1. The Sodom and Gomorrah story is mentioned in René Girard, Things Hidden, pp. 142-143, 186. In the second reference, page 186, Girard uses the quote from Luke 17:26-30 in which Jesus says, "Likewise as it was in the days of Lot -- they ate, they drank, they bought, they sold, they planted, they built, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom fire and sulphur rained from heaven and destroyed them all -- so will it be on the day when the Son of man is revealed." This is an example for Girard of how Jesus drops the mention of God from the apocalyptic sayings. God is not mentioned, as he is in Genesis, as the one who carries out the firestorm. Implicit in the picture from Jesus is that such firestorms will be of human making. His predictions of the destruction of Jerusalem very clearly leave God out of it and specify human enemies who carry out the destruction. Link to an excerpt of these pages, a section entitled "Similarities between the Biblical Myths and World Mythology."
2. James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence & the Sacred, p. 133.
3. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, p. 163. Schwager mentions the Sodom story in a very informative context of discussing divine judgment in light of the cross. He cites the Sodom and Gomorrah story as an example of supposed direct divine action in raising an inconsistency in Karl Barth's theologizing about direct divine action.
Barth's theology of the cross is essentially based on taking the Pauline utterances that God condemned sin "in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3) and made Christ "into sin" (2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13), and without further examination raising them into systematic principles. Whether this is justified must be looked at more closely. In both the above-mentioned passages, Paul speaks of Christ's mission before he takes up the idea of judgment. However this is not simply an action of the Father, as it only becomes a reality in our world insofar as Christ, by his obedience, does the will of the Father and thus gives the eternal mission a concrete form in the history of salvation. Neither does God carry out judgment directly from heaven -- somewhat on the model of the flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah -- without human participation. The passion accounts in all the Gospels are unambiguous on this point. Because Barth sees this, he speaks of Jesus' opponents as the "instruments" and "agents" of the divine judgment:4. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, pp. 169-71. In his chapter on the Hebrew Scriptures, Warren classifies this story as a "Challenge Text," a text that presents a challenge to the gods of the violent sacred. He makes the following observation, for example:Involved in what befell Jesus were the participants, Jews and gentiles, and according to the appropriate commentary of the Acts of the Apostles (2:23; 4:28), these participants were even in their evident great guilt and the rejection their deed merited still only instruments in the hand of God, agents and executors of his "definite plan and foreknowledge." (Barth, Church Dogmatics, 4/1:262).The picture of the judgment of the cross will depend on whether one should understand the opponents of Jesus as directly the agents of divine action.
In Christ's mission his human will cooperated in such a way that, in obedience, he completely followed the divine will which sent him. At the judgment on him, the will of his opponents was not similarly in agreement with that of the Father, for they acted, as Barth himself insists, in the most shameful and reprehensible way. But how could they be directly "agents" and "executors" of the divine will if their will was opposed to his? Here the further question arises as to how the divine will can be precisely recognized at all in the event of the cross. Does it reveal itself in the surrender of Jesus or in the actions of his opponents or in both? To play off the second possibility against the first would mean that Jesus had suddenly stopped being the revealer of God and instead his opponents had been entrusted with this mission, an idea which can immediately be seen as nonsense from the viewpoint of the New Testament. At the most there remains the possibility that both the surrender of Jesus and the actions of his opponents reveal in their own way something of the comprehensive will of the heavenly Father. However, since the message and surrender of Jesus (nonviolence, love of enemies, holding back from finally judging anyone) and the actions of his enemies stood in contradictory opposition, both cannot point to God under the same aspect, for in that way a contradictory opposition would arise in the idea of God, which would cancel itself. If the New Testament conviction of God's revelation is not to be destroyed, the action of God in Jesus must be clearly separated from possible "divine" actions by his opponents. But from this it becomes clear that in the principles 'God sent his Son' (Rom. 8:3; Gal. 4:4) and "God made Christ to be sin" (2 Cor. 5:27) or "He condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), the action of God is to be understood differently in each case. In the first one, the participating human will is in full agreement with the divine, while in the two other cases it pulls in the opposite direction. The utterance that God condemned sin in the flesh (Rom. 8:3) has therefore to be interpreted very cautiously, taking into account both the Old Testament background as well as the larger context of theology.
