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?"It is an amazing sequence. Who is Jesus?
"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.
"I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting."
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.
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 that 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.And thank you, René Girard.
May you rest in peace.