Last revised: August 11, 2023
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PROPER 7 (June 19-25) — YEAR A / Ordinary Time 12
RCL: Genesis 21:8-21; Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
RoCa: Jeremiah 20:10-13; Romans 5:12-15; Matthew 10:26-33
Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation
In 2023, I suggested understanding Jesus’ puzzling proclamation of bringing a sword, not peace, as signaling a “parting of ways” from those who began to resist his message — using a key moment in the Harry Potter saga. At the end of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Lord Voldemort has returned to full strength, prompting Dumbledore to urgently begin preparing a response. Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, refuses to believe that Voldemort is back, leading to what Dumbledore names as “a parting of ways.” Here is the sermon titled “A Parting of Ways” and its YouTube video recording.
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In 2020, I wrote the following essay: “Silence is Compliance” “Silence is Violence” These are posters of protest that we are seeing in the turbulent times of 2020, as the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks by fired and indicted police are presenting an opportunity to finally move forward against racism . . . the original sin of America.
For people of the New Testament, racism is one of those “powers and principalities” that can destroy our humanity, our souls. How does Derek Chauvin hold his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, as his life-breath slips away, without a diminished humanity due to racism and his failure to stand against it? How does Garrett Rolfe shoot an unarmed Rayshard Brooks in the back twice, violently kicking his dying body, without his human compassion having been quashed by the power of racism and his not being accountable to resisting it? Failing to speak out against racism and acting to dismantle it ends up as compliance to the continuing violence it levels at black bodies. It also is to give-in to the way it robs white people of their full humanity, destroying our souls a little at a time. White Supremacist Racism has caused untold suffering for millions of People of Color — 528 years for Native peoples, 401 years for African American peoples. It has also been destroying the souls of white people over all that time. Such is the power of White Supremacist Racism that silence is compliance to its violence.
In today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus says, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). He is sending out disciples at a crucial moment in history to proclaim good news that God’s kingdom — God’s nonviolent way of being human, for violence is what most distinguishes human kingdoms — is at hand. I believe that his underlying message is akin to, “Silence is compliance to violence.” If you speak out against violence like Jeremiah and the Hebrew prophets (see the First Reading from Jeremiah 20), they may abuse and even kill your bodies. But the real thing to fear is not speaking out so that your compliance to the satanic powers of violence — powers like White Supremacist Racism — will first destroy your soul, the thing that makes you human, and then it will eventually lead to hellish violence that destroys bodies, too — like the American Civil War. (See the exegetical notes under the Gospel Reading below for a full analysis of Matt. 10:28.)
You may respond, “But look at the rest of the passage! Jesus says, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. . . .’ (10:34) How can you say Jesus’s basic message is about the coming of God’s nonviolent kingdom?!” Yes, that obviously needs explanation, but especially in light of Mimetic Theory I assure you there is a good one. René Girard himself quoted this passage as much as any other in the Bible (see below for several of them), precisely because it helps us to understand both how our human violence works and why the New Testament is so realistic about so-called “apocalyptic” violence.
Let’s rehearse several of the basics. Girard lays out a complete theory of human violence in two categories. The first is mimetic violence, namely, violence that arises because of the shape of human desiring. Notice that this is not a theory that says violence is somehow a part of human nature. Rather, because we mimetically catch our desires from one another, there is the tendency, not the necessity, of falling into rivalry over the objects of desire. Once this begins happening some of the time, there is a growing sense that the real task is to gain prestige over our rivals. Conflicts begin to multiply. And when violence begins, this is the most mimetic thing of all, spiraling into feuds of vengeance. One other element of mimetic violence that’s pertinent here is that it tends to build most seriously in one’s closest relationships: “a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household” (Matt. 10:35-36).
The question of our human evolution becomes, How did we ever survive as a species? That’s where the second category of violence enters in. Our ancient ancestors stumbled upon a mechanism which worked to contain the violence: In a situation of general conflict within families and tribal groups, one of the conflicts becomes more fascinating and others imitate, and the all-against-all violence turns into all-against-one violence. Peace is achieved at the expense of a victim. Gradually, over millennia, Homo sapiens evolves with rituals that repeat the scapegoat events — namely, ritual blood sacrifice and religions based on sacred, sanctioned violence, the second category of violence. Girard brilliantly spins out the generation of cultures and societies whose “law and order” and institutions are based on a scapegoating, sacrificial violence that is at the very center of each society’s religion and identity. And there is also one further element most pertinent to this moment: Societies hierarchy the value and privileges accorded to those at the center of power. Rich are valued more than poor. Men are valued more than women. Adults more than children (see next week’s page on the near sacrifice of Isaac). And, yes, in a white racist society, white lives are valued more than black and brown lives.
Jesus died on the cross as the scapegoat to reveal this truth of our evolution and to offer us a different way to peace that doesn’t involve violence. His ultimate mission is to give humankind the only true nonviolent way to peace based on forgiveness and love. But as nonviolent he cannot force us to accept it. The first step is to reveal our sacredly violent way to peace as violence, making it decreasingly less effective. To take up the true way to peace then becomes our decision. To the extent that we don’t, the cross still means that our old way of peace is becoming increasingly ineffective to contain the mimetic violence between “a man and his father, a daughter and her mother, etc.” Girard puts it simply,
The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse. (CBC radio show Ideas, with David Cayley, “The Scapegoat,” Part 5; many more quotes from Girard below)
The Apocalypse, from the Greek word for “revelation,” is an unveiling of humanity’s violent ways to bring and maintain peace and order — like policing. And the most frequent victims of this sacred violence are the marginalized ones or outsiders, as structured into the society’s identity. In a culture like ours that has been structured according to White Supremacist Racism for over 400 years, People of Color are the most frequent victims of that violence.
The Apocalypse, however, also brings a time of urgent decision. Will we simply reassert the same old violent structures — perhaps making a few tweaks to make it look good? Or will we make greater strides toward true justice and true peace? The time to speak out is now. The time to act is now. Silence is compliance with the violence. Fear the powers of Racism that can destroy both our souls and our bodies. The time is now to institute real change which ensures that Black Lives Matter.
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, ch. 2, “Enemy Brothers.” This is a wonderful chapter to read for all the family dynamics in Genesis. He doesn’t focus on Isaac and Ishmael with a subsection, but he includes them in overview, “Patterns in the Brother Stories,” pp. 60-66.
3. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, ch. 3, “Jesus’ Fraternal Relocation of God.” In a chapter on John 8, Alison discusses being children of Abraham bringing in the dynamics with Hagar, pp. 60ff.
4. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 23, 2002 (Woodside Village Church).
1. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled; the section on Jeremiah is on pp. 177-184.
2. James Williams‘ treatment of Jeremiah, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, is on pp. 144-145, 154-156.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 60, n. 12; cited when making the pointed:
The prophets of Israel reproached leaders and people over and over again most harshly, not just for idolatry but also on account of oppression, violence, and the spilling of blood [Jer. 20:8], and for that reason they were often themselves persecuted.
