Excerpt from James Alison's The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes (New York: Crossroad, 1998), pp. 139-146, the beginning of Chapter 5, "The Intelligence of the Victim and the Distortion of Desire."

A Shift in Perception

The resurrection made possible an understanding of being human as in some way, yet to be discussed, unnecessarily involved in death. It is, as it were, the fact of the resurrection which revealed the fact of unnecessary human involvement in death, the possibility of forgiveness reaching even into human death. However there is more than this. The resurrection made possible a shift of perception on the part of the apostolic group as to the content of human involvement with death. This is related to what the disciples had not understood while Jesus was teaching them before his death and to what they did understand after his resurrection. This non-understanding is clearly presented in all the Gospels as related to Jesus' death in a rather particular sense. It was not that they merely did not understand, and after the resurrection, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, they did understand. The non-understanding itself was related to death. Their understanding of what Jesus was about was marked by the normal human limit of understanding which is that death is a definitive reality, and therefore that their relationship to Jesus, and what he was teaching, was something circumscribed by the normal parameters of human life and death. Jesus' understanding was not marked by that understanding: he was thus able creatively to imagine the possibility of a self-giving into the hands of violent men as not only a salvific revelation of the sort of love the Father is -- trusting himself into his Father's hands, but also as an educational exercise for those as yet unable to understand the non-definitive nature of death.

After the resurrection, and owing to the presence to them of the victim raised as forgiveness, the disciples were able to understand the nature of the educational process by which they had been brought, before Jesus' death, to the very brink of an understanding, but how it was in fact only Jesus' death, made alive by the resurrection, which was the final step in the educational (or revelatory) process which enabled them to leave the understanding formed by the parameters of death. In line with what I have tried to show above, the educational process and the shift in perception resulting from that was itself an understanding of that of which the disciples were themselves on their way out of. That is to say that, once again, the content of Original Sin is only known in the process of its forgiveness.

Perhaps the most fruitful way to show the human content of the involvement with death is to show the insight available after Jesus' death which enabled the apostolic witnesses to go back in their memory and re-read their past involvement with Jesus in its light. This is the understanding of Jesus' life and death as a skandalon, or stumbling block.

The Skandalon Revealed

There are a series of texts in the Apostolic witness which give evidence of a particular theological understanding of Jesus' life and death, and attribute this understanding to Jesus before his death. These are texts which show Jesus' life and death as related to a prophecy in Isaiah 8:14: "Behold I am laying in Zion a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make men fall." (1) This is juxtaposed with Isaiah 28:16: "Behold I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious, and he who believes in him will not be put to shame." (2) The two quotations are related in the apostolic witness to Psalm 118:22: "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner."

The locus classicus for the combination of these texts is 1 Peter 2:6-8, where all three texts appear as interrelated. However, the nexus of ideas is much more widespread than this, and appears to have been fundamental very early on in Christian preaching as interpretative of the way in which Jesus had fulfilled the Scriptures. The way in which Paul refers to Christ crucified as a stumbling block in 1 Corinthians 1:23 is given more depth by his own explicitation of its sense in Romans 9:33. In Acts 4:11 Peter's preaching refers to Jesus in terms of Psalm 118:22. More important is the way the text of the psalm and that of Isaiah 8:14 appear in Jesus' own mouth in Luke 20:17-18 as his own interpretation of the parable of the murderous tenants.

The theology behind this nexus of ideas seems to be as follows: God has given Jesus into the midst of Israel which has been scandalized by him and and has killed him, fulfilling the scriptures. However, for those who can overcome the scandal of his death, he is the foundation of a new edifice. Where in the original Isaian passage the happening is related in terms of God tripping up Israel, with God himself causing the scandal, the apostolic witness (made especially evident in the Lucan parable of the tenants) shows the scandal to be purely the result of human violence and self-deceit, violence and self-deceit made visible in the persecution and murder of the prophets and finally in that of the Son. For those already locked in these attitudes leading to death, then it appears scandalous that the rejected one should be the new foundation.

