Last revised: September 28, 2002
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ST. MICHAEL AND ALL ANGELS (September 29)
Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3; Revelation 12:7-12; Luke 10:17-20
Opening Comments on Apocalyptic
René Girard first began to address the notion of apocalyptic violence in Things Hidden (e.g., pp. 185-190, “Apocalypse and Parable,” excerpt). He is interested in drawing a “main lesson” from his analysis that, “The notion of divine violence has no place in the inspiration of the gospels.” (p. 189) But then he has to explain the presence of apocalyptic violence in the gospels. If this is not divine violence, then what kind of violence is it? Where does it come from? His answer:
The theme of the Christian Apocalypse involves human terror, not divine terror: a terror that is all the more likely to triumph to the extent that humanity has done away with the sacred scarecrows humanists thought they were knocking over on their own initiative, while they reproached the Judeo-Christian tradition for striving to keep them upright. So now we are liberated. We know that we are by ourselves, with no father in the sky to punish us and interfere with our paltry business. So we must no longer look backward but forward; we must show what man is capable of. The really important apocalyptic writings say nothing except that man is responsible for his history. You wish for your dwelling to be given up to you; well then, it is given up to you. (p. 195)
In short, the possibility of apocalyptic violence would be that of human creation, not divine. Girard extends this discussion of the Apocalypse on pp. 250-262, with many other interesting things to say; for example, that Mutually Assured Destruction (still in place when he wrote this in the 70’s) is “human violence in a sacralized form” (p. 255).
It is important, I think, to understand the Girardian explanation of apocalyptic violence. Sacrificial violence is a sacred, sanctioned violence that comes into place in order to keep in check the fearsome profane, random violence. A sacrificial crisis, in the Girardian parley, occurs when the effectiveness of the sacrificial institutions is waning such that the sacrificial violence also loses its effectiveness in containing profane violence. If a new sacrificial solution does not come into play, then the profane violence grows into apocalyptic violence. Throughout human history we see cycles of being on the verge of such violence and then new sacrificial solutions come into play to again bring relative peace. During the sacrificial crises, there are often cries of the Final Apocalypse, a violence that will finally consume us. And in sacralized settings, this apocalyptic violence is attributed to the deity: the gods will bring a resounding judgment that will punish the wicked and reward the just. To the mind under the influence of the Sacred, apocalyptic violence is the ultimate sacred violence.
But Girard argues that the continuing effect of the Gospel in history is to desacralize, i.e., to make it clear to us that violence is not of the true God; violence is ours alone. (In the above quote from Girard, he suggests that the humanists think they invented desacralization on their own, but, from a Girardian perspective, it is actually due to the continuing work of the Paraclete in history.) It begins with a small band of disciples who have witnessed the resurrection of the Innocent One who was crucified by those sacralized powers of violence and raised from the dead by the true God in Vindication. As more and more people come to see the revelation (apocalypse in the Greek) of sacred violence, however, it also means the increasing ineffectiveness of the sacrificial institutions to contain mimetic violence. The times of sacrificial crises increasingly come closer together, and what looms on the horizon is the possibility of a truly apocalyptic violence: a sacrificial crisis in which a new sacrificial solution cannot assert itself because the revelation of the cross has finally made such solutions impossible. In short, the Apocalypse would be a sacrificial crisis that doesn’t result in a new sacrificial solution — no sanctioned violence to contain the random, mimetic violence. And this is a possibility that the revelation of the cross and resurrection bring about and that the work of the Paraclete slowly has made more real. Girard contends that this is why the New Testament is realistic about the possibility of apocalyptic violence — because it is the Gospel itself which disarms the powers of Sacred violence.
The other important anthropological/theological move here is to recognize the transformation of earlier, sacralized versions of apocalypse, in which the gods carry out the apocalyptic violence themselves, into what is more properly called Christian eschatology. The subject of James Alison‘s Raising Abel is essentially all about this transformation from sacralized apocalypse to desacralized Christian eschatology. It recognizes the existence of apocalyptic literature in the New Testament but endeavors to show how it is undergoing a transformation. Alison argues that Jesus’ experience of God was a faithful one in which God is shorn of all the violence of our idols. His imagination was an “eschatological” one, not an apocalyptic one. Thus, his influence is felt in subverting from within the apocalyptic thinking into eschatological thinking.