Reflections and Questions
1. Has the climate changed at all for one to cry out all the day long, “Violence and Destruction!” Or does one still become the object of reproach and derision for such prophecies? My experience lately has been that people are more willing to recognize the problem with violence. They don’t necessarily ridicule you for it. But they still go to great lengths to avoid dealing with it. Move away from it. Turn it off. Dwell on the more pleasant things in life. An experience like Columbine (1999), or the shooting of two monks at Conception Abbey (Missouri, 2002), comes crashing in on such an avoidance lifestyle, making it more obvious that we can’t move away from it, and fixating our attention for a week or two. Then, all our wonderful diversions, many of them “recreational violence,” help us to forget again.
2. This is still a “text in travail” to the extent that the prophet sees the answer as “your retribution,” meaning God’s, upon the evildoers.
1. Gil Bailie, “Paul’s Letter to the Romans” audio tape series, tape #4
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, pp. 65-71; “The Cross as a Metonymy of the Gospel.”
3. Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, pp. 143-157. McLaren suggests a theme for making a unified reading of Romans that I think works well — namely, Jews and Gentiles being able to live together in Christ, who is “the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8:29). This theme coincides with my own choice for the clearest statement of the Gospel in Ephesians 2: grace manifests itself chiefly as God creating one new humanity in place of the two. This is the context for McLaren as well, since this chapter comes as his response to one the “Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith.” Question #5 is, “What is the Gospel?” (chap. 14). For more on this centrality of this question and its answer, see my Opening Comments for Proper 6A.
Chap. 15 is McLaren’s reading of Romans in light of the Gospel as Jesus’ Kingdom of God manifesting itself as Paul’s bringing together of Jews and Gentiles. See the citation on this book in Proper 4A for a more complete description of the theme and McLaren’s Seven Move outline for Romans.
This passage comes within his Third Move: Unite all in a common story, with four illustrations: Adam, baptism, slavery, and remarriage (Rom. 5:1-7:6), of which he writes:
We’ve watched Paul’s rhetorical instincts (guided by the Holy Spirit) take him back in history before the Law to Abraham, and now Paul goes back even farther in the most brilliant move possible: he goes back to Adam. Our diverse religious systems, he implies, have many points of departure that separate us, but if we follow any path back to its source, to the genesis of our common humanity, we come to the creation story of Adam, where we are united. After unifying us in the story of our common ancestor Adam, Paul presents Jesus as a new Adam, a second Adam, the last Adam. His analogy appears a bit stretched in places as we watch him develop it “on his feet,” so to speak; but the point is clear. Adam brought death and condemnation to all humanity; Jesus now brings life and justification to all humanity. So we’re all part of the story of the original Adam, and now, of the new Adam, Jesus. (p. 149)
4. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 40, “The Spirit Is Moving! (Pentecost Sunday),” uses this passage as a primary text. He writes:
Take Paul, for example. He never saw Jesus in the flesh, but he did experience the Spirit of Christ. That was enough to transform him from a proud and violent agitator of hostility to a tireless activist for reconciliation. Through this experience of the Spirit, he seemed to live inside of Christ and look out through Christ’s eyes upon the world. And the opposite was equally true: through the Spirit, Christ lived inside of Paul and looked through Paul’s eyes upon the world. “I in Christ” and “Christ in me” — that captures so much of Paul’s vision of life.
For Paul, life in the Spirit means a threefold sharing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. First, as we turn from old habits and patterns, our “old self” with all its pride, greed, lust, anger, prejudice and hostility dies with Christ. That former identity with all its hostilities is nailed to the cross and left behind. In this way, life in the Spirit involves a profound experience of letting go of what has been so far.
Then, Paul says, we join Jesus in the powerlessness and defeat of burial, symbolized by baptism. We experience that burial as a surrender to silence, stillness, powerlessness, emptiness, and rest, a letting be.
Then we join Jesus in the dynamic, surprising uprising of resurrection. The surrender, silence, emptiness, and rest of letting go and letting be make us receptive to something new. Like a vacuum, that receptivity welcomes infilling and activation . . . and so we experience a letting come of the Spirit of God. (pp. 203-4)
And after bringing in the imagery of Spirit from Scripture, including, of course, the Pentecost story of Acts 2, he concludes:
Wind. Breath. Fire. Cloud. Water. Wine. A dove. When we open up space for the Spirit and let the Spirit fill that space within us, we begin to change, and we become agents of change. That’s why we pause in our journey to gather together around a table of fellowship and communion: Like the disciples in the upper room at Pentecost, we present ourselves to God. We become receptive for the fullness of the Spirit to fall upon us and well up within us, to blow like wind, glow like fire, flow like a river, fill like a cloud, and descend like a dove in and among us. So let us open our hearts. Let us dare believe that the Spirit that we read about in the Scriptures can move among us today, empowering us in our times so we can become agents in a global spiritual, movement of justice, peace, and joy.
So, are we ready? Are we willing to die with Christ? Are we willing to let go?
And are we willing to be buried with Christ? Are we willing to let be?
And are we willing to rise with Christ? Can we inhale, open our emptiness, unlock that inner vacuum, for the Spirit to enter and fill — like wind, breath, fire, cloud, water, wine, and a dove? Are we willing to let come?
Let it be so. Let it be now. Amen. (pp. 205-6)
5. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, p. 523. In the final essay of this book, Alison begins by summarizing his overall point as being one of posing a religion grace versus religions based on laws and morals. God, as the Other other, comes to surprise us out of a way of being that begins with behavior, laws. We are given a new way of being out of which arises a new way of behaving. Of Paul he writes, for example:
In Paul’s letters, the approach is not “do X, and then you will become Y,” it is rather, “Because you are finding yourselves X, so do Y.” (523)
And then he cites Col. 3:1-5 and Romans 6:3-14. Here is Alison’s summary of his point:
The understanding is pretty clear: something happens that takes us somewhere quite new. As we find ourselves on the inside of the new life, allowing our imaginations to be rejigged, so the ways of behaving which flow from that new life become second nature to us, and we are able to ditch those which don’t flow from that new life. It is what we are becoming that is first, and the transformation of our behaviour which flows from that.
This makes sense to me: it is as I discover myself on the inside of a new way of being that I discover the sense, and the richness, of different ways of behaving. And indeed, we find ourselves on the inside of discovering for ourselves quite why these new ways of behaving correspond to the richest and deepest loving intention for us of our Creator. In other words, there is something genuinely exciting about learning to be fascinated by a goodness we didn’t know.
And this of course has been the whole burden of this course: how it is that someone coming towards us, and into our midst, catches us by surprise and enables us to be turned into ourselves-for-each-other, something much richer and more zest-inspiring than we could guess while we thought we knew who we were. (523-24)
6. Douglas Campbell, The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul. Nothing will ever be quite same in Pauline scholarship for those who take seriously Campbell’s dismantling of justification, and his arguing that Paul’s language of justification was a secondary way of speaking for Paul when in debate with a version of Christianity that is conditional in its grace. And because we misread Romans 1-4, according to Campbell, Protestantism has often lapsed into the conditional grace that Paul is trying to undo. Paul’s primary language of unconditional grace is a language of deliverance elaborated in Romans 5-8. This is now the definitive book, in my opinion, that must be contended with regarding any crucial interpretations of Romans. See my “Customer Review” on the Amazon.com page. The most controversial thesis involves his contention that Paul used the Roman rhetorical convention of Diatribe, meaning that it contains Paul voicing his opponent’s views within the text of Romans which we thus need to sort from Paul’s own views. In short, for twenty centuries after Paul delivered this letter to the Roman church, training the carrier to read it properly in two voices, subsequent generations have read two opposing views in the text all as Paul’s view only. I find this thesis compelling and vitally important; here is my own explanation and plotting of the opposing views in a translation of Romans 1:1-4:3.
