Salvation as Freedom from Sexual Abuse and Oppression

Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, are in the midst of the exposure of pervasive sexual abuse and scandal. While sexual abuse is a problem in the culture as a whole, Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham says, abuse occurs as much or more in the church as outside of it. Tchividjian, whose organization (GRACE – Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment) addresses the issue of sex crimes in churches, says sexual abuse in evangelicalism rivals that of the Catholic Church, so that churches as a whole are in the midst of an epidemic. The World Health Organization estimates that 1 in 5 women will be raped in their lifetime. 1 in 4 women (24.3%) and 1 in 7 men (13.8%) aged 18 and older in the United States have been the victim of severe physical violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime. A study by Abel and Harlow revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. Considering that, “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” according to Tchividjian, and the fact that those churches promoting women’s subordination to men create what has been described as a “rape culture,” the troubling statistics are only the tip of the iceberg.

A joint investigation by two Texas papers resulted in a report revealing that over 200 Southern Baptist pastors, youth pastors and deacons were convicted or took plea deals for sex crimes over the past 20 years — creating over 700 survivors. Considering the vast majority of rapes in the United States never lead to a felony conviction, these numbers suggest astronomical levels of violence. Women and girls, in particular, can be silenced in hierarchic churches that teach “complementarianism” — the belief that God ordains male authority especially in the church and the home. Having been conditioned not to question men, some women struggle to stand up to male misconduct, and when they do are often dismissed. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson, described a young man’s lewd comments toward a teenage girl as “biblical” and said the proper response to abuse within marriage “depends on the level of abuse to some degree.”

 Beth Moore, a Southern Baptist speaker and author, reports years of misogynistic treatment.[1] Her descriptions of abuse sound verbatim like my wife’s treatment by an administrator at a Bible College where we were employed: “I’ve been in team meetings where I was either ignored or made fun of.” Her encounter with “misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem of women,” she says, was one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life.” Faith, one of the smartest people I have ever known (and not because she married me), experienced being continually shut down in meetings, yelled at in private, and otherwise being ignored. Moore says, “I’ve ridden elevators in hotels packed with fellow leaders who were serving at the same event and not been spoken to and, even more awkwardly, in the same vehicles where I was never acknowledged.” In one especially grievous encounter, a theologian she admired and looked forward to meeting immediately reduced her to an object. “The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, ‘You are better looking than (he named another woman speaker).’” She concludes, “Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason.”

 “Evil” may be the correct word, at least in our experience and the experience of countless others. Abuse of women, in comparison to the “important” work of Christian leaders, is often not considered worthy of preventive action. Tchividjian, who as a prosecutor dealt with thousands of accusations against churches says, “It was just amazing how many church leaders and church members had no problem coming to court and testifying on behalf of the character of the defendant, and how few came in defense of the victim” (a 9 out of 10 ratio, he says). Though the abuse my wife suffered was legally actionable, her complaints were sidelined as, like that of thousands of women, her abuse was deemed acceptable by “Christian” standards. As Tchividjian describes it, “The powerful and the influential, the perpetrators, those are the ones that we embrace.” Instead of imitating Jesus, always taking the side of the wounded and marginalized, illegitimate “Christian” authority is deployed to abuse.

While the issue of “complementarianism”versus “egalitarianism” touches upon the problem, I fear that what may be missed in reducing it to “gender roles” is the holistic nature of both the problem and solution.  Biblical salvation is directed toward defeating sin and a primary result of sin is oppressive alienation between men and women and oppressive notions of authority.  One of the curses of the Fall, part of what it means to have forfeited the image of God, is that man shall oppressively rule over women and women will masochistically succumb to this rule: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). What is demonstrated in the early chapters of Genesis is that this alienation extends to God, creation, and even to alienation within the self. While we can categorize these various forms of alienation, they are all constitutive parts of the same problem, experienced as oppression: toilsome oppression in work, murderous relations with others, and shameful/oppressive self-awareness, and ultimately institutionalized religious oppression in idolatry (resulting in human sacrifice).  The ultimate sacrilege occurring in churches today is the sacrifice of women and children, the outworking of the Fall characteristic of Moloch worship, in the name of Christ.  

Authentic Christian salvation cures this oppressive curse, specifically as it relates to gender. The wedding feast of the lamb, Israel and the Church as bride, the depiction of the oneness of marriage fulfilled in Christ and the Church, or the resolution of male/female alienation, depicts final reconciliation. Gender problems are at the center of the human problem and salvation is depicted, in this key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh.” Egalitarianism versus complementarianism, in isolation, does not capture the fact that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from a right understanding of God and how gender reflects the divine image and how this has been lost. The failure of the image and its restoration, or the human predicament and its resolution, certainly pertains to the role of women in Church leadership and the relations between husband and wife, but these latter issues are only the end point of the narrative sweep of Scripture.

Gender, along with class and ethnicity (male/female, slave/free, Jew/Gentile (Gal. 3:28)), functions through binary opposites creating a meaning foundational to the identity of a closed cosmos and economy. Maleness, freedom, and Jewishness are the privileged basis lending meaning to femaleness, slavery, and Gentileness, in a mode in which power is gained through dominating the other. Authority is that which can penetrate, oppress, and exclude, creating the privileged identity – the authority. The ultimate sexual act, the final ethnic determination, the height of economic privilege, entails extreme violence. In this sense, death is always the coin of the realm circulated in an economy Paul will dub the “law of sin and death”; the operating principle of this world.

Christ followers are freed from the law of sin and death through a reconstituted ethnicity (no Jew nor Gentile), an alternative socio-economic order (no slave nor free), and through a reworked orientation to gender (no male or female – directly and pointedly referring to Genesis), by being joined to Christ, though it is only the latter category which will have an enduring ontological meaning.  Ephesians (5:31-32) pictures salvation as the fulfillment of the original promise of marriage: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church.” Image bearing capacities are brought to completion in a dissolution, not of male and female per se, but of oppositional difference. The power of the law working in and through degrees of separation is undone through the “one flesh” relationship in Christ.

Continued abuse, oppression, and mistreatment of women in church and in the name of Christ indicates misapprehension of the narrative force of Christianity – a complete obscuring of the point of salvation.


[1] https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html

Does Complementarianism Undermine the Gospel?

In Genesis humans are depicted as bearing the image of God as male and female. God speaks in the first-person plural, “Let us,” and humans are created as a plurality. This means image bearing is integral to human relations of every kind: sexual relations, family relations, marriage relations, but also in relation with God (that is the human image presumes relation to the Origin). Male/female is of course a characteristic running throughout creation – so it is simultaneously that which humans share with other creatures. While human spirituality (bearing the divine image) and human created/creatureliness cannot be reduced to gender, gender pertains throughout, so that both human depravity and the heights of spirituality find expression in human sexuality. Idolatrous religion, in its Old Testament depiction and in Paul’s summation of that depiction in Romans 1, manifests itself in human sexual misorientation, while the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the culmination of human spirituality, is depicted in terms of a fulfilled marriage relationship. This culminating wedding feast is the reconciliation of humankind with God, but simultaneously the restoration of right interpersonal, intrapersonal relations, and relation to creation (Revelation 19-21). In other words, resolution to the problem of gendered relations (through Christ as groom and the Church as bride) is not just part of the biblical story, this is the biblical story.

Gender problems are at the center of the human problem (male dominance and female desire, Gen. 3:16) and salvation is depicted, in a key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:32). Salvation depicted as the fulfillment of marriage must mean that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from understanding who God is, what the human predicament is, and the manner in which we are delivered from that predicament. Which is to say, the role of women in Church leadership or the relation of husband and wife cannot be isolated from the narrative sweep of Scripture. A typical error of isolating these issues is to misread the curse of the Fall, male domination and oppression of women (Gen. 3:16), as if God is accommodating or even encouraging this oppression, and then to read this into particular New Testament passages.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender, failed and successful marriage and male/female relations in the church respectively, but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) are to be realized by being “joined to Christ” or being “in the Lord.”