Another basic question to address would be: Are there really signs of being closer to the Apocalypse as we move to the Third Millennium? It is tempting to simply scoff at the Hal Lindsey’s and the many sectarian groups who seem to relish the thought of the Apocalypse. And we do, of course, need to be critical of their re-sacralized versions which bring back a divine violence very prominently into the picture. But with our Girardian lenses of seeing history in terms of cycles of sacrificial crises and their solutions, are we beginning to see some differences that make apocalyptic violence too close for comfort?
One such difference we’ve already alluded to: Enlightenment humanism’s tendency to desacralize and then take the credit for it. When we desacralize our perspectives, according to this view, it is simply because we are finally a more enlightened humanity. We’re growing up out of our superstitious, childish beginnings. For this desacralized modern society, we no longer have recourse, then, to violence sanctioned by the gods. It is simply our own sanctioned violence working to contain the unsanctioned (i.e., profane) violence. The question is whether or not a humanly sanctioned violence is transcendent enough to work. Or will we eventually end up in a sacrificial crisis with no new solutions of sanctioned, sacrificial violence? Enlightenment humanism offers us the truth of desacralization (which they typically claim as their own truth). But that leaves us with only human possibilities to arrive at the solutions to our violence. They are correct to reject the sacralized solutions offered by the false gods. But does this position also preclude the fact that the true God might be trying to offer us a wholly different alternative?
The frightening alternative to enlightenment humanism has been the desperate attempts at sacred violence in the past century, resulting in genocides. Nazism is still the most infamous but, unfortunately isn’t the only one. In our current attempts to wipe out terrorism, how desperate will our sacred violence become?
I believe that the Christian revelation offers us the only truly different answer: the true God who has submitted to our sacrificial violence in the cross of Christ and planted the seeds for its final defeat through the power of the resurrection, which is continuously working to renew creation through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. And the cross reveals to us that the nature of this defeat over sacred violence is decidedly not by violent overthrow. The divine solution recognizes that sacred violence cannot be overthrown by more sacred violence. Rather, God’s answer is the power of forgiveness and sanctification in the face of the powers and principalities of violence. God’s work of salvation through Christ and the Holy Spirit makes possible both the re-formation of our very identities (Holy Baptism) in non-rivalrous desire (agape love), and the re-formation of our life in community (Holy Communion) without having to scapegoat victims (sacrificial violence). And, contra humanism, these necessary re-formations are impossible on our own.
I’ll conclude these opening comments with the best Girardian summary on apocalypse, a brilliant paragraph from Gil Bailie:
The word “apocalypse” means “unveiling.” What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence. Veiled violence is violence whose religious or historical justifications still provide it with an aura of respectability and give it a moral and religious monopoly over any “unofficial” violence whose claim to “official” status it preempts. Unveiled violence is apocalyptic violence precisely because, once shorn of its religious and historical justifications, it cannot sufficiently distinguish itself from the counter-violence it opposes. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence. In such situations, the scope of violence grows while the ability of its perpetrators to reclaim that religious and moral privilege diminishes. The reciprocities of violence and counter-violence threaten to spin completely out of control. (Violence Unveiled, p. 15)
1. Daniel L. Smith-Christopher, “Daniel,” New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 7, pp. 17-152. After Daniel 11:34 — “When they fall victim, they shall receive a little help, and many shall join them insincerely” — Smith-Christopher inserts an “Excursus on Daniel and Nonviolence.” He suggests that the “they” in 11:34 are the Maccabeans and their followers, and that Daniel was written as an alternative nonviolent response to Aristarchus Epiphanes IV. Daniel 1-6 all show faithful followers of God who end up victorious through their trust in God, not through any violence. Daniel 7-12 give the picture of the end of violence playing itself out violently, while God’s people remain faithfully nonviolent.
