Pentecost B

Last revised: June 8, 2024
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RCL: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15
RoCa: Acts 2:1-12; 1 Corinthians 12:3-7, 12-13; John 20:19-23

Opening Comments: Preaching the Gospel of New Creation

In 2024, we have been exploring God’s politics in Jesus the Messiah in order to seek guidance for the enormous political choices we face in November. For the past two weeks, however, while still maintaining that overall context, our community focus was on other special events.

This week we celebrated the Confirmation of one of our young adults on Pentecost Sunday. Our Confirmand wrote her own Statement of Faith, so the sermon, “Statements of Faith as Life Stories Not Eternal Truths,” so I used hers as an example of a Statement of Faith. I try to use the creeds as seldom as possible in liturgies at which I preside and used this occasion to explain why. Creeds are most often used as a list of eternal truths to decide who’s in and who’s out on the basis of believing the list. I count this as anti-Gospel. The only chief eternal truth is that God is unconditional love and so decidedly is not in the business of sorting God’s children. What parent does that? Is God’s love less than that of the best of human parents?

Here’s the core of the sermon. After quoting from Romans 8 (Romans 8:18 was our Confirmands verse),

My favorite line in Ava’s “Statement of Faith” is the one about hope, where she says, “Now, [God] helps me by giving me hope that there will be a better tomorrow, even if today really sucks (Romans 8:18!).” Isn’t that marvelous! I love it! And I think it truly captures what Paul is saying in this passage, especially knowing how we human beings can go astray, how we can sometimes find things to make our days suck. But he always has hope because the one, greatest eternal truth is God’s loving relationship with us. He ends Romans 8, in fact, with this amazing statement of faith: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come . . . , nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:37-39).

What Ava is helping to teach us this morning is that a Statement of Faith isn’t about a list of eternal truths we must learn and assent to. And certainly not is the basis of whether God saves us or not. No, a Statement of Faith is about our eternal relationship we have with God, because God is unconditional love. It is about the story of our lives, all the ups and downs, all the times of celebration and all the days that suck — that God is with us through all of that.

Acts 2:1-21

Exegetical Notes

1. V. 1: “they were all together (homou) in one place.” It begins by emphasizing their being gathered together.

2. V. 2: “And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent (biaios) wind (pnoē, related to pneuma, “spirit”). . . .” In Isaiah 59, Yahweh is angry that there is no justice and so takes it into his own hands (“his own arm brought him victory,” Isa 59:16), at the end of which we read, for he will come like a rushing (biaios) stream, which the wind (Heb. ruah) of the LORD drives” (Isa 59:19). Interestingly, the Septuagint translates ruah into orgē, “wrath,” not pneuma, “wind.” But Luke uses the LXX word for “violent.”


1. James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong. If we were to raise the question “Why is the Church necessary for salvation?”, the Pentecost text and Alison’s treatment of it could provide a good start on an answer. In the interpretation of original sin guided by mimetic theory, personal fallenness is related to living in a fallen state of human community. The mimetic rivalry that grips each person’s life feeds off of the scapegoating mechanism that grips human community, and vice versa. Thus, for a person to experience salvation there must also be a re-socialization that begins to find freedom from the powers of the scapegoating mechanism. As part of Alison’s brilliant laying out of original sin in light of mimetic theory, he devotes a chapter to what he calls “ecclesial hypostasis,” a living under the power of community formed around the forgiving victim, Jesus Christ, as opposed to living under the power of the “an-ecclesial hypostasis,” or life under the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism, as Robert Hamerton-Kelly calls it.

Alison makes use of the Pentecost story, as remedy to the Tower of Babel story, as a gathering of what has been scattered. In this vein, he also cites Luke 11:23: “He who does not gather with me scatters.” (Note: Gil Bailie in his taped lectures on Luke uses the gathering-scattering motif a great deal in his interpretation of Luke’s gospel, especially over the last several tapes in the series. Link to a word study on “Gathering and Scattering in Luke.”) Alison concludes:

In the account of Babel . . . God is still a continuation of the ‘envious’ God of Genesis 3:22. In Jesus’ phrase, however, the essential evangelical work of anthropological demythification has been carried out: it is God who founds, and human beings who scatter. Thus the representation of Pentecost as the undoing of Babel is not only a fulfilment of the prophecies that God would gather his scattered people together (see Deut. 30:3; Jer. 31:10; Ezek. 11:17; 28:25). It is a decisive recasting in anthropological terms of human foundational order: the real foundation is God’s foundation of the new people of Israel in Christ. It was not that God had scattered the people of Babel, but their foundational order, one grasped at avidly so as to avoid being scattered (Gen 11:4), was in fact cast in the mode of human scattering. All human societal foundations are futile exercises in the production of a fragile order. The only real foundation is the one given in Christ’s gathering. Behind the New Testament reworking of biblical images there is a quite specific understanding of the universal futility of human social order that is being overcome by the revelation of the true foundation. (p. 167)

Later in his work, this pairing of the Pentecost and Babel stories once again comes into play. As Alison brings his argument to a climax, he sums it up by laying out a new Testament re-working of all four major stories in Genesis 3-11:

In order to understand the positive sense of the self-giving up to death of Jesus, the apostolic witness makes use, in different places, of four quite distinct stories from Genesis, all of which are interpreted in the light of the Cross and Resurrection. To illustrate the sense of Christ’s death, he is shown as moved by a self-giving which is the undoing of Adam’s appropriation of divinity to himself (Paul’s argument about Adam’s desire in Romans 5-7, and the illustration of Christ’s self-giving in Philippians 2). He is shown as undoing the order based on fratricidal murder from the beginning (John’s reference to ‘Your Father. . . .’ in Chapter 8, and the development of that in 1 John 3). Baptism into Christ’s saving death is shown to be the real sense behind the story of Noah’s Ark (1 Pet. 3:20-21). Finally Christ is shown as undoing the scattering of all humanity following on the attempt to appropriate human unity by human effort alone at Babel (Luke’s presentation of Pentecost in Acts 2). That is to say, four quite distinct moments of Genesis, relating to desire, to murder, and to foundation of sociality, are shown to be capable of a strictly christological interpretation. Any symbol, then, of human origins that is capable of conflating these moments within a strictly christological interpretation has the advantage over other putative symbols of being exactly in line with the risen Christ’s own hermeneutic of scripture as explained on the road to Emmaus. It is precisely because it permits the construction of such a symbol that mimetic theory recommends itself in this context. (pp. 245-246)