In I Cor. 11, the image restored in the body of Christ calls upon a direct correlate between male/female relations and the Father’s relation to the Son (the key to understanding “headship). Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man (ontologically and universally). Identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations.  Just as subordinationism is a Trinitarian heresy, the same applies to the relation to men and women (part of Paul’s prolonged argument against oppressing other people).

Romans 7:1-4 depicts the universal misorientation to the law as a marriage problem. The woman who would consort with a man, other than her husband, while her husband is still alive is representative of failed humanity. The resolution is not to kill off the living husband or wait around for him to die (abolish the law). Two realms of knowing, knowing the law with the mind and knowing in the Hebraic sense (knowing in the flesh), have come into conflict and cannot be coordinated. The woman’s troubled love life (legally married to one man and illegally consorting with another) is not simply her singular problem, but represents the human predicament.  The point of the illustration, deploying the conflict between sex and marriage, is that the law dictates and determines every aspect of this relationship. Knuckling under to the law (a submissive or passive relationship to the husband or law) or transgressing the law, are not the resolution.  The problem is the oppressive axis of the law (authority, the husband, the punishing law) coordinates even the most intimate relationship. Domineering authoritarianism (the husband or law calls all the shots), passive self-effacement or open rebellion, describe life under the law, which Paul equates with sin.

The resolution is to be found in coordinating the two kinds of knowing (mind and body) by becoming the bride of Christ: “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another” (7:4, NASB). This enables a joining to another in a fruitful relationship (“in order that we might bear fruit for God” vs. 4). Redeemed humanity is the bride of Christ, pregnant with the fruit of true love. The attempt to “gain control” as an orientation to the law, in either the typical authoritarian or submissive role, is suspended.  Christ, as husband, represents a suspension of the force of the law and being found in Christ as bride brings an end to agonistic domination and submission, as authoritarian rule is suspended.

Self-alienation and alienation from others, are not ultimately resolved apart from this reconciliation to be had in Christ. In both Ephesians and Romans this discord overcome in Christ directly pertains to human sexuality: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32, ESV). In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

The New Testament accommodates culture in certain instances, and does not seek to simply overturn the law or kill the husband, as in Paul’s illustration. For example, the church came to decide that the institution of slavery, though widespread in the ancient world, was incompatible with the New Testament’s vision of the freedom and dignity of human beings. Those New Testament texts that seem to support slavery (such as Eph. 6:,5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18) must be coordinated with the clear undermining of the institution of slavery by other passages and by the whole of the Gospel narrative. This undermining is accomplished not through directly attacking slavery, but through a revolutionary subordination, which even those passages seemingly allowing for slavery point to. As in Philemon, radical subordination to Christ (on both the part of Onesimus and Philemon) is a mode of undermining the accepted cultural norms. The slave or servant of all is now the position to be sought as the servant is following the example of Christ. Texts which accommodate slavery should not be used to perpetuate slavery in the church nor should those passages accommodating the traditional role of women be allowed to distort the point of salvation. Freedom in Christ is not simply a metaphor for release from authoritarian oppression, it is breaking the bonds of oppression in every form (but most especially in male/female relations).

The nature of the Christian revolution is an undermining of the Powers (slavery, marriage customs, powers of the state) through submitting but not succumbing. Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). Scriptures commanding subordination of women and slaves, or subordination to the power of Rome, are not meant to preserve authoritarian roles but to undermine them. Paul is beheaded, Jesus is crucified, and the apostles are martyred, not because they obeyed and hoped to preserve cultural norms, but because they submitted in such a way as to overturn those powers through an alternative Kingdom.

The story of Fall and redemption is to be read as pertaining directly to overcoming of authoritarianism, forms of subordinationism, oppression and alienation.   There might still be slave/free, male/female, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories are suspended (Gal. 3:28), as with the law. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and one can treat these categories, in Paul’s explanation, as “if not” (I Cor. 7:29-30). They are no longer definitive, they do not pertain, as this symbolic order is displaced with an alternative “Spiritual” grammar.  To miss this deep grammatical shift, from the letter that kills to the Spirit which gives life, (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) is to miss the transvaluation of Christianity.

 While there is undoubtedly accommodation behind male/female instruction given in the New Testament, I am afraid Christian complementarianism, focused as it is on a few verses, is missing the narrative force of the story of salvation.  Though Paul commends a woman apostle, women evangelists, deaconesses etc. he also recommends male elders. Is the conclusion that women are excluded from Church leadership, or is this a dogged commitment to the oppression the Gospel is overcoming? In Timothy, is Paul commanding a peculiar submission of women to men or is he commanding that women too should study and learn? N.T. Wright claims, that his command that women be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. In the most perverse of examples, where Christ is portrayed as “head” who sustains and serves all, it has been presumed that a husband as head is the one who is the authority figure. As in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men has led to reinstituting of the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). (I have dealt with this here). The Godhead has been redefined, and one fears that the role of the Son as true head is lost.

Where these passages are cut off from their life situation and where theory is formed in isolation, some of these verses may be deployed as proof texts for complementarian forms of female subordination but this would seem to contradict the suspension of the law and its oppressive authority. This is the potential tragedy connected with reifying traditional roles captured in complementarianism. It misses the fact that the Gospel is overturning fallen norms of what it means to be male and female.

When I Am 64 – Life’s Lesson

Today, on my birthday, Jason and I had a long discussion about the nature of salvation – sort of a meaning of life lesson. I must admit that David Bentley Hart’s universalism makes perfect sense at one level and at another seems to empty the world, humanity, and the particulars of our individual history of meaning. Jason, my earth bound, Wendell Berry loving, poetry making friend, sent me back to a strange reminiscence. I was relating the simple story of Wacky Cake, my traditional birthday cake, and its meaning (which I warned him I was making up). Then he began to question if my mother really was a Mississippi shrimp boat captain and I realized the key element of our discussion is how we see meaning woven into our own lives and history.

At birth, like baby Moses, they put me in a Singer Sewing Machine lid as we floated out of Kansas City, stopping for a time at a trailer court on Dixie Highway in Louisville Kentucky. A few blocks away a missionary family, the Maxey’s from Japan, kept a small house for furloughs and Pauline Maxey gave birth to my wife. Faith and I must have crossed paths at the local Safeway, where I would have nodded and cooed, “I will be back.” Our ancestors had sailed from Maxey and Harlaxton, only a few miles apart in England, to converge in both Virginia and Kentucky and our lives would eventually merge to produce an ongoing stream.

But my father had called the trip a “vacation” and a trailer court along Dixie Highway did not fit the bill. We moved on to Biloxi Mississippi to the Ever Breeze trailer court where Mama ran a shrimp boat and Dad headed back north while we vacationed – the next four years. Hinkle, a family friend, owned a cypress shrimp trawler named “Shirley,” built in 1928 and requiring three crew members captained by my mother. They hired a young man out of the Air Force, Jim Slayton, who could nurse the engine along, and a very religious first mate, Joe Dee, whom my father said devoutly made the sign of the cross on all important occasions – according to Mom he must have “double crossed” when stealing the days catch and tools . High winds beached the Shirley just out of Gulf Port. My memory is of hard rain beating down on a flimsy trailer roof along the wind-swept coast. Luckily, the hurricane of 59 sank the Shirley before Joe Dee could completely bankrupt the family and before my mother was lost at sea.

So, we headed to Page, Arizona where my father would build the Glen Canyon Dam (it was not clear to me if he required help). We were leaving the “gween gwass” of Mississippi for a miserable desolation, and my only consolation, as I explained to my mother, would be in catching a small Indian. Dad wore a hardhat and carried a metal lunch pail with a thermos, so as to build the dam. My first memory of a present, I presume it was my fifth birthday, was a miniature pail with a miniature thermos, my Rosebud. Objects invested with a weight of meaning, a magic C. S. Lewis describes in his boyhood garden contained in a dish, from which Narnia would spring.

At 7 I acquired a beagle who was my own hound of heaven. My father was running for mayor, promising to close down all gambling in Parsons Kansas and promising to rid the town of its arch villain, Ed Thompson. Ed was a political operative all over Kansas and my father was in the basement printing off anti-Ed literature when huge Ed Thompson knocked on our door at midnight, and my father at about 5 feet 4 inches confronted the meanest man in Kansas. Ed followed my father to the basement and helped create more anti-Ed Thompson literature and helped run Dad’s campaign, which my father won.