1. Girardian resources on the Book of Revelation are still too limited. It begs a good Girardian analysis that would show the influence of Jesus’ eschatological imagination at work in light of the cross. Alison comments on several passages in Raising Abel. Gil Bailie gave a couple talks on it. One of the best treatments I’ve seen yet was given by Allen Redmon at the 2002 COV&R Conference at Purdue; hopefully, it will be published. I’m feeling more pulled in the direction of attempting a Bible study on it myself.
2. Richard B. Hays, ch. 8, “Revelation,” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. As an ethicist who believes in the call for Christian nonviolence, Hays gives a compelling reading in favor of Revelation’s call to Christians to patiently endure the violence of this world in complete nonviolence.
The first indication of a reversal of the power of human violence comes in the throneroom scene of ch. 5. John the Seer is told to look up to see the Lion of Judah, the symbol of military might. He looks but instead sees the Lamb that was slaughtered. It is the lamb, not the lion, that John chooses as his image of Jesus, using it 29 times.
Crucial are also two moments that speak directly to how the beastly, Satanic powers of violence are to be slaughtered. The first is in our lesson for the day. St. Michael and the angels throw Satan from heaven, and verse 11 tells us exactly how they conquered: “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony (martyrias), for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” In short, the Satanic violence falls from heaven because of the martyrdom of the faithful, who follow in the nonviolent way of peace of the Lamb who was slaughtered.
The second moment comes in the next chapter, Revelation 13. Here let me quote Hays at length (who quotes C.B. Caird at length):
The Beast is allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them; meanwhile, “all the inhabitants of the earth” worship the Beast except for those whose names are written “in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered” (13:7-8). It is a dire scenario, seemingly calling for desperate measures. Should the saints seek to oppose the power of the Beast with the sword? John breaks into his narration of the vision to address the community directly with a prophetic word, just as the seven churches had been addressed at the beginning of the book:
Let anyone who has an ear listen:
If you are to be taken captive,
into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, (1)
with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)
This call for radical endurance (hypomone) and trust (pistis) summons the church to resist the impulse to violence, even in these extreme circumstances. G. B. Caird’s explanation of this puzzling summons is worth citing at length:
If God allows the monster to wage war on his people and conquer them, what must God’s people do? They must allow themselves to be conquered as their Lord had done, so that like their Lord they may win a victory not of this world . . . . [T]he church must submit without resistance to the conquering attack of the monster, since only in this way can the monster be halted in its track. Evil is self-propagating. Like the Hydra, the many-headed monster can grow another head when one has been cut off. When one man wrongs another, the other may retaliate, bear a grudge, or take his injury out on a third person. Whichever he does, there are now two evils where before there was one; and a chain reaction is started, like the spreading of a contagion. Only if the victim absorbs the wrong and so puts it out of currency, can it be prevented from going any further. And this is why the great ordeal is also the great victory. (2)
Reflections and Questions
1. While 12:11 makes it clear that martyrdom was the way to victory, it is not clear who wins the victory. The scene begins with Michael and the angels kicking the dragon, Satan, out of heaven, but are they the ones who conquered through martyrdom? I would suggest that it is the faithful followers of the Lamb on earth who win the victory, which is mirrored by the action of the angels kicking Satan out of heaven. I think of Gandhi and King with their movements of nonviolent resistance. We normally hold our military and police forces in high esteem, giving the force they represent a place of heavenly power. But when nonviolent resisters bring out their true colors, that power can be seen to fall from heaven, losing its place of transcendence.
In the movie Gandhi, one could show the massacre at Amritsar, where Gen. Dyer’s troops inflicted 1516 casualties with 1650 bullets fired. No one in the crowd was armed, a crowd which included many women and children. As the British Viceroy is trying to smooth things over with the Indian leaders, Gandhi interrupts him:
If you’ll excuse me Your Excellency, it is our view that matters have gone beyond legislation. It is time you recognized that you are masters in someone else’s home. Despite the best intentions of the best of you, you must in the nature of things humiliate us to control us. Gen. Dyer is but an extreme example of the principal. It is time you left. . . . In the end you will walk out because 100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350,000,000 Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate. And that is what we intend to achieve: peaceful, nonviolent non-cooperation until you yourselves see the wisdom of leaving, Your Excellency.
