Unpublished: Evil and Grace in Bureaucracy

I am the Department Chair of the Psychology Department at ACU. What this means is that I'm a bureaucrat. More precisely, a part of my job is being a bureaucrat as I manage the paperwork, budgets, programs, and personnel of my academic department.

This is not a job I'm well suited for. If I have a free hour my tendency is to crack open a book and start reading. This isn't, bureaucratically speaking, the best use of my time. There are reports on my desk I probably should be attending to.

Bureaucratically speaking, I dislike just about every aspect of being Department Chair. Except one thing. There is one part of the job that I love.

Every semester I have students who come to see me who have been completely demoralized by the university bureaucracy. Here's the typical case: The student gets an e-mail from a campus office informing her, due to some piece of red tape, that some terrible thing is about to happen to her, financially or academically. Ever been on the receiving end of a letter, phone call or e-mail like this? We all have.

So the student starts bouncing around from office to office, sitting patiently in waiting rooms, explaining the problem over and over again and, after explaining it all, getting passed on to some other part of the distributed university bureaucracy. The can just gets kicked down the road. And the can, in this case, is a human being.

And here's the diabolical thing. No one's at fault. Everyone is being nice. It's just that there are these policies, procedures, and rules.

As time passes the student just gets emotionally beaten down by all this. Moving from office to office it starts to seem to her like she is in a Kafkaesque nightmare, facing a malevolent entity that manifests itself as a coldly indifferent bureaucratic force that loves playing Muzak in the background.

Eventually, the student comes to my office to "see if your Department might help you." The student sits across my desk looking hopeless, desperate, and demoralized all at once. I typically start with the line: "Okay Susan, what can I do to make you happy?"

And Susan tells me the whole Kafka-inspired drama. Starting with the e-mail and then her nightmarish journey through the bureaucracy of the the university. She recounts all this with dead, weary eyes. She expects nothing but more of the same from me. I'm just the next office in a long line of offices.

But there are times I can actually help. I say something like, "Susan, I think if I do X, Y, and Z we can get this resolved. Do you want me to do that?"

Susan looks shocked. Tears well up in her eyes. She can't believe it. I'm actually going to move my bureaucratic pen across this bureaucratic form to remove some bureaucratic obstacle to end this nightmare.

Those are the moments I like being a Department Chair. My role in the bureaucracy allows me to insert some humanity into an impersonal system.

Because I think, by and large, bureaucracies tend toward the demonic as structural forms of power that afflict people. They are impersonal, distributed and malevolent forces that chew people up. I'm sure you can identify. Remember when you had a problem and were run through a bureaucracy that was coldly indifferent to your suffering?

The reason bureaucracies evolve into demonic agents is their distributed nature. No one is in charge so there is no one to blame. The malevolence (or indifference) comes from the whole distributed, anonymous structure. You can't really get mad at the person in front of you. They are just "doing their job." It's not their fault and, in fact, they are really nice and want to help you. But they can't. Policies and procedures being what they are....

So while I generally dislike functioning as a bureaucrat, I embrace the times when I can insert some humanity into the system. A moment of grace. I bet you can identify. Can you recall your feelings when, in the middle of your own bureaucratic nightmare, you encountered a truly competent and compassionate person? Someone who listened to you and then--miracle of miracles!--actually fixed the problem rather than (as bureaucracies tend to do) kicked your problem down the road until, after sheer fatigue, you just gave up and went away?

Seriously, who hasn't been moved to tears of gratitude when they've encountered an act of bureaucratic kindness and humanity? It's a rare and precious gift. And when you get a chance to give that gift it is truly a wonderful thing.

--an unpublished post

The World Is Made Holy Through Thanks

Today, for Thanksgiving, I thought I'd revisit this post about gratitude from a year ago.

Gratitude is an important theme in my book The Slavery of Death. As I argue it, when life is treated as a possession that can be taken from us, damaged or lost our lives become infused with fear causing us to cling, protect, hoard, defend and aggress.

The antidote to this fear is gratitude, viewing life--the whole of life--not as a possession to be defended but as a gift to be shared.

Treating the whole of life as gift has become an important spiritual insight for me. Consequently, I was struck by Peter Leithart's commentary on 1 Timothy 4.4-5 in his book Gratitude.

The text:
1 Timothy 4.4-5
For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.
This seems like a pretty bland and straightforward text. Be thankful. Got it.

But there is an idea at the heart of this text that is very profound if you let the implications sink in. And the idea is this:

Gratitude sanctifies the world. Gratitude makes the world holy.

Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thankfulness, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.

Think about that. Think of everything you possess, everything that is yours in life. How can we live with these things in a way that doesn't entangle us? In a way that isn't sinful?

Receive them as gifts. When we handle the things of the world as gifts they become holy, consecrated and sanctified. Gratitude--thankfulness--marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

Ponder that. Thankfulness marks the boundary between the sacred and the profane.

In the Slavery of Death I argue that gratitude accomplishes this because the object in question--which includes not just possessions but also things like your time, attention, status and your very life--is relocated in the mind by thankfulness, making us able to "lose" and "let go" of the object as we live for and share with others. Thankfulness sanctifies the world because thankfulness creates the capacity to use things--by letting them go or sharing them--in holy ways.

Here is Peter's commentary from Gratitude about this text, linking thankfulness with the priestly use of the world:
[This is the logic behind] Paul's claim that everything is "sanctified" by thanksgiving. Since all things are good and all are to be received with thanks, all things are gifts from the Creator. By giving thanks for all that comes to hand, the Christian correctly identifies the character of created things as created gifts. For Paul, thanksgiving has a performative effect on the things received. Receiving God's gifts with thanks does not merely identify them as gifts but also sanctifies them, consecrates them as holy things. The world is sanctified, made holy, through thanks. To say that created things are "made holy" by thanks is to say that created things, already God's by virtue of creation, become specifically his possession by the prayers of the people. Given Paul's regular identification of believers as "holy ones" the logic seems to be this: Christians are holy ones, indwelt and anointed by the sanctifying Spirit of Jesus, priests to God and to Christ. As such, they ought only to touch, eat and use holy things. If they receive any thing that is is impure, their priesthood will be defiled by it. Purity and holiness "taboos" continue to operate in the New Testament. Holy people must have holy things. But for Paul no elaborate rite of sanctification is required: only the giving of thanks. Once consecrated by thanks, a thing may only be used for God's purposes. Holy food could be only eaten by priests in the Old Testament, holy implements could only be used in the sanctuary, holy incense could be used only on the altar. If Christians consecrate whatever they receive by thanks, they are not only claiming it as God's own but also obligating themselves to use it in a particular way, to use it with thanks. Thanksgiving is thus the liturgy of Christian living. It is the continuous sacrifice that Christians offer. Gratitude to God is the continuous sanctification of the world.

Don't Make a Mess in Your Heart

As regular readers know, Jana and I are a part of a faith community called Freedom Fellowship that shares life on the margins of society.

Jana and I could share hundreds of stories from Freedom. We always say, "One day we should write a book."

But I don't think that book will be written. And I don't share those stories here on the blog. Sharing stories like that can objectify people. Yes, there are stories, but they are our stories, family stories. Stories between friends.

So I'm hesitant to share this story, but it's just too funny and theologically insightful not to share with a broader audience.

Again, a lot of our friends at Freedom deal with cognitive and psychiatric issues, so the conversations we have are often unique, delightful and theologically astute. And a couple of weeks ago Jana was having a conversation with Brother Tom (not his real name), who is one of our older members.

Brother Tom was distraught. Earlier in the week Brother Tom had an issue with incontinence. Prone to oversharing, Brother Tom was wanting to process the embarrassment of that incident with someone and Jana found herself as that person. Hearing about the accident Jana offered consolation telling Brother Tom that there was nothing to be embarrassed about, that sometimes those things happen.

This encouraged Brother Tom and made him feel better. And then Brother Tom offered his own theological assessment.

"Yes, Sister, you are right," said Brother Tom, "this is what I think. It is better to make a mess in your pants than a mess in your heart."

Jana smiled and agreed wholeheartedly.

