Excerpt from James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes, the fourth section of chapter 3, "The Search for a Soteriology," New York: Crossroads, pp. 83-88.

The Founding of the New Israel of God

So far I have been presenting the intelligence of the victim as the shift in intelligence made possible by the presence of the crucified-and-risen victim to the apostolic group. That is to say, I have been emphasizing the way in which the divine revelation of the self-giving victim and the human discovery of the intelligence of the victim were simultaneously made available to the disciples. This may sound uncomfortably as though what the Christian faith is really about is some sort of revelation, or knowledge, or intelligence, and that everything else is secondary. This would lead to some sort of gnostic interpretation of Christianity. Here I think it important to indicate that the revelation and the discovery of the intelligence of the victim is not only some intellectual matter, but is in fact identical with salvation, or redemption. This is not because I wish to reduce salvation to a form of knowledge, but because I wish to indicate how this form of knowledge is, and was intended to be, by Jesus, constitutive, and creative, of a new human reality. That is to say, that as humans come to perceive the reality of God as victim and human as victimizer (which can only be a practical intelligence of my complicity in the structures of violence which form me and which I pass on), so we are impelled to the construction of a different form of social other, one built from the self-giving victim, rather than one built by exclusion of the victim.

This leads us to examine the way in which Jesus' intelligence of the victim proportioned a certain sort of critique of the Israel of which he was part. It would be possible to imagine what I might call a dialectical critique of Israel in the light of the intelligence of the victim. This would be one where some prophetic figure, like Jesus, comes along, with a certain sort of intelligence, and makes a critique of Israel in the light of this intelligence. He would be saying, effectively: Israel has got it all wrong, we must start again by founding something new. So he founded something new called christianity in the light of the intelligence of the victim. There are not a few interpretations of the origins of christianity (particularly those influenced by Luther's transference of his hatred of the Catholic Faith onto Judaism) which follow this dialectical pattern. However, this would not be faithful to the presentation of the sort of intelligence of the victim to which the apostolic texts give witness. In that witness, it is quite clear that Jesus preached the coming of the Kingdom of God, or of heaven, as a fulfilment of God's promises to Israel, and yet that the beginnings of the fulfilment of the coming about of that Kingdom happened as the recasting of the people of God around the same person of Jesus as self-giving victim. It is the way this shift, from the preaching of the Kingdom to the foundation in Jesus' victimary person of a new people of God, in fact operated that I wish to examine here.

In the previous section I tried to make it clear that the witnesses perceived a difference between their accession to the intelligence of the victim, a necessarily dialectical process involving their own conversion, and their awareness that this intelligence was pacifically held by Jesus (or that it was what pacifically possessed Jesus) from the beginning. They also demonstrate that Jesus applied this intelligence to Israel from the beginning. This is clear from the way in which he replied to the question about divorce: "from the beginning it was not so" (Matt 19:8; Mark 10:6). That is to say, his attitude towards Israel was not based on a dialectical critique, but on what one might call a foundational, or gratuitous critique, which is only a critique at all by accident, because in the first place it is an understanding of what was in the beginning. (1) This means that when he criticizes the scribes and pharisees it is, once again, not part of a new proposal that he is making in the light of which they look foolish. His concern about them is that in them, Israel is falling short of what it should have been from the beginning. Hence, in places it is suggested that they are Egyptians, who are holding up the real Exodus of God's people. This is done with particular subtlety at Mark 3:1-6. There the way in which Moses placed before the people of Israel the choice between good and evil (Deut 30:15), the way in which God took Israel out of Egypt with mighty arm and outstretched hand, and Pharaoh's hardness of heart, are all recalled in the incident of the cure of the man with a withered hand (which becomes outstretched) despite the hardness of the heart of the Pharisees, who did not understand the choice on the sabbath between doing good or evil, and went out to seek to destroy Jesus.

Here the problem is not with the nature of Judaism, but with the way in which its current spokesmen are falling short of what they should have known and been ab initio. Exactly the same intelligence underlies the famous "woes to the pharisees" in Matthew and Luke. (2) The critique, which is obviously made out of a huge sadness concerning the fate of Jerusalem (Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem etc), is precisely that the whole point of the foundation of Judaism, the calling of Israel out of Egypt, was to build a nation that was not like other nations, a nation that did not victimize, that cared for the widow and the orphan, treated well the sojourner (for remember that you were strangers in Egypt), that did not enslave (for remember that you were slaves in Egypt). That is to say: the calling of Israel was God's project for being authentically human, for the rescuing of Abel from beneath Cain's stones, and this vocation as universal model for humanity is being betrayed by the current representatives of Israel, who are fully complicit in the construction of the identity of Israel by exclusion of the victim, in the tradition of their forefathers who killed the prophets. Again, what makes this critique possible is Jesus' given understanding of the plan of God from the beginning.

This is once again shown in the way in which, in Mark (implicitly in Jesus' approach to Jerusalem, to the Temple, and in his parable of the murderous tenants of the vineyard), and in Luke (more explicitly, in a number of parables), Jesus is represented as conducting, and in fact being, the visitation of God to inspect his project. However, this whole critique of the situation of Israel is incidental to what Jesus is really about, which is the fulfilment of God's promises in the bringing about of his project. What God wanted from the beginning, Jesus is here to do: to establish the universal possibility of a new sort of humanity, which must pass first through Israel. It is in this light that we can begin to understand the way in which Jesus set about the foundation of the new Israel of God.

