The Voice of the Scapegoat, Part 6: "Surely this man was innocent."

We now explicitly approach the crucifixion of Jesus here in Part 6 of the The Voice of the Scapegoat series. Again, this series is my review of the work of Rene Girard and S. Mark Heim's recent book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.

Chapter 4 of Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross 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 clue we need. It is at the heart of an understanding of the cross. (pp. 107,108)
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 lines, action, and plotlines of a sacred sacrifice to appease God. These themes are undoubtedly present, but we must be careful not to read these dramatic movements too literally.

Why not?

Because a second story is being overlaid this 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 wander 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
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. It 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 then was the amazing work of God in the cross. After the cross all 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.

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2 thoughts on “The Voice of the Scapegoat, Part 6: "Surely this man was innocent."”

  1. I just found your blog from a comment you made on Mike Cope's blog. I really like what you're doing here. I plan to come back and visit, so please keep these interesting posts coming. I pray that all is well for you over in Abilene.

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