This story also represents a subtle critique and subversion of sacrifice. The sacrificial paradigm is: kill one to spare the many. But the paradigm of this story is: spare the many because of the righteous life of the few. It is not the death of a victim that will persuade Yahweh to be merciful, but the merit of righteous lives. (p. 170)5. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 134-135. In the middle of talking about how the Hebrew Scriptures anticipate the Gospel, Alison has this one paragraph conceding that it also falls far short in certain spots:
Of course, in the Old Testament itself there are many remains of other, more mythical understandings of sin and punishment, where a theological re-reading seems scarcely to have made an impact: for instance, forty-two boys are shredded by two she-bears for having jeered at Elisha's baldness (2 Kings 2:23-24). The extraordinary parallels between the story of Lot and the destruction of Sodom in Genesis 19, and that of the destruction of the Benjamites because of an almost identical incident at Gibeah in Judges 19-21 suggest an ancient myth in the background of both of them of divine punishment amidst scenes of collective violence only lightly retouched with the emergence from the fray of possibly formerly victimary figures. It is not the existence of such stories in the Old Testament that are remarkable, but the simultaneous presence of elements bearing witness to a process of demythologization of the same sorts of stories.6. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment; the story of Sodom is mentioned on pp. 139, 234.
A few chapters later we move from God’s destruction of an entire violence-ridden world, with only a tiny remnant saved, to Abraham’s intercessory argument with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:22-33). Now God agrees that if only ten righteous ones can be found in the city, all its guilty inhabitants will be spared. In contrast with the idea that the guilt of a few can contaminate and pollute an entire community and bring divine destruction on it (a classic scapegoating assumption), an alternative idea is introduced suggesting a positive contagion, a good pollution, in which the virtues of a minority can save a corrupt community. (p. 74)8. Anthony Bartlett, Virtually Christian, passing reference on p. 157.
9. Kosuke Koyama, "For the Sake of Ten (Gen. 18:24)." This article appeared in The Christian Century, July 19-26, 1989, and is now available online at Religion Online. A helpful perspective from someone who lived through the human firestorming of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Reflections and Questions
1. Abraham's plea bargaining with God shows more mercy than does
the punishing God presumed behind the legend. Can we be satisfied
with Abraham apparently teaching God how to be merciful? It should
be the other way around shouldn't it? God in Jesus Christ teaching
us how to be merciful?
This was the tactic I took in my 1998 sermon "Justice
on Trial." I turn the table on Abraham, who is putting God's
justice on trial, and aim to show how Scripture instead moves to
show us God putting our justice on trial through the cross and
resurrection of Jesus Christ. At that time, the O. J. Simpson
trial and the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King
were still fresh.
In 2013 we are only three weeks hence of the acquittal of
George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The
themes developed in "Justice on Trial" might help to shed light on
that painful injustice.
2. The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is a passage crying out for an anthropological treatment. When approaching it only from the theological viewpoint, we have to ask what it tells us about God -- to which I've heard answers like, 'We learn that for God vengeful punishment is only a last resort, never a first resort as it is for human beings.' But if the cross is God's last resort in addressing our sinfulness, then how does one reconcile it with what we 'learn' about God from Gen. 18-19?
No, Gen. 18-19 is an example of a passage that tells us more about anthropology, more about the nature of our idolatry. We give all the credit for violent death to the gods. I can imagine that Sodom and Gomorrah were the victims of an earthquake, or lightning strikes, and then the retrospective interpretation is that God punished them for their sinfulness. In John 9, for example, Jesus' own disciples see a man born blind from birth and immediately begin conjecturing about his sin. They immediately assume that he must have deserved his fate as a punishment for sin. Jesus, in this chapter of John's Gospel, essentially shows these kinds of assumptions to be the blindness we have about God since humankind was born. The Pharisees continue to play the same game as the disciples, and their blindness deepens. Can we finally look at a passage like Gen. 18-19 two thousand years later and be cured of our blindness?
It is even a possibility, I think, that Sodom and Gomorrah may have been destroyed by human enemies and the mythological interpretation veiled over it. When the U.S. incinerated Nagasaki and Hiroshima from heaven, didn't we need to find some transcendent justifications for such horrible deeds? Didn't we have to believe the Japanese people to be monsters to completely incinerate cities with innocent women and children?