7. N. T. Wright is another important resource to consult for Romans. See, first of all, his commentaries: The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10; and his Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1 (Romans 1-8) and Part 2 (Romans 9-16). See also The Resurrection of the Son of God, ch. 5, Resurrection in Paul (Outside the Corinthian Correspondence),” sec. 7 on Romans; and Justification: God’s Plan & Paul’s Vision. His ‘big book’ on Paul in his Fortress Press series “Christian Origins and the Question of God,” was published in 2013, Paul and the Faithfulness of God; the most sustained section on Romans 5-8 are pages 1007-1026. Wright’s more recent book on theology of the cross, The Day the Revolution Began, devotes more space to Romans than any other book of the New Testament, chapters 12-13; see also my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”
Reflections and Questions
1. My sermon on these lessons in 1996 began talking about the Romans 6 passage’s place in the funeral liturgy. Link to the sermon “Baptized to Live for Life,” given shortly after attending the funeral of a nineteen year-old young man tragically killed in a train accident.
2. After years (in 2014) of re-orienting my reading of the New Testament from the traditional focus on afterlife (guided by folks such as N. T. Wright), this passage strikes me as radically going beyond what we typically hear when reading verses 5-4 at funerals. That context focuses our attention on the afterlife, to hear the Good News of rising with Christ when our earthly bodies die. But the wider context makes it clear that Paul isn’t primarily talking about the afterlife but about our present lives as being freed from sin. Verse 6 even puts things in the past tense: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” And verse 11 makes the overall point clear: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” This is amazing stuff that is ramped up all the more by hearing with anthropologically trained ears of Mimetic Theory — especially after the typology of First Human Being and Second Human Being in Romans 5:12-19. Dying and rising with Christ is about becoming New Human Beings! We are dying to the old way of being human in order to live in Jesus’ new Way of being human. Incredible! And how much is this message diminished if we only hear it as Good News about what happens to us after we die? Mimetic Theory gives us increasing understanding and experience of our dying to sin — or as James Alison puts it, the Joy of Being Wrong.
1. The parallel passage in Luke is 12:51-53 (see Proper 15C for more); this is considered a passage from the hypothesized Q source. A crucial difference between the Matthean and Lukan parallels is that Matthew’s Jesus says he ‘doesn’t come to bring peace but a sword’ (Matt 10:34; Gr. machaira), while Luke’s Jesus says he ‘doesn’t come to bring peace but rather division’ (Luke 12:51; Gr. diamerismos).
2. Luke goes on to use the participial form of the verb that matches his noun: diamerizo, “divided,” while Matthew uses the verb dichazo, which can also mean divide, but more specifically entails splitting something in two — like one might do with a sword. Luke’s choice of diamerismos, “division,” is the lone instance of this word in the New Testament. The verb diamerizo is more common, especially in Luke-Acts. Matthew, Mark, and John use the verb once a piece at the foot of the cross where the soldiers “divided” Jesus’ clothes. Luke uses it twice in this passage but then also earlier twice in the crucial Girardian passage about Satan being divided from himself and thus causing a divided house that cannot stand (Luke 11:14-23). Luke’s version reverses the riddle talking first about the divided house and then a divided Satan. Mark’s version gives us ‘Satan casting out Satan’ and then a house divided. Mark and Matthew use the root verb merizo for “divide,” rather than Luke’s more emphatic diamerizo.
3. Matthew, on the other hand, more prominently uses the word “sword” (machaira) at the crucial moment in the garden, when a disciple cuts off the ear of a servant with a sword. All four Gospels record this incident but with interestingly different details. Here is an overview, with Matthew last, highlighting the importance of the word sword:
- Mark has the simplest account with the sparsest details, and Jesus makes no corrective response to the “one of those who stood by” who cut of the ear.
- Luke adds a corrective response from Jesus — “No more of this!” — and is the only Evangelist to show Jesus healing the ear.
- John adds names. He tells us that it was Simon Peter that drew the sword and struck, and that the slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus’ corrective response to Peter is, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup which the Father has given me?”
- Matthew has the most elaborate response by Jesus: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26:52-54)
When Jesus says he comes to bring a sword in 10:34, is it a metaphorical sword of division? In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, we have instructions to “turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” and the saying about living by the sword means dying by the sword. It’s not likely that he would literally mean bringing a sword in 10:34.
4. With many difficult decisions in this passage exegetically, the next in importance to deal with is verse 28: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” There are three major decisions: (1) who is “him” who can destroy body and soul; (2) what does “soul” (psychē) represent as beyond the “body” (sōma); and (3) how do we interpret “hell” (Gehenna). If we read this passage in the most popular fashion — that we should fear God as the one who can send our body and soul to hell — then I believe we have fallen back precisely into what Jesus came to divest us from, namely, God as a perpetrator and justification for sacred violence. So let’s look at the three issues in turn and suggest an alternate reading.
First issue: who is “him” who can destroy both body and soul in hell. “Him” is not in the Greek text as a separate word; it is assumed in the declension of the verb. We have two uses of dynamai as a participle, both declined in the masculine, but the first one plural and the second one singular. As such we translate the first, “those with the power,” or simply, “those able.” The second instance is, “him who has the power,” or simply, “him who’s able.” (Note: there is a also difference in the infinitive verbs paired with dynamai in the two halves of the verse: “those able to kill [apokteinō]” and “the one able to destroy [apollumi].”)
Bottom line is that the masculine declension of the participle can also be translated more generically as “the One.” The million dollar question is: who is this One? God? That’s the most common assumption . . . if your eschatology has God sending people to hell for eternal conscious torture. Otherwise, we might postulate Satan as the power to enslave people in the way of hellish violence. Could ton dynamenon represent the Satanic power beyond any human beings who is destroying our humanity?
We’ve already tipped our hand on this question. If we answer that the One is God, then we are right back to a god of sacred violence whom Jesus came to reveal as Satan. Human beings, up to this point of revelation, have always known such gods who destroy both body and soul. Jesus has come precisely to reveal the god of sacred violence as Satan, not God. It thus makes no sense to read him as saying this One, this “him,” is the true God.
Second issue: what does “soul” (psychē) represent as beyond the “body” (sōma). The contemporary literature on how to interpret psychē is too vast to survey here. But there is a change underway in recent years that seeks to recover the Jewish ideas behind the Greek. The Greek ideas and word are heavily influenced by Platonic dualism, which sees body and soul as representing two distinguishable and separable kinds of being, material and spiritual. Jews didn’t think this way, at least in terms of two separable modes of being. One may be able to talk about inanimate bodies vs. “soul”-animated bodies, but even in soul-animated bodies, that which makes it alive or conscious is not separable from body.
