Last revised: March 28, 2021
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RCL: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
RoCa: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42
Opening Comments: Redeeming the Christian Religion
The cross changes everything. Literally. Everything. Because it subverts all human meaning from the ground up. The Mimetic Theory of René Girard hypothesizes that all human language and meaning is founded in the real events of collective violence as Homo sapiens survived its evolutionary challenges. The scapegoating of countless victims during our prehistorical development provided the sacralized violence necessary to create and then keep order in human societies and cultures. Girard proposes that the Scapegoating Mechanism underlies everything human in order to ‘save’ our species from imploding on its own intraspecies violence. All language and meaning thus arises out of the sacred/profane, us/them, dualistic mindset of the perpetrators.
The cross of Jesus the Messiah subverts all of this because the victim of one of those age-old scapegoating events is raised from the dead, and is thus able to launch human meaning from the perspective of the victim instead of the perpetrators. And this Victim happened to be the Logos of God’s love — the complete opposite of the Logos of violent humanity (and thus contra to Heraclitus and human philosophy). In other words, if ‘history is written by the victors,’ then the resurrection represents the subversion of that. The true interpretation of history is now on the side of the oppressed. Human meaning and language begin to undergo a complete transformation from the ground up — a transformation that is still underway two thousand years later . . . with a ways to go for fulfillment. (Witness the current struggle between Trumpism and the Black Lives Matter movement.)
The subversion of all human meaning by the cross and resurrection of Messiah Jesus is the bold argument of Anthony Bartlett‘s new book Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of René Girard. (I highly recommend it!) Bartlett traces the first stage in this transformation since the cross: namely, moving from the continued violent basis of philosophical metaphysics, and its alliance with Christian theology, to the more scientific perspective of studying the process of human meaning-making itself, the science of semiotics. Moreover, the latter is now undergirded by the science of anthropology in the form of Girard’s hypothesis about the founding and generating of human meaning in violence. This means that Christian theology and religion have taken some steps backwards from the revelation in the historical events of cross and resurrection, to the extent that they have allied with the meaning-making of philosophy and its continued enslavement to violent underpinnings. Semiotics and Girard’s hypothesis represent a new stage of moving forward in the re-evolution of meaning wrought by the events of the Three Days.
How has the metaphysics of philosophy led Christian theology and religion down the wrong path? There are many examples, but perhaps the most pernicious has been substitutionary atonement theory (SAT). SAT is a metaphysical account laid over the meaning of the actual historical events such that its interpretation of the cross returns us precisely to the pre-Christ-event mindset of sacrificial religion — wrathful gods demanding sacrificial satisfaction. In short, SAT represents exactly what the cross means to subvert.
A Christian religion steeped in SAT is as sorely in need of redeeming as any so-called ‘pagan’ religion — more so when those ‘pagan’ religions are oppressed by a Christian imperialist religion itself. ‘Pagan’ religions, to the extent that its practitioners are oppressed by Christians and its imperialistic version of the cross, benefits from the “intelligence of the victim” which issues from the historical cross, while the Christian religion grows more ‘pagan.’ Nothing could be more urgent for the redemption of the Christian religion than liberation from all forms of substitutionary atonement theory. Tony Bartlett’s first book, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement, took on this task. His latest book represents another crucial angle on that chore, seeking to unveil the violence in theology’s centuries-long partner that leads to wrong turns such as SAT. It is important to say more about clearing the decks from SAT, but I want to first say a few words about the positive task of moving forward with the re-evolution of meaning launched by the Three Days.
The cross and resurrection themselves could not simply appear out of nowhere to launch such a transformation of meaning. The way was prepared for the ‘coming of the LORD,’ whose covenant with the people of Israel began the process of slowly re-founding and re-evolutionizing human meaning from the perspective of the victim. After a relatively brief zenith under Kings David and Solomon, the nation of Israel began its decline before finally falling victim to centuries of being oppressed by numerous other empires. By the time Jesus of Nazareth came onto the scene under the mighty Roman Empire, Israel’s meaning had undergone centuries of gradual reshaping by the perspective of being an oppressed peoples. The road was made plane for the events we liturgize these Three Days. Bartlett plans to tell this part of the story in a planned sequel on the transformation of meaning reflected in the Bible as a whole.