Dead Man

I saw the blue sky
as I was dying
the last thing I would embrace
with my aching heart
the blue sky and the clouds
having swam out too far, too fast
pridefully, greedily, recklessly
to find myself alone
and in the company of water
where my body knew
in a way my mind
was slow to apprehend
that I could not make it back home
that I would struggle
and sink into the darkness
I knew this
from my weakness
and in the long separating distance
that I had created
I looked up
for a saving breath
and I saw the blue sky
and there I forgot myself and my death
surprised by thankfulness
at the gift
that had been graced to me
here at the end
I leaned back
gazed at heaven
and surrendered
I laid down upon the waters
as a dead man
and lived

Biographical note.

This poem is a metaphor using an incident during High School when I almost drowned.

Some friends were floating on tubes out in the middle of a large lake. I'm a terrible swimmer, but I figured I could swim out to them and grab a hold of one of the tubes. So I jumped in and started swimming the very long distance out to the tubes, giving it everything I had as I figured I wouldn't need any reserves to swim back. A one-way, all out swim out into the middle of a lake to grab a tube.

The distance was much greater than I had judged. And while I was swimming out my friends had paddled off, not noticing I was swimming out to them. I found myself totally exhausted and far away from any help. Too winded to cry out. I stared going under and began to panic.

Gasping for air I threw my head back to keep it out of the water. So far back I felt my body grow lighter in the water. I kept leaning back, looking up and the sun and sky. Inadvertently I found myself doing a Dead Man's float. I kept telling myself, "Keep looking at the sky. Lean back, lean back, keep looking at the sky."

And I clearly remember thinking, looking at that clear blue sky, that it was such a beautiful day to die.

But as I looked at the sky, as I laid down upon the waters as a dead man, I found myself floating.

And I lived.

Owning Your Protestantism: We Follow Our Conscience, Not the Bible

I was recently consulting with a conservative Protestant organization that was wrestling with its policies regarding same-sex marriage. I was asked to be there to help articulate a liberal, progressive perspective to expand and enlarge their conversation.

Not surprisingly, time was spent using the adjective "biblical." As conservative Protestants the group kept coming back to the aspiration to seek the "biblical" view. Their desire was to follow the Bible.

This is a very common desire among conservative Protestants, but it misses something important, something that Protestants need to be honest about.

Here's the situation, I told the group, you have to own the fact that you are Protestants (as am I). Which means that you are never going to land on an uncontested "biblical view." Protestants have never agreed on what the Bible says. Just look at all the Protestant churches. Underneath the conversation about the "biblical view" what you are searching for is a hermeneutical consensus, the degree to which your community can tolerate certain hermeneutical choices.

Stretch the hermeneutical fibers too thin and the consensus snaps. People can't make the leap. The view is deemed "unbiblical." But if you keep the changes within the hermeneutical tolerances of the community the consensus holds and the view is deemed "biblical."

But let's be honest, I said, what we are discerning here is more sociological than Biblical. We are assessing the hermeneutical tolerances and capacities of a faith community because at the end of the day it's consensus you are after.

And the reason for this, I continued, is because we are Protestants. The ultimate authority in Protestantism isn't the Bible, it's the individual conscience.

Protestantism was created when Martin Luther was asked to recant his teachings at the Diet of Worms, asked to submit to the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church. There Luther famously declared: "To go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand I can do no other."

That's Protestantism. The elevation of the individual's conscience over the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church.

To be sure the Bible is a part of all this, but at the end of the day what holds a Protestant community together is conscience, hermeneutical agreement. When conscience is violated by a hermeneutical choice Protestants schism. Yes, the Bible is in the mix but unity and schism is fundamentally about conscience and hermeneutics.

Which brings me back to the point I was making to the group I was consulting with. Own your Protestantism, I said. While the desire to be "biblical" is laudable and important what you are actually doing here is discerning if you can hold together a hermeneutical consensus to prevent a schism if you make changes. Your work here is as sociological as it is exegetical.

What is actually going on in a group on the cusp of a change during a "season of discernment" when they set out to "study an issue," which might involve inviting people like me into the discussion, is the cultivation of hermeneutical capacities and the assessment of hermeneutical tolerances. If the capacities and tolerances are there for the change you change. If not, you go back to working on capacities and tolerances. That, or you stay the course and don't change.

This is not to suggest that the Bible isn't speaking into the faith community during the process. Just that when it finally comes down to determining what the Bible says or doesn't say that will be determined by the individual consciences of the members and that leaders, generally, will go with the consensus. That, or the leaders will, because of their own consciences, make a hermeneutical move to test the tolerances and risk the possibility of schism.

To be sure, creating and maintaining a hermeneutical consensus during changing times is hard relational work. But that relational work is the price you pay for being a Protestant. Perhaps that's even the genius of the tradition, the hard relational work of binding and loosing (Matt 18.18). For there is no magisterium for you to fall back on. What you have, instead, are the individual consciences of every person within your faith community. Protestantism is a hermeneutical democracy. Each person with a vote about what they think is "biblical" or not.

Because to go against conscience is neither right or safe. We're Protestants after all.

Here we stand. We can do no other.

Unpublished: Beautiful Things

Here are some things people spend time on to make beautiful:

Their bodies (e.g., working out, dieting, tanning).

Their clothing or appearance (e.g., fashion, hair, cosmetics, jewelry).

Their gardens or yard.

Their homes.

The food and meals they cook.

The things they make, create, or construct (e.g., arts, music, hobbies, and craftsmanship from carpentry to knitting).

Their website or blog.

Their singing or musicianship.

Their cars or vehicles.

Events they create or host.

In activities they must perform or execute for work or pleasure.

In speeches, talks or sermons they give.

In things they write.

In short, if you think about it, just about everyone is involved in cultivating beauty of one form or another. If you asked me what I try to make beautiful I'd say to cultivate beautiful ideas. I cultivate ideas, mainly through reading. It's sort of like intellectual gardening.

Jana, my wife, cultivates relationships. As a farmer fertilizes and waters a field Jana nourishes and cultivates her friendships. She calls people, visits with them, checks in on people if they haven't talked in awhile. Where I notice mental dryness and aridity, she notices the social and relational dryness and does what she can to bring rain back into the relationship. Her friendships are like a beautiful English garden.

And I think one can create a beautiful spiritual life as well. I think of someone like Saint Francis in this regard. A saint whose communion with God can simply be described as beautiful.

And, finally, we can act in beautiful ways. We can live a beautiful life cultivated by doing small, beautiful things over and over. Like the woman who anoints Jesus' feet.

"She has done," Jesus says, "a beautiful thing."

--a part of an unpublished post


As I wrote a few weeks ago, our little faith community, Freedom Fellowship, lost Sister Beth, a dear and valued member of our family.

This week I was sitting with Robert and Judy at our dinner before the worship service. As I've shared before, Judy is a simple soul, often confused and overwhelmed by life.

Like many of us, Judy is still shaken by Beth's passing.

"I don't want to keep talking about her, " said Judy, "but I miss Beth."

"It's okay, Judy." I said. "It's good for you to talk about Beth. Talk about Beth all you want."

"I'm just sad Beth is gone," said Judy.

"I know, we are all sad. It's called grief. Do you know what grief is?"

"I don't think so."

"Grief is that sad feeling you get when someone you love has passed away."

Judy was quiet for a long moment. And then she looked up.

"Can you die from grief?" she asked softly.

Judy's eyes were anxious, she was legitimately worried she'd die from her sadness.

"No, Judy, you won't die from the grief. But it hurts."

"Yes," said Judy, "it does hurt."

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 7, "I Am Jesus, the One You Are Persecuting."

This will be the last post honoring the work of the late René Girard by working through Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice.

In the last post I quoted Heim's conclusion that "the world has changed in the wake of the gospel: victims have become visible" and that Jesus, via his cross, unmasked sacrificial violence "to found human community on a nonsacrificial principle: solidarity with the victim."

It might be argued that this reading of the cross, although interesting, is not historically correct. Did the early Christians really understand the death of Jesus in this manner? That is, do you have to become a student of Girard, a modern French/American thinker, to read the text in this way?

Let's look at these questions by examining the book of Acts, the closest account we have of the formation of the Christian community.