So what is Jesus distinguishing as represented behind the Greek words? I would suggest that with psychē he’s talking about that which makes us human, that which is created in God’s image and sets us apart from other living beings. As hinted at with the first decision, Jesus is talking about someone able to destroy our humanity. When another round of our terrible violence is unleashed on large scales, such as wars, it’s not just about body counts. It’s also about how the experience of diminishes our humanity. When Germans followed Hitler in the 1930’s, they began down a road of defacing of what it means to be human that has had the world questioning it ever since.
Another example is 2020 might be Derek Chavin keeping his knee on George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, two or three minutes past George Floyd taking his last breath. Or the police line in Buffalo during the subsequent protests that knocked Martin Gugino to the ground, with blood flowing out of his ears, and kept going, leaving him for a medic behind their military line. What deadens a police officer’s humanity in such situations, so that they fail to act as normal human beings? Isn’t it the ‘satanic’ culture of Us vs. Them that allows a person to dehumanize the Other in such moments? Which is why we have a lot of work to do to change police culture to one of helping neighbors.
Third issue: how do we interpret “hell” (Gehenna)? “Hell,” or Gehenna, is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew ben Hinnom, the valley south of Jerusalem. For a more complete treatment, see the page for Epiphany 6A (on Matthew 5:21-37, where “hell” appears three times) and the 2014 sermon on that passage, “Live in God’s Love — or Continue Down the Road to Hellish Violence.” I argue that “hell” for Jesus represents our own human sacred violence, the violence we carry out against one another in the name of our false gods. In particular, it is the violence we continue to carry out in ‘sacrificing’ children.
So in the context of our popular modern ideas of hell as eternal punishment, coupled with our Greek dualistic way of seeing the soul as separable from the body, it makes sense to us to read this passage as being about fearing God as the one can destroy our souls in the eternal punishment of hell.
But I am emphatically suggesting an alternative here. With the cross as the revelation of our sacred violence, we interpret this verse as confronting us with fearing the Satanic power of being pulled into violence that destroys our humanity. In the Epiphany 6A elaboration on hell, I used examples like Auschwitz, the Twin Towers, and Hiroshima. I here added police violence to that list in 2020. When we get pulled into the Satanic power of being perpetrators of such violence, it destroys our humanity. We should fear the consequences of our own terrible violence — not just that it can kill us, but that if we are swept up in Satan’s power as perpetrators, it destroys the goodness of our being created in God’s image.
This verse is where the preacher might link up with the reading from Romans 6. Thank God for the incredible grace of dying with Christ to that power of sin! The old self which is enslaved to the Satanic power of sacred violence dies with Christ to be raised to a new life with the God of victims.
1. René Girard. This passage, and its parallel in Luke 12, expresses one of the basic points in mimetic theory. Our human way of keeping peace is the scapegoat mechanism and, exposed as sacred violence in the cross of Christ, is gradually taken away from us as its effectiveness wanes. A basic part of Jesus’ teachings, then, were “apocalyptic” warnings that violence would increase as our way of peace is taken away — making his call for peace through God’s way of peace — love and forgiveness — even more critical. He does come to bring peace but ‘not as the world gives’ (John 14:27). Our way of peace is the Sin (definitely in the singular in John 1:29) which the Lamb of God comes to take away.
So what happens in between the taking away of our peace and our embracing of God’s peace? Sword and division — father against son, son against father, etc. Our way of peace is designed to bring peace especially in proximity of relationship such as our flesh and blood families. It is a way of peace based on us vs. them. As Jesus takes that way of peace away from us, the first casualty is the peace we have with “us,” with those closest to us.
One example of this might be the modern progress in dismantling sexism. The old way of peace meant sacrificing the desires and goals of the daughters and wives in families. As families have rightly become more egalitarian so has the discord, in many instances, increased between husbands and wives, parents and children. Divorce has increased greatly. Christ showing us the way of love is needed in order to be able to desire with one desire as husbands and wives, without having to resort to the old sacrificial order of wives deferring to husbands. Otherwise, mimetic rivalry ensues with an increase of division.
Another aspect is that this passage is one of the first cited in trying to counter Mimetic Theory and its reading of the New Testament. In Things Hidden, as soon as he begins laying out his non-sacrificial reading of the Gospel, one his dialog partners, Guy Lefort, cites it as an example:
But at first sight it looks as though the enterprise will come up against some formidable obstacles, ranging from the redemptive character of Jesus’ death to the conception of a violent God, which seems to become indispensable when you take into account themes like the Apocalypse. Everything that you say here is bound to provoke in response the famous words that the Gospels have no qualms about putting in Jesus’ own mouth: “I have come not to bring peace but a sword.” People are going to tell you that the Christian scriptures explicitly provide a reason for discord and dissension. (p. 181)
So this passage continued to be prominent throughout his career: In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Matt. 10:34-36 is quoted and occupies a key place in a key chapter, chapter 12, on the word “Scapegoat.” Here’s a passage from that chapter:
Scapegoating phenomena cannot survive in many instances except by becoming more subtle, by resorting to more and more complex casuistry in order to elude the self-criticism that follows scapegoaters like their shadow. Otherwise, we could no longer resort to some wretched goat to rid ourselves of our resentments. We now have need of procedures less comically evident. Jesus makes allusion to this, I think. It is the deprivation of victim mechanisms and its terrible consequences that he talks about when he presents the future of the evangelized world in terms of conflict between persons who are most closely related:
Don’t think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. One’s enemies will be those of his own household. (Matt. 10:34-36)
In a world deprived of sacrificial safeguards, mimetic rivalries are often physically less violent, but they insinuate themselves into the most intimate relationships. This is what the text I have just quoted specifies: the son at war with his father, the daughter against her mother, etc. The loss of sacrificial protection transforms the most intimate relationships into their exact opposites so that they become relationships of doubles, of enemy twins. This text enables us to identify the true origin of modern “psychology.” (p. 159)
The scapegoat provides the systemic closure which allows the social group to function once again, to run its course once more and to remain blind to its systemic closure (the belief that the ones they are scapegoating are actually guilty). After the Christian revelation this is no longer possible. The system cannot be pulled back by any form of pharmacological resolution, and the virus of mimetic violence can spread freely. This is the reason why Jesus says: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10.34). The Cross has destroyed once and for all the cathartic power of the scapegoat mechanism. Consequently, the Gospel does not provide a happy ending to our history. It simply shows us two options (which is exactly what ideologies never provide, freedom of choice): either we imitate Christ, giving up all our mimetic violence, or we run the risk of self-destruction.
In the New Testament, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. It is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword. For I have come to set son against father, daughter against mother. . . A person’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” The passage is puzzling. Why would Jesus’ gospel of love and mutual forbearance create division and discord? René Girard’s interpretation unlocks the puzzle. Human society, Girard says, creates order by channeling violence towards scapegoats. Envy and resentment are directed away from one another and towards a common enemy. Ritual sacrifices institutionalize this way of expelling violence. Jesus denounces the lie on which this system rests and allows himself to be crucified in order to reveal for all time the innocence of all sacrificial victims. But this revelation, by depriving people of the means to disown their violence and project it onto others, inevitably brings that violence home to roost, so to speak, setting father against son and so forth. Jesus flushes the hidden violence of culture into the open, imposing a choice on people, and it is this choice, Girard says, that constitutes the unveiling or uncovering that Christians call the Apocalypse.