His focused development of the Babel/Pentecost pair basically repeats the argument as stated earlier in connection with ecclesial hypostasis, except for placing it in this wider context of Christological re-interpretations which bring his argument to a conclusion. I share the last several lines:

In the christological re-reading [of Gen. 11:1-9], it is man who scatters himself, not God, because of the inherent futility of any building of social order at the expense of the victim. In between the original scattering and the christological gathering we have a Jewish re-reading of the scattering derived from their understanding of being gathered together out of the Babylonian Empire. The “confusion” of tongues (Heb.: balal) is an etymological joke at the expense of the arrogance of the imperial Babylonian attempt to dominate the earth, and the unfinished tower is a mocking look at one of the huge Ziqqurats which had the pretension in Babylonian religion of uniting heaven and earth. Once again, we have an original tale of cultural scattering, a Jewish re-reading of this, and a christological re-reading of the Jewish partial demythologization. This Christological re-reading gives us back a plausible account of the theological elements proper to the original scattering seen in the light of the death that made possible the un-scattering. (p. 252)

2. Andrew Marr, Moving and Resting in God’s Desire: A Spirituality of Peace, Ch. 1, “Nailed to the Cross.” Marr begins his presentation of René Girard’s Mimetic Theory — which he prefers, taking a cue from Robert Hamerton-Kelly, to call “mimetic realism” — with the Pentecost story, setting the scene:

Unlike Joel’s prophecy, the sun was not turning into darkness and the moon into blood, but Peter’s message was about to be enough to make them feel as if that was exactly what was happening. The cosmic applecart was being upended, and nothing would ever be the same. (4)

What was the nature of this revolutionary event and its significance? In the aftermath of the cross and resurrection of Christ, the key to human knowledge was being poured out on all people:

What was new was that Peter persuaded the people to see that their act of mob violence had been perpetrated against a victim who did not deserve to suffer at their hands. A new miracle, greater than speaking in tongues, was making it possible for them to hear Peter tell them what had happened fifty days ago, to hear Peter deeply enough to be cut to the heart and ask what they should do. The Tower of Babel was being reversed in two ways: 1) by replacing the scattering that occurred when all languages were confused with a gift of understanding languages that gathered people back together, and 2) by people gathering with God rather than against God. The reversal of confounding languages communicated in plain words the truth that the confused languages had hidden: collective violence is ultimately directed at God. This revealing truth was delivered not in accusation but in the astounding spirit of forgiveness. (5)

After elaborating what Girard’s mimetic realism adds to this knowledge, Marr summarizes this new knowledge at the close of this chapter:

. . . for those of us who believe that the Bible attests to truth revealed by God, the centrality of Jesus’ death by collective violence and his Resurrection in the Gospel message suggests that understanding and repenting of our participation in persecutory violence is fundamental to the Christian life. The Christian view is grounded foremost in the reality of the victim as victim. I say this advisedly because if a victim acts out of rage and creates victims, then those victims move to the center where Jesus is and the victim-become-oppressor moves to the periphery where the stone throwers are. There are many books on epistemology, the philosophical discipline that explores how and if humans attain knowledge. The Gospels show us that the place of the victim is the fundamental locus for knowledge and the prerequisite for any other knowledge. Insofar as we persecute others, our minds are darkened. Insofar as we sympathize with the victim as victim and, if necessary, enter that place and suffer persecution ourselves, we have the beginning of the knowledge that opens our hearts to God. Moreover, the contrast between a group mechanism of scapegoating and a gathering of community based on forgiveness makes it clear that a sound Christian spirituality is not an individual matter but is a matter of relationships. Relationships with people are inextricably bound with relationship with God. We are not alone with God; we are together with God.

The scapegoating mechanism has much to say about human desire, but it conceals at least as much as it reveals. When everybody agrees to gang up on one vulnerable person or one vulnerable group, it seems that the group is united in and possessed by this one desire. And yet this unification of desire has been spawned by systemic conflict. In this conflict, did everybody have a different desire, or was there already a unified desire that could not be shared as handily as the desire to focus on a victim who is blamed for the discord? Girard suggests the latter. We will take a close look at how Girard understands shared desires that lead to conflict. More importantly, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost suggests that God is seeking to gather us in a shared desire that does not require a victim. This will be a gathering of peoples seeking to do away with victimization for the sake of God’s desire. (27)

3. Anthony Bartlett, Seven Stories, pp. 75-76. In commenting on the Tower of Babel,

A story that explains the multitude of languages and diversity of human tribes and groups. Here again God is in rivalry with human beings as in Eden: he behaves like human beings. He prevents “megalopolis” pretensions by scattering people, creating barriers of language and understanding between groups. The tower of Babel is a story that recognizes that people are divided and work against each other. It seeks to explain how this came to be. The explanation is that God sees human beings establishing their own transcendence, and works forcefully against them. This seems unworthy on God’s part. Ultimately it demonstrates that the Biblical God is working against the pretensions of human tribes, nations and cities of being absolute to themselves. The Tower with “its top in the heavens” implies victory over the “other” whoever that might be. God sets out to undo this, but still, at this point, by means of violence.