The pivotal story in the Acts of the Apostles is the conversion of Saul. When we first encounter Saul he is there at another scapegoating death: The martyrdom of Stephen. We see Saul holding the coats of those who stoned Stephen. In the words of scripture: "And Saul was there, giving approval to Stephen's death."

Soon after, we find Saul pursuing and persecuting Christians: "Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison."

There it is again. The scapegoating mechanism. Violence justified by religion. Nothing much seems changed after the death of Jesus.

And then Saul travels to Damascus.

We know the story well. Saul is knocked off his mount by a bright light and is addressed by a heavenly figure. The mysterious figure calls out:
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.

"I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting."
It is an amazing sequence. Who is Jesus?

Jesus is the one you are persecuting.

That realization is how we are converted, how we are saved. In the paradigmatic conversion of the early Christian church Jesus saves Saul by identifying with the victim. Following Jesus, Saul repents and stands with the victim. Saul joins the group he had been scapegoating.

Heim summarizes:
Paul meets Jesus, and the means by which Jesus is revealed to him are through Jesus' identity with the persecuted victim. This is the answer as to who Jesus is. The divine voice raises only one issue with Paul: violence. Paul will go on to confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and his own letters will develop many dimensions of theology. But the simple, original substance of Saul's conversion is his change from orchestrating violent animosity against a minority to joining in community with those who were his victims. This is hardly a minor point. For Paul, to accept Jesus is to be converted from scapegoating persecution to identify with those against whom he had practiced it...This pivot point is so important to the writer of Acts that it appears three times, once as a narrative and twice as part of Paul's testimony offered when he himself is on trial for his life...On all three occasions the divine words to Paul, 'I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,' are centerpiece. (p. 139)
Thus Heim concludes:
It is hard to see how this whole presentation makes sense unless the writer of Acts sees the scapegoating dynamic we have been discussing as a crucial object of Christ's work. (p. 140)
Recall Job. He was afflicted by God and called it unjust. He called out to God, asking for an advocate in Heaven. A Voice to plead his case. God, in the end, says many things to Job. Confusing things. But one of the things God says is that Job had spoken truly. Victims do need a voice. And in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, Job's prayer is answered. In Jesus the scapegoat was given a voice. And it was God's. "I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting." The advocate in Heaven is also victim. The Advocate is also scapegoat, the last scapegoat, the Victim that cannot be silenced so that there will be no more victims.

This is an amazing journey. "From the foundation of the world" scapegoats were afflicted by the gods. They were the objects of marginalization and sacrificial violence. This is how the Bible begins. But by the end an amazing transformation has occurred. In the final book of the Bible the scapegoat makes a final appearance:
Revelation 5:1-6
Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, "Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?" But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, "Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals."

Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain...
The scapegoat has been deified. The voice of the scapegoat is now the voice of God. And that voice speaks against all violence. The final words of Heim's book are these:
The God who paid the cost of the cross was not the one who charged it. We are saved from sacrifice because God suffered it. To be reconciled with God is to recognize victims when we see them, to convert the crowd that gathers around them, and to be reconciled with each other without them.
And thank you, René Girard.

May you rest in peace.

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 6, "Surely This Man Was Innocent."

In this post we now explicitly approach the crucifixion of Jesus reviewing the work of the late René Girard and Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice.

Chapter 4 of Saved from Sacrifice is the climax of Heim's book, the point where he applies a Girardian reading to the crucifixion of Jesus. Heim starts the chapter with these words:
Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem. He teaches his disciples that the Messiah must be delivered over and die. He goes 'as it is written' in prophecy. Despite his own reluctance, he does nothing to avoid the end--'not my will, but will be done,' he says. He is supposed to die. Yet the Gospels are equally emphatic that Jesus is innocent, falsely accused, that killing is unjust, that it is shameful for his friends to abandon him, that those who try and execute him are indifferent to truth, captive to evil, motivated by expediency and power. It is wrong for him to die.

Which is it?...

...In short, Jesus' death saves the world, and it ought not to happen. It's God's plan and an evil act. It is a good bad thing.

If the story is so familiar that we don't see this problem, we have lost the key. Until we have this problem, nothing else is going to make sense. The paradox is not there by mistake. The strange shape of the Christian gospel has a family resemblance to the other good bad thing we have discussed: sacrifice. This is the clue we need. It is at the heart of an understanding of the cross. (pp. 107,108)
Following Girard Heim points out that the cross is a paradox and the paradox is the key to a correct understanding of the death of Jesus. Heim states that we need to see the cross stereoscopically, two perspectives on the same story. It is this stereoscopic perspective that creates the paradox and, unfortunately, causes so much confusion about the death of Jesus.

Specifically, in the passion narrative there is the classic mythic story of the scapegoat, the story of a sacrifice to please God and bring communal peace. This is the story as it is experienced by those who are immersed in the events--the disciples, the crowd, Pilate, Herod, the Sanhedrin. Thus one story contains the actions, words and plot of a sacred sacrifice to appease God. These themes are undoubtedly present, but we must be careful not to read these dramatic movements as the main plotline.

Why not?

Because a second story is being overlaid the mythic scapegoat story. As readers we get access to the backstage of the drama. We get to see all the props, the makeup room, and the nervous pacing of the actors before they go out onstage. The gospel authors lift the veil of mystery for us. The scapegoating sacrifice, what is believed to be the product and demand of the gods, is now revealed in the gospel narratives for what it really is: The killing of an innocent man by self-interested parties who wish to retain their power and the status quo.

Schematically and dramatically, we have two stories being presented simultaneously in the gospels:
The Onstage Story = The Divinely Mandated Scapegoat Sacrifice
The Backstage Story = The Murder of an Innocent Man
As Girard has argued, this stereoscopic story, where both the onstage and backstage stories are simultaneously presented, is unique in history. Prior to the gospels only the Onstage Story had ever been told. The Old Testament, we have seen, suspected there was a Backstage Story, but it never did get that backstage pass to find out. But here in the gospels everything finally gets exposed. In the death of Jesus the final revelation occurs: Scapegoating must end, forever, because it is simply a ruse and strategy to accomplish our self-interested goals. In the cross there is one final scapegoat: Scapegoating. As Heim says, the "sacrifice" of Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Violence must cease because we just might be killing God.

To put the matter crudely: After the crucifixion of Jesus you just can't kill anyone with confidence anymore. You have to deeply question your motives for violence, to consider the possibility that the person you have so righteously nailed to the cross just might be God Incarnate.

Heim summarizes:
So all the pieces are in place. It is the standard pattern. But the enormous difference is that the pieces are visibly in place. Successful sacrifice is like a magic trick. What actually happens and what everyone believes is happening are two different things. The passion narratives break the spell. They describe the trick with all its moving parts. They highlight what is always in shadow: the innocence of the scapegoat, the arbitrary and unjust way the victim has been selected, the ulterior purposes sacrifice exists to serve. This reversal can be described very simply. In traditional sacrifice the community is unquestionable in the right and the scapegoat is universally condemned. But when we think of the cast of characters in the passion--Judas, Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, the crowd--what do they conjure in our minds? What reputations do they carry for their part in this event...? They stand for cowardly, immoral complicity...The sacrificial model may be a war of all against one. But this telling condemns the many, not the one.

The Gospel accounts are written in stereo, we might say. On the one side is the underlying pattern with all its mythic components in place. On the other side is a constant counterpoint of elements that reveal the hidden realities, the true structure of scapegoating,,,In the Gospel of Luke, at the moment of Jesus' death the centurion at the cross exclaims, 'Surely this man was innocent.' This is not the voice of myth. It is a profound counterconfession, a voice of dissent... (p. 116)
What then was accomplished by this unmasking of the scapegoating mechanism? Heim explains:
The scapegoating process is stripped of its sacred mystery, and the collective persecution and abandonment are painfully illustrated for what they are, so that no one, including the disciples, the proto-Christians, can honestly say afterward that they resisted the sacrificial tide. In myth no victims are visible as victims, and therefore neither are any persecutors. But in the New Testament the victim is unmistakably visible and the collective persecutors (including in the end virtually everyone) and their procedures are illustrated in sharp clarity.