But we do get a taste to whet the appetite in the last chapter of Theology Beyond Metaphysics, a chapter on the Gospel of John titled “The Semiotic Gospel.” John’s Gospel is narrated explicitly as a series of “signs” (sēmeion in Greek). The authors of the Christian Scriptures all have their ways of expressing a transformation of meaning — for example, Mark’s ‘first shall be last and last first’; and Paul’s proclaiming the cross as foolishness to the Greeks and a skandalon to the Jews. But it’s John’s “semiotic” Gospel which seems most self-conscious about a process of shifting all human meaning — a process of transformative signs. It begins with the Logos itself, the Word. Bartlett summarizes Girard’s incredible chapter from Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World on “The Logos of Heraclitus and the Logos of John,” and then further elaborates the many ways “John” uses signs and words and events to narrate the transformation of human meaning.
Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the event we remember today, Good Friday. Calling this Friday “Good” is itself an expression of transformative meaning. John’s word for the “lifting up” on the cross, “glory” (doxa), is similarly paradoxical. How can the humiliating, horrifying execution of a marginalized Jew possibly be considered “good” or the “glory of God”? Only if there is a complete subversion of human meaning underway. Bartlett writes about John’s narration of the cross:
Here, then, is the supreme event of paradox, of Jesus “lifted up” on the cross and glorified: it should be an event of disgrace and humiliation, but it is not; rather, it’s one of judgment upon the world and its ruler, and a drawing of all humanity into Jesus’s new frame of reality, a new kingdom of truth. The text goes beyond paradox. There is a dynamic here which demands another semiotic category, one we hardly have a name for, but which goes to the very root of the transformation carried through, by and in the Gospel. (TBM, 163)
Because human meaning is constructed originally out of violence, its inversion and subversion in the nonviolence of the cross constructs at once a new fundamental relation and, therewith, a completely new possible universe. This is first and foremost, and essentially, a semiotic event, but because it has taken us roughly two thousand years to think semiotically the default response is always to see it in preconstructed terms of metaphysics. Yet the truth is that the volcanic shock of violence becomes the gentle inversion of love, which is, at the same time, a totally new meaning of humanity, divinity and the whole of creation. (TBM, 162)
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Redeeming Atonement Theology
For Emergence Christians, there is another unavoidable question as well, and it is the bitterest — or at least the most divisive — of them all. Emergence Christianity, like all the previous communions that have come into being, must struggle with the atonement — or more properly, with the nature of the atonement.
—Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity, p. 197
Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015) spoke of a New Reformation as “Emergence Christianity.” Increasingly in her later years she spoke of atonement as a crucial element for Emergence Christianity. What is the deeper meaning of the cross? What does it accomplish for salvation and how? The Mimetic Theory of René Girard has nowhere been more poignant for theology than in providing a critical perspective on the reigning theory of atonement in the West, that of “penal substitutionary atonement.”
On this day it is appropriate to highlight the top resources on the meaning of the cross from a Girardian perspective, featuring several of the works of Mark Heim. In the week before Holy Week in 2015, I led a retreat with ELCA pastors from central Ohio on atonement theology — featuring Heim’s work. So my 2015 Good Friday sermon, “‘Jesus Died for My Sins’“, had Heim’s work very much in the background. Here, then, is the essential reading on the cross from a Girardian perspective:
1. In March 2001, Mark Heim wrote an excellent article in The Christian Century, asking, “Why does Jesus’ death matter?” In part one he provided a critical review of the history of atonement theories, leaving the reader with a sense of inadequacy for answering the question. In part 2, he laid out Girard’s anthropology as a new, more successful attempt to answer such a question. There are versions online at The Christian Century which require a subscription: “Christ Crucified: Why does Jesus’ death matter?“; and “Visible Victim: Christ’s death to end sacrifice“; there are also online versions available without a subscription, Part 1, Part 2. I highly recommend reading them before preaching on Good Friday.
2. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross; in 2006 Heim completed an expansion of his work on atonement theory which began with essays in The Christian Century (above). The result is a wholistic theology of the cross largely from the perspective of mimetic theory. This book also provides an excellent introduction to Girard’s work as a whole. Here, for example, is a telling excerpt “Girard Vs. Campbell on Myth.”
3. Anthony Bartlett has two excellent works on this subject: Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement and “The Problem of Atonement” in Seven Stories: How to Teach the Nonviolent Bible.
4. The book that I’ve most successfully used in the parish is Brian Zahnd‘s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. It is on more than atonement theology, but the latter is at the heart of Zahnd’s story of conversion from conservative Christianity’s emphasis on SAT to a nonviolent version of the Christian faith, in general — an excellent primer on how to read the Bible nonviolently.
5. For something a bit different: “No_More_of_This” — a hymn written by Mark Heim. It provides a musical summary of a proper theology of the cross, with the refrain — “No more of this, no more of this, remember me” — echoing Jesus’ words in Luke’s Passion (Luke 22:19; 22:51).
6. James Alison, a video homily for Good Friday, a “Meditation on Sacrifice“; in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison uses the story of Solomon and the two women disputing over a child to unfold the two sense of “sacrifice” — only one of which can be applied to what Jesus does on the cross. Jesus subverts the usual sense — which Alison points to in those who react to the pandemic by calling for some people to make a sacrifice for the sake of the economy (think Lt. Gov. of Texas).
7. For a powerful multi-media Good Friday Resource: a video Stations of the Cross, with Mimetic Theory as a background, from the Georgia Diocese of the Episcopal Church; produced by the Rev. Canon Frank Logue.
8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Rob Grayson, “The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?“, a 2016 online essay that is another excellent working-out of the clarity which Mimetic Theory brings to the meaning of the cross. He argues for a “Submission and forgiveness” understanding of the cross instead of the familiar “Crime and punishment” understanding. Also, a 2014 blog, “Glorified.” John Davies, a sermon in 2017, “The ones we fear, we crucify.” Russ Hewett, a blog in 2017, “Crucified between the Law and the Prophets.” Stanley Hauerwas in 2017 offers a Good Friday blog on Ephesians 2 (my favorite passage) as a guest on Mike Morrell‘s page, “Jesus Is Our Peace.”
9. For a full bibliography of resources discussing the traditional atonement theology, see my page “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
This climaxing “Suffering Servant Song” is widely mentioned among Girardians — just about every book that deals with Scripture. The following are among the more extensive treatments:
1. René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 155-157; this treatment is further elaborated upon in James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, pp. 157-162. Link to an excerpt of William’s exposition of Second Isaiah.
2. Raymund Schwager first made extensive comments on the Suffering Servant in Must There Be Scapegoats?, pp. 126-135. In a section on “Jesus’ Understanding of His Death,” Isaiah 53 figures prominently in that discussion: Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 96-114.
3. Sandor Goodhart gives a Jewish-Girardian reading of Isaiah 53 in an essay entitled “René Girard and the Innocent Victim” [ch. 10 of Violence Renounced, ed. by Willard Swartley], pp. 205-213; Girard makes a response to this reading in ch. 14 of the same anthology of essays, pp. 315ff.
4. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice; this passage plays a pivotal role in his brilliant interpretion of the Hebrew Scriptures in light of mimetic theory, pages 96-104. Some of the language in this song sounds as if God is inflicting the punishment, but Heim says we must carefully distinguish between what human beings are portrayed as doing and what God is making out of that. Heim doesn’t make this parallel (at least not here in this section but later he does on p. 125) but his argument reminds me of the Joseph saga, of which Joseph himself sums up the distinction between what his brothers did and what God made out of it: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today” (Genesis 50:20). The comparison which Heim does make is of the Suffering Servant Song to the Book of Job. Here it is worsthwhile to quote:
Traditional sacrifice may accomplish something very real. It may still our strife for a time. One thing it cannot do is make its practitioners righteous, since they must sin to carry it out. Somehow the servant’s death is to save them from what led to the killing.