Compare Acts 2.1-11 where the Spirit of Jesus poured out, enables each person to understand the apostles’ preaching “in their own language.”

Like “forgiving seventy times seven” this inverts the solutions of God in Genesis, while actually fulfilling their intention.

4. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, p. 97. In chapter 5 on “Good Power and Bad Power,” bad power is defined in terms of dominating others for self gain. A section on good power begins including a reference to Pentecost:

Power cannot be inherently bad because in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke and Paul it is a name used for the Holy Spirit, who is described as dynamis, or power (Acts 10:38; Luke 1:35; 24:49; Romans 15:13; 1 Corinthians 2:5). “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Then you will be my witnesses . . . to the very ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

Humans, once they contact their Inner Source, become living icons, not so much to a verbal message as to the Divine Image itself (see Isaiah 43:10). By any analysis, that is true, humble and confident power. It is the ultimate meaning of a well-grounded person.

Paul states the divine strategy well in Romans 8:16: “God’s Spirit and our spirit bear common witness that we are indeed children of God.” The goal is a shared knowing and a common power, and totally initiated and given from God’s side, as we see dramatized in the Pentecost event (Acts 2:1-13). Like the very conception in the womb of Mary, it is “done unto us” and all we can do is allow and enjoy and draw life from such a gift of power. One would be foolish to think it is one’s own creation.

To span the infinite gap between the Divine and the human, God’s agenda is to plant a little bit of God, the Holy Spirit, right inside of us! (Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 14:16ff.). This is the very meaning of the “new” covenant, and the replacing of our “hearts of stone with a heart of flesh” that Ezekiel promised (36:25-26). Isn’t that wonderful!

5. Brian McLaren, We Make the Road By Walking, ch. 40, “The Spirit Is Moving! (Pentecost Sunday),” uses this passage as a primary text.

6. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2015, titled “The Day of Pentecost Is Huge“; a sermon in 2018, “The Wedding from another Place“; Suella Gerber, a Pentecost sermon in 2018 on Mark 1:21-28, “Healing as Salvation.”

Reflections and Questions

1. In teaching the Spring Term 2000 of the intro religion class at Carthage College, I heard from the students often, in one form or another, the question, “Do you have to go to church to be a good person (their version of being saved)?” Many of them wanted to answer “No” to that question in order to justify themselves, and a distinction was often made between being “religious” and being “spiritual.” The latter was seen as a matter of personal freedom and a way to being a good person without institutional religion.

In response I tried to get them to seriously engage Emile Durkheim‘s answer, writing early in the 20th century (1912). Defining religion in the opening chapter of The Elementary Forms of Religious Life [a recent translation by Karen E. Fields, The Free Press, 1995], he said that “the idea of religion is inseparable from the idea of a Church; it conveys the notion that religion must be an eminently collective thing.” But he rather prophetically goes on to notice a new trend:

What remains are the present-day aspirations toward a religion that would consist entirely of interior and subjective states and be freely constructed by each one of us. . . . It is possible that this religious individualism is destined to become fact; but to be able to say in what measure, we must first know what religion is. . . . (p. 44)

At the beginning of the 21st century, what has happened to religion in modern society? Has it gone decidedly away from many millennia of human religious traditions and now become “an eminently individual thing,“ rather than “collective”? Is this a good trend?

My Carthage College students would seem to be evidence that the trend Durkheim prophetically pointed to has taken hold. I tried to challenge them with what might be at stake with the social/community aspect of religion. Durkheim helps us to see that all religions prior to our time have emphasized the social/community aspect.

While Durkheim’s work is prophetically descriptive, Girard’s work is generative in its explanation of religion. It suggests to us how these things come about. I think that mimetic scapegoating theory can help us find an explanation to both elements of this issue: why religion has previously been social and why it has recently become more individual.

The origins of religion are rooted in the need to not have community collapse under the chaos of escalating mimetic violence. Religion was born to save human communities from disintegrating. The scapegoating mechanism which underlies all religion and culture substitutes lower doses of sacred violence in the face of the threat of all-consuming profane violence (to use Durkheim’s primary duo of sacred and profane).

Yet the religious use of violence is still violence. In former ages religion has been reasonably successful in veiling its violence qua violence. Sacred rituals of sacrificial violence were seen as simply that, i.e., sacred rituals of sacrifice. They were not perceived as violence in the fashion that we now do today. So why the change? Why has the sacredness of this violence been unveiled such that we simply see it now as violence? That’s what this evangelical anthropology is all about … to help us understand this vital question. The Cross of Christ, beginning with the tearing of the Temple curtain at the moment of death, has let loose its unveiling power. And the Paraclete (see the gospel reflections below) has continued the work of this unveiling over the next two millennia to the point that the average person now clearly sees and experiences the violent aspect of religion as violence.

With the violence unveiled, what alternative does the modern person have to find peace in community? They turn inward, trying desperately to settle for an internal, individual peace. Especially in light of the continuing violence between the great monotheistic religions and cultures, many are returning to polytheistic “spiritualities,” to various forms of neo-paganism.

The question I continued to pose to my students, though, is this: can we ever ultimately attain peace if it is only an inward, individual peace? Doesn’t social/community peace end up being essential to one’s inner peace? That’s what’s at stake in going to church: peace. We can’t have it without finding how to live with one another in love. I believe that, at the same time that mimetic scapegoating theory (a latter-day work of the Paraclete) helps to continue the Cross’s work of unveiling religious violence, it can also help to resharpen for us the gospel’s alternative that took hold in this world on Pentecost.

