Theology and Peace: Part 3, The Voices of Victims

One of the struggles people have with Girardian or other non-violent readings of Scripture is how you deal with the violence in the bible. Particularly the violence in the Old Testament.

As I've described in reviewing Mark Heim's book Saved from Sacrifice a Girardian reading of the Old Testament is developmental in nature. Specifically, the OT is a story that begins in a pagan and sacrificial mode (where YHWH is tribal war god) that increasingly introduces an ambivalent note about the nature of sacrifice and divinely-sanctioned scapegoating violence. Early in the OT sacrifice is ubiquitous. But by the end with the prophets the claim is increasingly made that YHWH doesn't want sacrifice and blood. YHWH desires "mercy and not sacrifice." In this we see how the bible is critiquing its own narrative with the prophets questioning the logic of the Levitical/priestly tradition.

For Christians this developmental trajectory--disentangling God from violence--is completed in the life of Jesus. When God becomes finally and fully revealed in Jesus of Nazareth YHWH is revealed to be non-violent and enemy-love is found to be at the heart of the Kingdom ethic. Jesus completes the critique of sacrifice started by the prophets.

At the start of the Theology and Peace conference Michael Hardin introduced a handy way of sorting through all this, all the disparate voices in Scripture speaking to violence and victimage. How to sort it all out? Michael suggests that there are three types of victims in Scripture and discriminating between them helps the reading I describe above come through more clearly. The following diagram illustrates Michael's recommended hermeneutic:
In Michael's scheme there are three voices of victims within the biblical narrative. The first two voices are voices still within the cycle of sacralized violence, the sacrifice at the root of all religion. The first of these two victims Michael labels "the victim of myth" in reference to Girard's work linking sacred victimage to ancient pagan religions. This is a voice that buys into the cycles of violence in the word, a victim mentality that sees the violence as deserved. We still hear this voice in the world, for example in the voices of those who suffer abuse and have internalized the blame feeling that the abuse is justified and deserved. This voice isn't heard much in Scripture though Michael locates it in psalms where the psalmist sees the punishment received from God or others as deserved and justified. I'd also argue that the voices of victims of myth are simply not heard from in the bible. These voice are rarely heard, in the bible or in the world. These are the voices of those killed by the Israelites in their holy wars or people like the concubine in Judges 19.

The other voice within the scope of sacrificial violence Michael calls "the victim in travail." This is the voice of victims calling out for revenge and retribution. We hear this voice most clearly in the imprecatory psalms. We also see it in the blood of Abel. This victim represents a moral development as the biblical reader is asked to identify with the victim and this perspective-taking allows us to see the violence as wrong, evil, and undeserved. This is progress. However, this voice doesn't allow us to escape the cycle of violence as it is accompanied by the call for revenge. The logic of lex talionis--"eye for eye and tooth for tooth"-- here perpetuates the cycles of sacralized violence. As Jesus says, the one who lives by the sword dies by the sword.

In sum, there are two sorts of victims that stand within the cycle of violence. The first victim is the sacrificial victim, the scapegoat. These victims, being scapegoats, are often silent. But when they do speak they agree with their punishment. The second victim is the victim in travail, the victim who knows their punishment is undeserved but who continues the cycle of violence by seeking retribution. In both cases God is used to justify violence, against the self or against others.

In contrast to these victims is a victim who stands outside of the dynamics of sacralized violence. Michael calls this "the gospel victim." The gospel victim is the forgiving victim. Jesus is the prototype here, the victim we killed but who returns to us with forgiveness in the resurrection-event. This action of the gospel victim allows us to stop the cycle of violence. Beyond Jesus we see examples of gospel victims in Joseph and Stephen.

The hermeneutical tool here is to sort out, among all the victims in the bible, the voice of sacrificial religion versus the voice of God's revelation. That is, there is a lot of violence in the bible, much of it attributed to God. How to make sense of it? In this Girardian reading the voice of God, the voice of God's revelation to us, is found in the voice of the gospel victim, in the revelation of Jesus. Michael's "three voice" hermeneutic, then, is at root a Christological hermeneutic. We read the violence of the bible through the lens of Jesus--the gospel victim. Where the voice of the text aligns with the voice of the gospel victim we have a case of God's revealed truth. When, however, the violence in the text doesn't align with the voice of the gospel victim we have an example of sacrificial religion. And while there are many texts of this nature, the key is not to equate those passages as instances of God's revealed truth, which we know to be clearly and decisively revealed in Jesus. These instances of sacrificial violence in the bible exist as the necessary backdrop that allowed Israel and the early Christians to untangle God from pagan and violent origins.