We can understand this better by comparing the servant in this passage with Job. Job is a full-scale resister to his scapegoating, but the servant is patient, like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb. Job protests his personal innocence while the friends enlist God to argue his guilt, and the outcome is up in the air. The servant songs are crystal clear that the servant is suffering unjustly for other people’s sins, and it is a mistake to think the servant guilty. Job demands some kind of vindication from God. He does have his earthly prosperity restored, but gets no unequivocal verdict in his favor, no reply to his plea for an accounting from God. The entire episode of his suffering is still posed as a test proposed to God by Satan, an episode that turns out to be a test of God too. By contrast the servant song is framed by an affirmation of the victory of the victim. The servant does not protest, because the protest has been heard and validated by God. The song directly proclaims the innocence of the servant and the injustice of the persecution. The servant is in league with God to change this dynamic. This sacrifice is not meant to be one in a long line. The servant is a singular figure, and the effect of his life will be something new: “for that which had not been told them they shall see.” For a beginning, in this picture of the servant, the nations see what they had not been told about their own scapegoating practice.
The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat’s innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering inflicted, no doubt whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors. Us. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in face of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the many can be saved. (pp. 100-101)
4. Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak, eds., Stricken by God?: Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ; in addition to the essays by the editors, contributors include: James Alison, Anthony Bartlett, Marcus Borg, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, N. T. Wright, and many more. The book’s title quotes Isaiah 53 as a question in signaling that the traditional atonement theory is at issue.
5. Tony Bartlett, the eleventh study in a series on Second Isaiah (on 52:1-53:12). These studies are among the finest examples of how Mimetic Theory is a key to opening the revelation of Scripture.
6. Girard gives a wholistic reading of Second Isaiah in his recent book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 28-31.
7. Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, has a wonderful treatment of the Isaiah 53 text as it is used within the Acts 8 story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, pp. 42ff. He suggests that we need to learn to do for our contemporary times what Philip was able to do for the Ethiopian eunuch, namely, learn to bring the interpretative power of the gospel to bear on reading the signs of the times. Bailie also mentions the Suffering Servant in talking about Abraham and Isaac, p. 140.
9. Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Papal Preacher’s Homily for Good Friday 2004, “Christ ‘Brought About a New Kind of Victory.'” The new kind of victory is basically a nonviolent one. Cantalamessa, the Papal Preacher, quotes Augustine, “Victor because Victim,” and shows that he’s reading René Girard by citing Things Hidden.
1. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross; in 2006 Heim completed an expansion of his work on atonement theory which began with essays in The Christian Century (see below). The result is a wholistic theology of the cross largely from the perspective of mimetic theory. I highly recommend it. It has the power to forever change your Good Friday preaching.
Chapter 4, “The Paradox of the Passion: Saved by What Shouldn’t Happen,” focuses especially on the Passion accounts in the Gospels. At one point Heim quotes Caiaphas’ prophecy that it is better for one person to die than for the whold nation (John 11:50), he comments:
There is a theory about the redemptive value of violence, the saving power of Jesus’ death, already present in the Gospel story. It is believed and propagated by the persecutors. Atonement is precisely the good they have in mind. According to the Gospel writers, it is this drive for sacrificial atonement that kills Jesus. Here is a caution for Christian theology. We must beware that in our reception and interpretation of the Gospel we do not end up entering the passion story on the side of Jesus’ murderers. The passage we just mentioned in the Gospel of John, with its comment on the words of the high priest, demonstrates the awareness of this tension. Jesus prophesies his death, and so does the high priest. Both see it as sacrificial in some sense. But not the same sense. When Christians affirm the reconciling value of Christ’s death, they must mean something different than Pilate and Herod did. (pp. 125-126)
And the cross cannot be understood without the vindication of the resurrection. Two paragraphs are especially pertinent:
If the death of Jesus were a successful sacrifice in the normal mode, it would have succeeded in doing what such sacrifice does: uniting the community, creating calm and (at least for a time) dispelling conflict. As the New Testament makes evident, in these terms the cross is a failed sacrifice, despite the near unanimity with which Jesus is executed. Rather than the entire community assenting to the violence and seamlessly closing ranks over the grave of the scapegoat, on whose behalf no one speaks, the crucified one himself appears, vindicated by divine power. A new countercommunity gathers around the risen Christ, taking the victim’s part, identifying with him, maintaining his innocence. Society is divided, not united by this death. Yet it is not divided by retribution on the part of the victim’s “kin,” by the desire to avenge a martyr, that would ordinarily signal a failed sacrifice. Instead, this new community explicitly rejects both the sacrificial violence that killed Christ and the contagion of revenge that the sacrificial system existed to contain.