2. In 1997 I preached on what it means to be a prophet (link to sermon entitled “Where Everyone’s a Prophet . . . and Everyone Profits“). Peter’s sermon text from Joel speaks of the Spirit being poured out on everyone so that they can be prophets. This has provided a great temptation throughout Christian history to emphasize some sort of ecstatic experience as the meaning of prophethood. “Speaking in tongues” is held up as the model for being a spirit-filled prophet. But, when we read the gospels carefully, what is the NT re-interpretation of what a prophet is? Mimetic theory helps to make the NT interpretation of prophet clear: being a prophet means to take the perspective of the victim, if not to actually become a victim yourself. It is to speak to one’s community from the only standpoint which has the true power to unify, the position of the victim. With the scapegoating mechanism, the victim also provides the means of unifying, but only when the victim remains silent, and so it is a corruptible and false unity. Only when the voice of the prophet is heard from the position of the victim can the Holy Spirit work to build a true unity, a Holy Communion. Such prophecy manifests the Holy Spirit that was poured out on Pentecost when the potential victims, the disciples of Jesus, came out from hiding and preached to the people of the one whom they crucified but whom God raised.

What is the NT interpretation of “prophet”? Luke, who wrote this passage from Acts, is perhaps the clearest on this matter. I began the sermon with the rather dazzling picture of prophecy in this Pentecost passage, getting all of us excited about that, and then asking what is Luke’s overall picture of the prophet. I basically moved, then, into a short bible study on the Lukan picture of prophecy. It begins with his crucial introduction of Jesus’ ministry in Luke 4; Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah about the pouring out of the Spirit to bring good news to victims; he follows it with a discussion of the prophet Elijah coming to the side of a poor widow during a time of famine and finishes with the remark that a prophet is never accepted in the prophet’s hometown. The response of the crowd is to instantly make a prophet out of Jesus (in Jesus’ own terms, not theirs) by unsuccessfully trying to make him a victim of their lynching.

The next crucial place is the sermon on the plain (6:20-26), where the beatitudes and woes might be seen to be a further commentary on the Luke 4 passage. In the latter, Isaiah 61 speaks of the prophet’s good news to the poor and other victims; these beatitudes of Luke 6 basically repeat this same good news to the same group of folks. And the climax of both the beatitudes and woes definitively lays out the role of the prophet: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets… Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:22-23, 26). There is also the lament over Jerusalem (Luke 13:33-34): “‘Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

Finally, there is that quintessential Girardian text (which Girard himself remarks on, for example, in Things Hidden, 166-67) among the woes to the Pharisees (Luke 11:47-51):

“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation.”

It is this kind of re-interpretation of the very meaning of prophecy that I think Jesus performs with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:27): “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.”

3. In his excellent commentary on Luke-Acts (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Fortress Press), Robert C. Tannehill corroborates my reading of prophet. He essentially lays out much of the bible study on Luke’s understanding of prophet. In bringing his argument to a conclusion, Tannehill couples his findings on prophetic destiny with another important Lukan theme: the necessity of a suffering Messiah. Here is what he has to say:

A reminder of the previous discussion of Luke 24:26 (“Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things?”) may suggest why it would seem natural to include Jesus’ death in God’s “fixed purpose and foreknowledge” [Acts 2:23]. His death was no surprise to God, nor should it be to those who meditate on the pattern of prophetic destiny that the narrator finds in Scripture and recent history. The destiny of God’s prophets includes suffering and rejection, for they must speak God’s word to a blind and resistant world and must bear the brunt of this resistance. (p. 37)

I thought it interesting that a biblical scholar would reach a Girardian conclusion independently of a Girardian reading. Yet he falls short of full Girardian insight. He sees that the NT, Luke in particular, interprets prophetic destiny in terms of suffering and rejection. And he makes the connection with divine “purpose and foreknowledge.” But he doesn’t come to see the reason why; he doesn’t come to see the anthropological necessity. The closest Tannehill comes to a reason for persecution of the prophets is: “for they must speak God’s word to a blind and resistant world.” The latter is true enough, but mimetic theory helps the prophet to also understand why the world is blind and resistant. Mimetic theory helps us to understand what it is that generates such blindness and resistance. Moreover, it helps us to understand the necessity of rejecting and causing the prophets to suffer, in the first place, which derives from an anthropological necessity due to our fallenness under the powers of the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. The “world” is resistant to God’s word, causing suffering to those who speak it, precisely because God’s word means to reveal to us our anthropological need to have someone suffer and be rejected. The crucifixion of the prophet Jesus, and God’s subsequent raising him from the dead, reveals these powers for all to see, making a prophet out of anyone who catches the Spirit of that revelation.

4. Another possibility is to explore the image of fire for Pentecost. The most common religious significance of fire has been the sacrificial fires of sacred violence in its plenitude of forms. Is the image of hell fire the standard bearer for all these forms? I explored this question in a sermon entitled “Fire of Love.”

5. In 2003 I was getting near the end of an interim ministry which was building a positive spirit towards a specific strategy of urban ministry, and getting ready to call the next pastor to that ministry. The sermon made use of the fire image to ring out the message, “Let’s Get Fired Up!“, reflecting on both the Pentecost story and the Tower of Babel to support the prospect of reaching out into the neighborhood.

John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15


1. “Paraclete” is a key in this passage, and I refer you to the Girardian reading of Paraclete that was explicated in the notes on 1 John 5 for Easter 6. In addition to Girard‘s The Scapegoat, which is quoted at length in the Easter 6 reflections, a more complete bibliography on a Girardian reading of Paraclete includes: James Alison, Knowing Jesus, p. 112, The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 79, 233, Faith Beyond Resentment, p. 210, On Being Liked, pp. 58ff.; Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 73-74, 130, 190, 226-227 (link to excerptThe Spirit,VU, pp. 225-228); Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, section 8.3, “The Spirit-Paraclete,” pp. 261-68; Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, “Holy Spirit, Paraclete,” pp. 153-56; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, pp. 185, 208, 238-239, 258. I have also put together a page on “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”

2. This passage is the heart of all those Girardian readings that make use of the Johannine theology in concert with mimetic theory. I can provide a listing here once again: Girard, Things Hidden, Book II, ch. 4, and The Scapegoat, ch. 15; James Alison, Raising Abel, ch. 3, and “The Man Born Blind from Birth…” in Contagion (Spring, 1997); Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, chs. 12-13, and his tape series on John, tape 10 (link to my notes / transcription of tape 10); Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, ch. 8, “The Gospel of John”; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred, pp. 204-210.

3. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, pp. 263-65. Hardin begins by asking, “If the satan is the accuser, the Prosecuting attorney, are we then left without defense?” He responds by quoting John’s Paraclete passages, including today’s. He then writes:

The King James translated Paraclete as “Comforter” but notice in the NIV this has become “Counselor.” True it is a comfort to have a defender, but “counselor” is a more appropriate translation as the term reflects the advocacy or legal role of the Spirit. In contrast to the satanic spirit that accuses, God’s Spirit defends us.

If, as explained in chapter 5, the satanic is the human religious impulse toward scapegoating, using violence to cast out violence, then the work of the Spirit is to defend the victim of unjust persecution, expose the victimizer’s lies and vindicate the victim. It is no mistake that the Paraclete sayings in the Fourth Gospel are closely tied in with persecution of the followers of Jesus.

The Spirit, as advocate, intercedes for us (cf. Romans 8:26-27) [referencing today’s Second Reading!] . . .

The Spirit is like Jesus. Jesus’ saying about sending “another Counselor” used a Greek word (allos) meaning another of the same kind as himself. James Alison makes the point that just as an Accuser sat before the ancient city gate ready to mete out justice, so also another go’el, a Redeemer, intercessor or defense attorney was also present. [Alison makes this point in an early version of ch. 1 in The Joy of Being Wrong, which did not make the published book.] If the satan is the former, the Holy Spirit is the latter just like Jesus.

4. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pp. 153-54. Heim begins his section on the Paraclete by quoting this passage, and then comments:

Paraclete is a Greek word that is variously translated “advocate,” or “helper,” or “intercessor.” These words give a rather vague impression, while the original has a more specific flavor: one who appears on behalf of another, an “advocate” in the sense of representative for the accused, a defense attorney.

In the context of Jesus’ speech, which is focused on persecution past and future, the meaning is clear. The work of the paraclete is to testify by the side of victims, to be their advocate and to “prove the world wrong.” In the sacrificial ganging of all against a few, the few will not be left alone. There will always be at least one divine voice to speak for them. The “world’s” view of sin, righteousness, and judgment is summed up in the sacrificial dynamic. Sin becomes an excuse for persecution, righteousness becomes defined as submission to scapegoating, and judgment uses violence against violence. The historical task of the Holy Spirit, which is another name for the paraclete, is to prove this wrong, by testimony to Christ. Christ is the counterexample. The world that crucified Jesus is wrong about sin and righteousness because it wrongly accused him of sin and refused to see the righteousness confirmed by God’s raising of Jesus, and wrong about judgment because the verdict against Jesus has been reversed. The last point is perhaps most striking. The paraclete is directly opposed to Satan. The paraclete will prove the world wrong about judgment, because the prince of this world, Satan, has been condemned. It is the sacrificial process that is on trial, the accuser who is accused. (p. 154)

5. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 226-27. Bailie writes:

According to the fourth evangelist, the spiritual and anthropological revolution set in motion by the crucifixion is a glacial process the driving force of which is the “Spirit of Truth” — the Paraclete. It was to be the task of this Spirit of Truth to gradually “accomplish” historically what was “accomplished” in the hearts of Jesus’ disciples at the crucifixion and in the days that followed it. As I have said, the Greek word Parakletos means a “counselor” or “advocate.” More precisely, it means one who defends the “accused one.” The Paraclete is the planetary spirit who deconstructs the myths and mystifications spewed forth by Satan, the perennial “Accuser.”

After quoting today’s passage, he continues:

The world would continue to hold itself together and make itself coherent by channeling its violence toward expendable victims. Cultures and subcultures in the grip of the “father of lies” would continue to drown out the victim’s voice with myths and incantations and slogans. But from the moment of the crucifixion onward, the Paraclete would be at work in the world, slowly giving the victim’s voice the ability, in the haunting words of Whittaker Chambers, to sweep away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, and whatever contemporary myths might lend violence a momentary aura of righteousness. However formidable the structures of the sacrificial system might be, however beguilingly and discretely these structures might resort to their scapegoating mechanisms, relentlessly the Paraclete would “show the world how wrong it was,” gradually leading humanity to “the complete truth” (John 16:8, 13).

Had not the crucifixion loosened the grip that the primitive sacred had on the human imagination, we would probably find Caiaphas’s view on the matter far more intelligible than Paul’s. Without the crucifixion we would still be living in one of the cultural subdivisions thoroughly under the spell of what the Fourth Gospel calls the father of lies and the murderer from the beginning. No doubt some amelioration of sacred violence would have occurred, but without something structurally equivalent to the Gospels, something with an anthropological and historical purview comparable to that which the Gospels have achieved, all critiques of the structures of sacred violence would be taking place from within these structures.

Once you show the world the picture of this planet taken from the moon, try as you may to resuscitate them, there are certain parochial myths that simply cannot be revived and sustained. The effect of the crucifixion is precisely the same, only with vastly greater anthropological significance. The gospel can neither be annihilated nor can its historical momentum be arrested because the process of arresting or annihilating it would be structurally identical to the crucifixion itself and would therefore have the effect of supplying the revelation with yet another proof of its historical pertinence. The Johannine Jesus said that once he was raised up on the Cross he would draw all humanity to himself, that gradually the sight of this innocent man on the gallows would become more compelling than all of conventional culture’s techniques for making sanctioned violence morally respectable. By the time the biblical scholars finally succeed in disproving the “authenticity” of this saying and demonstrating beyond all scholarly doubt that it was never spoken by the historical Jesus, it will have been fulfilled in ways that the average ten-year-old will be able to recognize.