Beyond hermeneutics, Michael's model is also a nice way to describe the cycles of violence in the world and how, in the ethic of Jesus, we are called to "come out" from that violence. The call is to not be sacrificial victims or victims seeking retribution, buying into or perpetuating more violence in the world. The call is to be like Jesus, to be the gospel victim offering love, grace, forgiveness, peace and reconciliation to the world.

You can connect with more of Michael's work at Preaching Peace or his book The Jesus Driven Life.

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12 thoughts on “Theology and Peace: Part 3, The Voices of Victims”

  1. This is an excellent summation of one of the central tenets of the Bible.  I find it interesting that M. Gandhi was able to live his entire life effectively using this principle without benefit of becoming a Christian himself, through self-awareness and discovery.  He understood that "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind".  Was he a better Christian than most Christians?  I wonder.

    As he initially proclaimed "God is Truth", and later "Truth is God".  Many since him have used his insights to "fight" injustice.  He did draw a distinction between cowardice and non-violence, seeing the former as even worse than the latter, and stating that "given a choice between the two, I would advocate violence".  "The greatest battle in this life is the struggle with oneself."

    It does appear true that the only way to break the cycle of violence in this world is by being a "gospel victim", in whatever way one arrives at this decision.

  2. What turned out NOT to be true, however, at least for Jesus and Gandhi, was Jesus' statement that "he who lives by the sword shall die by the sword".

  3. This is excellent.  Sacralized violence in the OT is worldview.  The Word of God inhabits the worldview, but this does not equate with its endorsement.  Rather, the Word of God utilizes and eventually exhausts the worldview.  This is exactly what happens in Hebrews 9 (my preaching text this week) where the antitype of Israel's cultic life is exhausted by the offering that Jesus Christ makes in heaven.

  4. I have a very tough time with cases resulting in collateral damage, (i.e. an angel assigned to slay 70,000 troops overnight because David stubbornly persisted in taking head-counts of his army).   In this case, the VICTIMS are many surviving widows (a "few" of them suddenly becoming single moms).   How did these widowed moms explain to their children the outright execution of their daddy, ordained by God no less, and caused by the stubborness / arrogance of one man (legacy being "a man after God's own heart")? 
    Anyway ...
    Gary Y.

  5. Thank you for spotlighting Michael Hardin's work.  Michael will be speaking at the Wild Goose Festival this week.  His book, The Jesus Driven Life is a great contribution to Girardian thought on the gospels.

  6. Hi Sam.  I can't resist responding to your reference to Gandhi.  :-)

    In my study of the Gospel of John, just today, moments ago, in
    fact...Ch. 4-5 -- hearing = obeying, the evidence of believing, or

    So, was Gandhi a better Christian than most Christians?  You have
    probably heard the famous quote:  "I like your Christ.  I do not like
    your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."  Gandhi
    read and studied the scriptures.  He was drawn to Christ.  The church in
    South Africa rejected him on the basis of his skin color and social

    I love Gandhi and all that he stood for and accomplished in his life. 
    However, in an excellent documentary on Gandhi I learned (not all that
    long ago) that well into his political activism "career" Gandhi still
    struggled spiritually to overcome certain cultural ideals and practices,
    namely in his marital relationship.  When he became "self-aware" of his
    insensitive treatment toward his wife, and how she had been hurt and
    experienced loneliness, Gandhi turned over a new leaf with her, and as a
    result, reached a new level of freedom, spiritually.  Gandhi (like each
    of us), was a work in progress.  Human; not perfect.  This knowledge
    does not cause me to lose respect for Gandhi.  Quite the contrary,
    actually.  Gandhi *did* struggle with his own weaknesses and "sins"
    before God and man.  He continued to move courageously toward more
    complete obedience to "divine truth" which, if anything, is perfect love
    in action, lived, embodied.