1. René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 137:
From an anthropological standpoint I would define Christian revelation as the true representation (1) of what had never been completely represented or what had been falsely represented: the mimetic convergence of all against one, the single victim mechanism with its antecedent developments, particularly "interdividual" (2) scandals.2. René Girard, Things Hidden, p. 192, in a section titled "Powers and Principalities." After quoting Col. 2:13-15, he writes:
Mythology falsifies this mechanism to the detriment of victims and to the advantage of persecutors of the victim. The Hebrew Bible frequently suggests the truth, evokes it, and even partially represents it, but never completely and perfectly. The Gospels, taken in their totality, are this representation, precisely and perfectly.
Once we understand this, a passage from the letter to the Colossians, which appears obscure at first, becomes illuminating:[Christ has] canceled the accusation that stands against us with its legal claims. He set it aside, nailing it to the cross. He thus disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public spectacle of them, drawing them along in his triumph. (Col. 2:14-15)The accusation against humankind is the accusation against the innocent victim that we find in the myths. To hold the principalities and powers responsible for it is the same thing as holding Satan himself responsible, in his role of public prosecutor that I have already mentioned.
Before Christ and the Bible the satanic accusation was always victorious by virtue of the violent contagion that imprisoned human beings within systems of myth and ritual. The Crucifixion reduces mythology to powerlessness by exposing violent contagion, which is so effective in the myths that it prevents communities from ever finding out the truth, namely, the innocence of their victims.
This accusation temporarily relieves communities of their violence, but it turns back again and "stands against" the persecutors, for it subjects them to Satan, or in other words to the principalities and powers with their deceitful gods and bloody sacrifices. Jesus, in showing his innocence in the Passion accounts, has "canceled" this accusation; he "set it aside." He nails the accusation to the Cross, which is to say that he reveals its falsity. Though ordinarily the accusation nails the victim to a cross, here by contrast the accusation itself is nailed and publicly exhibited and exposed as a lie. The Cross enables the truth to triumph because the Gospels disclose the falseness of the accusation; they unmask Satan as an imposter. Or to say it in another way, they discredit once and for all the untruth of the principalities and powers in the wake of the Cross. The Cross of Christ restores all the victims of the single victim mechanism, whether it goes under the label of legal accusation, Satan, or principalities and powers.
As Satan was making humans obligated to him, putting them in his debt, he was making them accomplices in his crimes. The Cross, by revealing the lie at the bottom of Satan's game, exposes human beings to a temporary increase of violence, but at a deeper level it liberates them from a servitude that has lasted since the beginning of human history, since "the foundation of the world."
It is not only the accusation that Christ has nailed to the Cross and publicly exhibited; the principalities and powers themselves are paraded, in full public view, in the triumphal process of the crucified Christ, so in a way they too are crucified. These metaphors are not at all fantastic and badly improvised; they are so precise it takes your breath away. Why? Because the revealer and what is revealed are one: the mimetic war of all against one, concealed in Satan and the powers, is revealed in the crucifixion of Christ as narrated in the truthful accounts of his Passion.
The Cross and the satanic origin of the false religions and the powers are one and the same phenomenon, revealed in one case, concealed in the other. This is why Dante, in his Inferno, represented Satan as nailed to the Cross. (3) When the single victim mechanism is correctly nailed to the Cross, its ultimately banal, insignificant basis appears in broad daylight, and everything based on it gradually loses its prestige, grows more and more feeble, and finally disappears. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, p. 137-139)
The bond that stood against us with its demands is human culture, which is the terrifying reflection of our own violence. It bears against us a witness that we do not even notice. And the very ignorance in which we are plunged seats the principalities and powers upon their thrones. By dissipating all this ignorance, the Cross triumphs over the powers, brings them into ridicule, and exposes the pitiful secret of the mechanism of sacralization. The Cross derives its dissolving capacity from the fact that it makes plain the workings of what can now only be seen — after the Crucifixion — as evil. For Paul to be able to speak as he does, it is necessary for the powers of this world to operate in the same way as the Crucifixion does. So it is indeed the Crucifixion that is inscribed in the gospel text and is demystified by Christ, stripped for evermore of its capacity to structure the work of the human mind. (pp. 192-93)3. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life; pp. 29, 87, and especially 229-231. Commenting on Col. 2:13-15, Hardin writes:
Since the Gospels are no new myth — which would have veiled the collective murder of Jesus — they identify with the innocent victim and shed light on the workings of founding violence, thus robbing Satan of his very foundation. Numerous passages in the New Testament describe this triumph of the cross; by penetrating the accusation mechanism and taking the side of the victims of collective violence, God brings about the fall of all cultures rooted in this violence: “And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Colossians 2:13-15). The wisdom of God thus transforms Jesus’s defeat on earth into an ultimate, eternal triumph over Satan: “None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7-8). (p. 260)5. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire, chs. 6-8. This is a brilliant reading of Paul's letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul's first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of the text. Here, for example, is their targum on Col. 2:8-14:
1. See #3 under the First Reading. St. Paul dramatically depicts
putting our justice on trial through the image of nailing the law
to the cross.