Gandhi is sure that the British will someday walk out of India because he has seen Satan fall like lightning. The British military might has shown itself for what it is.
A second moment in the movie is the crucial campaign of the Indian nonviolent fight for independence, the protest at Dharasana Salt Works. Police brutally turn back hundreds of protesters with no counter-violence. Vince Walker, an American reporter on the scene, phones in the following news report:
They walked, both Hindu and Muslim alike, with heads held high, without any hope of escape from injury or death. It went on and on into the night. Women carried the wounded and broken bodies from the road until they dropped from exhaustion. But still it went on and on. Whatever moral ascendency the West held was lost here today. India is free. For she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated.
The West’s so-called “moral ascendency” turns out to be a Satanic power of accusation backed by military power. Nonviolent resistance to it shows it to be a false transcendence, and it falls to earth like lightning.
2. Even scholars like Hays who defend a position of nonviolence for followers of the Lamb, still seem to assume that they do so because God will work a judgment in the end that turns the tables. But if God’s judgment is the cross, the Lamb of God slaughtered, then how can God be seen to be any less nonviolent than the Lamb’s followers are called to be? Aren’t we supposed to be following God’s example? If that’s so, then as soon as we allow God to work an ultimately violent judgment, it opens the door up for us to see ourselves as carrying out that violent judgment.
3. So what do we make of the demise of the beastly powers by Revelation’s end? This would take some careful exegesis, but I think we could show that it largely portrays violence coming to it own end, sinking into its own sink hole. It is not a victory won by God’s superior firepower. Once violence loses its place in heaven it eventually collapses under its own power.
Girard has latched onto that parable of Mark 3: can Satan cast out Satan? (See the excerpt below under the Gospel.) The answer is yes, but a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. The Satanic game is a self-defeating one. If we see Satan fall from heaven like Jesus does, then the Satanic deception ends. We will no longer believe in superior firepower as the way to end violence.
Notice that the Girard’s two-fold parsing of the Devil’s/Satan’s work is explicitly present in this text, down to the two names. In verse 9: “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world….” That ancient serpent is the devil in his role as seducer and deceiver, mimetically ensnaring us into the rivalries that lead to the multiplying of scandals and the escalating of violence, potentially a violence of all-against-all. Then, in verse 10 we see the other Satanic role: “for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God.” Satan the Accuser, the one who mimetically turns the accusation into the peace of all-against-one. In the two roles, we can say that Satan has cast out Satan.
But it is an age-old game that must someday play itself out, for a house divided against itself cannot stand. This is the picture which I believe Revelation paints for us. The Satanic Beasts eventually sink down into their own hell-hole. The Satanic game must be a self-defeating one.
4. One last point from Revelation. An ambiguity exists in the text regards the “nations” and “kings.” It seems that they go down with the Satanic Beasts in whom they are enthralled. Yet when the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven we read (21:24): “The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” Here, the nations and kings walk into the new creation. Did they go down with the Satanic powers or not? This, to me, is the strongest indicator that the only thing that dies away forever are those Satanic powers of violence, which collapse on themselves.
5. Link to a sermon entitled “Faith Is Trusting that the Satanic Violence Is Self-Defeating.”
1. Gil Bailie, “The Gospel of Luke” audio lecture series, tape #6, especially on “Satan falling like a flash of lightening,” for which he offers the following little midrash:
Satan is the prince of this world, the Accuser in charge of ordering human society. Jesus’ comment is a passion prediction in terms of the effect that the crucifixion will have on Satan’s reign. But what if one has their back to the event of Satan falling, so to speak, and so they only see the illuminating flash of the lightning. It’s perhaps a bit like the Seventy saying that the demons submit to us.Or it’s like the Enlightenment. We are aware of the illumination, and it goes to our heads. It must be because we’re smart. But we don’t see the actual event that causes the illumination, Satan falling from heaven because of the cross. It’s like Girard’s quip: we didn’t stop burning witches because we invented science; we invented science because we stopped burning witches (The Scapegoat, p. 204). The sacred system was broken. As it ground down, its mythic power faded, and gradually we were able to poke our heads outside of it and to begin to see the real world. But we don’t see what has caused the illumination.