6. James Alison, several places, beginning with Knowing Jesus:

What links the Father and Jesus, therefore, is the intelligence of the victim. It is in the light of the intelligence of the victim that we can begin to understand the relationship between the two — the love for us that involved sending Jesus, the love for Jesus that involved sending, and raising him up, the love which Jesus had for his Father which involved giving himself for us knowingly to victimization. It is this knowledge of the intelligence of the victim which sets us free: the truth which sets us free is the truth of the victim. The Counselor [Paraclete], the Spirit of truth, who is the advocate for the defense against the lynching of the world, this is the intelligence of the victim, bearing witness to the truth which flows from the victim. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples in Luke 12:11, “And when they bring you before the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” And no wonder that the Holy Spirit will do just that; it will not be a sort of additional function of the Holy Spirit to do that as well as all sorts of other things. As I hope has become clear by now, the Holy Spirit is the intelligence of the victim. (pp. 112-13)

In The Joy of Being Wrong, Alison uses John’s Paraclete sayings to also comment on Pentecost and the Trinity, timely for these two weeks in the lectionary. After quoting Luke 24:25-27 in the Emmaus story, Alison writes:

The risen Lord permitted a completely new re-reading not only of his own life and death, but of the way that life and death re-interpreted the scriptures. It was not that the apostolic group were able to find a whole series of proof texts in the scriptures to bolster their belief in the Risen Lord, but rather the presence of the crucified-and-risen Lord was suddenly the hermeneutic key permitting a reading of the Hebrew Scriptures that was able to show God’s self-revelation as a process leading to a point of culmination of which they were, through no merit of their own, the witnesses.

The apostolic group was perfectly aware that this change was being produced in them in the aftermath of the resurrection, and they give witness to this awareness in their description of the Holy Spirit. In the first place, a clear distinction is made between the presence of the Risen Lord, who is a human being, and the Holy Spirit who is not a human being. This distinction is clearest in Luke/Acts where the Ascension is accomplished before the coming of the Holy Spirit. However it is implicit in John, where Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit into the disciples on the first evening of Easter. That is to say, it is not merely the fact that the risen Lord is present that is the Holy Spirit, but he actually gives them something that is his, but not totally identical with himself. John brings out the difference when he has Jesus tell the disciples that it is to their advantage that he should go, so that another advocate may come (John 16:7), and indicates that the other advocate will bring about an understanding that was not possible before the death of Jesus [John 16:12-13]. John also brings out the identity by insisting that it is the things of Jesus that the Holy Spirit will bring to mind and reveal [John 16:14-15]. This shows that the disciples understood themselves to have received a profound new intelligence into what Jesus had been about, who God is, and who man is, that had not been available before Jesus’ death, and became available shortly after his death. This intelligence, which they understood to be the inner dynamic of the whole life and death of Jesus, and what had formed his relationship with his Father, I choose to call the intelligence of the victim.

By this term, I do not mean a peculiar sort of intellectual brilliance, some sort of an increase in intelligence quotient. I mean a particular regard on God and humanity made manifest in the life and death of Jesus by his resurrection. So the disciples were able fairly rapidly to re-read the process leading up to Jesus’ death as the story of the self-giving and self-revealing victim, who alone had known what was going on. They were able to understand that Jesus’ death was not an accidental interruption of a career that was heading in another direction, but rather that his whole life had been lived in a peculiar sort of way toward that death, and that he had been aware of this. It is because of this that all the Gospel accounts are focused around the Passion, as the build up to it. The disciples, then, were aware that the intelligence of the victim which they now possessed was not only a post-resurrection intelligence, but had been a pre-resurrection intelligence in the person of Jesus alone. It was an intelligence that had, all along, been guiding the life and death that they had accompanied and witnessed. What was unique was the way in which, after Jesus’ death they began to be able to tell the story of this life and death not from their own viewpoint, as muddled hangers-on, but from the viewpoint of the dead man, of the one who had become the victim. It is not as though they had invented a profound new insight into Judaism to honour the memory of a dead teacher. Rather they were now able to see clearly the inner unity of the interpretation of Judaism which their teacher had been explaining to them as with reference to himself. They were able to see his life through his own eyes: that is, tell the story of the lynch from the viewpoint of the victim’s own understanding of what was going on, before the lynch, leading up to, and during it.

This intelligence of the victim is not, however, a piece of arcane knowledge passed by a teacher to a group of initiates, a secret to be divulged only to other initiates. Jesus taught perfectly publicly, though the Gospels do show that he gave privileged teaching to a few (the twelve), and even among them he was particularly careful in his preparation of Peter, James and John. The difficulty of Jesus’ teaching was something to do not in the first place with its own content, but with the constitution of the consciousness of those he was teaching. It was as if they had had a veil over their eyes until after the resurrection. That is to say, what Jesus was revealing was something about which human knowledge is always shrouded in self-deception. The disciples understanding was (as ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. What the disciples became aware of after the resurrection was that the person whose consciousness is constituted in rivalry and survival by victimization does not possess the intelligence of the victim. The beginning of the perception of the intelligence of the victim is already an alteration in what constitutes human consciousness, permitting us to see things from the viewpoint of the victim, and from the point of gratuitous self-donation. This, they saw, was already fully present in Jesus’ life: his human awareness was simply not constituted by the same “other” as their own. It would of course take some time to move from the perception that the other who formed and moved Jesus was simply the Father, to the awareness that this meant that the Son was in fact a perfect imitation (or eikôn) of the Father, to the awareness that this implied an equality of substance with the Father, and the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity. (pp. 79-81)

Later in The Joy of Being Wrong, the Paraclete is crucial (taking his cue from Girard in ch. 15 of The Scapegoat) to true historical knowledge which Alison places under the process he calls “Ecclesial Hypostasis.” He writes:

It is apparent from all that has gone before that the understanding of God and the human being, and thus the possibility of the eschatological imagination that I have been setting out, was the fruit of a particular historical process of development, culminating in, and radically re-forged by, the life and teaching, as well as the death and resurrection, of Jesus of Nazareth. That is to say, that salvation is inherently historical.