Much later, my father and I met Ed downtown, and I remember feeling important that I was in on this special meeting, which was about Mr. Magee, Ed’s beagle. For some reason Mr. Magee wanted to abandon political life with Ed, and required a country home. Ed and I walked with Mr. Magee and I noticed the dog was eating grass and Ed explained the medicinal effects of grass. Meeting Ed and his dog became a warm memory – a living sort of magic.

Mr. Magee, who would politely wipe his feet when coming inside and could open his own cans of dog food, became the center of my life. I remember a long morning in which we had a rabbit trapped in a pipe and I was trying to slide the rabbit my way to rescue him from the jaws of death at the other end of the pipe. After hours of struggle I grabbed the rabbit by the ears and took him home as a pet – but something happened that morning.  Part of it was that Mr. Magee must have gotten the point, as he later gingerly carried a baby rabbit unharmed and set it at my feet. The patterns of memory I have with this dog are tinged with a deep spiritual sensibility. My first great trauma in life and my first religious experience, prayer, occurred when Mr. Magee disappeared.

Could it be that this little piece of history, trivial, nearly nonsensical, bears meaning?  Isn’t the world and our passage through it somehow enchanted? Is there one point where we can say, here eternity intersected time, so that this moment is weighted forever as part of the life of God and it now pervades all things. If the cross, the life of Christ, the resurrection, is such a moment in time, then why not a similar significance interwoven throughout life. The old woman hidden behind a mound of plastic flowers whom I have come to help make artificial flowers at age 7. Her small kindnesses, our quiet conversation, the sheer delight of my first ice cream sandwich, my salary. Hours and days spent alone on the Texas prairie; are they empty or lost or woven into my eternity.

What weight does any history bear and what dignity? Aren’t we to be about creating, constructing, weaving eternity throughout the moments of time? We are not simply the passive recipients of the divine future presence, but are to be conduits of eternal purpose as co-creators here and now. The great danger in notions of post-mortem universal correction is that creations purpose is denied its eternal weight – its intersection with the divine worked out in the history of the cross and all history. Justice will amount to nothing. None of it will have mattered one way or another. The devil will be saved according to Origen, and Hitler, Himmler and Stalin are on the same level as Mother Teresa.[1] The world enchanted by eternity, or left un-created, unmade, unfulfilled, is part of the weight borne in the responsibility of Imago Dei.




[1] Clifford Dull in correspondence. See the Patheos article by Geoff Holsclaw https://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2019/10/02/reviewing-david-bentley-hart/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Best+of+Patheos&utm


Does Hart’s Dogmatic Universalism Miss the Real World Engagement of Christian Hope?

David Bentley Hart, in That All Shall Be Saved, arrives at an unquestioning universalism which he poses against the “hopeful” but “timid” universalism of Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and concludes that to be timid simply springs from being muddled. Either everyone will be reconciled to God through the work of Christ or some human beings will never be reconciled – both cannot be true. If Hart’s argument has a target audience, beyond those who already agree with him, it must be to nudge the hopeful universalists toward his dogmatic universalism. Hart blends philosophical and biblical argument and concludes that the notion of “tension” between two irreconcilable positions is simply a way of eliding “contradiction” and, the ultimate Hartian insult, this timidity is just giving way to a “post-Hegelian dialectical disenchantment, as well perhaps as a touch of disingenuous obscurantism” (p. 103). It is his blending of modes of discourse which I want to question: Is biblical certainty of the same order as philosophical certainty and do these modes of discourse position us differently in regard to the work of Christ, history, and most especially the problem of evil?

It is not that philosophy and theology are absolutely discreet, but the incremental difference between “hopeful” and “certain” universality pertains to tone and perspective. That is, Hart’s tone, his wonderfully entertaining arrogance, is not a side light of this work but is gained from a perspective he would have everyone adopt. Here we have not so much to do with the hard work of explaining how justice can possibly be meted out or how evil can be resolved. This tone of certainty smacks more of the perspective of a philosophical transcendence, which need not bend to the limited perspective of a mere human. The categories are dealt with, the formal causes and problems engaged, while there is really no comprehension of how this really works. I certainly believe in a final justice but the comprehension that this is so is far different than understanding how it is going to be made the case. The justice enacted in Christ, the revelation of God in Christ, by way of contrast, deals in the realm of human history, human experience, and allows for human understanding. This too is a certainty, but it is a certainty in progress, working itself out in history, and engaged not in terms of an absolute philosophical certainty but the “hopeful” certainty of faith. The former need not take into account the realm of evil or the contingencies of history. The latter is a humble “hopeful” certainty which deals in the reality of human perspective and the existential fact of suffering and evil.

The argument for humility may sound like a niggling critique, but it makes all the difference in terms of the problem of evil. We can, in portions of Hart’s argument, momentarily set aside the real-world overcoming of evil in the Cross of Christ – the engaged position of those responsible men and women called to action in the face of evil[1] – as we our now given a God’s eye view above all of the sound and fury.  It turns out that the weight of God’s action is in the future, far removed from real-world engagement with evil, beyond history and on the other side of death. Isn’t the danger of this absolutely confident universalism that, like infernalism, it so weights future categories so as to empty out the necessity of the Cross and our taking up the Cross?

The objection is not that Hart does this permanently or all the time, he is too good of a theologian for that, but the entire argument is geared toward adopting a tone warranted, not so much by a Christocentric perspective as by arguments from formal cause. Both may give rise to what we call “certainty” but the former brand of certainty is an engaged certainty, which looks to the gradual triumph of the work of Christ and the Cross. The latter certainty can skip over all mere historical, known categories, and invest its trust in an incomprehensible future. For example, purging fire (a perfectly sound idea) is as metaphorical as punishing fire, how either works is beyond comprehension. Unlike the Cross, which we can ascertain, comprehend in part, witness to, the certainty imbued by this future work is made of the same stuff as purely formal analytical arguments (of which Hart is so critical).

Hart’s confident universalism functions in this book much in the same way that divine apatheia functions in The Doors of the Sea. In order for God to not be implicated in the problem of evil, the mode of rescue is through an apatheia beyond comprehension. A book spent on disclaiming theodicy reverses course in the case of God so as to provide Him, if no one else, a way out. The Cross in turn, rather than being a real world unfolding of the defeat of evil (as an ongoing battle) is “a triumph of divine apatheia” (p. 81). Hart’s formal cause is protected from evil, in both instances, by formally dismissing the contingencies of evil as entering into the equation. This is accomplished not by focusing on what is knowable about God in Christ, but by trusting primarily in what is apophatic, a-historical, and ultimately unknowable. One might speak of this trust as “certain” as part of a formal and flawless argument but it is a certainty that almost certainly has nothing to do with the real world-defeat of evil found in the historical Jesus. The fault is not in the logic of the argument but in the perspective it affords.

The Christocentric perspective, as with the evil which it takes into account, primarily deals in the concrete and specific and is not aimed at protecting formal arguments nor an abstract understanding. While one might be certain of one’s formal statements about God, does this form of certainty give rise to ethical behavior, to resistance to evil, to assuming personal responsibility or does it, in fact, have the opposite effect?

As with the discourse of the friends of Job, the heirs and guardians of infallible arguments, their knowledge is dispensed from a height which could lord it over the evil that plagued their poor, muddled thinking, friend. Their knowledge is pure and positive and does not rely upon taking into account momentary evil. While their thought takes flight from the world, Job’s hope is that God would show up in the midst of the world.

“This I know: that my Defender lives, and he, the Last, will take his stand on earth. After my awakening, he will set me close to him, and from my flesh I shall look on God. He whom I shall see will take my part: he whom my eyes will gaze on will no longer be a stranger” (19:25-27).

There is a certainty in Job’s statement, but it is not the certainty of his friends in their apprehension of formal cause. It is a hopeful certainty that takes into account his present suffering. It is not through denying or turning away from suffering that we see the presence of God in Christ; it is by entering into the truth of these realities that we best apprehend God.

