This will be my final post in my review of the work of Rene Girard and S. Mark Heim's recent book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross.
From the last post, we 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 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.
That is until 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?"It is an amazing sequence. Who is Jesus? I repeat, who is Jesus?
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting."
He is the one you are persecuting.This realization leads to the transformation of the world. Through the cross of Christ God stands with the victims against the persecutors. And here, at the beginnings of the Christian church, we see the great conversion of Saul. Jesus saves Saul by identifying with the victim. Following Jesus, Saul repents and stands with the victim. He joins the group he had been scapegoating.
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 5:1-6The scapegoat has been deified. The voice of the scapegoat is now the voice of God. And the voice speaks against all violence. The final words of Heim's book are these:
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 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.
I hope you have enjoyed this series. I have loved writing it. I feel passionately that the church needs this reading of the cross. Please get Heim's book and share it with your churches. Heim has much more to say in the book about the nonsacrificial life of the Church, about the apocalypse in Girardian terms, about the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and about the failure of Christians to "get" the message of the cross. What I have written only begins the journey.
Beyond Heim's Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, if you would like to take up Girard directly I would recommend the The Girard Reader. My copy is all marked up. For a quick exposure to Girard, a summary of his work and a brief interview with the journal Touchstone can be read here
Finally, on a pastoral note, I wanted to find a way to incorporate the Girardian lessons into my daily spiritual journey. So I drafted a prayer, a mantra to remind me of what Jesus is saving me from. My prayer is simply this:
Lamb of God,
Let me see my victims. Let me see you.
The one I am persecuting.