What we can see in the light of this is the way Jesus' teaching and practice leading up to his death had, already, as its object the setting free of his hearers and disciples from their being scandalized by him precisely so that they could become part of the new edifice that was to be founded in his rejection. There is ample evidence that the apostolic witnesses were able to re-read Jesus' practice with them exactly in terms of his attempting to lead them out of scandal, to prevent them being caused to stumble by him. So, he tells the disciples of John the Baptist, at the end of a list of signs that acredit him as the "one who is to come," "And blessed is he who is not scandalized at me" (Matt 11:6; Luke 7:23). Those who are unable to accept his teaching are described as having been scandalized by him (Matt 13:57; 15:12; Mark 6:3). In the parable of the sower some are scandalized by persecution (Matt 13:21; Mark 4:17) and so do not bear fruit. The process of Jesus attempting to lead his hearers beyond scandal is shown in John 6. There Jesus attempts to bring his hearers on from their understanding of his miraculous feeding of the five thousand, an understanding rooted in food and a kingly messiah, towards his own subversion of the Passover and the Manna in the desert as pointing to himself as the authentic bread from heaven. During the discourse, the eager listening of his audience is gradually turned into furious questioning, linked by allusion with the murmuring of Israel against Moses on its way to the Promised Land. Finally even many of his disciples find it hard to take, and Jesus asks them if this scandalizes them (John 6:61). The scandal is what prevents people perceiving the unity of Jesus and the Father (v. 62), and for John the flesh is precisely the human condition locked in scandal, while the spirit is what leads people beyond scandal into a belief in Jesus as revealing the Father, and the Father as he who sent Jesus into the world (vv. 63-65). Many of the disciples are caused to stumble, but Peter and the other eleven stay, having perceived that Jesus has words of eternal life: that is, they have overcome the scandal, at least to some extent. Even so, Jesus knows that one of them is a diabolos who will betray him (v. 70). The word diabolos here is quite specifically not used to indicate a metaphysical entity, but a human person locked in scandal.

However, if Jesus' teaching is concerned with enabling his disciples not to be caused to stumble by him, he knows full well that in fact they will all be caused to stumble by his death. The Gospels illustrate this process with particular care. Once again the stumbling centers around a fulfilment of scripture, and one evidently important in the earliest days of the Church: Zechariah 13:7: "I will strike the shepherd and the sheep will be scattered" (as quoted by Mark 14:27 and Matthew 26:31). This text appears explicitly in Mark 14:27 and Matt 26:31, as well as by an obvious allusion in John 16:32. In all three contexts it appears linked with the notion of skandalon. This is most obvious in Matthew, where the text is quoted to justify Jesus' claim that all would be scandalized by him that night (26:31). Peter refutes this by claiming that he will not be scandalized, and receives the prophecy of his denial. In Mark, Peter understands the quotation in terms of stumbling, and promises not to be scandalized (14:29). In John, the allusion appears in an exchange where Jesus has said specifically that "I have said all this to keep you from being scandalized" (John 16:1). The disciples claim to have understood this, and Jesus, to show them that they haven't understood, then prophesies that they will all be scattered.

We thus have a very coherent body of witness to the ultimate stumbling block being Jesus' death. Jesus knows that he can lead his disciples up to a certain point, but finally they will be scandalized by him, and that only the resurrection, at the same time as it removes the stone from the mouth of Jesus' grave (cf., Girard Things Hidden, 431), will remove the final stumbling block. The stumbling block that it will remove is the human impossibility of following and imitating another man in a path of self-donation that regards death as without substance. What we see then is the link between the notion of the stumbling block and the notion of discipleship. What we have in the Gospels is Jesus teaching the disciples to imitate him in all the things he does: in preaching, teaching, healing and exorcisms. He would have them imitate him in his self-giving towards death, as all the warnings about the persecutions to which they will be prone indicate. However, he knows that, in fact, they will not be able to imitate him perfectly in this until after his death and resurrection, so he prepares them as far as possible for his death. In this way at least they can be his witnesses, and after his death they will be able to live out the imitation of his self-giving unto death, thus bearing witness to the Father, without fear of death. (3)

The Content of the Skandalon

Although the apostolic witness derives the main lines of force in its understanding of skandalon from the post-resurrection understanding of the way in which Jesus had fulfilled the scripture, it would be wrong to think that this exhausts the meaning of skandalon. The words skandalizô and skandalon appear too often in Jesus' mouth, with too coherent (as well as too rich and too dense) a set of meanings for it to be doubted that Jesus himself taught in terms of the stumbling block before his death. When Jesus was teaching the disciples how to avoid being scandalized by him, he was not only teaching them something about him, but something about them: what it is to live in a world of skandala. That is to say, he was not only preparing a particular group of people under particular circumstances to avoid being scandalized by a particular event; he was doing that as part of a general teaching about the human condition and the way out of it as involving a certain sort of imitation called discipleship, a sort of imitation which is a moving out of a being caught up in a desire which leads to victimizing, and a moving into a sort of imitation which, in the structure of this world, will lead the disciple to run grave risk of victimization. The skandalon defines the former desire (in John, the flesh), while the Spirit defines the latter.