2. In 2010 we had two baptisms, so I focused on Col.
2:10-15; I had also watched "The
Identity" trilogy that week and saw a lot of water imagery
that lends itself to baptismal themes. The promise of the Spirit
in baptism is God's promise to be part of the person's identity
formation. Mimetic Theory postulates identity formation as a
spiritual process involving the desire of others. Baptism brings
the gracious possibility that God's Holy Spirit becomes the
central desire that forms one's identity. The Bourne Identity provides
a good parable on sinful human identity formation. The resulting sermon is "The 'Borning Cry' Identity" (a
pun on our congregation's favorite baptism hymn).
3. In 2007, J. K. Rowling's epic Harry
Potter Series had just come to its much anticipated climax
with the publishing of Harry
Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I used "Hallows" as a
jumping off point from our other most oft use of the word: as a
verb in the Lord's Prayer. But I jumped into the themes of the
Harry Potter Series developed more toward this reading from
Colossians and its importance within Mimetic Theory. Harry undoes
the imperialistic power of Voldemort with his self-sacrificial
death -- though I couldn't yet reveal the ending of the Series so
soon after the book's release. Link to the sermon "Jesus Christ and the Life-Giving
Hallows." Now several years later, it would be fun to more
fully develop the homiletic connections to the Harry Potter story
without having to be so sensitive to spoiling the ending.
1. Raymund Schwager, Jesus
of Salvation, pp. 29 (on "Father"), 100.
2. James Alison, Jesus
the Forgiving Victim, Essay 9, "Prayer," pp. 426-33;
extended meditations on the Lord's Prayer anchor this chapter on
3. Michael Hardin, The
Jesus Driven Life, Section 3.2, "Forgiveness: The Law
of Love," pp. 92ff., focused on the forgiveness petition
(especially p. 95).
4. Gil Bailie, "The
Luke" audio lecture series, tape #7. These lectures are also
now available online in clips; this portion on the Lord's Prayer
covered by "The Poetry of Truth," Part
5. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "Just Like Jesus Taught Us."
6. John Dominic Crossan, The
Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message
of the Lord's Prayer. A fine book on the Lord's prayer
that's friendly to themes of Mimetic Theory, such as nonviolent
opposition to empire and movement away from retributive justice.
(Note: there is a section on sacrifice that is definitely not
informed by MT, ignoring the sacred violence and portraying it
positively as giving thanks.)
