Are Ultimate Evil and Ultimate Goodness in Confrontation in Alternative Christianities?

What precisely might it be that first century Christianity opposes in pagan religion or simply non-Christian religion? Given the multiple positive references to Greek and pagan thought in both Testaments, it is clearly not a wholesale rejection of human wisdom and religion per se. Religion was not itself a realm apart from everyday life such that one could separate it out and thus avoid it. To be a citizen, to go shopping in the market, to own a home, would necessarily overlap with the realm of the sacred. But two specific acts, participation in pagan sacrificial rites and in occupations of war and violence, were beyond the pale for the first Christians and seemed to demarcate the Christian faith from the surrounding world. Pagan sacrificial rites, as Bruce McClelland describes it, “exemplified quite unequivocally a resistance to the Christian message, if for no other reason than that Christ was presumed to be the ultimate and last sacrificial victim.”[1] Non-participation in the military and limited participation in the rites of Rome were, of course, not necessarily two separate realms.  Given René Girard’s interpretation of sacrificial religion as a process in which the realm of the sacred is created through violence (the sacrifice of the scapegoat covered over in myth), then the early Christian refusal of pagan sacrificial religion can be read as part and parcel of its overall rejection of violence.

By the same standard, contemporary nationalism and capitalism (the reigning “religious” ethos) may constitute the world of our everyday life but as with archaic religion, if violence is beyond the pale the Christian must recognize the line of demarcation. The difference in the modern period is that the violence of archaic religion has been demystified by Christ, which means the genesis of religious myth has ceased. However, a Christianity aligned with nationalism and materialism has separated itself from archaic violence only to engender an un-circumscribed violence. The scapegoating mechanism no longer functions but at the same time violence is no long regulated or delimited. Nationalism and capitalism, in their potential for global destruction are unprecedented and if left unchallenged, extinction of all life on the planet is not simply one possibility but the only possibility.  

As Girard has described it, only sacrificial religion “has been able to contain the conflicts that would have otherwise destroyed the first groups of humans.”[2] Christ has forever exposed the true nature of sacred violence but where Christians are not Christian enough(?), this exposure may simply unleash an unopposed violence.  If Christ is the final sacrifice, the exposure of the scapegoating mechanism, the alternative to sacred violence, then nationalism and capitalism too must be overtly resisted at their point of violent sacrifice and only a fully functioning form of the faith offers the necessary resistance. This is not merely a matter of personal piety or concern for the preservation of an untainted religion, rather it is the means of exposing the anti-Christ, defeating Satan, and redeeming the cosmos.

The mode of resistance, the unfolding subject of biblical revelation culminating in Christ, is not on the basis of violence but is found in a reorientation to even the presumption of violence. There are a group of “power words” deployed throughout Scripture which characterize the violence and sacrifice which Christ opposes and defeats. Knowing (as in the “knowledge of good and evil”), grasping (grasping the forbidden fruit or “taking hold” of Christ), being (“I am and there is no other”) describe the Fall and fallenness in terms of the deployment of power. The attempt to “stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life,” to become the grasper (Jacob) of the blessing, to make a name and storm the heavens through a grand tower, to grasp and seduce (Genesis 39:12), as with the slave granted forgiveness but who then “seized and began to choke his fellow slave,” all describe the attempt to grasp life or substance through violence. As Mathew describes it, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force” (Mt 11:12).  It might be summed up in Jesus warning that he who would grasp life, he who would save his life, by that very act loses it.

 The nature of this power is exposed in the ultimate power grab: “Now he who was betraying Him had given them a signal, saying, ‘Whomever I kiss, He is the one; seize Him and lead Him away under guard.’ After coming, Judas immediately went to Him, saying, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed Him. They laid hands on Him and seized Him” (Mark 14:44-46). The seizing, delivering, and handing over, encompass the ultimate sin, often laid at the feet of Judas. But Judas starts the chain reaction of “delivering” or “handing over” (παραδίδωμι contains both the gift, δίδωμι, and its destruction) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matthew 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified.  John equates this handing over or delivering up with darkness, with Satan entering into Judas, and with the uncleanness that clings to the Apostles feet. Jesus is delivered over to the Gentiles or Romans through the Jews by means of an Apostle, such that every class of human is involved in this deliverance. Darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, are encompassed in the movement which delivers Jesus unto death.

Simultaneous with the grab for heaven is the inauguration of the mode in which the kingdom will be established through one “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It is specifically not by violent grasping but by non-grasping nonviolence that Jesus is characterized and that he is to be imitated (imitation of Christ is the point in this passage). The will of Christ in his surrender is identified with the new law, inscribed on the heart through the final sacrifice (Heb. 10:14-18). The surrender of Christ as victim was not only identical with the law of the new covenant written on hearts; it came about also “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:13ff.). The breathing out of the Spirit is specifically connected with the non-grasping, relinquishing mode of Jesus death. “And Jesus cried loudly, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit'” (Luke 23:46). Suffering is here understood unambiguously as surrendering and handing over the Spirit to the Father. The act of dying, the fulfillment of the mission, and the handing over of the Spirit to the Father come together in the singular event described by Hebrews as the sacrifice of Christ.  Jesus’ judges and his executioners wanted to punish a criminal, to grasp him and hand him over; he wanted to give himself, as the Last Supper sayings show, for the many.

