Nuechterlein on Sacrifice, the Table Sacrament, and John 6

Excerpt from essay by Paul Nuechterlein entitled “Holy Communion,” Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 216-220.

Sacrifice, the Table Sacrament, and John 6

My basic criticism of Luther has been that he named the problem [with the Medieval practice of the Eucharist] as “sacrifice” but did not understand it well enough to avoid opening the door to different versions of it. What is needed is a more fully developed anthropology. What is needed is the mimetic theory of René Girard.

Christian theology begins with the premise that Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully divine. Thus, Christ presumably reveals not only who God truly is, but also who we truly are as human beings. Theology and anthropology are wedded in the doctrine of the incarnation. The advantage I see to the work of René Girard for theology is that he provides an anthropology which actually sheds more light on matters of theology. One of his crucial premises is that ritual sacrifice, common to all religions, is a uniquely and completely human enterprise. It has nothing to do with the true God — presuming that God exists — and has everything to do with the gods that we mythologize in order to support the sanctioned violence of our human cultural institutions, including religion. Girard happens to believe that the true God does exist and has been revealing the true Godself to humankind through the victims of the GMSM [Hamerton-Kelly’s term: “Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism”]. This has been particularly true of first an oppressed group of people called the Jews and then of one of their own, one whom Christians have come to call Jesus Christ. The Judeo-Christian scriptures then testify to this self-revealing of God, though it is a gradual process that is completed only in the Christ event. But God’s self-revelation also must reveal to us who we truly are. For, in order to see who God truly is, we must see that we are creatures who rely on sacrifice to contain our own violence, and then we convince ourselves that sacrificial violence is some god’s idea, not ours. We create gods to cover our own violence. If we do not understand this about ourselves, then we will get our gods mixed up. We will be unable to identify a true God from a false god. Girardian theory dictates that revealed theology, if there is such a thing, must go hand-in-hand with revealed anthropology.

Girard’s mimetic theory is able to do, then, what Luther was not able to do — namely, to understand that the logic of sacrifice goes deep to the heart of human culture in the GMSM. Girard also believes that disciples of Christ should have special insight into this truth, since Christ came to expose these sacrificial powers. More than expose them, in fact, Christ came to transform them through his ultimate act of service, his self-sacrifice to the sacrificial powers (see Girard 1987, 235-237). Disciples must be clear that Jesus’ self-sacrifice is distinct from sacrifice in general. The gospel stories all clearly witness to the fact that Jesus entered into this sacrifice fully knowing that he would be an innocent victim. Today the term “self-sacrifice” — and even “sacrifice” as a short-hand way of meaning “self-sacrifice” — has come to mean giving of one’s self. But with Christ his followers must see that it also means “sacrifice” in the original sense, at the same time. There was an old-fashioned sacrifice going on with the crucifixion. Someone else’s blood was being spilled to save others (cf., Girard [1986, 112ff.] on John 11:50). If Christ’s confrontation with the powers of sacrifice is allowed to go underground, then self-sacrifice as the sole theme can be twisted by the sacrificial institutions into a means of getting well-meaning Christians to religiously cooperate with their sacrificing. They may be heard to say something like, ‘Step right up and sacrifice yourself. It’s the Christ-like thing to do.’ If Christ’s self-sacrifice is not seen to be a showdown with the sacrificial institutions, then the theme of self-sacrifice becomes a justification for creating more powerless victims.

Isn’t this precisely what has happened throughout Christian history? Christian women, tragically, have been frequent victims of this ruse. They are encouraged to follow in Christ-like self-sacrifice for the sake of their families, which is often more simply a sacrifice on the altars of male-dominated society (see Bondi 1994). Monks and Christian ascetics have fallen prey to this miscomprehension through the ages. Modern pastors and others in the helping professions are also vulnerable to it. This is not to say that Christ-like self-sacrifice can never be a positive thing. My point is that it is a dangerous choice if it is made without the Christ-like knowledge of the sacrificial institutions which are always looking for willing victims.

I have [earlier in the article] suggested servanthood as a positive theme for the table sacrament. Might sacrifice be considered as a negative theme for the table sacrament? Even as worshipers are fed for a new life of servanthood, the traditional words of institution make it clear that they are fed by the body and blood of the one who was sacrificed on the cross. They might be squeamish about such cannibalistic language. But perhaps that is the point. Does Jesus Christ come not just to feed his followers, but also to confront them with the deadly reality of human sacrifice?