2. René Girard. The title of Girard’s latest book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, is taken from Luke 10:18. He begins his conclusion with these comments:
As already noted, Simone Weil suggests that the Gospels are a theory of humankind even before they are a theory of God. Even though she sees no role for the Hebrew Bible, the positive aspect of her insight corresponds to what we have discovered in this series of analyses.To understand this evangelical anthropology, we must complete it with the Gospel statements concerning Satan. Far from being absurd or fantastic, they use another language to reformulate a theory of scandals and the working of a mimetic violence that initially decomposes communities and subsequently recomposes them, thanks to the unanimous scapegoating triggered by the decomposition.
In all the titles and functions attributed to Satan, we see reappearing all the symptoms of desire and its sickness, the evolution of which Jesus diagnoses. These titles and functions include the “tempter,” the “accuser,” the “prince of this world,” the “prince of darkness,” the “murderer from the beginning,” and all of them together explain why Satan is the concealed producer-director of the Passion.
This dynamic concept of Satan enables the Gospels to articulate the founding paradox of archaic societies. They exist only by virtue of the sickness that should prevent their existence. In its acute crises the sickness of desire generates its own antidote, the violent and pacifying unanimity of the scapegoat. The pacifying effects of this violence continue in the ritual systems that stabilize human communities. All of this is epitomized in the statement “Satan expels Satan.”
The Gospel theory of Satan uncovers a secret that neither ancient nor modern anthropologies have ever discovered. Violence in archaic religion is a temporary remedy. The sickness is not really cured and always recurs in the end.
To identify Satan as mimetic violence completes the process of discrediting the prince of this world; it puts the finishing touch on Gospel demystification; it contributes to that “fall of Satan” that Jesus announces before his crucifixion. The revelatory power of the Cross dispels the darkness that the prince of this world must have to preserve his power to make us believe he really exists. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 182-183)
A bit later in the conclusion, Girard extends his summary explanation of his work around Luke 10:18:
The word of the gospel is unique in really problematizing human violence. All other sources on humankind resolve the question of violence before it is even asked. Either the violence is considered divine (myths), or it is attributed to human nature (biology), or it is restricted to certain people or types of persons only (who then make excellent scapegoats), and these are ideologies. Or yet again violence is held to be too accidental and exceptional for human knowledge to consider. This last position is our good old philosophy of Enlightenment. As we stand before Joseph, on the other hand, or before Job, before Jesus, before John the Baptist and still other victims, we wonder why so many mobs expel and massacre so many innocent persons. Why are so many communities caught up in madness?
The Christian revelation clarifies not only everything that comes before it, the religion and culture of myth and ritual, but also everything that comes after, the history we are in the process of making, the ever-growing disintegration of archaic religion, the opening into a future joining all humankind into one world. It is more and more liberated from ancient forms of servitude, but by the same token, it is deprived of all sacrificial protection.
The knowledge we have acquired about our violence, thanks to our religious tradition, does not put an end to scapegoating but weakens it enough to reduce its effectiveness more and more. This is the true reason why apocalyptic destruction threatens us, and this threat is not irrational at all. The rationality enters more profoundly every day into the concrete facts of contemporary history, questions of armament, ecology, population, etc.
The theme of apocalypse has an important role in the New Testament. It is not at all the mechanical repetition of Jewish preoccupations that would make no sense in our world. This is what Albert Schweitzer thought, and many biblical scholars continue to assert it. To the contrary, apocalyptic is an integral part of the Christian message. If we are not aware of this, then we amputate something essential from this message and destroy its coherence. The preceding analyses lead to a purely anthropological and rational interpretation of apocalyptic expectations, an interpretation that does not ridicule them but understands their relevance.