He did this by the calling of twelve disciples to be his witnesses, and to be the eschatological fulfilment of the twelve tribes of Israel, and by preparing them in as far as possible for the way in which the new gathering together of Israel would have to pass through the rejection of the Messiah. Again, what comes first is the fulfilment of God's promise to create a new sort of humanity starting with Israel -- the purely given. What becomes apparent -- the intelligence of the victim -- is that in the concrete, contingent circumstances of this sort of humanity -- and even, sadly of the people of Israel, who had been prepared all along by the Law and the Prophets -- this promise would have to be fulfilled through the victimary exclusion of the Messiah, to enable it to become clear once and for all who God is, what mankind is, and what sort of project God has for mankind.

It is in the light of this that Jesus produced his most remarkable piece of teaching and prophetic acting-out of a mime: the Last Supper. This was the fulfillment of the Passover as the foundational act of Israel. The Passover was the feast which instituted Israel. In it God called Israel out of Egypt, and at the same time there was celebrated the foundation of the victim people who were expelled from Egypt by their oppressors. It was this feast that was established as the foundational act by which the people of Israel received their identity as chosen. They were summoned out of Egypt as a victim people so that God might establish a covenant with them at Sinai, in which his choice of them to be a light to all nations was ratified. God's project was the establishment of a saving element among the nations who might live as no other nation did, keeping in mind their having been slaves in Egypt, and so constructing their own life in such a way as to give witness to the God who hears the cry of the oppressed, who saved his people from oppression.

In celebrating the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus was calling to mind this, God's foundational project for Israel. However, he was recasting this foundational project in his own person. He was to be both the gratuitously self-giving one, and the expelled one simultaneously: this was how he interpreted his own death the night before it happened. Jesus also combined this understanding of the foundational feast of Israel with an understanding of himself as the beast slaughtered for the making of the covenant at Sinai, whose blood was scattered over the people and the altar. He was also the Passover lamb whose blood was to protect the members of the New Israel. Furthermore, he combined all these with an interpretation of himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. He understood his self-giving to be the victim as a salvific act by which a new people would be ransomed. He gave in the Last Supper a brilliant new nexus of teaching and interpretation of Scripture to indicate clearly the nature of the new people he was founding, a new people founded from the self-giving victim. He commanded his disciples to repeat this, since his presence after the resurrection was always to take the form of the self-giving victim risen as the foundational forgiveness of the new Israel.

Here again the intelligence of the victim can be seen at work. However, it is quite clear that this is not a simple illumination, but a creative and constitutive revelation. Creative and constitutive of a new way of being human: as reconciled with each other around the body of the self-giving victim. Furthermore, this creative and constitutive revelation is not seen as something entirely new, but as bringing clearly to light what God had always intended human society to be. The sense in which this bringing to light of God's plan for reconciling humanity implied a critique of Israel is understood to be incidental and accidental to the purely gratuitous self-giving of God made visible in the self-giving of Jesus as victim in the midst of the people of Israel. Luke in particular (in Acts) brings out the way in which the rejection by Israel of the self-giving of God was only really possible after it had been preached to them that the Messiah had come, been crucified, and in his resurrection was offering the possibility of forgiveness, and the re-unification of the whole house of Israel. First it was presented to them, in the wake of Pentecost, that all God's promises to them had been fulfilled in the self-giving and forgiving victim, and so the fulfillment of Israel as the first-fruits of the reconciliation of the whole of humanity was still an open possibility. Acts is, in one sense, the sad story of how the possibility was missed, and how the offer of the reconciliation of humanity with God was launched off anyhow, and Israel began to become a theologically neutral concept. (3) The center of God's project moves with Paul from Jerusalem to Rome, and thus to the ends of the earth.

What I'm trying to bring out at this point is the way in which the intelligence of the victim, possessed after the resurrection by the disciples, illumined the way in which Jesus' intelligence of the victim, the consequence of his being formed in gratuitous self-giving, had led him deliberately to engage in a foundational act. This was not, however, a totally new (and therefore dialectically critical) foundation, but a revelation of what God had projected to found from the beginning, and at the same time the fulfilment of that project. This is a concrete new way of being human, made possible by the forgiving victim permitting humans formed in violence to undergo a change in relationality, a change in the constitution of their consciousness, or their heart, and so to begin to form a humanity reconciled among themselves and with God who has given himself to them as victim. To put it in Old Testament terms, what was being established was Abel, coming back from the dead and inviting Cain back from his restless wandering in the land of Nod, to partake in a banquet which would be the reestablishment of lost fraternity, or perhaps even the creation of a fraternity beyond even what had been lost.

So, we have seen the way in which the intelligence of the victim, made possible in the disciples by the presence to them of the crucified-and-risen Lord, permitted the discovery of who God is, and simultaneously who man is. At the same time it permitted the disciples to understand that what Jesus had been doing, moved by this same intelligence of the victim, was enacting a concrete, historical foundational act that was a way of bringing to light the full depth and dimensions of a concrete historical project on the part of God, a historical act that was made available through the institution of a sign of extraordinary subtlety and complexity. In this way we see something properly specific to the christian understanding of what a religion might be: that it is a salvific revelation, or a revelatory salvation. The revelation bringing about the intelligence of the victim is creative of, and constitutive of, a new, historical, linguistic, representational community, which is simultaneously seen to have been originary: what humans were always meant to be.


1. By a "dialectical critique" I mean one that is provoked into being by an opposition to what is found present, a critique that is inseparable from an attitude of "over against" and is thus intrinsically violent.

2. Girard's essay on this, largely reproduced in Things Hidden, pp 158-167, is justly considered one of his most original contributions to biblical understanding ever since its first publication in the Bulletin du centre protestant d'études of Geneva (1975), though elements of it had appeared in a discussion in Esprit 429 (1973): 528-563.

3. Paul's treatment of Israel after the rejection follows a somewhat different path.