The Apocalypse is not some invention. If we are without sacrifices, either we’re going to love each other or we’re going to die. We have no more protection against our own violence. Therefore, we are confronted with a choice: either we’re going to follow the rules of the Kingdom of God or the situation is going to get infinitely worse.
This either-or, in Girard’s view, is the dynamic that the Christian gospel introduces into history. The effect is gradual, exerting itself over many centuries. But this doesn’t by any means imply that the world then grows magically less violent. Sacrifice is a means of limiting violence — a single victim thrown to the gods so that everyone can live in peace. So when people no longer sacrifice but also fail to repent, violence can easily grow worse and this worsening violence, Girard says, is an effect that many contemporary people seem to hold against Christianity.
You know, I’m pretty accustomed now to these meetings about violence. Everybody’s talking about violence today. They’ve all read Voltaire’s Candide, and violence is a scandal to them. And so they ask, what kind of a God is that who is supposed to bring us peace and just look at the state the world is in? People show up indignantly, as if God were an American president who had not fulfilled his promises. But I say to them, where do you see it said in the Gospel that Christ came to bring peace? He tells you Himself that He’s bringing a sword and not peace, that He’s separating father from son, and so on. . . . Where do you find that the Christ promises immediate peace? Christ tells you you have to fight for the Kingdom of God. Otherwise you won’t have either the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Satan. Because the Kingdom of Satan, he says, is going to collapse as a result of its internal contradictions. It is going toward destruction. (The very beginning of tape 5, side A, in Ideas presentation of “The Scapegoat”)
2. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, a section entitled “Jesus Brings Division among Human Beings,” pp. 154-157, which is prompted by Matt. 10:34-36 (and its parallel in Luke 12:51ff.), and also touching on the similar verse in last week’s Gospel, 10:21.
Because of the many texts about love and peace, these words should not be understood as if dissension was the goal of [Jesus’] message. They could merely mean that his coming, unintentionally and yet necessarily, kindles dissension. The real cause of the division is therefore not to be found in him. But his coming uncovers the deep-seated tensions already present and thus provokes open enmities. He seems like a sword and a troublemaker because he unmasks as delusionary the familiar forms of human harmony. Even the most natural and intimate interpersonal relations cannot stand in his presence. He unveils secret discords. His appearance brings judgment, and he sets before all humans the truth that the prophet Micah had proclaimed over Israel. The human being is a creature who, by spontaneous tendency, does not even get along with his own family. The son despises his father, the daughter rebels against her mother, and even the wife in her husband’s arms cannot be trusted. (p. 155)
After quoting Matthew 10:21 Schwager writes:
Since Jesus as the unique peacemaker also unmasks the most hidden violence, instant reconciliation is not the immediate consequence of his coming. On the contrary, murderous violence becomes even more evident. The infancy narrative in Matthew already points to this fact. The question of whether the story of the killing of the babies in Bethlehem goes back to a historical account can for our purposes be bracketed out. In any case, the text shows that even the news of the birth of the new Prince of peace was enough to unleash a tragic and cruel bloodbath. This story also shows that violence is truly nothing but blind rage. Neither the newborn Prince of peace nor the innocent children had given the slightest cause to provoke the murders. This suspicion in the blind imagining of a possible future rivalry sufficed for a horrible slaughter to be commanded. (p. 156)
Schwager also quotes Matthew 5:21-22 about a brother even being angry at another brother. He writes:
. . .the murder starts long before the physical deed, in the thoughts and desires of the heart. Its evil power is already at work where people live together “decently” and at worst trade verbal insults. (p. 157)
Finally, Schwager anticipates a possible objection to Girard’s approach to apocalyptic:
Against Girard’s analyses according to which brothers instinctively become hostile brothers and all humans spontaneously lean towards violence, one could easily object that daily experience proves the opposite. There really are many families in which, because of the affection between husband and wife and between parents and children, people get along well. Here normal human nature is made manifest. But like Girard, the New Testament writings by no means speak of this experience of supposedly normal life. They make it quite clear that, wherever human beings are inwardly confronted with the message of true love, something quite different breaks out. The so-called good understanding is exposed as a shaky truce, and the ensuing quarrels unmask the alleged peace as worthless. From the perspective of the New Testament writings, the often-cited “daily experience” is only the result of a superficial look that has not yet gazed into the abyss of interhuman relations. (p. 157)
Also, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, Matt 10:32ff. is discussed on pp. 71ff., within the section entitled “Second Act: The Rejection of the Kingdom of God and Judgment,” pp. 53-81, a helpful portion for interpreting with the coming weeks in Matthew. See the excerpt “Doubling of Sin and Hell,” pp. 63-69.
The parallel passage in Luke 12 is cited near the climax of a section entitled “The Answer of the Kingdom of God to Rejection” (pp. 101-114). Here is a relevant portion:
Objections have been made (Vögtle, Fiedler, Oberlinner, among others), as we have already briefly seen, to this way of putting the problem, stating that it is quite impossible to speak of a definitive rejection by Israel of the kingdom of God, and that therefore one has to distinguish clearly between a readiness for death, which certainly ought to be attributed to Jesus, and a certainty of death, which is not demonstrable. Consequently there are no historical grounds for the assumption that he understood his death as an atoning death and interpreted it that way to his disciples at the Last Supper. This view involves several historical judgments of detail which we have already considered and about which we came to rather different conclusions. But as the problematic of atonement is decisive for the way we understand the death of Jesus, we will have to turn to it again. If God is imagined as an eternal, unaltering sun, which shines on humankind, unmoved, with constant goodness, then it might really be difficult to speak of a definitive rejection. With such a view, there goes a corresponding understanding of time, according to which there are no outstanding moments (or at most that of one’s own death). Each hour is equally full of meaning or empty of meaning and therefore one can never say before the last moment of life that someone has definitively decided. At the most, there is a slow ripening toward goodness or a step by step falling away into evil. In line with this representation of time, one can even assume — with a corresponding doctrine of the soul — that the soul’s processes continue after bodily death and never become definitive, as Origen may have assumed. In this case, the person and message of Jesus are seen entirely in terms of general ideas.
However, things are different if one thinks not merely of the general idea “Action of God,” but of an actual action. Time appears in this case not as a continuous line, but it contains outstanding moments. With such an understanding, the kairos, the moment of fulfillment or opportunity, can be used or squandered. Now we have seen — in agreement with most critical exegetes — that Jesus announced the kingdom of God as an event, which could succeed or fail. It depended on his effectiveness — in teaching, healing, and bringing together — whether the spark actually passed from him to his hearers and whether the new assembly became an event. Jesus lived in a pressured time (expectation of the imminent kingdom), and this should have become a time of celebration [German Hoch-Zeit; Hochzeit is the common word for “wedding”]; in fact, even before the public rejection, it became for him — because of people’s lack of faith — a heavy burden, which subjectively made the time stretch out again: “O you unbelieving generation! How long will I yet be with you? How long must I yet bear with you?” (Mark 9:19ff. and parallels). So we can understand how it could weigh on him that these dark events provoked by his proclamation might soon come about: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already burning. I must be baptized with a baptism, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49ff.). These sayings are not easy to interpret. It is possible that fire meant in the first place the kingdom of God, which Jesus hoped would spread like a fire across the earth. But by baptism he certainly referred to something else. The disputed question, whether he was alluding to a coming baptism of judgment or whether he was more generally predicting an eschatological test, can remain open, as the sayings about baptism are enough to show that he was not proclaiming any general ideas, for which there was always a time. He found himself in a pressured train of events, and was pressed to bring things to an end himself.