Nor is resurrection the same as the deification of the victim that Girard notes takes place in many myths. There the one who is sacrificed because she or he was held guilty of terrible crimes is transmuted into a god because of the wonderful benefits of the sacrifice. But what this actually means is that a god appears in the story by which the community represents the scapegoating event, in place of the actual people killed. To say the victim becomes a god is really the same thing as saying the victim disappears. The “god” is a replacement, a figure to go in the story instead of the victim, a way of forgetting. In contrast, the New Testament insistently confesses that the risen Christ is the crucified one, exactly the same one who was persecuted. The resurrected Lord carries the wounds of the cross. There is no mistaking this connection. Collective amnesia is not an option. (pp. 127-128)
2. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of John” audio tape lectures, tape #11. Link to my notes/transcription of this tape on the Passion according to St. John.
3. As was shared on Passion Sunday, other good Holy Week resources include:René Girard, “The Passion,” Things Hidden, pp. 167ff.; The Scapegoat, chapters nine, “The Key Words of the Gospel Passion,” ten, “That Only One Man Should Die,” and twelve, “Peter’s Denial.” Finally, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 12, “Scapegoat,” which begins with the observation, “The passion accounts shed a light on mimetic contagion that deprives the victim mechanism of what it needs to be truly unanimous and to generate the systems of myth and ritual: the participants’ unawareness of what is driving them.” And ends with the comment, “All discourses on exclusion, discrimination, racism, etc. will remain superficial as long as they don’t address the religious foundations of the problems that besiege our society.” The concept of “Scapegoat” forms the bridge.
4. Also, Girardians Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, chapter 12, “‘It Is Accomplished’“; Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, ch 3, “Sacred Violence and the Cross: The Death of Christ as an Epiphany of Violence”; Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, “Third Act: The Bringer of Salvation Brought to Judgment” and “Redemption as Judgment and Sacrifice.”
5. James Alison also has poignant comments on “It is accomplished,” Raising Abel, pp. 54-55, in the context of discussing Creation in Christ. A decisive beginning of the renewal of creation is accomplished at the cross. His comments are shared below in Reflection #2.
6. Andrew Marr, Abbot of St. Gregory’s Abbey (Three Rivers, MI) is a long-time reader and writer on Mimetic Theory and in his blog, “Imaginary Visions of True Peace,” made these reflections on the day in 2013, “What Humans Willed: The Passion Story“; and in 2017, “Jesus between the Prisoners.”