...The free, loving 'necessity' that lead God to be willing to stand in the place of the scapegoat is that this is the way to unmask the sacrificial mechanism, to break its cycles of mythic reproduction, and to found human community on a nonsacrificial principle: solidarity with the victim, not unanimity against the victim. (p. 114)
This was the amazing work of God in the cross. After the cross victims became visible. This was God's amazing, heroic, and miraculous achievement in the cross. Heim sums us up (p. 261)
With the benefit of the long view of history, we can see at least one empirical way that the world has changed in the wake of the gospel: victims have become visible. No faith is required to recognize this. It is a massive change that we can miss only because it is so encompassing and because we have come to take if for granted...Why is it that Marxism and feminism and the global antislavery movement are themselves products of cultures shaped by the biblical tradition? We regularly condemn our societies for failure to do more for the poor or disadvantaged, in our own nations or around the world. And we tend to frame this not in terms of positive works of charity deferred but in terms of justice denied. Where does this concern for victims--even the recognition that they should be seen as victims--come from?
Answer: The cross.

Praise be to God.

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 5, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World

Having moved through the Old Testament we start a consideration of the New Testament with four key passages that guide Girard's reading of scripture:
Matthew 23:34-36
Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.

Luke 11:50-51
Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

John 8:43-44
Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.

Matthew 13:35
So was fulfilled what was spoken through the prophet:
"I will open my mouth in parables,
I will utter things hidden since the foundation of the world."
The first three of these passages are parallel gospel accounts of Jesus' confrontation with the Pharisees prior to his crucifixion. Girard considers these passages pivotal for understanding the crucifixion of Jesus as Jesus uses this confrontation to frame and set up the event of his death, a staged event, orchestrated by Jesus to illustrate something.

What is that something? Let's look.

Recall that ancient sacrificial religion solved a real problem: Communal violence. But to effect this solution sacrificial religion was built upon a lie, an obfuscation. Specifically, the murder of an innocent person had to be hidden from the eyes of the community. An arbitrary lynching wouldn't unite the people. But a sacrifice demanded and justified by the gods would work. The skittish community could then vent its violence and stand united against the scapegoat. In short, ancient civilization/religion was built upon both a murder and a lie about the murder. Simplifying greatly:
An Unholy Peace = Murder + Lie
Note that the murder does create a peace. But it is an unholy peace. A peace that requires sin to obtain. But this fact, due to the lie, was not laid bare before the community. Rather, the experience of the community would be this:
A Holy Peace = Sacrifice + Religious Myth
That is, the community thinks the peace they experience is holy and good. Why? Because the mythology of religion hides the murder and presents us with something else: A sacrifice.

Combining the two, the Experience and the Mechanism/Reality, the situation the Old Testament and Jesus both faced was this:
The Experience of Religion:
A Holy Peace = Sacrifice + Religious Myth

The Obscured Mechanism/Reality of Religion:

An Unholy Peace = Murder + Lie
What we have observed over the last few posts is that the obscured mechanism of sacrifice (that a sacrifice was really just a murder) was being unmasked in the Old Testament. As we move through the Old Testament we see a growing ambivalence about sacrifice. Why? Because the object of sacrifice--the scapegoat--is increasing suspected to be innocent. The Old Testament does not complete this journey but as it closes we have this development:
The Experience of Religion:
A Holy Peace? = Sacrifice? + Religious Myth?
By the end of the Old Testament questions have been raised about all this. Is the peace created by sacrifice holy and good? Is the sacrifice just? Is the scapegoat really guilty? Is the religious justification of sacrifice telling us the truth? This is the situation as we enter the gospels.

Thus Jesus is poised to do the final unmasking. Jesus will reveal to humanity the "things that have been hidden from the foundation of the world."

What things? Let us now revisit the gospel passages above. Jesus states that from the beginning righteous blood has been shed. Murders, many murders, have occurred since the beginning of the world. To highlight this Jesus mentions two people, Abel, the first person murdered in the Old Testament, and Zechariah, the last person murdered in the Old Testament. These two represent all the "innocent blood shed on earth," blood shed explicitly in the name of religion, in the name of God.

Clearly, the Pharisees didn't kill all these people. But they, for Jesus, represent who, or what, is responsible: Religion. As Girard has shown us, from the "foundation of the world" human society was built on a foundation of sacrificial violence. And the Pharisees, in Jesus' world, represent that mechanism. So, to save the world from continuing this violence, Jesus has to complete the work begun in the Old Testament. He has to unmask the mechanism of sacrificial violence, to reveal what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.

Interestingly and revealingly, Satan gets pulled into this conversation. Jesus says two things about Satan.

First, Satan was "a murderer from the beginning." And second, Satan is "the father of lies." Note that the "murder" and the "lie" are related in Jesus' description. But think about that. Who did Satan ever murder? The bible never says Satan killed anyone. No, what is going on here is that Satan is implicated in all these murders. Satan was there with the murder of Abel "at the beginning" and there with Zechariah. And all the while Satan covers up the murder with lies, obscuring the death of an innocent person with the magic, myth, and ritual of pagan sacrifice and religious scapegoating.

The description of Satan as the "Father of Lies" isn't about us and our workaday temptations with truth-telling. No, Jesus is speaking of a systematic lie, the Deep Lie at the Root of Civilization as Jesus knew it. And what was that Deep Lie? Simply this: The scapegoat is guilty, responsible for the evils now facing us. So the gods demand that we sacrifice the scapegoat. If we do so, the gods will be pleased and all will go well with us.

Jesus came to save us. As Christians we believe this. We were saved from our Sin and from Satan. Our Sin was the violence that supported our lives. We killed, from the foundation of the world, to survive and thrive. Further, Satan, the Father of Lies, hid this truth from us. Jesus pointed all this out right before his crucifixion. He was poised, finally, to expose all those "things hidden from the foundation of the world." And when these things were revealed we saw, for the first time, the blood on our hands the lie that hid the blood from our eyes.

And with this revelation comes the possibility of our salvation.

Unpublished: Work Hard

Over the weekend my post from 2009 The Bait and Switch of Contemporary Christianity got a third wind on the Internet attracting more readers and commenters.

Overall, most of the comments continue to be positive. People seemed to get what I was trying to say. The post is over-the-top but I added in disclaimers at multiple locations. Some people saw those disclaimers and understood. Others missed them.

Looking over all the old and new comments the main objection seems to be that I was advocating "works based righteousness" in my post. The objection was that my call to work on being a better person in the post was negating the grace of God and privileging human effort.

I try to be patient with these sorts comments but I have to be honest with you, I struggle mightily with holding my tongue. Just now I deleted four sentences I wrote that would have be inappropriate for sensitive readers.

Here's the deal. I'm not afraid of works based righteousness. That's just not a bogeyman in my theological closet. In fact, I grew up in a tradition that actually believed in works based righteousness. We believed you could fall from grace if you didn't keep the effort up. And though I've nuanced my Church of Christ heritage--believing that love rather than, say, acapella music is what God demands of me--what I hold to from my upbringing is a strong belief in moral performance.

The point being, I try to pay attention to how I treat people.

Basically, this whole worry over works based righteousness is fixing two problems I don't have.

First, I don't have a guilt problem. Lots of people reject works based righteousness because it makes them feel guilty and afraid when they make mistakes. That's not me. I'm not motivated by fear or guilt. What I believe in, when it comes to following Jesus, is hard work.

Second, I don't have a pride problem. Well, I do have a pride problem, it's just not a pride problem with works based righteousness. All this hand-wringing about works is that we'll convince ourselves that by doing good works we'll come to think that we deserve our salvation, or that our works could help us earn our salvation.

But hey, guess what? I don't have that problem. I believe in working hard for Jesus but I've never come close to flirting with the illusion that I could "earn" or "deserve" my salvation. Every day I take a hard look in the proverbial mirror. I'm fully aware that I'm not a very good person. I'm keenly aware that I need the grace and mercy of God.

I believe in hard work because I love Jesus, people and the communion of saints. Passionately. But I'm under no illusions that I'm somehow "saved" by this work. If God wants to save me I'm sure God can do that. I'll leave the saving business up to God. I spend zero percent of my time worrying about my salvation.

You can't scare me with hell or bribe me with heaven. I'm too busy working on other stuff.

I'm sure somewhere out there someone cares about the whole grace vs. works debate. I don't. I just believe in two simple things.

