Around minute 53, Hardin makes a really great point. During the original Holy Week, Jesus is seen as the “lamb that takes away the sin of the world.” The thing is, in Judaism, Yom Kippur is seen as the day when the people received atonement for sin (not Passover), and there is never a time when a lamb takes away sin – it’s always two goats.
So in becoming the lamb that takes away the world’s sin, Jesus changes the way we view sacrifice, and how atonement works. Instead of a reinforcement of the old system of sacrifice, where we need a scapegoat to take our blame, Jesus takes on humanity’s violence and retribution, and offers peace and forgiveness in return.
This is the beauty of atonement in Christianity – not that God is vengeful and needs to settle the cosmic score (so to speak), but that God takes on our need for retributive violence and says “No more.”
The Gospel revelation is the definitive formulation of a truth already partially disclosed in the Old Testament. But in order to come to completion, it requires the good news that God himself accepts the role of the victim of the crowd so that he can save us all. This God who becomes a victim is not another mythic god but the one God, infinitely good, of the Old Testament.
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – Rene Girard (130)
There is nothing in the Gospels to suggest that God causes the mob to come together against Jesus. Violent contagion is enough. Those responsible for the Passion are the human participants themselves, incapable of resisting the violent contagion that affects them all when a mimetic snowballing comes within their range, or rather when they come within the range of this snowballing and are swept along by it. We don’t have to invoke the supernatural to explicate this.
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – René Girard (21-22)
When Jesus declares that he does not abolish the Law but fulfills it, he articulates a logical consequence of his teaching. The goal of the Law is peace among humankind. Jesus never scorns the Law, even when it takes the form of prohibitions… The disadvantage of prohibitions however, is that they don’t finally play their role in a satisfying manner. Their primarily negative character, as St. Paul well understood, inevitably provokes in us the mimetic urge to transgress them. The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even rivalistic desire… but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.
I See Satan Fall Like Lightning – René Girard (14)
Human individuals and communities are so convinced that they operate autonomously, and are so protective of this autonomy, that they are unaware of the violent measures to which they resort to maintain it. This is the immense power of the social formation called religion, which for Girard is founded on the scapegoating process as a means of establishing order and self-identity, and of maintaining these when they come under threat.
However, it is not strictly true that the subject always desires an ‘object’ at all. What really drives the individual may be something much more elusive and imprecise: the search for a quasi-transcendent state of well-being, of fulfilment, of self-actualisation, which goes beyond simple possession of any object or set of objects… [This notion is called] ‘metaphysical desire,’ where no specific object is aimed at, but rather an indeterminate but insistent yearning for the fullness of ‘being.’
Discovering Girard – Michael Kirwan (22), talking about mimetic desire
Self-affirmation within a group includes the courage to accept guilt and its consequences as public guild, whether one is oneself responsible or whether somebody else is. It is a problem of the group which has to be expiated for the sake of the group, and the methods of punishment and satisfaction requested by the group are accepted by the individual. Individual guilt consciousness exists only as the consciousness of a deviation from the institutions and rules of the collective.
Paul Tillich – The Courage to Be
Interesting parallels to Girard’s thought re: scapegoating.
I listened to this lecture/interview series on Rene Girard’s thought on a road trip from Colorado Springs to Dallas. Definitely helped me to solidify my thinking on a non-sacrificial atonement. Here are the rest of the videos:
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.
S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross
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).