Since the kingdom of God as the “time of grace” (Luke 19:44) was at the same time a time of decision, the answer was bound automatically to come out negative if the spark did not fly and the fire did not begin to burn. It was not a question of whether Israel consciously and expressly rejected Jesus by a numerical majority or whether one considers that later on many people would have given their approval. Since the event, which had its particular “time,” did not materialize, and the “fire” did not begin to spread, a negative decision had de facto occurred. Before the outward resolution to kill Jesus there lay the inner decision, and he must have picked this up keenly, as his whole effort was being expended in summoning people away from the laws of their everyday behavior. Between the inner decision, which is essentially to be understood as a nondecision in the face of the summons given out, and which perhaps occurred very early on, and the outward reaction of his direct opponents, some time may well have elapsed, in which Jesus on the one hand continued his proclamation of the basileia — even if under a heavy burden — and on the other began immediately to make clear the consequences of rejection through the judgment sayings. It is important not to set up false oppositions here.
If the proclamation of Jesus was a salvation history event, then his hearers took on a role in salvation history. From the concept of role (so once more the significance of a dramatic view is shown), we can understand more precisely what is meant by definitive rejection. If one thinks of this as a final subjective refusal of God, then very serious difficulties result. On the one hand, in this case redemption would be won by means of the hell of those who rejected Jesus; on the other hand everyone would stand under the same threat even after Easter, as it is hard to see why the grace of redemption should be easier to accept than the grace of the basileia message. Everyone would stand in danger of the final destruction, without a convincing reason for hope. But from the viewpoint of a thorough going dramatic understanding of Jesus’ fate, such an interpretation of the definitive rejection is excluded. Since Jesus’ hearers acted in a salvation history role, rejection was part of their action as role players. They made their decision, in view of the new life and the new divine standard which Jesus proclaimed, by remaining caught in the laws and forces of this world. Definitive rejection means in this case: it has been definitively shown that the forces and powers by which human history is ruled stand in fundamental opposition to that message and that life brought by Jesus. In this context, the question of individual salvation remained at first open.
One further problem can be explained by means of the idea of dramatic role in salvation history. In the investigation up until now, the rejection of Jesus appeared in one way as something monstrous. How hard-hearted must Jesus’ hearers have been if they did not open themselves to the message of pure forgiveness and unlimited goodness? In another way the rejection showed itself as something quite natural. Have not people always behaved the same way in history, and was not Jesus’ demand concerning faith and love of one’s enemy far too much for them, a utopian expectation? The idea of role allows these opposite aspects to be articulated together without contradiction. In the fate of Jesus a monstrous conflict between the kingdom of God and the laws of this world was in fact played out. But at the same time it became clear that the “players” are so ruled by strange forces that from their point of view no other decision could have been expected. Their actions were monstrous and totally banal at the same time.
The problems which are thrown up by the distinction mentioned above between readiness for death and certainty of death should consequently resolve themselves if the kingdom of God is understood as an event and seen in the context of the drama of salvation history. The question before which Jesus stood at the last meal with his disciples was not whether, after the rejection of the willing forgiveness of his Father, he should proclaim another opportunity for salvation, a “salvation on the basis of a substitute performance.” The dramatic question was rather how the goodness of his Father can reach human hearts, after it has been definitively shown what opposition existed in the forces of this world and how far people were subject to them. The surprising answer of Jesus appears in allowing himself to be handed over to the dark powers (lies, violence, diabolical self-certainty) and to be struck by them. (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 108-111)
3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, has a very good chapter on Girard’s theme of Apocalypse, chapter 9, “The Bad News about Revelation: Two Kinds of Apocalypses.” This passage is referred to near the beginning:
To say that victims have become more visible is also to say that the mythological rationalization of sacrifice has been progressively weakened, wherever the narratives of the crucified one have spread. This process is by no means identical with Western culture. But for a period, that culture was a major theater of this transformation, for good and for ill. Movements against scapegoating and in support of persecuted groups of many descriptions rose. But so did new kinds of violence. The process is a double-edged sword. Sacrificial mechanisms did function effectively, if unjustly, to restrain reciprocal violence. As the workings of the mechanism become more obvious, and the reality of the victims less avoidable, society is thrown into a new kind of sacrificial crisis. The old mythological scapegoating solutions can be applied only with greater effort and stress (often scapegoating must use antiscapegoating language), and with more limited success. But the nonsacrificial social alternatives presented in the gospel require radical personal and social transformations that have been at best only partially realized. Sacrificial crises can become more acute as the mythological solution fades and nonviolent alternatives struggle to be born.
This is the deep truth in the New Testament vision of apocalypse. Heightened stakes and dramatic choices are placed before the world wherever the nonsacrificial revelation comes into it. In this sense, Jesus brought not peace but a sword. Our societies can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us. Our societies can hardly live with a nonsacrificial vision, for that requires a trust in transcendence, an openness to “religion” and conversion, which we pride ourselves on having outgrown. The paradox of the passion has become our cultural paradox. There is no way back to untroubled mythical sacrifice, and there seems no way forward to a new creation. (pp. 262-263)
4. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, p. 250. In explaining Girard’s “Apocalyptic Reading of History,” it is no surprise that the Matthean parallel to this passage is cited. Here is a particularly poignant paragraph:
Girard argues that our contemporary world offers a particularly clear picture of the apocalyptical dangers that accompany this biblical impulse. The biblical demystification of the world has given rise to modern science and technology — in particular, nuclear weapons, which have provided mankind with the capability to annihilate itself. Girard also sees the environmental catastrophes that threaten a self-inflicted end to the world as confirmation of the Bible’s apocalyptical prophesies: “To say that we are objectively in an apocalyptic situation is in no sense to ‘preach the end of the world.’ It is to say that mankind has become, for the first time, capable of destroying itself, something that was unimaginable only two or three centuries ago. The whole planet now finds itself, with regard to violence, in a situation comparable to that of most primitive groups of human beings, except that this time we are fully aware of it. We can no longer count on sacrificial resources based on false religions to keep this violence at bay” (Things Hidden, 260-261). (pp. 251-52)
5. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, p. 233. Bartlett cites this context in a different context: a comparison of Jesus and John the Baptist. John uses fire imagery in prophesying the Messiah. Bartlett writes:
There is, however, one saying of Jesus that switches the whole meaning of fire and it gives an indication of how he was changing John’s entire symbolic scheme. He said, “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:49-50). The image of setting fire to the whole earth is very different from burning the separated chaff. It is also connected to a baptism that Jesus has yet to undergo, and so is diverse from John’s meaning. John’s promise of a baptism with “spirit and fire” refers to the final cataclysm of God’s in-breaking in history. The water baptism at the Jordan that he offered stood as a powerful symbolic alternative to fire, the possibility of entering into a repentance and purification that pre-empted this fearsome eventuality. Jesus’ putting together of “fire” and “baptism” in respect of something he had still to undergo suggests that he accepted John’s symbols but at a deeper and decisive level he opted to bring the crisis down on himself in a totally exceptional sense. He would thereby release fire on earth, but in a transformed, generative sense. Here we have the absolutely characteristic gesture of Jesus that unites an apocalyptic viewpoint with something else, something that changes the orientation and content of apocalyptic itself. It returns us again to his otherwise-than-John manifesto. (pp. 233-34)
6. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, p. 288:
Understanding Jesus’ ministry, as well as the danger he quite consciously put himself in, requires that we see it as an unrelenting disruption of the boundaries of “pure” and “impure” as delineated by the dominant purity map of his day. A very significant proportion of his sayings and deeds involve bringing these distinctions into crisis. . . . [examples cited] Through these and many other sayings and deeds, Jesus undermines the subtle and overt ways human beings cultivate identity, individually or in groups, in contrastive relation to the Other. He thus brings scandal to identity. His is a ministry of healing through cauterization. (Hence the otherwise unintelligible statement, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” [Matt. 10:34; see also Luke 12:51-53; 14:26-27].) It painfully brings to light the underlying disease of mimetic rivalry and conflict. Such an operation is extremely dangerous. It plays directly, if calculatingly, into the dynamics of the scapegoating process: for when identity is threatened, when social distinctions are confused, when pollution is introduced into the system, the habitual reaction is to expel, to exterminate. (pp. 288-89)