I believe that following Jesus is hard work and that Christians, when it comes to following Jesus, should have a good work ethic.

I trust that God will take care of the rest.

--from an unpublished post

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 4, The Whispers of Victims

In the last post we discussed René Girard's argument that the Old Testament functions as an antimyth, a religious story that is decidedly not cut from the mold of religious mythology. The Old Testament is filled with bodies and blood. It is clearly not covering up the violence, even God-mandated violence. This honesty allows Israel to reflect consciously on its religious story. And as these reflections developed over time they set the stage for understandings about what happened on the cross.

The overt bloodshed of the Old Testament makes the victims of violence visible. There is no Mythic Cover Up. And as these victims are exposed Israel begins to notice that many, if not most, of these victims were innocent. Overall, this is the great moral achievement of the Old Testament. As we journey with the Old Testament the innocent victims begin to find their voice. A voice that ultimately gets aligned with Jesus on Calvary.

Let's follow this trajectory--listening with Israel to the whispers of the victims--in a survey of the Old Testament.

Although scapegoating and sacrifice are firmly a part of the Old Testament, the witness regarding both becomes increasingly ambivalent as the story unfolds. For example, consider the stories of Abel, Joseph, and the sacrifice of Isaac. In each of these stories we see the scapegoated party as innocent. This seems clear to us now. But in the milieu to which the Old Testament spoke this moral development was extraordinary.

Victims also begin to find their voice in the Psalms. There are psalms that have this common theme: The speaker/singer is alone, oppressed and blamed by all, and the crowd is crying for their blood. This is the perspective of the scapegoat, the victimized. The voice of the One hounded by the Many. Consquently, these are called "scapegoat psalms." Heim cites Psalm 140 as an example:
Psalm 140
Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men;
protect me from men of violence,
who devise evil plans in their hearts
and stir up war every day.
They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent's;
the poison of vipers is on their lips.
Keep me, O LORD, from the hands of the wicked;
protect me from men of violence
who plan to trip my feet.
Proud men have hidden a snare for me;
they have spread out the cords of their net
and have set traps for me along my path.
O LORD, I say to you, "You are my God."
Hear, O LORD, my cry for mercy.
O Sovereign LORD, my strong deliverer,
who shields my head in the day of battle-
do not grant the wicked their desires, O LORD;
do not let their plans succeed,
or they will become proud.
Let the heads of those who surround me
be covered with the trouble their lips have caused.
Let burning coals fall upon them;
may they be thrown into the fire,
into miry pits, never to rise.
Let slanderers not be established in the land;
may disaster hunt down men of violence.
I know that the LORD secures justice for the poor
and upholds the cause of the needy.
Surely the righteous will praise your name
and the upright will live before you.
In Psalm 140 we begin to hear the whispers of victims, present and past. We get the clear sense that the communal indictment again the "poor" and "needy," the group most often scapegoated, is unjust and wrong. The Psalmist asks that God align with the Scapegoat over against the Crowd. God's interests here are being disentangled from the interests of the powerful and being associated with the victim. Thus, it is no coincidence that when Jesus cries out from the cross he uses the words of Psalm 22. Psalm 22 is a scapegoating psalm.

We also see in the prophets a growing ambivalence with blood sacrifice. God rejects the blood sacrifices at the temple in favor of justice for the weak and marginalized:
Amos 5: 21-24
"I hate, I despise your religious feasts;
I cannot stand your assemblies.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!"
Again, what we are seeing here is a growing ambivalence about sacrifice. And this rejection of sacrifice is coupled with God's growing preoccupation and identification with the marginalized:
Hosea 6:6
For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.
Again, to us, this all makes perfect sense. But it was a radical break-through for a world steeped in blood sacrifice to the gods, and Yahweh himself

Further, Heim considers Job to be a pivotal reflection on the innocence of those "afflicted by God." In Job everyone considers his afflictions to be just and righteous. Job, of course, disagrees and maintains his innocence throughout the book. He accuses God of treating him unfairly. And he calls out for a trial, a place where he can argue for his innocence.

In these details Job is an incredible book. Just to point out some of the details Heim focuses on, note that Job asks for a trial. This request is noteworthy. Scapegoats, those afflicted by God, are simply assumed to be guilty. This is what Job's friends and his wife assume. But the book of Job questions that assumption and undermines the consensus of the group. We, as readers, know Job is innocent. And that is the destabilizing genius of the book: We see behind the veil. Now it is true, because we can see behind the veil, that we are disturbed by God's game with Satan. But this would be to miss the point. The point is that 90% of the book is about the unanimous consensus of the group that Job is rightly afflicted by God and that Job, as scapegoat, refuses to agree with this assessment. Then, amazingly, in the end God agrees with Job's assessment. Heim summarizes:
God's speech to Job does not directly address the substance of his complaint. It neither accepts or rejects it. But alongside this poetic speech, God has a very concise and unequivocal comment to Job's friends: 'My wrath is kindled against you...; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has' (42:7 RSV)...One of the most striking of these tensions is that after so much space has been given to the speeches of the friends, who have defended God at every turn and justified the violence against Job as divinely mandated, we find this flat conclusion that they have not spoken the truth. Job, who has called God his persecutor and denounced God's injustice and indifference, has spoken what is right. There is hardly a more amazing line in the Bible...Job's address to God put this in inescapable terms: Are you on their side or mine? In this struggle over the identity of God, God finally sides with Job... (pp. 90-91, 92)
Finally, the pinnacle of this re-envisioning of the scapegoat and the crime of sacrifice is found in the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Here we see a human being standing in as the Day of Atonement scapegoat and the key reframing, consistent with the Levitical ritual, is how the suffering servant is bearing the sins of the community. The community rather than the scapegoat is guilty. That reverses the sacrificial logic where before the victim was deemed to be wicked and evil and deserving of death. In the Fourth Servant Song an innocent one dies for the sins of the guilty.

And yet, like in Job, the Servant Song is ambivalent. In both accounts the victim--Job and the Servant--are innocent. Their affliction is unjust. And God, in the end, sides and stands with each. But in both stories God also seems implicated in the affliction. Heim compares Job and the Servant Song:
The servant song tells a story like that of Job, from a different perspective. This time there is no doubt about the scapegoat's innocence, no doubt about the evil of the suffering afflicted, no doubt about whose side God is on. The focus has shifted. Now it rests on the sins of the persecutors. Us. Job poses a question: How can God be justified in face of the arbitrary suffering of a righteous person ganged against by everyone, including God? The servant poses a different question. Assuming that God decides to side with the scapegoat, how can those who do the violence ever be justified? If the first was about how the one can be rescued, the second is about how the many can be saved. (p. 101)
In the end, Girard and Heim conclude that the Old Testament does not definitively answer these questions. But the Old Testament has taken us on an amazing moral journey. It begins with a bloody sacrificial God but ends with us being deeply disturbed about sacrifice. We are also very uncomfortable believing the scapegoat is guilty. After both Job and the Servant Song whenever we see someone unanimously acclaimed as being "afflicted by God" we now wonder if the Crowd got it right. Maybe God is actually on the side of the victim.

By giving the victim a voice the Old Testament has completely reworked the sacrificial psychology of the ancient world. True, the Old Testament has not completely extricated God from sacrificial violence, but it has taken us a long way toward that goal.

The final revelation about scapegoating and sacrifice will be found with the cross of Jesus.

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 3, The Bloody Antimyth

Summarizing from the last post, René Girard argues that civilization is built atop a scapegoating mechanism and that this harmonizing and cathartic murder is obscured by religious myth which sanctions our violence. The murder is reframed as divine sacrifice.

Thus, our sin is both the blood on our hands and the blood shed to support our civilizations. Humanity truly has a multitude of skeletons in its collective closet.

And again, more than blood our sin is also implicated in the silencing of the victim. This, according to Girard, is the Mythic Cover Up, our collective hiding the evidence. Throughout human history the sacrificed--those marginalized and powerless persons--have had no voice. The One killed for the Many has been lost to history. Many times over. Our lies--religious myth--silence the blood crying out from the ground.