In his deployment of creation ex-nihilo Hart notes, “God does not determine himself in creation—because there is no dialectical necessity binding him to time or chaos, no need to forge his identity in the fires of history—in creating he reveals himself truly.”[2] While God does not determine himself in creation, is it the case that this is sufficient revelation for his human subjects? Contrast this with Luther’s critique of scholasticism:

Thesis 19: ‘He is not rightly called a theologian who perceives and understands God’s invisible being through his works. That is clear from those who were such ‘theologians’ and yet were called fools by the apostle in Romans 1:22. ‘The invisible being of God is his power, Godhead, wisdom, righteousness, goodness, and so on.  Knowledge of all these things does not make a man wise and worthy.’

Thesis 20: ‘But he is rightly called a theologian who understands that part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world to be presented in suffering and in the cross. That part of God’s being which is visible and directed towards the world is opposed to what is invisible, his humanity, his weakness, his foolishness…For as men misused the knowledge of God on the basis of his works, God again willed that he should be known from suffering, and therefore willed to reject such wisdom of the visible, so that those Who did not worship God as he is manifested in his works might worship him as the one who is hidden in suffering (I Cor. 1:21).  So, it is not enough and no use for anyone to know God in his glory and his majesty if at the same time he does not know him in the lowliness and shame of his cross. Thus, true theology and true knowledge of God lie in Christ the crucified one.’[3]

Barth’s and Bonhoeffer’s critique of theological liberalism, which mostly served the Nazi cause, took its strength from their engaged form of Lutheranism. For Bonhoeffer, the foundation of ethical behavior is how the reality of the world and the reality of God are reconciled in the reality of Christ (Ethics, p. 198). To share in Christ’s reality is to become a responsible person, a person who performs actions in accordance with reality and the fulfilled will of God (Ethics, p.224). Hart’s form of certainty stands in danger of foregoing the necessity of reconciling the two forms of discourse he engages and thus produces a philosophical certainty in place of the hopeful assurance of faith. The formal realities of God known through creation take precedence, in his dogmatic universalism, over the hopeful universalism of faith in Christ.  The danger is in missing the prime reality of the world engaged by Christ; the basis for a responsible ethical overcoming of evil.


[1] In Bonhoeffers description.

[2] David Bentley Hart “God, Creation, and Evil: The Moral Meaning of creatio ex nihilho, in Radical Orthodoxy: Theology, Philosophy, Politics, (Vol. 3, Number1 (September 2015): 1-17) p. 5

[3] Gerhard Forde’s On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518.

Hell and Universal Salvation

If one has never questioned infernalism (the belief that some or many will experience eternal torturous punishment in a future after-life), David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven Hell and Universal Salvation is probably too large a pill to swallow. On the other hand, those who have never questioned infernalism are probably not the target audience of the book, which is part of the problem and Hart’s opening point; “I know I cannot reasonably expect to persuade anyone of anything, except perhaps of my sincerity” (p. 4). Those who follow the argument will simply agree that it “successfully expresses their views,” while those who disagree will either dismiss his argument out of hand or presume to leverage the same old tired counter-arguments. “The whole endeavor may turn out to be pointless” (p. 4). The feeling of futility may be peculiarly irksome as the gravity of eternal torturous punishment pulls every other doctrine into its orbit, even and most especially the doctrine of God. If God is eternally angry (in spite of the Biblical teaching that he is not), if eternal torture of finite humans is part of his plan and necessary to his ends, and if it is by this means that God demonstrates his sovereignty, one might become suspicious, Hart argues, that Satan has taken the place of God and that worship of one or the other is an arbitrary choice.

 The problem is, if one pulls out the infernalist thread, then atonement theory, anthropology, and doctrine of God, in the common Western understanding will also unravel. Hart’s hard-hitting volume raises the question, given “the sheer enormity of the idea of a hell of eternal torment” and the “absurdities and atrocities” it entails (p. 78), whether we are still dealing with the same God and faith as that of the New Testament? Given the “moral hideousness” (p. 79) of infernalism, given that like God one will be required in eternity, according to Tertullian, to learn to relish “the delightful spectacle of the destruction of the reprobate,” given that, according to Martin Luther, “the saved will rejoice to see their [former] loved ones roasting in hell” and that according to Thomas Aquinas “the vision of the torments of the damned will increase the beatitude of the redeemed (as any trace of pity would darken the joys of heaven)”  (p. 78), given all this (and more) do we still have to do with the religion of love of the New Testament? Hart does not put the question exactly like that, but this gets at the enormity of the shift for which he is arguing. In short, eternal hell distorts the character of God, changes the nature of salvation, puts human will at the center of eternity, creates a feeling of elitism, diminishes the value of the vast majority of humanity, and shifts the focus of the New Testament and the work of Christ away from salvation from sin and death to salvation from eternal torturous existence.

Several pages of the book are given over to simply listing those New Testament passages which seem to describe an unqualified universality. The opening epigraph sums up the idea of some 25 passages Hart deals with: “Our savior God. . . intends that all human beings shall be saved and come to a full knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:3-4, Hart’s rendering). Hart’s translation of the New Testament, which he considers the required starting point (he sees the book as a companion to his translation), at a minimum, “restores certain ambiguities” (p. 3) read by the early Church as entailing universal salvation. The evidence indicates, “that the universalist faction was at its most numerous at least as a relative ratio of believers, in the church’s first half millennium” (p. 1). This did not rule out belief in hell, rather; “to them hell was the fire of purification described by the Apostle Paul in the third chapter of I Corinthians” (p. 1). Hart maintains, “There have been Christian universalists . . .since the earliest centuries of the faith” but the theological influence of Augustine has given rise to two millennia of misunderstanding in the West (“if only he had died twenty years earlier,” Hart laments elsewhere).

A significant part of the book is spent refuting the notion that the integrity of free will requires belief in infernalism. Hell allows some to be in eternal rebellion while others use their free will to choose God. In either case, the main thing is the integrity of human will (unblighted by coercion or by circumstance). Hart’s point is that this entails a faulty view of free will.  Is free will total freedom from any constraint, any authority, any tradition, so that nothing constrains? What would total lack of constraint look like, presuming it a possibility? We might describe someone who jumps off a bridge or who runs into a burning building for the sheer fun of it as exercising their unconstrained freedom. Maybe the individual wants to feel the freedom of flying off the bridge or maybe they want to experience the exhilaration of being burnt alive. This person may be exercising a kind of liberty, but it seems they are slaves to delusion, that they are experiencing a poverty of rational freedom. Pure choice, free of purpose, and free of a goal is simply “brute fact” and has nothing to do with free will.

Our choices (or will) are always exercised on the basis of some rationale and this reason depends upon circumstance. In the Bible, humanity is depicted as deluded, held captive by a lie, enslaved to sin. This means understanding and knowledge are bent by circumstance and will is deluded by sinful contingencies and capacities.  Sin is a marring of reason, an obscuring of the truth, and a perversion of reason. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free, so that freedom requires truth. To imagine that free will is at work in the state of sin is to misunderstand both the nature of free will and sin, as well as salvation

Salvation is the exposure of the delusion and the displacement of a lie with the truth so that one puts on her right mind by having the mind of Christ. The more one is in her right mind, the more she is conscious of God as Goodness that fulfills all beings. The more she recognizes that human nature can have its true completion and joy only in him, to that degree she throws off the fetters of distorted perception and is freed from deranged passions. Seeing the good in God is simultaneously a reshaping of the will, so that rightly understanding and rightly willing are synonymous with total freedom. Liberated from crippling ignorance and emancipated from the impoverished condition of sin, the rational soul can freely will only one thing – its own union with God. Seeing the good, the true, the beautiful in God, draws us inevitably toward God. As John depicts it, “When I am lifted up, I will drag all men to myself” (John 12:32). God’s will is being enacted in creation, in history, in all of our lives culminating in universal worship: “Every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11).

The compelling necessity of the light is not a constraint on freedom, as demonstrated in the truly human one. The “integrity of Christ’s humanity entails that he possesses a full and intact human will, and that this will is in no wise diminished or impaired by being ‘operated’ . . . by a divine hypostasis whose will is simply God’s own willing” (p. 189). True freedom in no way necessarily entails the possible choice of rejecting God, as Christ could not have been fully human. This lack of choice is no constraint upon the freedom of the will. It is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good; a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him.

