is its own kind of idolatry. The cross of Jesus Christ stands, in fact, as a much more direct judgment on our judging. It is not our sexual sins that most directly put Jesus on the cross; rather, it is the satanic sin par excellence of accusing, judging, and executing — in short, scapegoating the Lamb of God — that most directly puts Jesus on a cross.

4.4.3 This does not mean that we ignore the indirect role of sexuality mixed up with idolatry in leading to scapegoating. Idolatrous sexuality leads to swirling scandal, which eventually swirls around a sacrificial victim. An indirect factor in the Nazi Holocaust, for example, was the German cabaret movement (one of idolatrous sexuality), leading into the reactionary response of totalitarianism seeking a scapegoat. In short, the Bacchanal festivities of Dionysus lead to the mad sacrificial sparagmos (Greek, “tearing apart”) of Dionysus.11 We need to pay attention to the idolatry of sexuality in our contemporary culture, both heterosexual and homosexual. There are signs of it everywhere. Paying attention to the ways in which idolatrous sexuality might lead to scapegoating, however, is markedly different than using it as the next excuse to scapegoat someone.

4.4.4 Can we also make a distinction between idolatrous sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual, and sexuality that is being redeemed in Jesus Christ? With the two policies most prominently in question, gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ are challenging the church around the issue of being covenantally faithful in our sexual relationships. Scientific study is showing serious indication of homosexual preference as a natural inclination. (Recall in 1.2 above the positive historical role of science from the viewpoint of evangelical anthropology.) Can heterosexuals be open to such studies and join in encouraging covenantal faithfulness in gay relationships?

4.4.5 Another crucial element to this issue is thus the “orders of creation” argument, namely, that God creates only a heterosexual order and thus anything else is “unnatural,” and therefore disallowed in even covenantally faithful relations. Here, evangelical anthropology can once again give us pause. For it understands how, through the ages, the creation stories in all cultures tell the stories about societal order mythologically represented as results of the ‘natural’ order.12 The story of creation in Genesis 1 has demythologized much of that aspect. But one strong mythical element remaining there happened to be the element which Jesus most clearly fought in his ministry: namely, the misuse of the Sabbath order to lord it over others.13 The Sabbath is not actually a ‘natural’ order of God’s creation; other cultures mark time in ways other than the seven-day week. But the Sabbath order is presented as a ‘natural’ order of creation in Jewish society in ways in which sin can take advantage, leading to scapegoating. So here are the crucial questions with regards to the place of gay and lesbian people in the church: Do we also misuse the ‘natural’ order of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27) when heterosexual Christians use it to lord over gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Christ? Is “male and female” truly a ‘natural’ order of God’s making, or more reflective of our human societal order that leads to scapegoating those who are deemed ‘unnatural’? Non-literalist Christians complement the Genesis 1 picture of creation with the picture science gives us. Can we also complement the “male and female” of Genesis 1 with the scientific data about gender and gender-preference around human sexuality? (See my sermons from Proper 16C 2004, Transfiguration A 2002, and Epiphany 2B 2003.)

4.5 Domestic Violence and Abortion. Ideally, there would never be ‘problem pregnancies’ and abortion would thus never be sought as a solution to a problem. But this is not yet an ideal world, and the issue of abortion is so often treated as a rational calculus within a framework of rational moral decision-making. But far too often actual decisions for abortion are made within the living nightmare of domestic violence. There’s very little that’s rational within such a living context for moral decision-making. By “domestic violence,” I mean physical, emotional, spiritual, and, yes, sexual abuse. Even in far too many marriages the expectation of the man is to be able to have sex any time he wants it, even if the woman doesn’t. If a wife is trying to say no to sexual relations and the husband forces it, isn’t this rape? And the frequency of such abuse multiplies greatly when we go beyond marriage to live-in and dating relationships. Domestic violence, simply put, is a reign of terror of a man over a woman. When pregnancy becomes a reality within such a reign, a woman doesn’t have the luxury of making a decision within the best, most rational context of moral deliberation. As long as such reigns of terror continue to exist in relationships between men and women, I will continue to support the legal right of women to choose abortion. (Domestic violence can sometimes be reversed as a woman abusing a man, and it is also present within gay relationships. But I limit myself here to the by-far most common domestic violence of men over women because of its connection to pregnancy and abortion.)