This is the understanding behind the Matthean Sermon on the Mount. All those who are called makarioi are those who have been "scandalized" by the order of this world, and live in a relation of dangerous proximity to being victimized by the order of this world. Because they have been scandalized by the order of this world, precisely because of the precariousness of their belonging, they will not be scandalized by Jesus himself, and thus are able to identify with the makarios of Matt 11:6 who is not scandalized by Jesus. These are they who will be able to form part of the new victim people whom the new Moses is projecting from the mount in fulfilment of the old, a victim people salted for sacrifice (5:13) that will be the new Zion, the city on the hill (5:14), which alone will accomplish the Law and the prophets (5:17).

Jesus then goes on to show clearly that righteousness cannot be defined by the Law, but the roots of righteousness must be found at the level of desire. He reveals the evil of human desire to be much more drastic than the law could fathom, and righteousness as to do with a transformation of that desire: so anger is the same as murder, a lustful look the same as adultery, being caught up in the stumbling blocks of desire much worse than any form of physical defect, not one of which can exclude from heaven. This world of drastically sinful desire is treated as a relational reality: Jesus is not talking about some sort of wicked desire locked into the solitude of an individual person which must somehow be exorcized. He is talking about a deformation of relationality such that we are scandalized by each other, and give scandal to each other. This can be shown by the remedy: freedom is to be found by not allowing oneself to be caused to stumble by the evil done to one: one must not resist evil, one must go the second mile. There is only one way not to be locked into the scandals of this world, and that is by learning to forgive, which means not allowing oneself to be defined by the evil done. It is quite clear from Jesus teaching that he considers humans to be locked into a certain sort of reciprocity, which it would be wholly consistent to identify with the skandalon, and that he teaches the way out of that sort of reciprocity into a wholly new sort of reciprocity. This new sort of reciprocity is made concrete in forgiveness and other acts of not being trapped by the skandalon, and in this way is able to begin to imitate the perfect gratuity of the heavenly Father, in whom there is no skandalon.

This becomes particularly clear in Matt 7. There we have the commandment not to judge, and the explanation that the reason is that all our judgement is scandalous, because we have already tripped over the log in our own eye. This is a rigorous revelation of the way we are tied into each other by the skandalon, and the way we must detach ourselves from it (one so important that it is taken up by Paul in Rm 2:1). Our knowledge of each other is projective, and in its mode, already distorted. Only in the degree to which we allow our own distortion to be corrected will we be able to know the other with limpidity. In case it is not clear already that this reciprocal involvement in turning each other into stumbling blocks, which is at the heart of Jesus' moral teaching, has, at its roots, an understanding of desire, a few verses later Jesus' further teaching on prayer makes exactly this point. In Matt 7:7-11 prayer is shown to be a learning to desire without stumbling blocks in imitation of the Father who is without stumbling blocks. We must not let our desire remain at the stage whereby we think that we will not get what we want, but must learn to believe in one who gives gratuitously what we really want. Prayer is a constant re-education of desire out of a mode of stumbling blocks and into a mode of desiring and receiving gratuitously. And this is then directly referred back to our human relationality (7:12): we must treat others in the same way, learning how to substitute a gratuitous reciprocity for a reciprocity formed by the skandalon.

Jesus is under no illusions but that this understanding of desire is in fact an extremely difficult thing to grasp, and those who find it are few, and they find it with difficulty. Yet it constitutes the narrow way that is the way to life, while the wide way, in which we mostly live, is the way to destruction. Life within the skandalon is the way of mutually assured death (7:13-14). All this demonstrates that there is a specific content to the notion of skandalon, and one which goes back to Jesus himself. It might be defined by saying that all humans are locked into a reciprocity, what Girard refers to as an interdividual psychology, which is rooted in a desire which is fatally headed towards death, our own, and that of those we victimize. It is exactly at this level of our constitution in death-related desire that Jesus' ethical teaching seeks to set us free by teaching a new, but no less reciprocal, form of desire, which will enable us to fulfil the Law and the Prophets from the heart.