Hart’s dogmatic universalism raises the question of focus (is it, like infernalism, weighted heavily toward the future) and balance (where is justice to be found), which I will address next week.

Letters from My Father

My father was born in 1911, eight years removed from the first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, four years before the first coast to coast telephone call, and well within an age to remember WWI. As a child, he heard of a new weapon called a “tank” and pictured it according to the only tank he was familiar with – a sort of large oil drum with a slit around the middle permitting vision and a seat in the middle suspended in midair, large enough to simply roll over the enemy and every obstacle. His mother still enjoyed racing her horse and buggy against challengers along main street in Parsons Kansas, even though the Model T was quite popular.  As a boy he shook the hand of Frank James (of outlaw fame), whose ranch was a tourist attraction in Oklahoma. He would be among the 2nd generation of pilots and was taught to fly, he would find out later, by a flight instructor who taught an entire generation without benefit of ever attaining a pilot’s license. He owned a variety of airplanes, boats, and horses, the latter which he would race. He was a small-town mayor, edited and published his own newspaper, was the owner/operator of a small airport, and managed a variety of mobile home factories.

He lived through the Great Depression – though he was of an age and temperament that, in the telling at least, made of the Depression one of the most colorful and least depressing periods of his life. Depression in fact, is the last word I would associate with my father, despite living with the effects of polio and struggling his entire life to earn a living for a large family, which he was not unsuccessful at doing. Even in his final years in the nursing home, unable to walk and his memory sometimes unclear, he was still geared to making the most of his time. He instructed me to bring him the want ads from the newspaper as he planned to set up a car brokerage using the nursing home telephone.

My brothers and I would inherit no fortune, but the legacy we received was in the stories he told, which were not morality tales but which conveyed a perspective, a history, we carry. The comparison might be with those fascinated by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, but my father’s stories were not otherworldly, but earthy, firmly located in a particular time and place, concerning people he had known or his own experiences, and yet always bearing a sort of enchantment.

Many of these stories he eventually reproduced in written form.  A simple example, Roy Hardman:

Roy was a piano tuner and totally blind. He could not tell daylight from dark and his wife was also totally blind. Through the “short money” years, Roy and his wife raised a family of three, owned their own home, and was never dependent on the County, State, or relatives for any kind of assistance.

Now, one of the most far fetched tales of my repertoire is: Roy drove his own car. I have seen him many times in the Twenties with one of the children beside him telling him when to stop, turn, etc. Furthermore, as the children grew older, he taught each of them to drive the automobile.

Leroy, his second eldest has told me that his main caution was: “You can’t depend on the other driver avoiding you, as a lot of drivers don’t watch where they are going.”

Dad walked with a limp and many of his stories concerned those, like himself, whom he affectionately referred to as “gimps”: “My definition has always been a person with a handicap in appearance but not in reality. The ones to whom I refer have so completely overcome any handicap that they rather proudly refer to themselves as gimps.” Peg Highland, Up and Down John, Kraut Cutter Cherry, One Eyed Johnson, bore their “disability” in their moniker. Others like Luther Cortylou, another up and down walker, were known, not for their disability, but for an added flair it gave them:

If he passed fifty women on the street, he lifted his hat fifty times. It may have been an optical illusion, but it appeared as if he grasped the crown of his hat on his high step, held it level and stepped down from under the hat without having to lift it.

Cortylou was, in my father’s description, “in no way handicapped other than being president of a bank.

One Eyed Johnson worked for my father selling educational courses, during Dad’s short stint as a “professor” (another story). According to Dad, Johnson carried his glass eye in his coat pocket as it was most uncomfortable in his eye socket, but he thought it more dignified to have two eyes in place when calling on a prospective student. So, he would pop it in at the last minute to make a good impression.

He would knock and step back in his most elegant pose for the lady (he was selling secretarial courses) to open the door. A big smile that exposed teeth resembling the keyboard of a small piano, one blue eye and the other eye covered with tobacco crumbs and pocket fuzz. It was impressive as I am sure they remembered it forever.

There were over a hundred characters and stories, many simple vignettes, Dad would relate which had a cumulative effect. I suppose one could extract some sort of moral from some of his stories; many were darkly humorous, but all of them flowed out of a deeply amused, profound appreciation for life and people.  

 In my college years, feeling he had neglected corresponding with us regularly, Dad began to send us monthly letters addressed to his four sons, not by name but in the fashion of the Chinese television detective, Charlie Chan, who addressed his children numerically (“number one son,” etc.). He would simply print out the numbers 1-4 and circle the appropriate number. I was living in the dorm at the time, and a group of students, upon hearing I had received another letter, would gather to read it. Many of the stories were those that I had heard growing up, and so I knew them word for word; where to pause for effect, and the cadence in which they were told. Others were new to me (a bit off-color), vaguely remembered, or filled with new detail.  After more than a year of receiving these letters, one Christmas he presented each of the four of us with a bound copy of the letters.

More than forty years have passed since I received those bound letters and I have acquired hundreds of books and have even begun to dispose of books, as I realize I have limited time and space.  I have noticed postings on Facebook of people listing ten favorite or most influential books, most of which (being as I am friends with those of similar background) I have read or am familiar with. Some of the choices I agree with, some I feel sad that one has had such an impoverished life of the mind. I would have trouble sorting out single volumes among the many books which have been of key importance. Mostly I have read, absorbed the main points, moved on. The Brothers Karamazov profoundly impacted me, but I don’t think I have the energy or desire to reread it. Certain theologians deserve a second look, but mostly “I got it.” Maybe it is a sign of old age – I continue to read – but am less easily impressed, harder to engage fully, and much of my library, I now realize, is of limited importance.

The one book in my library which I will not part with bears a gold inscription against a black background, Letters From Papa. It may be of limited literary value, and no, it is not of biblical proportion. But having grown up with my father’s stories, I recognize the primary importance of narrative in finding and appreciating time and place.  The stories of a small town in Kansas were preparation for realizing the extraordinary in the ordinary: say, in the town of Bethlehem a child was born and they laid him in a feed trough as the child and his parents were economic and social gimps, not worth notice.  

Imitation as Death Dealing or Life Giving

The anthropological fact to be extracted from the biblical portrayal of fall and redemption, an understanding supported by both observation and recent developments in brain science, is that we are human by imitation. In biblical terms, damnation is imitation of evil (Heb. 6:12; III Jn 1:11) and salvation is imitation of Christ (I Cor. 1:11; Ephesians 5:1; Hebrews 13:7) and this basic concept properly informs the movement from fall (the first Adam as model or head of the race) to redemption (the 2nd Adam as model). Imitation accounts for the peculiar form that evil takes (the turn to violence, the experience of desire, jealousy and shame) and the necessary form that redemption takes (faith as the imitation of the faith of Christ, and corporate redemption). What it means to be human (freedom from mere instinct, freedom from the rule of brute strength), in both the extremes of evil and goodness, is due to the role of imitation or mimesis.  

The original image (God’s self-image) includes the corporate mirroring of Trinity. The work of the Son is a reflection of the Father enacted by the Spirit. Reflection shared (seeing oneself through another’s eyes) (Gen. 1:26-27) accounts for the corporate identity of God and the necessary plurality of humans (male and female) who bear this image. This also means the imaging part of image bearing depends upon the presence of the original image. The image of God shared with humans simultaneously includes the capacity for imitation and the necessary presence of God as the model to be mirrored.

The fall of humans is a turn from the Divine model, and as Paul describes it in Romans is, in the first instance, a turn to the human self-image (1:23). What can it mean that humans provide their own model? The self’s relating to itself in the relation (to paraphrase Kierkegaard), or the caving in of the individual, is witnessed in shame and hiding, but also in a new role for language. The deployment of language to name, apprehend, and connect with God and creation, collapses in upon the self, indicated in the new word coined for the occasion – “I.” This I is constituted in a bundle of new emotions – shame, fear, alienation, antagonism, and then murder. The circulating system of one sign referring to another (the knowledge of good and evil) is ultimately empty. Desire seems to endlessly follow the signs with no signified in sight.