But the blood begins to cry out in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is bloody and scandalous to modern sensibilities. To intelligent critics of Christianity how could we in good conscience claim those blood-filled, violent texts as a part of our guide for moral life and practice?

To this question Girard has a startling response: Your scandal at the Old Testament is Exhibit A that you are a child of these texts. For without the Old Testament your scandal--the very moral code you use to indict the Old Testament--would not exist.

How does Girard make such a claim?

Recall, ancient myth obfuscated the scapegoating mechanism. Ancient myths hid the blood and the murder. Ancient myth denied the victim its voice. This was the milieu to which the Old Testament spoke. But Girard notes something curious about the Old Testament: the Old Testament doesn't read like any religious myth before or since.

Some might try to equate the two--pagan myth and the Old Testament--but a student of myth quickly sees the difference. The Old Testament claims to read as history, with real people, with real failings, in real locations. The stage of the Old Testament is humble and workaday. There are no frolicking gods, no mythic serpents, no grand quests into the heavens or underworld. No, the Old Testament is earthy, sweaty, and, offensively, bloody.

And the blood in the Old Testament is a key to its proper reading. The Old Testament is not attempting to hide the blood. The blood is right there, out in front of the story. Thus, we quickly know that this story is different. It is not in the mythic mold of obfuscation and coverup. Rather, the Old Testament is making a claim on reality. It is not a myth. It is an antimyth. Heim helps us see this:
What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. There is no way to be truthful without exhibiting these things. If we complain that the tales of Genesis and the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, and the fire for revenge in the Psalms, are too sordidly, familiarly human to have any place in religious revelation, we make an interesting admission that they reveal our humanity all too well. We always knew this was the way things were, we claim. We don't need a religious text to tell us so. We need cures, not diagnoses. But is that true? What if our cures need diagnosing?

...A simple way to put it would be to say that our reconciling violence is not evident to us, but always goes under another name: Revenge, purification, divine sacrifice. If that is a basic fact of human life, then where violence is not being faced it is being justified. Where it is not being explicitly described, it is not absent, but invisible. To exhibit violence is to run the risk of enflaming people's appetite for it. But to veil it under euphemism and mythology, to be piously silent before its sacred power, it is to make its rule absolute. (pp. 101, 102)
But the Old Testament has the courage to tell the truth, to expose the blood. And the irony here is that for refusing to go along with the pagan mythic coverup the Old Testament gets criticized by modern readers. Heim continues:
Critics of Christianity attack the 'violent God of the Old Testament' as the sociopathic cousin in an extended family of much better adjusted deities. But the offense of the Bible might be put the other way around. It suggests that the better adjusted deities are (literally) a myth. (p. 102)
The point for both Girard and Heim is that if the bible wants to extract God from the mythology of violence it has to start at the beginning, with a bloody God. You can't make moral progress until that fact is owned and recognized: God has been used (and is still used!) as a coverup for violence. The Old Testament has the courage to both recognize that fact and start us on a moral journey. For the God of Leviticus is different from the God of the prophets. And that suggests that something deep and profound is being worked out in the Old Testament. God is slowly being disentangled from the bloodshed. Heim continues:
The God described in the Bible appears in a variety of characterizations. The God represented in the passage about collective stoning in Leviticus looks different from the God presented in Amos or Isaiah, for instance. Such diversity is a cue for valuable critical-historical investigation. (p. 102)
Yes, from our Christian vantage, we look back on the moral journey begun in the Old Testament and find its documentation embarrassing. But without that journey and its documentation--full of bloody and brutal truth-telling--we don't get to those noble sensibilities we so pridefully use to indict the Old Testament.

In the end, the Old Testament, steeped in blood, seeks to tell the truth:
The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims...This is not mere background material. It unveils a truth without which Christians would be incapable of formulating their own faith... (p. 103)
But more is going on in the Old Testament than its refusal to hide the bloodshed.

As we'll discuss in the next post, it's in the Old Testament where the scapegoat begins to find a voice.

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 2, Sacred Violence, Scapegoats, and Myth

Before turning to the bloody, sacrificial Old Testament texts it will be necessary to understand the setting to which those texts spoke. It was a time of sacred violence, scapegoats, and myth. This post will abstract the argument of Rene Girard's book Violence and the Sacred which is surveyed in Chapter Two from Mark Heim's Saved from Sacrifice.

As argued by Girard, human culture is built atop our imitative abilities, our ability to serve as and learn from social models. Culture is contagious, with information, behavioral norms, and innovations propagating quickly through a population. This capability greatly enhanced our ability to cope with changing environs and circumstance.

But this adaptive flexibility came with a price. Just as the good things in life can propagate through a group so can the bad things. Rumors, gossip, stigma, and hate are also radically contagious. Like a wildfire, groups can quickly be aroused to paranoia, hysteria, panic and, ultimately, violence. In short, the imitative engine that makes social life possible also makes it volatile and unstable.

This instability and proneness to violence typically manifests itself when the group is placed under stress (e.g., famine, epidemic). During these times of fear, people grow more anxious, fearful, distrustful, and paranoid. And this fear, via the contagion of culture, propagates until the entire group is facing massive outbreaks of violence. At this juncture, Girard argues, one of two things will occur.

If the group doesn't find a way to vet its paranoia and aggression violence will break out and, given the imitative nature of human culture, the violence will escalate in reciprocal bouts of revenge killing. Eventually, due to the unchecked violence, the society will disintegrate and be lost to history. We have no knowledge of the many fledgling societies that chose this route. Simply, they did not survive.

At the height of communal violence other cultures took the other route. A tragic but effective route. For some reason, different in different times and places, the ire of the group fell upon a certain person or subgroup. This person, typically a marginal person, a person of no account and with no voice, is blamed for the crisis. At first only a few make this attribution. But like gossip and rumor, this blame also propagates. Eventually, the community reaches the unanimous conclusion: "This person is to blame! They have displeased the gods! They must be punished for bringing this crisis upon us!" And in this moment the solidarity of the group, miraculously, reappears. Once fractured individuals now stand together against the scapegoat. The violence of the group is brought to bear upon the One to save the Many. And the sacrifice occurs. And in the wake of the sacrifice the blood lust of the group, now unified, is sated. Peace returns.

This this the theory of primitive religion offered by Girard in Violence and the Sacred. Girard contends that scapegoating sacrifice emerged in human history as the solution to a very real problem, the management of communal violence. Human societies are like dry kindling ready, at a moment's notice, to burst into flames of violence. Sacrifice was the cultural innovation that aided humans in managing this violence. Further, the scapegoat united the once divided group. After the sacrifice of the scapegoat, a violent mob is both pacified and united. This communal catharsis appeared "magical" and, thus, became associated with supernatural power and significance. Over time the scapegoat and the sacrifice became incorporated into the mythic structures of the group's metaphysical worldview. The sacrifice becomes necessary, eternal, and sanctioned by the gods. Heim summarizes Girard's insights:
The sad good in this bad thing is that it actually works. In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all. The sacrifice of one person as a scapegoat discharges the pending acts of retribution between members of the group. It 'clears the air.' The contagion of reciprocal violence is suspended, a circuit breaker has been thrown. The collective violence is reconciling because it reestablishes peace. This benefit seems a startling, even magical result, an outcome much greater than could be expected from a simple mob execution...The one mobbed as the most reprehensible criminal now is revered as the bringer of peace, one with a divine vocation to die and restore order for the people. So the victim becomes a god, memorialized in myth, and the killing becomes a feature of a foreordained plan, a pattern and a model. In the face of future threats, similar response will be required. Rituals of sacrifice originated in this way, tools to fend off social crisis. And in varied forms they are with us still. (pp. 43-44)
But Girard goes on to note that this "solution" to communal violence--a simple murder--must be, to remain effective, "hidden." Heim continues:
In other words, in perfectly good faith both the nature of the crisis and the kind of behavior responsible for it are described in mistaken terms. This misunderstanding serves to increase the effectiveness of the sacrificial process. It works more smoothly when we 'know not what we do.' If it were obvious to all that sacrifice was a ploy in the ordinary round of rivalry and violence, a bone thrown to satisfy everyone's lust for revenge, it would be much less effective...Without a canopy of sacred awe and the conviction of unspeakable crimes, suspicions might arise about whether the victim was chosen arbitrarily, about the interests of those who picked the victim. (p. 51)
Religious myth, therefore, is fundamentally about obfuscation, about hiding a truth. What truth? That human society has been built atop and is still built atop murder:
Myth is an account of a murder that routinely obscures the fact that it was a murder at all. It describes a collective killing that was completely justified, entirely necessary, divinely approved, and powerfully beneficent. (p. 52)
All this might seem like an interesting historical analysis if Girard did not go on to suggest that this sanctioned scapegoating is still with us. Heim continues:
If sacrifice was simply failed science, and accomplished nothing, it would have no importance for us now. But it does work, and continues to work, whether the community is question is a clique of middle school girls or a country in the grip of economic collapse...The same scapegoating dynamic is alive in our setting. (p. 61)
We can now step back and try to summarize Girard's theory:
1. Sacrifice was a real solution to communal violence.