By revealing the secret of the prince of this world, the Passion accounts subvert the primordial source of human order. The darkness of Satan is no longer thick enough to conceal the innocence of victims who become, at the same time, less and less “cathartic.” It is no longer possible really to “purge” or “purify” communities of their violence. Satan can no longer expel Satan. We should not conclude from this that humans are going to be immediately rid of their now fallen prince.
In the Gospel of Luke Christ sees Satan “fall like lightning from heaven” (10:18). Evidently he falls to earth, and he will not remain inactive. Jesus does not announce the immediate end of Satan, not yet at least. It is rather the end of his false transcendence, his power to restore order through his false accusations, the end of scapegoating.
The New Testament has quite a repertory of metaphors to signify the consequence of the Christian revelation. We can say about Satan, as I’ve stated, that he can no longer expel himself. We can say likewise that he can no longer “bind himself,” which amounts basically to the same thing. As the days of Satan are numbered, he tries to gain the most from them, and quite literally, he unleashes himself.
Christianity expands the range of freedom, which individuals and communities make use of as they please, sometimes in a good way but often in a bad way. A bad use of freedom contradicts, of course, what Jesus intends for humanity. But if God did not respect the freedom of human beings, if he imposed his will on them by force or even by his prestige, which would mean by mimetic contagion, then he would not be different from Satan.
Jesus is not the one who rejects the kingdom of God; it’s human beings who do so, including a number of those who believe they are nonviolent simply because they benefit to the utmost from the protection of the principalities and powers, and so they never have to use force themselves. Jesus distinguishes two types of peace. The first is the peace that he offers to humanity. No matter how simple its rules, it “surpasses human understanding” because the only peace human beings know is the truce based on scapegoats. This is “the peace such as the world gives.” It is the peace that the Gospel revelation takes away from us more and more. Christ cannot bring us a peace truly divine without depriving us first of the only peace at our disposal. His peace entails this troubling historical process through which we are living. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 184-186)
Also good to read in preparation for preaching this text would be the chapter on “Satan,” chapter 3 in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Finally, I have prepared some excerpts from Girard’s essay on Satan in The Girard Reader.
Reflections and Questions
1. Might we say that the image of Satan falling from heaven like lightning is behind the more modern experience of violence as a “necessary evil”? We sometimes still glorify war. But consider the difference between World War II and the Viet Nam War. The newsreels during WWII were still able to keep the war cause glorified for the folks back home. But with live TV cameras in Viet Nam we got to see the horror of war first-hand. It looked more like a dragon to us, and that righteous violence fell like lightning from its place of hallowed sanctity.
2. Just War theory, it seems to me, also treats the violence of war more in the category of necessary evil. We see that violence as evil but still think it necessary as the lesser of evils in stopping people like Hitler, or Saddam Hussein. Because modern warfare uses such devastating weaponry, making for the so-called “collateral damage,” many in recent years have wondered if any modern warfare can be considered as the lesser of evils.
My reading of Revelation, however, calls into question the very premises of Just War Theory. Violence can never truly defeat violence; it is more accurate to say that it is self-defeating. Thus, the call of Gods faithful people is to patiently endure until the day when violence finally brings its own end. How cataclysmic an ending that ends up being is up to history. But Gods promise to us is that the divine power of life will outlast it.
Notes from Hays Excerpt on Revelation
1. There is some slight manuscript support for the reading “if anyone is to be killed with the sword.” This reading, which both conforms the text to Jer. 15:2 and 43:11 and creates a syntactical parallelism with the preceding line (Rev. 13:10a), is to be rejected as a secondary correction. Some scholars — including, apparently, the editors of Nestle-Aland, are suspicious of the better-attested reading “if you kill with the sword,” because it makes John’s prophetic word echo Matt. 26:52: “[A]ll who take the sword will perish by the sword.” But that is the point: John has echoed Jeremiah’s oracle of prophetic judgment, filtering it through the tradition of Jesus’ saying in such a way that it becomes a divinely ordained vocation rather than a tragic necessity.