It would be valuable to have at our disposal some figures equipped for the task of mediation — people who understand the impulses from which these troubling movements arise, who may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order. They should be intellectuals who speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular, but they should also be fluent in the concepts and practices of faith. Their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.
Half a century ago, such figures existed in America: serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage. They are gone now. It would be worth our time to inquire why they disappeared, where they went, and whether — should such a thing be thought desirable — they might return.
This post is the final post in a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.
I have greatly enjoyed reviewing S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. The book’s thesis has honestly been paradigm-shifting for me, particularly in my view of God, orthodox Christianity, and my understanding of the atonement. Since finishing it, I have come to read Scripture in a completely different light, and a lot of things that didn’t make sense before I read the book began to click for me afterwards.
In the final two chapters in the book Heim focuses on Revelation/apocalypse and its relation to the Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement, and then sums up the premise in a final chapter.
Heim opens up the chapter on Revelation with a verse from Hebrews: “For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26-27).
This particular quote reveals Heim’s understanding of Revelation and apocalypse in the Christian tradition in relation to scapegoating sacrifice.
The beauty of this scapegoating theory – that sacrifice is unhinged by the Crucifixion and Resurrection – is also a curse. While sacrifice is an evil that should be abolished, the problem lies in the fact that sacrifice works. I.e., our societies are able to function because sacrificial scapegoating serves as a solution to conflict in the community. But what happens when the sacrificial system is dismantled by Jesus’ sacrifice, yet the society does not create a new path of reconciliation? Heim says, “Our societies can hardly live without the old myths of sacrifice and their updated versions, yet our awareness of their victimization of the innocent drains their capacity to reestablish peace among us” (263).
It is this dissonance (humans attempt to use scapegoating, despite the knowledge of its inherent evil) that helps bring about apocalypse because the previous ‘release valve’ becomes increasingly ineffective. In other words, conflict continues to build within a community without the possibility of true reconciliation in some way. “The social world implodes of its own weight” (264). With this misunderstanding of Jesus’ sacrifice, the world falls apart in a similar manner to the type of apocalypse we see in the Gospels.
Another way apocalypse occurs is via a second misunderstanding of the abolishing of scapegoating violence. Instead of simply recognizing the evils of scapegoating but offering no solution, victimization is recognized, but the injustice done to scapegoats “becomes a charter for an unrestrained tide of righteous wrath against their oppressors” (ibid.). Much like some of the extreme liberation theologies of the twentieth century or the kind of Marxism or communism that wages war on behalf of the victimized class, this misunderstanding leads to the kind of apocalypse we see in the final battles of Revelation.
Heim warns us here that, while the unveiling of the myth of ‘good’ sacrifice can be a good thing, it can also bring humanity to an even more violent place. Heim (and Christ!) implores us to take a hard look at how we respond to the Christ Event and live in response to it:
Where is the legacy of the cross in all this? In an empirical sense it is both a wrench in the works of sacrifice and a spotlight on the practice of scapegoating. This can have negative effects, making sacrifice more bloody when we persist in it, or turning our awareness of victims into an absolute conflict with those we identify as their persecutors. But the most basic saving social effect of the cross is to disrupt all our unanimities, sacrificial or apocalyptic (290).
Heim’s closing chapter is virtually a summary of everything discussed before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
The point of his writing seems to hinge on two major issues. First, based on what Rene Girard has to say about culture, myth, and sacrifice, it is imperative that we attempt to understand the function of sacrifice in our societies and how this relates to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. If we misunderstand sacrifice (e.g., that perhaps it is ‘good’ or God-ordained), then we miss the point of the cross, which is to break the system of sacrifice by revealing Christ as a victim. Second, and related to the first point, when we misunderstand sacrifice and what Jesus’ death and physical resurrection mean, our atonement theologies can all-too-quickly serve as a foundation for violence and scapegoating by other means or as a way of passively accepting meaningless suffering.
Instead, we need to understand the following:
We are not reconciled with God and each other by a sacrifice of innocent suffering offered to God. We are reconciled with God because God at the cost of suffering rescued us from bondage to a practice of violent sacrifice that otherwise would keep us estranged, making us enemies of the God who stands with our victims. We are reconciled with each other because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity. So long as our peace depends on scapegoats, we are never truly reconciled with each other. We only appear to be one community until the next crisis, at which point the short straw of exclusion will be drawn by some one or more of us (320).