2. But for that "solution" to work the truth about the sacrifical mechanics have to be systematically obscured.

3. Religion, via its mythical structure, provided this obfuscation.

4. The obfuscation was this: The voice of the scapegoat, the very personal cries of the one being murdered, had to be silenced. Thus, scapegoats were chosen (and are still chosen) from marginalized groups, powerless people. Further, the murder of the scapegoat must not be seen for what it is (i.e., a murder). It must be a divinely sanctioned "sacrifice."

5. This scapegoating mechanism--rationalized, sanctioned, "religious" violence--still defines the human condition. Our collective Sin is this machinery of violence.

6. Thus, in order to save us, the scapegoating mechanism must be exposed.
But how will this mechanism be exposed for what it is? How will our violence be unmasked? How can we be saved from this blindness and violence?

Here's how. By allowing the scapegoat, for the first time in human history, to speak. To pull aside the religious myth that has hidden the victims from our eyes and hushed those we have killed in the name of God.

We are saved when we begin to hear the voice of the victim, the voice of the scapegoat.

Enter the Old Testament...

The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 1, The Crisis of Penal Substitutionary Atonement

So many of us were saddened last week to hear of the passing of René Girard. It is difficult to describe just how influential and important Girard has been for many of us. It's not too much of an exaggeration to say that René Girard saved my faith and the faith of many of my questioning students. When disillusioned evangelical students come to me with questions about the violence in the Old Testament or the blood-thirsty God of penal substitutionary atonement my very first question is "Have you ever read René Girard?"

In the very first year of this blog, 2006, I did a series entitled "The Voice of the Scapegoat" working through Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice, my favorite introduction to a Girardian reading of the bible. To honor the life and legacy of René Girard I've dusted off and edited those posts, seven in all, to introduce (or reintroduce) you to one of the most potent and life changing readings of the cross.

In Saved from Sacrifice Heim situates his reading of Girard in the modern crisis surrounding penal substitutionary atonement (henceforth, PSA). Over the last few centuries in the Western church PSA has grown to be the dominant lens on the crucifixion of Jesus. Succinctly, PSA claims that due to our sin God's wrath was kindled against us. Or, alternatively, our sin created a debt so large we were unable to pay it. Jesus, in PSA, steps in and dies in our place. Jesus, being the perfect sacrifice, both satisfies the wrath of God and passes on his merit to us (which we claim by faith) canceling our debt of sin.

This formulation is so common I don't know why I'm even reviewing it. For many Christians this is the only view they have of the cross. Questioning PSA is, for some, tantamount to questioning Christianity itself. Which really is a stunning situation.

The situation is stunning because Eastern Christianity doesn't emphasize PSA. Nor was it emphasized by the early church. Look at all the sermons in the books of Acts. PSA can't be found in any of the very first gospel sermons. The focus on and intensification of PSA in the West is a fairly recent phenomenon which can be traced back to St. Anselm and the Reformation.

These missteps have proved costly to the church because the foundational ideas of PSA are increasingly untenable for many Christians, if not outright objectionable and offensive.

Heim begins Saved from Sacrifice by describing the most significant of these objections. The one I would like to highlight is the view of God lurking behind PSA. To quote Heim,
...traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings, especially the picture they paint of God...If a debt is owed to God why can't God simply forgive it, as Jesus apparently counsels others to do? If God is ransoming us from other powers, why does God have to submit to their terms? If this is God's wise and compassionate plan for salvation, why does it require such violence? The idea that God sent his Son to be sacrificed for us is indicted here for impugning the moral character of God. (p. 25)
PSA works its great power because it is a vision of rescue. We are saved. Death was intended for us, but Jesus steps in to "take our place." What is so morally problematic about this? Later in the book Heim discusses the formulation of the cross worked about by Anselm:
If Christ steps in to intercept the blow meant for us, where does that blow itself come from? It is occasioned by our sin (so far, a view fully in accord with the general tradition). Anselm's departure is to insist with new systematic rigor that it is actually coming from God. What we need to be rescued from is the deserved wrath and punishment of God. God wishes to be merciful, and so God becomes the one to be punished... (p. 299)
The problem with Anselm's formulation is twofold:
To return to our simple image about Jesus stepping in between us and an evil bearing down on us, we can say that Anselm unequivocally states that what is bearing down on us is God and God's wrath. This radically bifurcates the God of justice and the God of forgiveness, and it appears to require a plan of salvation that sets Christ and God against each other. (p. 300-301)
In the end we have an emotional and theological puzzle. First, the bible unequivocally states that we were, in some profound way, "saved" and "rescued" by the cross. But saved from what? PSA says we are being saved from God.

Saved from God? That surely is confused.

The second puzzle is that the cross is a bloody sacrifice. Why is a God of love so blood-thirsty?

Heim points out other problems with PSA. I've just focused on these issues because they are the ones I've most struggled with. I rejected PSA a long time ago for just those reasons: I could not believe in a confused and blood-thirsty God.

But to make this rejection leaves one in an awkward relationship with the bible. Clearly, the bible is a bloody document. And the cross is intimately tied up with the notion of "sacrifice," a theme that links both the Old and New Testaments. So, to reject PSA on moral and theological grounds leaves you holding a lot of problematic texts. Bloody, sacrificial texts. Do we have to reject these texts? As someone who loves the bible, I don't want to. So what do we do?

Enter the work of Rene Girard. As Heim notes, the work of Girard allows us to adopt these bloody sacrificial texts in a way that not only surmounts the problems of PSA but replaces them with an amazing new vista. What was before considered to be morally repugnant--bloody sacrifice--is now adopted as critical feature of the bible and, amazingly, a feature that places both God and Jesus over against the violence. As Heim states in his final chapter (p. 294):
The way forward is not to go around all these elements, but to go through them, integrating them in the biblical vision of God's work to overcome scapegoating sacrifice. The true alternative to distorted theologies of atonement will not be one that says less about the cross, but one that says more.

Unpublished: Friends

Church bashing is kind of the thing to do nowadays. And I've done my fair share of it over the years. But to be honest, I don't know what I'd do without church.

Regarding that, this is our favorite family story about church.

When Brenden was a year old we parked in the church parking lot and got him out of his baby seat. Brenden looked up and saw we were at church.

He pointed at the building and said happily:


--an unpublished post

A Faith Painted in Bolder Brushstrokes

We're all spiritually developing and evolving. Here's an update about what has been going on with me.

I've always believed in the unconditional of love of God. I have a radical understanding of God's love that, when worked out theologically and morally, places me in the "liberal" or "progressive" wing of Christianity. This part of my faith journey hasn't changed at all.

And yet, my faith has also been moving in a more conservative direction. Specifically, I guess you could say that I'm coming to believe more in sin and depravity.

What I mean by that is that I'm more acutely aware of human wickedness, fallenness and brokenness. Obviously, I think my experiences out at the prison have been important here. And so have my experiences at Freedom Fellowship where addictions and criminality are a regular feature of our congregational life.

To say nothing about all the violence, war, torture, pornography, sex trafficking, hate, injustice, indifference and exploitation in the world.

You add all that up and it's a pretty dark and grim picture. Consequently, a lot of my liberal and progressive optimism has worn off.

For example, I've always been a huge believer in kindness--still am--but I've come to think that we are too mean, selfish, self-righteous, self-absorbed, wounded, sick or damaged to be kind. I also don't kindness gets deep enough into the rot.