7. James Alison, Raising Abel; Mt 10:26-27 is quoted on p. 151; Mt 10:33 is cited on p. 182.
Also, Broken Hearts and News Creations, p. 39; in an essay titled “Wrath and the gay question” (which can also be found online). He quotes this passage with the one from John 14:27, about Jesus coming to bring peace, but not the peace that the world gives us. Again, this is such a crucial insight of Girardian thought, it is developed over several pages:
Yet in fact Jesus does warn that the effect of his mission is going to be to produce wrath, in the passage I have already quoted to you. And in fact, he then gives himself to the sacrificial mechanism in a way which the Gospel writers point to as being the way proper to the great High Priest, and he becomes the lamb of sacrifice. In fact, he reverses the normal human sacrificial system which started with human sacrifice and then is later modified to work with animal substitutes. Jesus, by contrast, substitutes himself for the lamb, portions of whose body were handed out to the priests; and thus by putting a human back at the centre of the sacrificial system, he reveals it for what it is: a murder.
Now here is the curious thing. It looks for all the world as though Jesus is simply fitting into the ancient world’s views about sacrifice and wrath. But in fact, he is doing exactly the reverse. Because he is giving himself to this being murdered, and he has done nothing wrong, he brings about an entirely new way to be free from wrath. . . . What Jesus has done by substituting himself for the victim at the centre of the lynch sacrifice is to make it possible for those who perceive his innocence, to realise what it is in which they have been involved (and agreeing to drink his blood presupposes a recognition of this complicity). These then begin to have their identity given them not by the group over against the victim, but by the self-giving victim who is undoing the unanimity of the group. This means that from then on they never again have to be involved in sacrifices, sacrificial mechanisms and all the games of “wrath” which every culture throws up. They will be learning to walk away from all that, undergoing being given the peace that the world does not give.
So, there is no wrath at all in what Jesus is doing. He understands perfectly well that there is no wrath in the Father, and yet that “wrath” is a very real anthropological reality, whose cup he will drink to its dregs. His Passion consists, in fact, of his moving slowly, obediently, and deliberately into the place of shame, the place of wrath, and doing so freely and without provoking it. However, from the perspective of the wrathful, that is, of all of us run by the mechanisms of identity building, peace building, unanimity building “over against” another, Jesus has done something terrible. Exactly as he warned. He has plunged us into irresoluble wrath. Because he has made it impossible for us ever really to believe in what we are doing when we sacrifice, when we shore up our social belonging against some other. All our desperate attempts to continue doing that are revealed to be what they are: just so much angry frustration, going nowhere at all, spinning the wheels of futility.
The reason is this: the moment we perceive that the one occupying the central space in our system of creating and shoring up meaning is actually innocent, actually gave himself to be in that space, then all our sacred mechanisms for shoring up law and order, sacred differences and so forth, are revealed to be the fruits of an enormous self-deception. The whole world of the sacred totters, tumbles, and falls if we see that this human being is just like us. He came to occupy the place of the sacrificial victim entirely freely, voluntarily, and without any taint of being “run” by, or beholden to, the sacrificial system. That is, he is one who was without sin. This human being was doing something for us even while we were so locked into a sacrificial way of thinking and behaviour that we couldn’t possibly have understood what he was doing for us, let alone asked him to do it. The world of the sacred totters and falls because when we see someone who is like us doing that for us, and realise what has been done, the shape that our realisation takes is our moving away from ever being involved in such things again.
Now what is terrible about this is that it makes it impossible for us really to bring about with a good conscience any of the sacred resolutions, the sacrificial decisions which brought us, and bring all societies, comparative peace and order. The game is up. And so human desire, rivalry, competition, which had previously been kept in some sort of check by a system of prohibitions, rituals, sacrifices and myths, lest human groups collapse in perpetual and irresoluble mutual vengeance, can no longer be controlled in this way. This is the sense in which Jesus’ coming brings not peace to the earth, but a sword and division. All the sacred structures which hold groups together start to collapse, because desire has been unleashed. So the sacred bonds within families are weakened, different generations will be run by different worlds, give their loyalty to different and incompatible causes, the pattern of desire constantly shifting. All in fact will be afloat on a sea of wrath, because the traditional means to curb wrath, the creation by sacrifice of spaces of temporary peace within the group, has been undone forever. The only alternative is to undergo the forgiveness which comes from the lamb, and start to find oneself recreated from within by a peace which is not from this world, and involves learning how to resist the evil one by not resisting evil. This means: you effectively resist, have no part in, the structures and flows of desire which are synonymous with the prince of this world, that is to say with the world of wrath, only by refusing to acquire an identity over against evil-done-to you. (pp. 42-44)
8. James Alison, a video homily for Proper 7A (Ordinary 12); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. Alison reads this passage in the timely context of conspiracy theories and “fake news.”
9. 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 parallel passage of Luke 12:51-53 in 2013, “Human Swords, God’s Peace.”
The violence we see around us may be frightening, but it is also a sign that the Gospel is doing its work in culture, slowly but surely eroding the false peace built on the sacrifice of the innocent. We will never be able to go back again. Only movement forward to positive mimesis, to Jesus’ rejection of violence, can bring peace now. The ground is being prepared for the seeds of peace. We have only to sow them.
11. Gabriel Andrade in 2005 published a paper to Anthropoetics, titled “The Transformation of Kinship in the New Testament,” where we are reminded that mimetic theory helps us understand that the Gospel throws all cultural institutions into question:
In the New Testament, kinship no longer enjoys the same prominence [as the Old Testament], for a vast number of passages reacting against it come up. Yet, the very first passages of the New Testament (Matthew 1) are a complex genealogy of Jesus. How are we to account for such ambivalence? Part of the answer may be provided by mimetic theory. Kinship is one of the most important institutions of Culture. If Girard is right, all cultural institutions have their origin in sacrifice. Thus, kinship is, like religion, language and the market, founded upon an originary murder, whose dynamics are kept hidden. Inasmuch as the gospels unveil this murder, cultural institutions no longer work as they used to. Once the truth about the origin of the world is found out, kinship relations are no longer sustainable.