It is of course inherently historical not only in how it came about, but in how we are to be involved in it. This, of course, is where the vision I have been setting out enters into conflict with any universalist vision of history or progress. It suggests that there is no such thing as an universal secular history, but that there are only a multitude of histories, constructed by people who by their work give sense to time. These histories are told from a multitude of starting points, all of which shade off into futility except in as far as they are histories constructed around the victim. The bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis, complete with eschatological imagination, is the empowering of people to construct history around those who are not, those who are going out of being, those whom the vanity and power of the world have emptied of sense and of meaning. This is not something merely accidental to the salvation that is brought about by the crucified and risen victim: the construction of the history of the victim is an imperative which is the same as the bringing into being of the ecclesial hypostasis. The reality of this history is, of course, not to be seen until the final judgement, when it will be the risen victim coming in glory who is revealed as the real criterion for the sense of all the lifestories and constructions in which we have been engaged. But the final judgement is not simply the collapse of history, and the beginning of “eternity.” It is the manifestation of such history as has been constructed that is able to share the life of God, and does not shade off into the futility and meaninglessness of violence. The assurance is that it is the forgiving victims of this order who will be the judges, the principles of manifestation, of the reality of history. These it will be who have made possible the continuity between this creation and the new creation, who will have enabled God’s original plan not to be thwarted.

Where does this leave secular history? Is this process of the coming into being of the history of the victim simply invisible except to the somewhat suspect eye of “faith”? Does not the coming into being of the history of the victim act in fact as a leaven within the history constructed through battles and newspapers, rape of bullion and deserts created in lands once rich in grain? For Girard the answer is unquestionably: yes. His essay “History and the Paraclete” [ch. 15 of The Scapegoat] is an extended meditation on the way in which the presence of the Gospel texts, making visible the founding murder, has acted inexorably, and often against the understanding of those who thought themselves faithful to those texts, to reveal the mechanisms of persecution, the self-deception flowing from murder that is the basis of the distorted desire of “this world.” There is then a process at work detectable even to secular historians whereby the attempt to sacralize the order of this world is constantly being undone. From this constant collapsing of sacralized reasoning, reasoning derived from still mythical representations, it has become possible, and indeed second nature, for anyone at all to detect representations of persecution. As these have been brushed aside — in each case requiring huge courage on the part of those standing up to the prevailing sacralized order — so a scientific, and not a mythical, understanding of causality was able to be born. In the same way it became possible to understand human capacity and human responsibility — the former becoming evident rather before the latter, and tending itself to be sacralised until the weight of the latter is borne in by experience. This is what history looks like under the shadow of the pax nuclearis: the full extent of human capacity becomes knowable, as does the responsibility for avoiding an entirely human apocalypse. (pp. 232-34)

Finally, in On Being Liked, ch. 4, “Creation in Christ,” Alison is writing about forgiveness as our access to knowing about creation. He comments on the Paraclete and the Pentecost gift of the Holy Spirit:

Here I would like to make a brief observation concerning the meaning of the gift of the Holy Spirit. If we read the famous chapters 14-16 of John’s Gospel, something will be noted which is very similar to the account which I am proposing to you. We see God himself, as a human being, giving his Creating Spirit to human beings as a consequence of his going to death so that we be lead into all truth. That is to say, the role of the defense attorney, the Paraclete, and the role of opener up of all truth by means of the overcoming of victimary processes and the role of making us participants in bringing Creation into being on the same level as Jesus, are the same role. And I notice something here which leaves me astounded. In the model of Creation as something fitting into the substitutionary theory of salvation there is a moment when we have to step outside the process of learning, in order to lay hold of a “divine” viewpoint — that is to say, make a mental leap outside the process so as to be able to “impose” the supposed divine vision on what surrounds us. However here the matter is very different. In the model which I am sketching out, and which I hope to be in harmony with the Johannine witness, we don’t get to receive the divine “eye” or “insight,” so as to speak, by an intellectual leap outside the human process of discovery. Rather it is from within the process of the forgiving overcoming of group violence that we are carried to discovering all truth. Which is to say, that through the gift of the Holy Spirit we get to participate actively as conscious and knowing beings within God’s own creative act. (p. 58)

7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from June 8, 2003 (Woodside Village Church).

8. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “What Has the Spirit Been Doing All These Years.”

Reflections and Questions

1. In 2012, I joined together John’s Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete, with Gandhi’s satyagraha, “truth force,” for a sermon titled “The Pouring Out of Satyagraha on Pentecost.” My primary source for Gandhi’s views is a small compendium edited, with an introduction, by John Dear: Mohandas Gandhi: Essential Writings.

Gandhi’s Satyagraha provided the climactic point and title of the sermon. John’s Paraclete provided the work-up. I presented the Girardian view that the wrongness of “sin, righteousness, and judgment” was both on display the next day in the trial and execution of Jesus, but also transcendent of that one instance by exposing the anthropology of peacemaking in human community that goes back to the origin of our species. The basis to all our human efforts at peacemaking is the scapegoating mechanism, unveiled in the cross. Our trusted means of stopping violence always involves using violence. Our trusted means of providing unity always involves dividing peoples between the righteous and unrighteous, sacred and profane, clean and unclean, guilty and innocent — us and them. From the beginning human peace has been maintained by the righteous majority bringing an accusation of sin against a minority and exacting a judgment. Sin, righteousness, judgment — all proved wrong in the cross and resurrection.