If imitation is what makes us human – language learners lifted beyond instinct, it also accounts for the degraded form humanity can take. Where Adam had been created in God’s image, Adam “had a son in his own likeness, in his own image” (Gen. 5:3). Following the logic of Romans 1:18-32 and the early chapters of Genesis, the capacity to imitate God, turned into the desire to be God or to take his place, makes of mirroring and imaging a relation of the self to the self (the mind’s mirror) – a capacity for imitation turned around to mimetic desire. The subject looks to other persons, creation, himself, the law, for the object that will provide being, life, self-possession. The model may seem to be endowed with superior being – but this imagined plenitude only accentuates the lack in the self. There is no end to this jealousy as it leads to an ever-heightened desire. Every jealous child would bring down the world to get what they want. The near absolute role of the mimetic in humans has no instinctual brakes, no instinctive subordination to alpha males, no limit to its destructive desire. The jealous adult, unlike the jealous child, may have no subordinating power to control the murderous instinct.

Taking the place of the other, obtaining what they have, gives rise to the first murder (Cain slays Abel in a twisted bid to obtain his acceptance by God) which turns into an ever-snowballing epidemic of violence. Lamech, after what is perhaps a double homicide, and with his penchant for murder poetry, is representative of the new sociopathic race. Adam as model gives rise to Lamech at the head of the generation of Noah with its epidemic of violence from which even God cannot redeem.  

How Babel is an improvement over the generation of Noah is not completely clear but the confusion of languages precedes the first appearance of idolatry and the rise of homosexuality. The events of Babel seem to inaugurate a very different symbolic universe. The Sociopathic murder (all out chaos) of the pre-flood generation is replaced by tribalism, organized violence, and rampant idolatry. Even in the household of Abraham, Terah (Abraham’s father), was an idolater who also made and sold idols (according to Midrash Genesis Rabbah 38).

Abrahamic religion, at each step, seems to counter the idolatry spawned by the Babylonians. Like every good idolater, they would open heavens gate and obtain their own transcendence through their ability to stack bricks while Abraham is made to trod the earth and embrace his mortality. They would storm the heavens while God speaks to Abraham on earth; they would make a name for themselves while God’s promise is that he would make Abraham’s name great; they would engineer their own salvation through an enduring tower while Abraham is dependent upon God and faces the reality of his dissolution; they refuse to be scattered from the land while Abraham is set to wandering.

The slow extraction of Abraham from mimetic religion may describe his entire life-course. His departure from his country, his kindred, and his father’s house, is a departure from potential human models. Everything familiar was to be left behind including mimetic religion. Abraham hears the voice of God, but he imitates Melchizedek in calling Yahweh “the LORD, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth” (Gen. 14:22).

The identity of God as the source of all life pertains to his circumcision. In Jewish understanding this cut inscribes God’s name on the flesh. In the words of Derrida, “Circumcision is to be thought in terms of the cut that severs the circle of the same, as the cut that opens the same to the other, which cuts a very different figure.” It is the cut that turns from the immanent creation to God as model. In Gen. 17 it establishes the covenant in which Abraham turns definitively to worshiping God. Where mimetic desire is the pursuit of wholeness for and within the self, circumcision renders the body fragmented or incomplete but depending on the life or completeness of God – a different order of desire.

Abraham’s non-sacrifice of Isaac may be the final counter to a religion which would sacrifice the other so as to obtain life. When Isaac asks his father: “The fire and wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” Abraham’s answer is “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22.1-8). The allusion is not simply to the ram Abraham finds, but to Christ. As René Girard puts it, “God, in this sense, will give the one who will sacrifice himself in order to do away with all sacrificial violence.”[1] Abraham’s journey from what was probably a religion of human sacrifice, involves the turn from presuming life is within his capacity or his power to produce. His acceptance of his own mortality, the realization he was “as good as dead” (Rom. 4:19) and thus completely dependent upon God, marks the final turn from the mimetic grab for life at Babel.

The basic negative emotions – shame, jealousy, envy – can be understood as arising with mimetic rivalry – desiring life and wholeness and feeling its absence. With the faith of Abraham made complete and available in Christ, imitating his faith saves from blind sacrificial violence. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Eph. 5:1; Heb. 6:12). Rivalry, jealousy, and violence, are displaced by hope, love, and peace in the saving imitation of Christ.


[1] René Girard, Evolution and Conversion, pp. 203-04.

The Lie of the Divine Necessity of Sacrifice Exposed by Christ

Sacrifice is a central biblical theme but is this focus necessitated by God or humans? Does God require sacrifice or is it a human necessity? How we answer will determine our understanding of the meaning of the death of Christ: either as a culminating sacrifice required by God or as an intervention into human evil and an end to sacrifice. Combined with the prophetic tradition decrying the need for sacrifice (connecting it with disobedience, evil, and murder and echoed by Christ), and the explanation of René Girard of how sacrifice figures into human religion and culture as a cover for violence, I argue below that to interpret the death of Christ as a divine necessity conflates the Gospel with the evil it is meant to overturn.

The work of René Girard (1923-2015) decisively and exhaustively explains why sacrifice is at the center of violent human culture and religion and how it is that the Gospel intervenes in and halts this human necessity. In Girard’s depiction, religious sacrifice is the linchpin directing and organizing human violence so that cultures endure and arise in the midst of the need for spilling blood. There will be blood as human desire is mimetic or imitated, which gives rise to murderous rivalries (rivals desire the same object and this rivalry and desire snowball into chaotic violence). In Girard’s explanation, violence directed at a scapegoat contains this violence, so that culture depends upon an original murdered scapegoat. Religious myth hides the original murder as the victim is deified (as in the Enuma Elish, Marduk creates the heavens and the earth out of Tiamat’s corpse, myth depicts creation from out of death). Religion and culture do not cure this violence but organize it, direct it (onto enemies or victims), and utilize it behind religious sacrifice obscured behind myth. To be religious or cultured, under this definition, is not to be freed of the instinct to kill; rather, the need is sublimated and redirected onto a victim or group of victims and this “scapegoating mechanism” blinds those who deploy it.

According to Girard, Christ fills the role of the scapegoat so as to expose this blindness. The blindness presumes that the scapegoat is the source of all trouble and his death will resolve the problem (everything from sickness, drought, to fear of the destruction of the enemy). It is the fear that Rome would destroy Israel that points to the resolution of the crucifixion: “One man must die to save the nation” (John 11:50). As with every scapegoat, Christ is the perceived source of the problem and his death will provide the solution, as guilt and payment are loaded onto this innocent victim. In the words of the Psalmist quoted by Jesus, “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19). They demonize and criminalize Jesus, who submits himself to their blindness as, “These words of Scripture have to be fulfilled in me ‘He let himself be taken for a criminal’” (Luke 22:37; Mark 15:28). In Girard’s explanation, the victim’s guilt is the mainspring of the victim or scapegoating mechanism – so that “persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without cause.”

 Pilate, the official Roman judge, declares Jesus innocent: “I find no fault against this man” (Luke 23:4). Even with his wife’s warning though, he is swept up along with the crowd. As Girard depicts it, blind anger becomes a contagion and Pilate, and all of the rulers, are caught up in the epidemic, fulfilling the role of a universal scapegoat depicted by David in Peter’s description: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one” (Acts 25-26). Even Peter is swept up in the contagion with his violent denunciation of Jesus.

From the cross Jesus says, “Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The exposure of this blindness is a key part of the revelation of the Gospel. Peter confirms: “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” (Acts 3:17). Given Girard’s notion that the scapegoating mechanism depends upon belief in the guilt of the victim, the perpetrators acknowledgement of Christ’s innocence means the scapegoating mechanism and the blindness upon which it depends is exposed. The repentance and conversion of the first Christian congregation directly pertains to their involvement in sacrificing Christ. The willful disobedience that killed him is exposed and is not a backhanded way to achieve Divine forgiveness (as portrayed by Anselm).