This brings us back to John’s different strategy for passing on the tradition of the table sacrament. I propose that John can provide a model for us, of not falling into the sacrificial traps of miscomprehension. He was able to more clearly present both the negative and positive aspects of the table sacrament by developing them in separate narratives. The positive aspect we have already taken up in our discussion of John 13, where the evangelist models the new way of life through the footwashing episode, in the context of the traditionally sacramental setting of the Last Supper. I would also propose, then, that the negative aspect of the table sacrament is developed by John in chapter 6, which is an extended narrative on the occasion of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand.” The latter is one of the few non-passion stories that John shares with the synoptic evangelists, but, as is his style, it is one which he elaborates into a lengthy theological discourse. The sacrificial language becomes so gross in this passage that the vast majority of commentators are offended and actively work to gloss over the sacrificial nature of the text. They choose to instead see it through their pre-interpretive lens of spiritualized eucharistic language. [David McCracken (1994, 162) reaches a similar conclusion regarding modern interpreters and cites Raymond Brown as an example (1966, 284-285).] I contend that such interpretations miss the point. It is John’s strategy in chapter 6 to present his audience with the negative aspect of the table sacrament, i.e., to confront them with the offensive nature of sacrifice.

John is a precise theologian in making this separation; but he is also a master story-teller. To see John 6 as a development of the negative side of the Eucharist helps the reader to appreciate the ironical, almost comical, nature of this story. At the center of the story are words of great irony. Jesus tells the crowd, “Anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” (vs. 37) Yet this story is essentially about the great shrinking of a crowd which is apparently driven away because Jesus goes to great lengths to offend them. It begins with a crowd of hungry thousands who perceive a great power in Jesus through his miraculous feeding. Jesus tells them that they come to him only to get their fill of bread (6:26). But there is also an even deeper issue to confront them with: they consistently misperceive the true nature of his power. They look for signs of kingship, of being able to follow a great leader into the hallows of human power; they want to force him to lead their sacrificial institutions as king (vs. 15). Jesus, by contrast, wants to show them the grotesque nature of their sacrificial institutions. The crowd remains resistant to seeing his point, so he gets very plain with them. In fact, he gets so blatant and offensive with them that verses 53-58 have notoriously offended hearers of every age. Jesus uses the most ‘primitive’ sacrificial language of all, that of cannibalism. And John’s storytelling goes from irony to satire, when he suddenly changes his choice of words for “eat.” Having previously used the more common Greek word phagein he switches to a much cruder form, trogein, a word originally reserved for animals, to describe things like cattle “munching” (audibly) on their cuds (Brown 1966, 283). The image of people “munching on” Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood ought to be adequate for driving most crowds away, should it not?

Jesus’ Jewish audience is understandably offended. After all, their ancestors had given up such ‘primitive’ sacrificial practices centuries ago. But that is precisely the point. They had become comfortable with their own ‘civilized’ sacrificial practices; they had ceased being offended by them. So Jesus revives just such ‘primitive’ language in describing his own sacrifice on their altars of justice, in order to jolt them into seeing that the entire business of sacrifice is offensive. But none of them have come to Jesus for who he really is — i.e., the victim of sacrifice, rather than a victim-making king — so they are driven away. Even “many of his disciples” are left scratching their heads, remarking, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (6:60) Jesus’ reply–“Does this offend (skandalizei) you?”–reveals most truly who he is: the stumbling block (McCracken 1994, 163). The drama at the end of the story is whether or not listeners will continue to follow Jesus. Will they be offended and leave, or will they respond with faith and follow? At story’s end, only the twelve disciples remain of an original crowd of over five thousand — and, in the story’s final note of irony, we are told that even one of those twelve is of the devil (6:70-71).


I propose, then, that the Church is waiting for a new time of reformation, or for the first one to be revitalized and moved forward. And I believe that the insights provided by the theories of René Girard can play a vital role in the continued call for reform in the church. What we have attempted to bring forward here is the crucial difference between the violent sacrificial tendencies of human institutions (most especially “religion” as distinguished from “gospel”) and the knowing self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross. When the church uses the word “sacrifice,” it must be absolutely clear about these differences; the theories of René Girard help to do that. The benefits of such clarity are no more evident, I think, than in the church’s theologizing about, and practicing of, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We have attempted to present the table sacrament as a possible vaccine against the GMSM. Its positive theme of mimetic servanthood can be a remedy against mimetic rivalry; and its negative theme of sacrifice can bring a constant disclosure of the deadly nature of the GMSM’s sacrificial practices. Yet vaccines carry the danger of contracting the disease, and it seems that the table sacrament has succumbed at times to the contagious power of the GMSM, resulting in the sacrificial practices it intends to ward off. I believe that the insights of Girardian mimetic theory into the workings of these mechanisms can be more than an ounce of prevention against such an outcome.

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