7. Mel Gibson‘s movie in 2004 brought again to the forefront the tragic historical connection between Christians steeping themselves in the Passion story and then responding with anti-Semitic violence. In considering this theme of anti-Semitism and the Passion, one of the best statements from the perspective of mimetic theory comes from Gil Bailie, in Violence Unveiled, in which he makes it clear that responsibility for the cross must be borne by all of humanity:
The surest way to miss the link between the cure (the crucifixion and its aftereffects) and the disease (the structures of scapegoating violence upon which all human social arrangements have depended) is to read the passion story with an eye to locating and denouncing those most responsible for it. There is a deep irony in this. The fact that we automatically search the text — or the world outside the text — for culprits on whom to blame the crucifixion is proof that we are one of the culprits, for the crucifixion was demanded by those determined to find a culprit to blame or punish or expel. Responsibility for the crucifixion and the system of sacred or scapegoating violence it epitomizes — is to be borne either by all of us or by only some of us. If the responsibility belongs only to some of us, those who bear responsibility deserve the contempt of those who do not, and we are back in a world of religious categories and sacred violence. The crucifixion’s anthropological significance is lost if responsibility for its violence is shifted from all to some. To lay the blame on the Pharisees or the Jews is to undermine the universal meaning of the crucifixion in favor of the familiar finger-pointing theory of human wickedness.The fact, however, that religious zeal played such a decisive role in Jesus’ death is both historically true and structurally essential to the revelation for which the Cross stands. The fact that it was Jewish religious zeal is not entirely without significance, but it has precisely the same significance that historical Christianity’s anti-Jewish pogroms have, namely, that the people who should have known better didn’t. And so, one of the great ironies is that historical Christianity’s willingness to blame the Jews for the crucifixion has often kept it from appreciating the role Jews played in recognizing the meaning of the crucifixion. The Cross became the revelation it is largely because it occurred in a Jewish setting. Only in a culture predisposed to empathize with victims could the crucifixion have had its full effects. If the forces that militated for Jesus’ crucifixion were Jewish, so were the men and women whose lives were fundamentally altered by it and who first experienced its historical and spiritual impact. The Jewishness of Jesus’ opponents should never be given more weight than the Jewishness of Jesus’ disciples and those who first felt the power of the Christian revelation and proclaimed it to others. It was Jews who rejected and reviled Jesus; it was Jews whose lives were transformed by him, and it was a Jew who was reviled and revered in each case.
To think, as historical Christianity has sometimes allowed itself to think, that the responsibility for Jesus’ death lies with the Jews is to entirely miss the meaning of the crucifixion. There is no better place to turn to disabuse ourselves of this notion than the Gospel whose language seems to have favored the notion in the first place, namely, the Gospel of John. The author of John’s Gospel used the term “the Jews” often and in various ways, but the phrase is almost always used as a synonym for the religious authorities who oppose Jesus. Were we to substitute for the word “Jews” the word “religionists,” we would be closer to the anthropological significance of the Gospel’s reproach. Such a revision, however, would be both too narrow and too broad. Unless we identify it to some degree with Judaism, as many of the first Christians did, we cannot feel the pathos of Jewish opposition to Jesus. The most telling point to be made by indicating the Jewishness of Jesus’ opposition is the point made in the prologue to John’s Gospel, namely, that “he came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11). Jesus was the victim of his own people, heirs as he was of the biblical revelation, but too blinded by a parochial understanding of that tradition to be able to recognize the living incarnation of its universality. Now that Jesus’ own people are Christians, the moral weight of every New Testament reference to Jewish opposition to Jesus falls squarely on Christians. (pp. 218-219)
8. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical Household, “True Body, Truly Born of the Virgin Mary,” his Good Friday 2005 sermon, cites Girard. Cantalamessa has made it a habit to talk about Girard, especially on Good Friday and in Lent. There is also his 2015 Good Friday sermon, “Ecce Homo“; 2010 Good Friday sermon, “We Have a Great High Priest“; a Lenten sermon from 2007, “Blessed Are the Meek, for They Shall Inherit the Land“; a Lenten sermon from 2005, “God’s Absolute ‘No’ to Violence“; and, finally, a 2006 Advent meditation on Peacemakers.
Reflections and Questions
1. An interesting verse from a Girardian perspective: John 19:11 “Jesus answered [Pilate], ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.'” Power “from above.” The assumption would be, given just the first half of this statement, that the power from above refers to God. Some translations even insert God. But then what do we say about the second half of Jesus’ statement: “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” God isn’t the one guilty of a greater sin, right? We could separate these two parts and simply concede that they are referring to different persons, the first part to God and the second part to someone like Caiaphas or Satan. But if we do that, why the “therefore”?
The other choice is to say that the entire statement is referring to the same person: Satan. Pilate’s power comes “from above” in coming from Satan. The Girardian reading of John makes this even more clear, I think. The typical Girardian reading of John highlights chapter eight where Jesus is defining two different paternities: to his Father in heaven and to the devil. Based on this distinction one can see how Satan is in charge of the kingdoms from this world, while Jesus kingdom is from another source, the true God, his Father in heaven (cf., Jesus’ response to Pilate earlier in chapter 18 about his alleged kingship).