Maximus the Confessor says that Christ on the cross altered the “use of death.” He means that death, which was brought by God after the fall into Eden as punishment, was transformed by the crucified one into a means of salvation from sin.  Maximus compared the scene of the garden of Eden and the cross, suggesting one is a grasping and one is a relinquishing. As Girard has described it, whoever in dying places himself in the hands of another renounces entirely any further self-determination and hands himself over to the treatment of this other. Every act of surrender made during a person’s life may have its limits, but at the moment of dying these limits can be broken down. Death is passage beyond an inexorable limit, beyond all previous limits. Jesus surrendered himself “by the power of the eternal Spirit” (Heb. 9:14) and in imitating his death, in taking up his cross and dying, we too are entrusted in the Spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46). Death becomes the mode of surrender which endures sacrificial violence and overcomes it.

The ultimate destruction aimed at Christ is deflected through a direct confrontation with and exposure of violence. This is the sacrifice that reverses sacrificial violence – it sanctifies, it is the means of character change involved in inscribing the law on the heart, and it is an alternative mode of knowing written on the mind (Heb 10:14-18). As Graham Ward describes it, “Jesus’s life is the performance within which the salvation promised by God is made effective for all; just as the narration of Jesus’s life, work and teaching is the performance (re-enacted by each reader/listener) by which the salvation effected by God in Christ is made available to all.”[3] The Word made flesh is an alternative “representation” or a new mode of inscription. Where in violent sacrifice the flesh is transposed into a semiotic, a grasp for meaning, in the incarnate word flesh becomes the bearer of meaning. As we make the word flesh, taking up Jesus’ way of thinking and perceiving we enter a (metanoia – noeo – a knowing) mode which is not simply a moral category but an epistemological one in which the living word cannot be grasped or possessed or fully comprehended. There is no end of reading, no end of repeating the story as we take up this word which never accommodates grasping ownership.

Life cannot be had through our word, our knowledge, our grasping, our violence. We must give up on this grasping of life. Redemption means a (re)turn to the word of God but the way we get there pertains to our method. The Word must now be inscribed upon the heart and we must be enscribed in the word.  We must be entextualised and take up this word and walk. We must be animated by the narrative force of Christ which is precisely enacted in a non-violent relinquishing of life.

In summary, a “Christianity” wedded to nationalistic and materialistic violence is bound toward an apocalyptic destruction which can only be interrupted by a true form of the religion. It is the confrontation between this anti-Christ and Christ which Scripture depicts as the final confrontation between good and evil, a confrontation now unfolding in two forms of the faith.

(Register for the Module on Religion and Culture on Monday the 27th at https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org.)


[1] Bruce McClelland, Sacrifice and Early Christianity (Ph.D. Dissertation Chapter 5).

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse

[3] Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Blackwell Publishing Ltd), p. 45.

Escaping Idolatrous Capitalism

To ask what comes after capitalism is on the order of asking what comes after idolatrous religion. [1] One might devote his life to defeating Baal worship only to have Baal replaced by Kali. Improvements may be made in the exchange but people will devote themselves to the gods of culture and these gods (even in their atheistic and Christian incarnation) will bear the image of their makers. Capitalism (or late capitalism in all of its incarnations) is the refinement of all that one would expect of a religious system: nothing is made an absolute something, excess/surplus value (not to be found in any actually existing entity) is the only true value, exponential desire set to consume the world (literally sacrificing the planet in poisoning and despoiling its resources) with no counter value (human survival, care for creation, care for those immediately being sacrificed) able to halt the slaughter. This new world religious order may be unsustainable but it appears all pervasive and irresistible. In the devolution of culture, the human disease – the compulsive attempt to extract life from death, has unified into a world religious economy of perfect plasticity in which the god cannot be satiated.

Equating love of money or a system which promotes love of money (greed) with idolatry (Col. 3:5; I Tim. 6:10) goes to the heart of the system and the apocalyptic nature of resistance.  It is important not to be blinded by extraneous elements – imagining that manipulating the economy, exposing the fallacies of the particular system, or reordering the religion is the answer. Capitalism reengineered or exchanged for something else might improve the lot of some: as in the joke that under communism everyone now drives a limo, the explanation comes that the party boss drives the people’s limo on their behalf whereas under capitalism the same man drove it only for himself. One might have tried to convince the ancient Aztecs that the gods did not need war or that the sun would still shine without offerings of human hearts and blood, but the underlying economy would still be at work. The gods are at the service of a very particular economy extracting life from death. One might as well try to convince Donald Trump to give up his wealth, health and wealth gospelers to give up their gospel, name-brand Christianity to sell its possessions, or evangelicals to trade in Dave Ramsey for Jesus’ admonitions against wealth and the wealthy. Only an apocalyptic reordering of the world permits the naming of the idol from the clearing of an alternative economy and kingdom.