They killed Christ, in part, in expectation that his sacrifice would save the Nation from the wrath of Rome but also that it would save their religion and Temple. The worst evil, killing Christ, imagines this sacrifice can propitiate and turn away wrath (the violent wrath of the enemy). At the same time, as with religious myth, the violence within the society, the potential violence of the enemy, the violence inherent to the human heart, is projected onto God as a Divine necessity. The Jews imagine, in their ignorance, that God demands the sacrifice of Christ due to his “sacrilegious” claims he will destroy the Temple (with its sacrificial system). His ultimate crime in their estimate is against the Temple and its sacrifices, on behalf of which they sacrifice Christ.

This understanding aligns with prophetic texts which depict sacrifice as conjoined to willful disobedience to God and rejection of his word:

For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.”

Jer. 7:22-23

God, through the voice of the prophet, disclaims any command to sacrifice and equates sacrifice, either directly or indirectly, with their walking in “their own counsels and in the stubbornness of their evil heart,” and the fact that they “went backward and not forward” (v. 24). Sacrifice parallels willful ignorance: “I have sent you all My servants the prophets, daily rising early and sending them. Yet they did not listen to Me or incline their ear” (v.25-26). Instead of obeying and listening they sacrifice and this sacrifice does not curb their wickedness. It seems to enable transition to human sacrifice: “They have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, and it did not come into My mind” (v. 31).

Anti-sacrifice is thematic in the Psalms and Prophets: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required” (Ps. 40:6). “Open ears” seem to stand in contrast to sacrifice. While disobedience is not directly linked to sacrifice, “pride” and “falsehood” stand in contrast to those who trust in God (v. 5), and those who trust in God understand God desires obedience not sacrifice. The full realization of this points to the coming Messiah: “Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; In the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart’” (v. 7-8).

The verses decrying sacrifice are explicit in connecting it to a misapprehension of God:  

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? (Is. 1:11)

This question comes amidst the accusation that these people “despise” God and are “corrupt,” “iniquitous,” “evildoers” (v. 4). They are morally sick from top to bottom (v. 5) and they presume to hold up “blood covered hands” in prayer (v. 15). All of this presumes on the notion that they offer up sacrifices to cover their sins. Instead, here and in Jeremiah (as in James), true religion will involve caring for widows and orphans, and ceasing to do evil (v. 16-17). A religion which presumes sacrifice covers evil is apparently worthless.

Specifically sacrifice is connected to disobedience which often culminates in murder: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). Far from sacrifice enabling love and knowledge, those who sacrifice simultaneously “dealt treacherously against Me” (v. 7), leaving “bloody footprints” (v. 8) and their “priests murder on the way to Shechem” (v.9). Shechem was like an alternate Jerusalem, the ‘holy place’ for the Northern tribes where Abraham had received the first Divine promise. Now, instead of loyalty (covenant keeping), murderous religion reigns.

Jesus sights this passage in Hosea (Matt. 9:13; 12:7) and maintains that if they understood it they would not, by implication, have condemned him: “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7). It is not only his death but all murder which Christ links to their misapprehended religion. Jesus claims that the history of murder and its cause is interwoven with the spiritual blindness of the Scribes and Pharisees:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.

(Matthew 23:34-36)

The first murder and the last in the Hebrew Bible stand for the history of murder. The Pharisees did not commit these murders but they encapsulate the impetus behind murder, as revealed in their reaction to Jesus. They disclaim responsibility and connection to the history of this murder – and of course they are not directly responsible. It is not that they have inherited guilt but in distancing themselves, scapegoating their forefathers, they perpetuate the problem. “For you build the tombs of the prophets, and it was your fathers who killed them. So you are witnesses and approve the deeds of your fathers; because it was they who killed them, and you build their tombs” (Luke 11:47-48). It is not simply that they like dead prophets and would kill the living prophet Jesus, but in not recognizing themselves in their forefathers they perpetuate their crime. Their blindness to what they are doing is evident even as they are doing it. They immediately demonstrate a willingness to kill Jesus in disclaiming any likeness to those who killed the prophets (11:54). As with Christians who scapegoat the Jews for killing Jesus and then kill Jews, scapegoating perpetuates the founding murder and its propagation.

 Jesus proclaims “what has been hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35). The murder of Abel at the foundation of the city of Cain is the first in a series of murders upon which the religion, culture, and cities of humankind are founded. The City of Man, as with Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus and every founding myth begins with a founding murder. The myth which would deify and cover over the murder of the victim is now exposed. In Christ what sacrifice hides is now revealed. No longer can we claim that sacrifice and murder are perpetuated by God – as His murder and all murder “shall be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:51). All that would claim the necessity of His sacrifice perpetuate the lie that killed Him.

(Allan S. Contreras Ríos will take up this topic in coming blogs. I hope this serves to introduce his work, which inspired this blog. Thank you Allan.)

A Meditation on Atonement

Language inscribes us into the world but what we would do with the letter, the word inscribed over the body, is escape. We would sink into language like a good Hindu loses himself in “OM” or soar heavenward on the wings of the letter. The word opens the third eye of entry and escape, it energizes the chakras of the body, transports to the essence of the universe, as it delivers from “ordinary reality.” Like the Babelites climbing heavenward the mystic, the philosopher, the engineer, the Don Juan, would sink into, climb upward, construct, or erect, his way to transcendence. The word is interwoven with desire as invisible vehicle and substance giving rise to fantasies of divine ecstasy. The mode of transport is the hidden letter, the invisible word, which brick by brick lures toward divine fullness.

 Fundamentalism of every brand clings to the word – an intonation dripping from the heavens – which has to be preserved in its original essence and repeated obsessively. Behind this compulsion to repeat is Being, substance, essence, endurance, which requires a neurotic grip on certain sounds, precise words, exact rituals, which repeated often enough will deliver the divine essence of self to self.  Like a snake consuming its own tail, the self-consumptive feeding on self presumes to fill itself with the word – the inner essence of self. This Borromean knot constitutes passage beyond “nature” to the pure symbolic order in which copulation, consumption, and desire are written over with (unnatural) eternal significance. The finite world is taken up as part of a divine symbolic order in which flesh would transform into spirit through subjection to the word.

An imagined lost innocence intrudes – a cut in nature to be healed. The drive to return, to achieve synthesis, to close the gap, to return to nature, is the Subject of desire. Achieving Nirvana, eternal return, Moksha, enlightenment, heaven, peace, is the dissolution of the subject. The word holds out the essence of being through a closed wound – the wound of self. Healing is disappearance, silence, dissolution, melding, ecstatic coupling, fantasmic flight. Ultimate meaning is paid for by the annihilation of its empirical vessel. The soul is paid for by the death of the body, heaven requires cosmic dissolution, peace demands absolute obliteration.

In the words of the theologians, first order reality is impassible, apophatic, unmoved, beyond. God is made to sustain a disincarnate symbolic order and the Sisyphean task is to ascend beyond on what is below. The fixed upward gaze can only tread on this incarnate stairway to heaven.

The biological body is refused and speaks only through the unconscious – as erogenous surface, inexplicable trauma, excessive enjoyment. The perceived center consists of organs – the heart, the brain, the bowels, the genitals – without bodies. No longer serving the body but the symbolic order, blood, excrement, thought, semen – the issue of each is an enduring letter – a point of infinite meaning, a sui generis whole. Identity with this production is a passage beyond the body, “outpassing myself into death,” in order to avoid death. The dead letter bears immortality as it cannot die.

 The choice is thought over being, the symbolic over the real, the soul over the body, absence over presence, alienation over love.

If sin names the gap, the struggle towards closure, the self as wound, will salvation accomplish the desire of sin? Does the death of Christ dissolve difference into sameness, satisfy the death dealing orientation to the word, or does Christ expose the delusion behind this murder? Is the Logos on a continuum with this word so that he accomplishes the obscene demand for infinite sacrifice (the body, the cosmos, God) or is Logos sent from God an intervention into this word and world?

The atonement comes to this: The Subject is structured around an absence, and the reification of this absence in the fundamental fantasy (“I am my own essence”) marks the origin and core of the Subject put to death in Christ. The tomb is exposed as empty; the essence is an absence. It is not the supposed noumenal real that harbors danger and promise for the Subject; it is the exposure of this fundamental fantasy that threatens the consistency of the existence of this Subject. This is the primal fear cast out in the perfect love of Christ.