Another place to consider, however, is John 3. The key word in John 19:11, anothen, is also the key word in John 3, the pivotal word that causes the ambiguity with Nicodemus. anothen can be translated as either “from above” or “again.” In John 3, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that he must be born “from above,” and Nicodemus hears it as born “again.” In John 19:11 Jesus clearly means “from above,” but now we also have another category of “from above” that was primarily introduced in chapter 8. Which suggests to me that the ambiguity in born anothen is still in play. Pilate, as are all of us, was born into the power of this world under our earthly father, Satan, the Accuser. We are born enslaved to that power “from above.” And so we also need to be born again from above to another Father, Jesus’ Father in heaven.
2. Also catching my interest is the last cry of Jesus in John’s Gospel, “It is accomplished!” Not only is there Gil Bailie’s good work on this word from the cross (Violence Unveiled, chapter 12) but James Alison has some interesting things to say on it in Raising Abel, when discussing the way in which the Resurrection leads to the truth of Creation in Christ. “It is accomplished” speaks to the fulfillment of creation itself.
Alison begins his section on Creation in Christ by noting that on two occasions Jesus heals someone in John’s Gospel and comments on doing his Father’s work: “My Father is still working, and I also am working” (John 5:17); and “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 9:4-5). The implication in both these passages is that Jesus’ healing was revealing God’s continuing power of creation.
This comes to a climax in the cross with the healing of our sin, which, from the Girardian perspective, is having who we are as humans being founded in the scapegoat mechanism. Creation cannot begin again in earnest until we are refounded in something else, God’s forgiveness. So the cross accomplishes, fulfills, creation in a profound way. Alison writes:
We have seen that Jesus knew from the beginning what he was doing, completely possessed as he was by his quickened imagination of the ever-living God. It was this which enabled him to stage a solemn mime in the midst of this death-based culture, so that he might be killed as a way of leading people out of that culture based on death, allowing us to come to be what God always wanted us to be, that is, utterly and absolutely alive with Him. What Jesus’ entirely living imagination means, then, is that he was working so as to bring to existence what God had always wanted, but which had become trapped in the violent and fatal parody which we have seen, and which we tend to live out. So what Jesus was bringing into being was the fulfillment of creation, and this he knew very well as he was doing it. We will look in the next chapter at one of the most remarkable passages in Scripture, in which John portrays Jesus doing exactly this, with full knowledge of what he was doing.This means something rather important: the understanding of God as Creator changes from someone who once did something to someone who is doing something through Jesus, who was in on what the Father was doing through him from the beginning. Creation is not finished until Jesus dies (shouting tetelestai — it is accomplished), thus opening the whole of creation, which consequently begins fully, in a completely new way, in the garden on the first day of the week. This means, and here is the central point: we understand creation starting from and through Jesus. God’s graciousness which brings what is not into existence from nothing is exactly the same thing as Jesus’ death-less self-giving out of love which enables him to break the human culture of death, and is a self-giving which is entirely fixed on bringing into being a radiantly living and exuberant culture. It is not as though creation were a different act, something which happened alongside the salvation worked by Jesus, but rather that the salvation which Jesus was working was, at the same time, the fulfillment of creation. This was the power and the authority in Jesus’ works and words and signs. Through him the Creator was bringing his work to completion. The act of creation was revealed for what it really is: the bringing to existence and the making possible of a human living together which does not know death; and Jesus was in on this from the beginning. Such is our world that God could only be properly perceived as Creator by means of the overcoming of death. (Raising Abel, pp. 54-55)
For a sermon pulling together some of these themes, link to the sermon “‘It Is Fulfilled.’”