Jesus has come to bring the sword and not peace. His message is profoundly apocalyptical, for in a world where once the truth is known, sacrifice no longer works, and the cultural institutions it supports come trembling down. Perhaps one of Jesus’ most disturbing words are to be found in what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark 13. There, he announces the terrible violence that the world will bear. One of the most eerie announcements is: “And brother will deliver up brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents, and have them put to death” (Mark 13: 12 [par. Matt. 10:21]).
Jesus shows that family, like all cultural institutions, must be reconstituted in light of the Gospel of God’s Culture. In several places, he states that his family are those who do the will of God. Baptism, the theme of today’s Second Lesson, is the beginning of this reconstitution as God adopts us as his children.
12. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (vol. 4 of Bonhoeffer’s Works). Bonhoeffer elaborates discipleship primarily through an exposition of the first two addresses of Jesus in Matthew — Matthew 5-7 and 10. The chapter (Ch. 7) on Matthew 10 is titled “The Messengers,” pages 183-98. This portion of Matthew 10 is covered primarily in the section called “The Decision,” pages 195-97. He interprets verse 28 in the conventional way of fearing God’s judgement, a reading that I can’t agree with (see Exegetical Note #4 above). But I find this paragraph suggestive of a ‘Girardian’ reading:
This final separation has to commence here on earth. The peace of Jesus Christ is the cross. The cross is God’s sword on this earth. It creates division. The son against the father, the daughter against the mother, the household against its head, and all that for the sake of God’s kingdom and its peace — that is the work of Christ on earth! No wonder the world accuses him, who brought the love of God to the people, of hatred toward human beings! Who dares to speak about a father’s love and a mother’s love to a son or daughter in such a way, if not either the destroyer of all life or the creator of a new life? Who can claim the people’s love and sacrifice so exclusively, if not the enemy of humanity or the savior of humanity? Who will carry the sword into their houses, if not the devil or Christ, the Prince of Peace? God’s love for the people and human love for their own kind are utterly different. God’s love for the people brings the cross and discipleship, but these, in turn, mean life and resurrection. “Anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” This affirmation is given by the one who has the power over death, the Son of God, who goes to the cross and to resurrection and takes those who are his with him. (p. 197)
In the pairings at the middle — “the destroyer of all life or the creator of a new life,” and “the enemy of humanity or the savior of humanity” — he seems to name this parallel pairing in the third one as “the devil or Christ, the Prince of Peace.” With a properly anthropological interpretation of the devil that Mimetic Theory provides, it wouldn’t be difficult to have this paragraph understand the “the One” in verse 28 as the devil, named in this paragraph as “the destroyer of all life” and “the enemy of humanity” — basically the alternative reading we proposed above.
The other passage from this chapter which I find most helpful here are comments about the urgency in Matthew 10:11-15 — words of warning for those who don’t heed the message. Bonhoeffer writes:
But for those who do not want to hear, the grace period is over. They have pronounced their own judgment. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts!” (Heb. 4:7). That is gospel preaching. Is it unmerciful haste? Nothing is more unmerciful than pretending to the people that they still have a lot of time to repent. Nothing is more merciful; nothing is better news than the message to hurry, because the kingdom is very near. (p. 191)
Even though the wider context of this passage gives us Bonhoeffer seeing Christ through the lens of sacred violence — the sentence almost immediately before this is, “A king is standing outside the door; he can come at any minute: do you want to bow down and receive him humbly, or do you want him to destroy and kill you in his wrath?” — he follows it with these words expressing self-judgment. And the true mercy of the Gospel is rightly expressed as an urgency to hear this message of repentance, of choosing a different way. Mimetic Theory helps us to more clearly see the choice as between the consequences of our own sacred violence or God’s rescue in Jesus Christ to choose a true path of life.
14. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 19, 2005 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. In the ’97 Martin D’Arcy lecture at Oxford given by René Girard (on tape available from William Hewitt), he highlighted this morning’s gospel phrase about bringing a sword instead of peace — in a similar vein as with chapter 12 of I See Satan above. What I heard him say is that the world most definitely has its own brand of keeping the peace involving the scapegoating mechanism. Jesus did not come to bring another version of that peace. He came to bring God’s peace, which, because it is opposite of our human peace, acts to divide us at first.
Girard also emphasized this passage toward the end of the 1999 COV&R conference, especially in connection with his insight into the conference’s theme of violence reduction. We have to understand that the scapegoating mechanism — when it is working efficiently, which it no longer is able to do after 2000 years of the Paraclete — is itself a violence reduction mechanism. When it is thwarted, violence will likely increase. We are living in the midst of the apocalyptic paradox of Good News from God that the Christ will someday lead to the elimination of violence, not just its reduction. But, in the meantime, its complete nonviolence diminishes our violence reduction systems based on the scapegoating mechanism, such that violence increases.
2. In 2014, I used the Women’s Movement for the central example of what Jesus is talking about. Historians point to many factors that contributed to the Women’s Movement. How about the cross? Jesus messes up our hierarchies where some benefit to the sacrifice of others — such as men to the sacrifice of women. Those who benefit from the old way of keeping order are going to resist the new way. And even a false, sacrificial way of order seems preferable to chaos, to ‘apocalyptic’ violence. The alternative, of course, is to embrace God’s new way of peace in Jesus Christ. The resulting sermon is “Transforming the Way of Peace Isn’t Peaceful.”
3. In 2005, our newly adopted sons from Liberia, Hilton and Terry, are being baptized. These texts, despite — or perhaps because of — their difficulty, provide an ideal time to unpack the theme of baptism as the reconstitution of each of us by welcoming us into God’s family, reconstituting even our earthly family institutions. God adopts each of us in baptism, and the opportunity for change and growth couldn’t be more dramatic than it was for Hilton and Terry to come from a war-torn region of Africa to America. Link to the sermon “Family Re-Formed.”
4. When at Emmaus, Racine, I led a bible study for our homeless guests during the winter (ca. 2000). They came one evening wanting to figure out these passages, about “a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother,” etc. Many of them deal with drug/alcohol addiction and have experienced the ways in which the skandalon of addiction has set them against family members. It is difficult to explain to them how the cross of Jesus can also be a stumbling block among us, dividing families, but it was worth trying. The easier part was to show them the more positive sayings where the Gospel builds new family ties around itself. Schwager (above) puts the matter well:
It was the aim of the kingdom of God to unite wills, the will of God with the will of the people, and people among themselves as brothers and sisters of Jesus (Mark 3:31-35 and parallels). But in fact initially the exact opposite occurred. (pp. 58-59)
What was helpful to our homeless shelter guests was to get them to recognize the new kinds of healthier families they can be a part of now, even if they are currently cut-off from their blood-tie families. An A.A. group, for example, can provide the loving acceptance and forgiveness which they can no longer get from their own families. In such a group they are not judged by outsiders because of their addiction. Instead, they are accepted for who they are and encouraged to make a new life, with God’s help. I sometimes think that it might be helpful for the church to think of itself as a Sinner’s Anonymous.