I'm pretty good at kindness, but deep inside I know I'm as sick and twisted as the next guy.   

And yet, my belief in God's unconditional love and forgiveness remains undiminished. In fact, it's grown.

Specifically, the grimmer the picture when it comes to humanity the more radical and unconditional is my vision of the love of God.

What's happening in my spiritual life is that as the vision grows darker and darker in one direction it grows brighter and brighter in the other direction. The deeper into the pit of wickedness I go the greater the scandal of grace.

Morally and theologically, my faith is becoming one of deepening contrasts. Darker night. Brighter light. It's this sharp line of contrast between wickedness and grace that has transfixed me.

My theological guides in this journey have been Johnny Cash, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor. The contrasts between light and darkness are so clear in their work--musical, literary and theological.

I think of Johnny Cash singing gospels songs and murder ballads in Folsom prison.

I think of Dorothy Day going every morning to Mass with a Rosary in her pocket before having breakfast with drunks and prostitutes.

I think of the monstrous and grotesque depravity and the action of mercy in the stories of Flannery O'Connor. As she describes it toward the end of one of her favorite stories:
Mr. Head stood very still and felt the action of mercy touch him again but this time he knew that there were no words in the world that could name it. He understood that it grew out of agony, which is not denied to any man and which is given in strange ways to children. He understood it was all a man could carry into death to give his Maker and he suddenly burned with shame that he had so little of it to take with him. He stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise. 
I want my faith painted in bolder brushstrokes. I believe that God will reconcile all things in Christ, but I'd like to hear that message preached at a tent meeting revival, with talk of the devil, the King James Version of the bible and shouts of Hallelujah. I want the gospel of inclusion and grace of the mainline Protestants preached with the passion and rage of fundamentalist street-preachers.

I'm a doubter who believes in repentance and altar calls. I wonder if prayer works but I believe in the laying on of hands and the anointing of oil. I am a rationalistic skeptic who talks about demons and the Holy Ghost. I reject penal substitutionary atonement but I would rather sing "Are you washed in blood of the Lamb?" than contemporary praise songs. I am a universalist who wants more fire and brimstone.

I want my faith both more conservative and more progressive at the very same time. Too much sin, blood and damnation for the progressives. Too much mercy, inclusion and love for the conservatives.

I want Will Campbell's definition of the gospel, "We're all bastards. But God loves us anyway."

To end with O'Connor's passage above, I stand appalled at myself and at the wickedness of men and women as I judge us with the thoroughness of God. Before, I never really thought that I was a great sinner. Perhaps my true depravity was hidden from me lest I despair.

And yet, I've come to be convinced that there is no sin too monstrous for me to claim as my own.

I believe in sin and wickedness and evil.

But I believe that the action of mercy is not denied to any man or woman and that it is born out of agony. I believe that mercy covers our shame like a flame and consumes it.

I believe our sins have been forgiven from the beginning of time.


Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
               O my God,
Take the gentle path.

For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
                I aspire
To a full consent.

Not a word or look
I affect to own,
                But by book,
And thy book alone.

Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
                Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.

Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
                For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.

Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
                And can shoot,
And can hit from far.

Who can ’scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
                Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.

Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
                Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.

--"Discipline" by George Herbert

"The People At Our Church Die A Lot"

Yesterday I wrote about the passing of our dear sister Beth who was the heart and soul of our little faith community Freedom Fellowship.

Pray for us. We're going to miss Beth terribly.

Two weeks ago it was announced before worship that Beth was being moved to hospice. Collectively that was the moment the community began to realize that it was time to let Beth go, time to let her go meet our Jesus.

It was a solemn moment, internalizing that news. I saw Judy sitting by herself looking very sad. I went over to comfort her.

Judy is a kind, simple and child-like soul, often confused by life.

"Is Beth going to die?" Judy asked me.

"I think so." I replied.

"The people at our church die a lot," Judy observed, "I don't like it when people die."

"Neither do I, Judy, neither do I."

By that point we were both crying. I put my arm around Judy and we joined in the worship that had started.

Judy is right. The people at our church do die a lot.

Freedom isn't a church full of middle to upper class people who have jobs and health insurance. My brothers and sisters at Freedom don't have access to reliable and affordable health care. Because of that they don't promptly seek out medical care. Consequently, they either don't get care or when they do get care their illnesses are often dangerously advanced. Who knows, maybe Beth would still be with us if her cancer had been detected earlier and she had access to the best oncologists. But Beth was poor and lived with pain for years, pain, we think, was the cancer. Beth pushed through the pain because that's all you can do when you are poor in America today. In America the poor try to push through cancer.

Adding to this is that many of my brothers and sisters at Freedom have lived hard lives. Years of addiction, poor diet, and sleeping on the streets. The body broken down under years of chronic, unrelenting stress from living in precarious circumstances. Inability to pay the rent. Evictions. Utilities being shut off. Cars breaking down. Erratic employment. Threats of violence.

It adds up.

This is what I've discovered in my years at Freedom: When your church is on the margins your mortality rate is higher.

Judy was right, the people at our church die a lot.

But yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil.

Freedom is a resurrection community. Lives are hard and death haunts us, but I've never encountered such joy and fearlessness as I have at Freedom. And Beth was a perfect example of that.

A few weeks ago Freedom celebrated its ten year anniversary. Below is a video of the event. I love everyone in this video so, so much.

This is my church. Yes, we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But we fear no evil. For our God is with us.

We are free.

The Angel of Freedom

Freedom Fellowship saved my faith. When I first started attending Freedom my faith was dry, intellectual and cynical.

What I encountered at Freedom was a vibrant and charismatic spirituality among a group of people who, in the words of Howard Thurman, lived with their backs against the wall. We struggle with lots of things at Freedom--addictions, poverty and parole--but in our shared meals and worship we are cared for and protected by the grace and mercy of God.

And Sister Beth, she was at the center of it all. Beth was the Angel of Freedom.

Beth had lived a hard life. But a few years before I started attending Beth had given her life to Jesus and had became a fixture at Freedom. And then more than a fixture, one of our leaders.

By the time I was showing up at Freedom Beth had taken charge of Freedom's kitchen, cooking for, organizing and directing our weekly meals. When I wanted to help clean up after the meals Beth was the one who told me what to do.

And considerable though it was, Beth's biggest influence on Freedom actually wasn't in the kitchen. Beth's biggest impact was in the sanctuary.

The worship at Freedom is Spirit-filled. During worship we dance in the aisles, raise hands and wave flags. And Beth, she had a dance all her own.

She didn't like drawing attention to herself, so Beth would stand off in a corner during worship. And there she would open her hands and sway. A movement slow and graceful. A dance all her own.

Beth's dance affected everyone at Freedom. That dance gave others permission to move in their own ways. And for my part, Beth's dancing opened my heart.

When Beth danced she was transformed. She glowed. I'd never seen anything like it. When Beth danced she was alone with God, baptized with grace. That dance was beautiful to watch.

That dance taught me how to pray again. That dance taught me how to worship again. That dance saved me.

A few weeks ago Beth was diagnosed with cancer. She was moved to hospice last week. And on Friday she passed away.

I went with Jana to visit Beth in ICU before they moved her to hospice. Joe and Becky where there. Because of the pain and medication Beth was only intermittently lucid. Jana held one of Beth's hands and Becky held the other. I stroked her foot.

Even in all that pain Beth was still worried about Freedom, worried about if the meals were being taken care of. Becky and Jana repeatedly assured her that people were helping out, though it would take ten people to replace one of Beth.

There were lots of tears. At one point Becky began to softly sing Blessed Assurance, and we all joined in.
Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.
O what a foretaste of glory divine.
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.
It was a perfect song for Beth. This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long. No lyrics better capture Beth's faith and life.

Before we left I put my hand on Beth's forehead and prayed Psalm 91 over her.
For he will give his angels charge of you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.
On Friday Beth fell into the arms of the angels.

After I finished reading the psalm I stroked Beth's hair.

"Beth," I said, "you are one of the most beautiful people I have ever met." And then we said good-bye.

May you rest in peace, our dear Sister.

Thank you Beth, for teaching us how to dance.