3. If we translate tetelestai (perfect passive tense of teleo) as “It is accomplished,” then it behooves us to ask, “Accomplish what?” Alison’s writings above make a good suggestion from John’s own Gospel. Jesus is doing the work of the Creator, bringing the power of life into the midst of a world subjugated to death. In 2004 there was also the tremendous publicity around Mel Gibson‘s movie The Passion of Christ. The evangelists themselves seemed to have realized that the Passion story by itself, despite its pivotal importance, cannot stand alone. For it begs the question of why — why does the Messiah have to die to accomplish our salvation? Another direction, then, is to take on the most popular answer among Christians, namely, the substitutionary theory of atonement. Gibson’s movie gives us the ideal opportunity to challenge this candidate for the doctrine most in need of reform. Mark Heim, whose excellent essays on atonement theology are featured in the following reflection, took up the challenge of commenting on Gibson’s movie. He says, for example:
There’s nothing like a little redemptive violence to bring us all together. So is this the way God works? Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to kill us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor’s edge. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or reconciling with God. Christ sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us. (“‘The Passion of the Christ’ — Reflections by S. Mark Heim”; no longer available online)
His essay inspired me to also take up the challenge with the 2005 sermon “God’s New Righteousness Is Accomplished.”
4. In 2010 I had done an interview with the religion writer of the local paper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, about basics of the Christian faith. It was published in two parts on the Saturday before Holy Week: “A New Reformation? Emerging Theology shaking Christianity, Says Local Pastor“; and then Holy Saturday itself, the day after this sermon: “Resurrection and hope: Some Christians have missed part of the message, pastors say.” That week there was a similar interview on NPR with Brian McLaren challenging some traditional understandings of the cross. I wove material together for a Girardian preaching of the message of the cross with the sermon “The Cross — Both Personal and Cosmic.”
5. In March 2001, Mark Heim wrote an excellent article in the Christian Century, asking, “Why does Jesus’ death matter?” In part one he provided a critical review of the history of atonement theories, leaving the reader with a sense of inadequacy for answering the question. In part 2, he laid out Girard’s anthropology as a new, more successful attempt to answer such a question. Link to the online versions (subscription required): “Christ Crucified: Why does Jesus’ death matter?“; and “Visible Victim: Christ’s death to end sacrifice,” which I highly recommend reading before preaching on Good Friday. My 2001 Good Friday sermon raised and answered this question in a similar fashion. Link to the sermon “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?”
6. In the 2003 version of the above sermon, “Why Does Jesus’ Death Matter?“, I began at a different place: a news story about a Jewish man suing his municipality for having his voting booth in a church, directly under the cross. We need to take seriously that the considerable Christian violence carried out against Jews in the name of the cross would make this man distressed. Such violence, throughout history, is not just tragic; it’s a betrayal of the cross itself.
I also shared that this website had recently been nominated for a 2003 Webby Award in the spirituality category — quite flattering and humbling. But what really interested me was some of the response at the Webby Award website. On the page at which visitors could vote for their favorite spirituality website, quite a debate was raging around my site between write-in candidates. On the one side, the Greek Orthodox Church in America apparently had a write-in campaign for their site. On the other side, were many voters who even proudly called themselves “pagans,” and who were critical of the fact that the spirituality category was so focused on the Judeo-Christian traditions. One person posted this response:
If this (the Webby) is the most prestigious award in American websites, why are the nominees for the award wholly Judeo-Christian in tradition? This does not reflect the state of American religion, nor that of religious-focused websites on our net….You know what, I have these words for all Christians out there: You destroyed the native peoples of All lands that you have trodden, You continue to send your missions into the world, preying on the destitute, the ones who can’t think out the great mistake they will make when they turn over their souls to the church. You sanitize the world with your tyrannical verses which apply not to you, but to other, long-dead peoples. You will not succeed in destroying all that is not male, Aryan, white and Christian. You may think that the exploits of the past, you know, the ones that destroyed the aboriginals from Europe, Africa, Asia, America North and South and of course, the pacific islanders, are successfully done…but many of us are still here, please don’t ignore us anymore, you will know us because we are the religions that actually love the earth and other humans.
It is time for your murderous, genocidal and abusive cult to wake-up and grow-up. You are not here alone, and your methods, if you choose to continue to embrace them will cause the downfall of all humans because of the greed and ignorance that they breed. The God you know, my friends, is a deceiver.
Again, although it’s difficult, I think we Christians need to listen to such criticisms seriously. With all the violence we have committed in the name of God, doesn’t the Girardian anthropology teach us that this God is precisely what that writer says, “a deceiver,” — in other words, an idol? Who are the pagans when violence is committed in God’s name?