The following are some very imperfect and embryonic thoughts about a topic we are dealing with in Systematic Theology … forgive me my ignorance and humble musings on what is a deeply complex theory …
We have just come through the Easter period, where we travelled with Christ to his violent and unmerited death on the cross. Christians have come to understand this event as a time of victory over death, over evil, over shame and as a time to celebrate the saving power of God through the sacrifice of God’s son. I have always struggled with the crucifixion. Most of my resistance to the doctrines of salvation and atonement come from the premise that an almighty, omnipotent God, who is all loving and all merciful, sent a man (albeit a God-man) to a violent and inhumane death on a cross in order to free us from our sin.
If that same God is ‘in charge’ of my life and my destiny, who’s to say that God won’t send me to a fateful, violent death in order to avenge someone else’s evil doings, or to teach us a lesson? That is a God of punishment and retribution and goes against the unmerited grace which I believe was the gospel message of Jesus – ‘freely you have received, freely give’ (Matt 10:8). I understand that my faith centres on this event and so my struggles go deep to try and fully understand what was intended and what was achieved through this event and what it means for me today. When I came across this theory in McGrath’s book (Christian Theology – An Introduction) about the violence of the cross it went against the very essence of who I believe God is, but over the Easter period I wrestled with the violence of the cross in order to better understand it.
In short, Rene Girard (1923), who purported this theory, says that the crucifixion event is about human violence and jealousy – ‘mimetic desire’. McGrath describes Girard as an anthropologist not a theologian, although an article out of Stanford University where Girard worked for many years describes Girard’s work as crossing the ‘fields of literature, anthropology, theology, philosophy, sociology, psychology’. (Haven) Girard, I think rightly, says violence is inherent in human nature and hence inherent in understandings of the divine and divine or religious ritual. According to Girard ‘mimetic desire’ spurs this need for violence – mimetic desire being the desire for something that another human being possesses. This theory is mirrored throughout the bible and specifically in the story in 1 Kings 3 where two women claim motherhood over one baby. The woman whose baby has died claims another’s baby as her own and assents to the King cutting the baby in half in order to solve the dispute with the words, ‘neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!’ (1 Kings 3:26)
When one individual or group of individuals wants something that belongs to another group then violence is often a by-product of that jealousy and greed according to Girard. One way to circumvent this is to divert attention onto another object – a scapegoat which then becomes the focus of the groups violence and the means of their ‘transformation’ – ‘this sacrifice serves to protect the entire community from its own violence’ – thus restoring harmony. (McGrath)
I am still uncomfortable with this theory, mostly because I am uncomfortable with referring to Jesus as ‘the sacrifice’, the ‘scapegoat’. But having journeyed with congregants and writers and their relative discomfort with the crucifixion event this year, I have come to think that we need to see our dark selves in the imagery of a violent community – a violent community who will condemn an innocent man because he dares to challenge us and our need for power, wealth, status and control. Not many people go as far as actual physical killing or inhumane acts of violence, but if we are honest and are able to stomach the idea that we have a tendency towards jealousy and greed, which enable us to turn a blind eye to injustice then I believe the violent crucifixion event and its powerful message may make us think twice about how we treat people and what we hold on to so fiercely and uncompromisingly – be they possessions or beliefs.
As for the sacrificial giving of God’s Son for our salvation, Haven’s (2009) closing remarks on Girard’s theory have helped me understand one reason why using Jesus as a scapegoat for ‘original sin’ is difficult for me to comprehend:
‘In a spellbinding lecture last year, Girard pointed out that we have reached a point in history where we can no longer blame scapegoats. The mechanism of scapegoating is too well known, so the ritual murder no longer expiates the society. War no longer works to resolve conflict—indeed, wars no longer have clear beginnings, endings or aims. Moreover, as weapons have escalated, war could destroy us all.’ (Haven)
Girard in the latter part of his life claimed that ‘the Bible [as] “anti-myth”— is a description of humankind’s long climb up from barbarity. Violence, retaliation and a vengeful God evolve over centuries into themes of forgiveness, repentance and the revelation that the scapegoat is innocent, culminating in the Crucifixion’. (Haven)
What a hopeful interpretation of an uncomfortably prophetic statement on humanity – I guess my question is, will we ever really learn to listen?
‘Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you’ (John 14:27)