Lest it be thought that Jesus' interdividual psychological insight is to be found in Matthew alone, exactly the same understanding can be found in Mark. (4) It is not only that the (undoubtedly original) lines about it being preferable to be maimed than to be scandalised appear (Mark 9:43-47), but the whole psychological insight is demonstrated practically with relation to children. The antidote to the rivalistic desire present among the disciples in their desire for greatness is the learning to recast desire in terms of seeking out and receiving the unimportant, like children (9:36-37). It is the unimportant ones who must not be scandalised (9:42), for it is they, marginal and peripheral to the complex world of adult desires bound up in scandal who are able to receive the gratuity of God (10:14-15). Rich people are particularly constituted in scandal. For the rich young man, his riches are a stumbling block to his following Jesus (10:17-22), and riches constitute a stumbling block to entry into the kingdom which it is impossible for men to overcome (10:24-27). This is to say that such people are so locked into the scandal-based order of the world that they have no access to the reformation of desire based on gratuity which constitutes entry into the Kingdom of God. The same ideas are present here as in the Matthean Last Judgement scene: entry into the kingdom is the same as the recasting of desire from a scandalous involvement in the order of the world towards a reaching out to the victims of that order.

In John's Gospel the same basic dualism of constitutive desire has been developed to so much more marked an extent that I will treat it in chapter 7 when I deal with the way in which the discovery of the understanding of God as Trinity implies and is implied by an anthropology of distorted interdividual desire. For the moment, suffice it to say that when John portrays the world as in the power of Satan, dwelling in a darkness in which people stumble (proskoptein, John 11:10), and in which they tend to lynch in obedience to their father who was a murderer from the beginning, it is to the same understanding of which he gives evidence: human beings are constituted in a distorted reciprocity leading to victimization. The sheep -- those who imitate without stumbling -- hear Jesus' voice and follow him without being scandalized, even though the shepherd will be killed. They are not scandalized by that death, because they know that the shepherd gave himself freely to being killed, and can take up his life again: that is what permits them to overcome the scandal of his death (John 10).

Thus we can see in the apostolic witness that the intelligence of the victim made available a quite specific understanding of the content of human desire. Humans are constituted by an interdividual desire that is a distorted reciprocity and leads to death. It is not only that humans die, but their involvement with death is of a quite specific sort: the very constitution of human desire is cast in the mode of skandala by which we receive from each other, and meet out to each other, death, by our involvement in mutual victimization. The same path that permitted us to see the recasting of divine wrath in terms of human involvement in death, typified in the handing over by God of Jesus to men, has also permitted us to see the recasting of a divinely placed stumbling block in terms of the divine revelation of humans constituted in mutual and reciprocal stumbling that leads them to death. The whole drift of this movement towards a purely anthropological understanding of these realities is most clearly seen in 1 John 2-3. There love is defined in terms of a reciprocal relationship between brothers, and the stumbling block is the relationship of hate between brothers (2:7-11). This stumbling block is then illustrated in terms of the hatred of Cain for Abel leading to murder (3:11-15). This is the real content of the sin of the devil from the beginning: hatred between brothers leading to murder, and this is the sign that eternal life is not in that person. The skandalon and the original murder are directly interrelated as that from which Christ has come to set us free.


1. This is the version as given by Paul in Rom. 9:33, where Isaiah 8:14 is already conflated with Isaiah 28:16.

2. This is as quoted in 1 Peter 2:7

3. Here we are very close indeed to the primitive understanding of the foundation of the Church, with Peter, the rock, having to be converted from being a stumbling block, into the foundation stone. If this is made most explicit by the conjunction of Matthew 16:18 and 16:23, the story of the conversion of Peter is a vital part of all the Gospel accounts.

4. The understanding is obviously present in Luke, with many of the same passages as those discussed above -- the teaching on prayer amplified in exactly the same sense, the parable of the Good Samaritan and the parable of Lazarus pointing in exactly the same direction. Luke 17:1-4 contains in a nutshell the teaching on scandal as an inevitable part of the human condition, but one which must be avoided, and of which the only way out is forgiveness. Luke clearly shows his understanding of Christ as a stumbling block very early on in his Gospel: cf. Simeon's prophecy to Mary, Luke 2:34-35. In this prophecy the sort of stumbling block that Jesus is to be works both at the level of the group (Old Israel/New Israel) and at the level of human psychology (revelation of hearts)!