Reflections and Questions
1. A popular contemporary point in New Testament eschatology, led
by N. T. Wright, is that we pray for God's kingdom to come
here and now. We pray for God's heavenly will to come down to be
more a part of our earthly lives. Here is one of the many, many
places that Wright uses the Lord's Prayer to make this point:
In Matthew, Jesus regularly speaks of “heaven’s kingdom,” whereas normally in the other gospels he speaks of “God’s kingdom.” Millions of readers, when they hear Matthew’s Jesus talking about doing this or that “so that you may enter the kingdom of heaven,” assume, without giving it a moment’s thought, that this means “so that you may go to heaven when you die.”Wright's influence has been tremendous, with this basic point making it into scores of contemporary Christian books. Rob Bell's Love Wins provides an example. His develops the overall point in his chapter on heaven -- Chapter 2, "Here Is the New There" -- and cites the Lord's Prayer at a crucial moment:
But that is not at all what Matthew, or Jesus for that matter, had in mind. Matthew makes it quite clear, and I think Jesus made it quite clear, what that phrase means. Think of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes at the center of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. At the center of the prayer itself we find Jesus teaching his followers to pray that God’s kingdom might come and his will be done “on earth as in heaven.” The “kingdom of heaven” is not about people going to heaven. It is about the rule of heaven coming to earth. When Matthew has Jesus talking about heaven’s kingdom, he means that heaven — in other words, the God of heaven — is establishing his sovereign rule not just in heaven, but on earth as well. (How God Became King, pp. 42-43)
It often appears that those who talk the most about going to heaven when you die talk the least about bringing heaven to earth right now, as Jesus taught us to pray: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” At the same time, it often appears that those who talk the most about relieving suffering now talk the least about heaven when we die.
Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one. (pp. 45-46)
2. Prayer is a gift from a loving God who truly does care about what we desire and invites us to share those desires. God wants us to ask and promises to answer. The talking part of prayer is generally the easier part, however. Our desires -- or what we think we desire -- is usually up-front for us and easy to ask for. It's the listening part that is perhaps more difficult. What is God's answer? Even more pertinent in light of mimetic theory: What is God's desire?
Jesus taught us to pray (a version informed by mimetic theory?): Our Father in heaven, may we get your name right, honoring your reputation. Your culture come. Your loving desire be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today the bread we need today (not hoarding tomorrow's bread, too). Forgive us our sins so that we might give up our desires for vengeance and live in the light of forgiveness with others. Save us from the trials of being made the victim, and deliver us from such evils when they come upon us. Amen
We imitate Christ in praying this prayer as the model prayer. But what I want to ask is: is prayer itself the central means by which we listen to God's desire and learn to model God? Was this the crux of Jesus' prayer life? And now we, his disciples, model his prayer life as the means by which we, too, can become obedient to God's desire?
3. We also see the element of justice on trial through the petition "Save us from the time of trial."
4. Give us today our daily bread. In our consumerist society we are more like the rich fool in next week's gospel who stores up his yearly bread. Compare this to the recent craze on the "Prayer of Jabez." (See the official "Prayer of Jabez" website.)
5. I'm not sure I know how to give good gifts to my children in this consumerist society. It's a challenging task. Our children are so constantly bombarded with media images of what they should desire that they are thoroughly confused about what constitutes good gifts.
I often use a children's illustration using three bottles of liquid -- e.g., apple juice, soda, and colorful cleaning fluid -- to represent healthy food, junk food, and poison. We teach our children these differences for their bodies. What about for their spirits? What are heathy ways to feed our spirits, as opposed to junky or poisonous ways? Prayer is certainly one of the healthy ways to nourish our spirits. Jesus promises that the gift received through prayer is, in fact, the Holy Spirit.
Return to Year C Index
Return to "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" Home Page
Link to another Resource for Preaching from the Perspective of Mimetic Theory: PreachingPeace.org
Link to "The Text This Week" -- the Most Comprehensive Lectionary Site on the Internet
Notes from I See Satan Fall Like Lightning
1. "Representation" is a key notion in this chapter. Girard is talking about representation as presenting some subject or event again, but not simply in the form of primitive ritual, which is initially a reflexive imitation that is blind and unaware of itself. Representation requires some reflection on what is represented and extensive development. In an interview I conducted for The Girard Reader Girard says, "It may have taken hundreds of thousands of years, or longer, to reach the representational capacity of 'humanity'" (New York: Crossroad, 1996), 269. -- Trans.
2. "Interdividual" is a neologism Girard has used, particularly in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, trans. S. Bann and M. Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), to emphasize that human beings are never autonomous "individuals." We are constituted by the other, that is, by parents, authority figures, peers, rivals whom we internalize as models and who become the unconscious basis of our desires. This does not mean that freedom of the will is not possible. Humankind as created in the image of God is not intended to be identical to the other or exist in slavish subservience to the other. However, since we learn first and primarily through mimesis, our freedom depends on being constituted by the other. -- Trans.
3. See John Frecceto, The Poetics of Conversion (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986): "The Sign of Satan," 167-79.