God as love revealed in Christ means the body is raised, renewed, made available. The incarnation is the dissolution of the body as an orthopedic of the soul, as the bearer of the symbolic. The dissolution of the Other (God as apophatic, immovable, impassable, law giver) suspends the world as sign, as law, pointing toward a transcendent signified.

Salvation does not accomplish the desire of sin; rather, communion, koinonia, love, are the signified order fusing flesh and spirit, soul and body, heaven and earth. The body as bearer of the symbolic (law) is dead. As a result, John tell us, “In this world we are like Jesus” (I John 4:17, NASB).

“God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

(I John 4:15-18)

John is pointing believers to an immediate realization of the truth in love. The capacity to love (to walk as he walked in obedience to his example), and the mindset of belief (to put on the mind of Christ) as part of this love are immediate existential proofs (as I’ve written about it here). Where the human word opens a gap (marked by fear and alienation), agape love does not simply close the gap but displaces it with the connectedness to neighbor, God, and self.  Where the distance between sign and signified (the law of the mind and the law of the flesh) disables the will, love is an enabling of human agency, an experience of belief (without dependence on distance or difference or fear), and an immediate realization of the goodness and beauty of God. This is the undeniable accomplishment of the Christ!

Is Evangelicalism Imploding?

The Netflix documentary, The Family, demonstrates the way in which the name “Jesus” has been deployed as a Master Signifier (an empty marker holding ideology together) by one of the most prominent Christian organizations. The documentary hints at a conspiracy but what it demonstrates is the replacement of doctrine and specific teaching (the organization produces its own version of the Bible, entitled Jesus, consisting only of the Gospels) with ideology. Doug Coe, the primary force behind the Family or Fellowship, understood that the work of “Jesus” was most effectively done the “more you can make your organization invisible.” Invisibility and plasticity (a willingness to welcome everyone with power into the fellowship) has made of “prayer” and “Jesus” the all-inclusive tent which has not only included every sitting president dating back to Dwight Eisenhower (all have attended the National Prayer Breakfast) but has included operatives from Russia (e.g. Marina Butina, the Russian woman who pleaded guilty last year to acting as an illegal foreign agent), genocidal dictators, Muslim potentates, as well as being connected to the crushing of organized labor domestically, and an international effort to promote “family values” (an anti-gay/lesbian agenda).  

The invisible center to the Family may be the factor which the documentary misrepresents. That is, we keep watching the documentary expecting there to be some final disclosure, some secret essence, some “it” factor to the Family. As with every ideology, there is nothing at the center other than the presumption that there is some essence which escapes full disclosure. It is the function of ideology which Jeff Sharlet (the author of the books on which the documentary is based and the central voice in the film) describes but fails to name.  In his description, the organization revolves around “Jesus” as an empty center but mainly functions as an organization of political power. The agenda of the group is to connect with, among others, “financiers and industrialists, congressmen, television industry, news industry, state governments, seminaries and churches, junior executives.” Power and influence will cover a multitude of sins – most visible in the organization’s endorsement (anointing) of Donald Trump. As the group previously demonstrated with Mark Sanford (the governor and congressman who went missing for 6 days and later admitted he was with his girlfriend) once the group decides God has chosen you, most anything goes (Sanford was persuaded by the Family not to resign and is now considering a run for president).

The film, like the Trump presidency, is a demonstration of the manner in which conservative American Christianity coalesces around an absence. Evangelicalism, with its focus on future heavenly rewards, imputed or theoretical righteousness, penal substitution, and faith devoid of works, presents the perfect empty vessel. The ethics of the meek and lowly Jesus is as disconnected from the Family’s pursuit of power as sexual purity is from Jimmy Swaggart or nonviolence from Jerry Falwell Jr. or identity with the poor from Joel Osteen.  A religion with an empty center reveals its structuring principle by what it pursues. Power, sex, money, represent the object of desire (objet petit a or the impossible object of desire), which indicates ideology reigns in place of the anti-ideology of the faith of Christ; which is not to say those in the Family understand ideology anymore than Jimmy can understand illicit sexual desire, or Jerry can understand violence and power, or Joel can understand love of money.

The Family, like the evangelicalism from which it springs, reproduces forms of idolatrous religion because it is of the same mold (nothing is made an absolute something). The presumption of a fundamental antagonism (whether between foreigners and citizens, liberals and conservatives, heterosexuals and homosexuals) means definition by opposition or by what it is not. The Family, as with evangelicalism, takes as one of its primary tenets the opposition to illicit sexual pleasure (gay/lesbian sex). Think here of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, and the endless line of hell fire preachers condemning the lurid sex of the sinners – a sex that clearly structures their own desire. The gay/lesbian is representative of the intolerable sin in evangelicalism – the unobtainable object structuring desire. The Family has journeyed over land and sea (Mt. 23:15) to promote their anti-gay agenda in Romania and Africa.  

Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, focused on condemning homosexuality in his preaching while having a homosexual affair. When confronted with the inconsistency by Larry King, Haggard explained that Christianity is a “belief system” (not “a way,” an ethic, or set of practices) which not only takes into account but is marked by the expectation of sin: “You know Larry . . . Jesus says ‘I came for the unrighteous, not for the righteous . . .’ So as soon as I became worldwide unrighteous I knew Jesus had come for me.”[1] In this understanding, belief is one step removed from identity. The faith of Christ makes no room for desire (a way of life which takes account of embodiment) while allowing desire to implicitly structure the religion. In this sense, Donald Trump is the ideal representative of evangelicalism in that he puts on full display the transgressive pleasures his followers can vicariously enjoy. A brief but telling scene in the documentary has Pat Robertson smiling with delight as he describes the sexual exploits of “God’s anointed,” Donald Trump.

Perhaps one of the key figures demonstrating the inherent antagonism in evangelicalism and in the Family is Mark Siljander, whom I interviewed (here). Congressman Siljander made the mistake of identifying too closely with purported Family values, of welcoming everyone to the table. He describes his shift from fundamentalism to “common sense American values” and a growing appreciation for common ground with Muslims. The Family was always willing to meet with and associate with anyone in power – Doug Coe proved this in accompanying Siljander to meet Muammar Gaddafi. Siljander began to study the Koran and to restudy the New Testament, but while working to embrace Muslim leaders and declared “war criminals” in the Middle East, Dick Cheney and the Bush administration were fueling the war on terror. American religion had a new enemy.

 Siljander is one of those good (naïve?) souls who miss the inherent distance created in ideology between belief and practice. Overidentification with ideology exposes its absurdity. Like the soldier that identifies too closely with the rhetoric of boot camp – the ridiculous obscenity of “kill, kill, kill” repeated outside of bootcamp is exposed by one who misses the necessary irony. Like the patriot that too obscenely identifies with love of country (I once heard a Japanese minister describe the atomic blast over Hiroshima as the light sent from God – the obscene side of America as a Christian nation), Siljander exposed the limits of the Family version of the gospel by affirming it too strongly.

His realization that Muslims also follow Jesus and worship God came at an inopportune time. His work with “war criminals” or the new enemies of the American establishment during the “War on Terror” meant his efforts for peace were now “ties with terrorists.” As Ted Haggard explains to one of his gay lover victims, “You know what, Grant, you can become a man of God and you can have a little bit of fun on the side.”[2] Siljander missed the slippage of the ideology of “common sense American” religion and (through a seemingly contrived set of circumstances) ended up serving a year in jail due to the manipulations of those in power. The religion which primarily espouses power on the one hand cannot do without its enemies on the other.

Where the real-world engagement of Christ’s ethics, his challenge of the principalities and powers, his overcoming of death, is not put into place ideology is at work – enforcing the law, denying the desired illicit pleasure to others, oppressing in the name of freedom, creating identity by what it opposes. The Family simply illustrates the ideological nature of evangelicalism and perhaps is one more sign of its implosion.


[1] David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology (Theopolitical Visions) (p. 96). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] Ibid