4.6 Poverty and Economic Justice. Instead of offering my own reflections on the next three sections (4.6-4.8), I would like to highly recommend one of the most important books of our time: Brian McLaren‘s Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crisis, and a Revolution of Hope [Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007]. McLaren describes the Equity System (4.6), the Prosperity System (4.7) and the Security System (4.8) as three cogs in what is the current “Suicide Machine” of Western Civilization — and our calling as disciples of Jesus to help transform these three systems. I don’t believe that McLaren benefited yet from Girard’s Mimetic Theory when he wrote this book. But he has since become an enthusiastic supporter of Mimetic Theory, and I believe his work in this book anticipates that support. In any case, it is a lucid analysis of the problem and a faith-centered elaboration of what disciples might do in response. Again, I highly recommend the studying of, and putting into practice, Brian McLaren’s Everything Must Change.

4.7 Consumerism vs. Stewardship of Creation. See 4.6.

4.8 “Conscientious Objection” and War. See 4.6.

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NOTES

1. One of René Girard‘s most quotable quotes is from ch. 15, “History and the Paraclete,” in The Scapegoat: “The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer witch-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text.” For more on the connection between science and the Gospel, see my sermon for Epiphany 6B 2003.

2. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990, p. 39, note 28. More recently, I have found the translation “faith of Jesus Christ” being argued for by N. T. Wright in the New Interpreter’s Bible on Romans (vol. 10; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), page 470. See also my sermon for Reformation Sunday 1993.

3. For this point, and for all that follows concerning original sin, I am indebted to the work of James Alison, whose major opus on the topic is The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes. Pertaining to the particular point here, Alison succinctly stated in a footnote in a recent talk (November 18, 2003, entitled “Following the still small voice: Experience, truth and argument as lived by Catholics around the gay issue”; not yet published): “The Catholic and the Reformed positions are identical in recognising the completely free and gratuitous initiative of God who saves. The difference between them is an anthropological one concerning who we are who are being saved and what that salvation looks like as a human process over time.”

4. René Girard opens his recent book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning with a similar analysis of the Ten Commandments, pp. 7ff.

5. Notice, too, how at a crucial moment in his argument Paul focuses in on the commandment about coveting: “What then should we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the law sin lies dead” (Romans 7:7-8). For more on an interpretation of Paul from the perspective of mimetic theory, see Robert Hamerton-Kelly‘s Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross; on these verses, 7:7-8, and the topic of Original Sin, see especially ch. 4, “Sacred Violence and Original Sin: Adam’s Transgression as the Deformation of Desire.”

6. Again, I am very much graciously dependent on the work of James Alison whose work on original sin always includes a component on creation. In The Joy of Being Wrong, for example, see “Creation in Christ” (excerpt), pages 94-102, and chapter 7, “The Trinity, Creation, and Original Sin.” In subsequent works, there are also excellent pieces on creation; see “hints of a new creation,” pages 97-103 in Faith Beyond Resentment, and “creation in Christ,” chapter 4 of On Being Liked.

7. For more on this, see my webpage for the Second Sunday after Christmas, for which John 1:1-18 is the Gospel Lesson.

8. See James Alison‘s writings on John 9 both in The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 119-125, “The Johannine Witness” (excerpt), and Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 1. He points to the use of “work” in the healing stories of both John 5 and John 9.

9. See for example Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled (New York: Crossroads, 1995), “Fires of Hell” (excerpt), pages 210-212.

10. It is important to recognize that homosexuality as a sexual-preference is a modern idea. There was no notion in biblical societies of people of the same gender preferring by nature sexual relations with each other. They only spoke in terms of homosexual behaviors. Many of the terms used in Hebrew or Greek, then, are controversial as to what sexual behaviors are being specified — or lumped together indiscriminately. Only in Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26-27 is homosexual behavior clearly described as lying with a person of the same gender.

11. See, for example, René Girard‘s analysis of Euripides’ The Bacchae in Violence and the Sacred, pp. 126ff.; and Gil Bailie’s analysis in his taped lecture series “The Dionysian Revival: ‘Liberation into Savagery.'”

12. An excellent example of creation myths giving us the human social order as ‘natural’ is the Hindu myth (Rg Veda 10.90) in which the primal human being is sacrificially carved up to create the traditional caste system of Indo-Hindu culture. See Hindu Myths: A Sourcebook translated from the Sanskrit, with an introduction by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty [London: Penguin Books, 1975], pages 27-28. Link to an excerpt of these pages, “Dismemberment: the Primeval Man Is Sacrificed.”

13. I count at least seven separate stories in the Gospels about Jesus resisting the Sabbath practice of his contemporaries: healing a man with an unclean spirit and Peter’s mother-in-law on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21-31and par.); plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:23-28 and par.); healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6 and par.); healing of the crippled woman (Luke 13:10-17); healing of a man with dropsy (Luke 14:1-6); healing of a lame man (John 5:1-47); healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41).

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