    But of course I think Gandhi was a good and faithful servant of Christ,
    whether he professed religious identity as a Christian or not.  And he
    is one of my heroes.  Just my humble opinion, fwiw.  ~Peace, friend.~

  7. Does Michael view God as having any responsibility in Jesus' death, whether orchestrating it or demanding it? The difficulty I've  had with Jesus' death is that it appears that God is continuing the violence of the Old Testament by requiring his sacrifice for our salvation.

  8. This is great! I love Michael's work. His book is wonderful. Another wonderful book - have you read Raymund Schwager's "Must There Be Scapegoats?" Girard credits him for changing his earlier view on Jesus' sacrifice. Interestingly, Schwager stresses Second Isaiah as the clearest form in the OT of scapegoating and a nonviolent response. "The writing of Second Isaiah contains the clearest expression in the Old Testament of the transfer of many violent actions onto one innocent individual. Here too Yahweh reveals himself in a most personal way and at the same time empowers his servant to adopt a completely new, nonviolent mode of behavior." Second Isaiah may be the clearest in this regard, but there is still some ambiguity as to God's role in Second Isaiah. To your point (and Schwager's), Jesus completes the critique of sacrifice found in the prophets.

  9. The death of Jesus is not the continuing of violence.  Rather, it is by letting violence do its thing (the cross) that God exhausts the power of violence.  The resurrection testifies to its defeat.  What authority does violence have over the resurrected?  None.  As to your first question, I think your answer lies in more questions: Was God on the cross?  Were the nails in Jesus' feet and hands felt in the Father's heart?  Did God experience death?

  10. Lamech didn't understand what an eye-for-an-eye meant either. A pacifist (Gandhi) and a war-hawk (Lamech) both come to the same wrong conclusions about a basic, understandable, humane method to determine damages. Not for sentencing, but determining damages.The Bible is mostly about how government works for and against the governed.Sacrificial religion is just another word for government. Canon is law.
    Violence is a primary tool of government. It is arrayed against the governed as well as against interlopers trying to press their way into the kingdom. As a result keeping the peace involves the credible threat or application of violence.
    Only a head minister of government could take the weight of responsibility for all of the previous violence of the kingdom. Even though guiltless of it himself, he bore the responsibility for the violence. The head minister subsiquently removes all other ministers and beurocratic benefactors to govern directly.

  11. Thank you, Susan.  The more I read about the life of M. Gandhi, the more drawn I am to his philosophy and work here during his lifetime.  I do admit to being ignorant of much about his personal life, but in most of what I have read he seemed quite respectful of, and an advocate for, women and their full rights as equals in society.

    So much of human history is about injury and subsequent revenge.  It has bothered me for many years.  This post today seems to face this issue squarely and honestly, and it explains well to someone like me the hope that is the Gospel.  It offers a way forward beyond vengeance. 

    Peace to you as well, friend.

  12. Girard Myth Music Violence. 5.4.2 Behind the anthropological predilections
    against the victim's
    perspective, there is a very practical, quasi-historical reason:
    the victim is shunned and often killed. In the ancient world, the role
    of music during ritual sacrifice was often to drown out any cries
    the victim. (45)
    It is crucial that the
    victim not be heard. The practical mechanics of making victims means
    it is unusual for the victim's perspective to survive. In the world of
    ancient ritual it was probably impossible.

    Note: 45. The Greek verb
    myo means
    to close the mouth or shut the eyes. There is debate about
    whether myo
    plays a crucial role in the etymology of other significant words such
    as myth, mystery,
    and even music. These etymologies make sense within the
    hypotheses. Myth means to close ourselves to the victim and tell the
    according to the perpetrator's perspective; mystery cults are based on
    the silence of the victims; music derives from drowning out the voice
    the victim.


    [328] Chorus This is our song over the sacrificial victim--frenzied,
    maddened, destroying the mind, [330] the
    Furies' hymn, a spell to bind the soul, not tuned to the lyre,
    withering the life of mortals.

    Ken Sublett

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