2. Another crucial point in this 2012 Pentecost sermon is that the Christian message shouldn’t require one to convert religions to become a follower of Jesus. Gandhi is another brilliant example of that. But I think the Pentecost story itself helps make the point. Luke has Pentecost be about a reversal of the mythological Babel account in Genesis 11, where languages, cultures, and presumably religions scatter humankind. In the Christ experience of Pentecost, languages, cultures, and presumably religions don’t have to divide us. The Pentecost story focuses on language, but religion, until modern secularism, has always been another central feature of human culture. And religion does contain an element with the potential to unite. My more recent learning in the contemplative spirituality traditions has made me more aware that there are spiritual practices in almost all religions that can bring a more immediate experience of the oneness of God and so the oneness of humanity.

Mimetic Theory, unlike the contemplative spiritual traditions, however, postulates the negative element, namely, that all religions are founded in the dualistic divisiveness of the scapegoating mechanisms. Thus, even religions developing beyond their beginnings have the tendency to fall back into that divisiveness. I am most familiar with Christianity itself as an example. It began as a development of Judaism that dramatically brings an end to ritual blood sacrifice, inverting the spilling of someone else’s blood into loving service and self-sacrifice. St. Paul in Galatians and Romans argues against the need for conversion of religions. Gentiles do not need to convert to Judaism in order to be followers of Christ Jesus. The church has replaced a divisive external marker such as circumcision (a sacrificial ritual that substitutes a lesser violence) with an invisible event marker such as baptism, which itself ties a person to the event of the cross and resurrection, and whose effect is to unify the baptized into God’s one human family (Eph 2:14-15) in the face of normal divisions. Baptized into Christ one is no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free (Gal. 3:25-29).

Yet in the aftermath of Constantine, imperialist borders began to fall into place once again. The church began to define and defend its creeds as an empire defines and defends its borders. Sacred violence is once again an accepted and justified Christian practice through the violence of the empire. Just in time for the church itself to sponsor crusades against other religions, St. Anselm crafted a doctrine of atonement that brings the old sacrificial logic once again firmly into place, where the cross represents a cosmic sacrificial event of divine love satisfying divine wrath. Since Constantine Christian identity has once again meant being hostile to other religions. The Christian faith that most of us have grown up with makes salvation centrally a matter of religious conversion; and we turn the promise of a life newly and immediately lived in solidarity with God’s ongoing New Creation into a promise of an afterlife whose central feature is the everlasting divide between righteous and unrighteous. It brings us right back into the original sin of a supposed unity that is actually based on division. To this extent, I believe MT to be realistic and scientifically accurate in its diagnosis of religions.

But I’m also coming to increasingly believe that MT can benefit from a balancing of that negative diagnosis with the positive recognition in the contemplative spiritual traditions that experiences and practices in many religions do lead to experiencing the oneness of God as the basis for true oneness of humanity. This, of course, is true of Jesus’ own spiritual experience, which redeems the elements of his own Jewish religion and culture which needed redeeming from the dualistic beginnings of all religions. But MT sometimes is prone to make exclusive this positive element of Jesus’ experience along with the negative insight, since the latter, his revelation on the cross of the dualistic beginnings of religion, is so unique. I think we Girardians need to see the positive element of religion as having a broader basis in the history of religions, and MT can contribute in its own way. Is not a crucial element to MT, in fact, the “epistemological privilege of the victim” (Andrew McKenna) or the “intelligence of the victim” (James Alison)? MT can add to the positive thesis of contemplative spirituality by helping us to see that the experiences of the oneness of God generally come through the crucible of the victim’s suffering. This is the vector of Jesus’ own experience out of his Jewish faith, which he brings to a climax in intentionally going to the cross in faith of the resurrection. Does it also describe Native American spirituality of the last three centuries? What about the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh? How did the Buddha or the Sufi master Rumi come by their experiences of the oneness of God and humanity?

Prior to the cross and resurrection the survival of the victim’s viewpoint was extremely rare. There is the lead-up to the Messiah in the Jewish experience, those experiences which immediately became more central to interpreting Christ: the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, Joseph, Job, Zechariah 9 and 14, the laments of the Psalmists, etc. Perhaps the only other surviving examples prior to the resurrection are through the genius mystics like the Buddha. One can comb the scriptures of other religions for examples. But the cross and resurrection of Christ bring the pivot point in human history where the survival of the victim’s viewpoint becomes an increasing historical occurrence. This is why at Pentecost the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy is proclaimed: the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete, the “intelligence of the victim,” Satyagraha, has been poured out on all peoples. The experience of victims throughout the ages will increasingly become a thread that gradually undoes the garment of the persecutors monopoly on telling history. The emperor, in fact, is found to not be wearing any clothes. The torn fabric of humanity based on sacrifice is being exchanged for newly spun clothes woven in the spirit of the Creator’s oneness.

3. Gandhi has helped the world to believe that Satyagraha can be poured out on as many as hundreds of millions of Indians to nonviolently resist the evil of British Imperialism. We have even seen it work now through social media among the younger generation in Egypt. But Gandhi’s victory turned to the heartache of the Hindu-Muslim war. And the elections in Egypt to replace Hosni Mubarak have not thus-far been promising in maintaining a momentum for justice and nonviolence. Is MT the piece that’s missing from more decisively moving forward? Do we also need the realistic understanding of human anthropology as founded in collective violence? Do we need also to better understand the Satanic Spirit that the outpouring of Satyagraha is redeeming us from?

4. The 2012 sermon provides an example of how John 16:8-11 is especially powerful for MT: “And when the Paraclete comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: about sin, because they do not believe in me; about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned.” One could unpack a major re-reading of Christian theology in light of mimetic theory through these four verses.

5. In 2015 I extemporized from PowerPoint slides, leading to a ‘testimony’ about the recent women’s retreat lead by Rachel Kurtz, for a sermon answering the question “Where Does God’s Spirit Abide?

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