Locating the love of money with idolatry means that this too is a nothing that can be treated accordingly. Capitalism is the same process of gaining symbolically (in the realm of the law or the gods) through a process of destruction as is found in every idolatrous sin system. As David Hart describes it, “It is a system of total consumption, not simply in the commercial sense, but in the sense also that its necessary logic is the purest nihilism, a commitment to the transformation of concrete material plenitude into immaterial absolute value.”[2] One is “morally bound to amorality,” greed is good, and the  “the lust of the eyes” is cultivated as, with idolatry, more is the goal. Just as idolatrous religion consumes the lives of its worshipers, so too capitalism is aimed at uninterrupted, planet despoiling, life destroying consumption that is destroying the planetary body for nothing. The living interchange of life becomes a death exchange in which relationship (to others, the planet, and God) is converted into an exchange value – a dead piece of paper.

The answer is not, as Hart claims, that the early Christians were communists. While those in Jerusalem may have willingly shared their possessions, others such as the Corinthians had to be coaxed into giving a respectable amount of money to aid the poor in Jerusalem. This gift reveals that the economy out of which it flows is not communism but something more pointed. The dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile is broken down in Christ, and the removal of this barrier is, for Paul, the archetype of salvation. Money shared by Gentiles and accepted by Jews is the token of its accomplishment. Specifically, the money stands in place of the wall of hostility as a bridge between two alien communities and religions. Judaism is unique in this, not because its law constitutes the only barrier, but because it is representative of all dividing walls between all peoples.

At this point in history it is easy to comprehend that capitalism and nationalism, like any religion, requires its walls. That the wall is also the killing field, and vice versa, is obvious in primitive religion as well as modern politics. For example, in Aztec cosmology the Sun God, Huitzilopochtli, was waging a constant war against darkness and to ward off the dark (and simultaneously ward off the Aztecs’ enemies), Huitzilopochtli required human hearts and blood (supplied, anthropologists now know, from among enemy combatants and peoples). The religion of human sacrifice is the barrier defining Aztecs and warding off their enemies. Paul once stood firm in the breach of the dividing wall of hostility, attempting as a good Pharisee to seal up the border. Christ was sacrificed by Israel to ward off Rome and to secure the Temple from Roman wrath (which eventually came anyway in 70 A.D.). Paul, as a Pharisee, was willing to make more human sacrifices to the cause.

In taking up this offering though, Paul has a very different explanation of Christ’s death: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Cor. 8:9). This sacrifice transforms the economy of Israel, the sacrifice of the Temple, and the orientation to Gentiles. The new Israel and the true Jew will now worship in a Temple not made with hands but crafted from among all peoples in which the dividing wall of hostility is broken down. Christ’s purposeful impoverishment is to be imitated by his followers, enriched by his life which is then to be shared. “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance” (8:13-14).  Economies of lack, necessitating sacrifice of the Other are undone. Paul sees the death of Christ as ensuring their end through the koinonia.

This purposeful impoverishment and generosity is not a vocation for the few but, in Paul’s universal vision, embraces the world-wide (Jew/Gentile) koinonia which is to displace the god of the age. Idolatry and capitalism depend on disparity and human sacrifice: either outright slaughter or the wage-slavery which impoverishes the many for the few. In the koinonia-economy abundance is not for accumulation but for relief of the poor – an opportunity for balance on both sides. Capitalism, by legal definition, treats corporate entities as persons – persons that have a singular purpose – capital gain (accumulation of wealth). In Paul’s explanation, abundance is a sign of an imbalance that needs correcting, a gift that needs to be shared, an opportunity to give and to in turn become an opportunity for others to give. This economy is pointedly aimed at destroying the barrier of human religion and identity. It is not simply an alternative economy but is aggressively invasive in its generosity. If ever there were an anti-capitalist creed it is to be found in the koinonia of Christ.

 This purposeful poverty and dispossession explains why the New Testament does not qualify its condemnation of riches. Jesus good tidings are for the poor (Luke 4:18) and the prosperous and rich are disqualified as disciples: “every one of you who does not give up all that he himself possesses is incapable of being my disciple” (Luke 14:33). The choice is to be rich and suffer judgment (Matt. 5:42; Luke 16:25) or to store up heavenly treasure (Matt. 6:19-20). The choice is between mammon and God (Matt. 6:24), which gets at the truth that money can become a God-like power serving to center a religious-like identity where it is not sacrificially given away.

James depicts it as an absolute and unqualified choice: “You have condemned and put to death the righteous man; he does not resist you” (James 5:6). In his depiction, one is either with the dispossessed savior, the righteous man, or with the wealthy. Biblical Christianity is geared to expose idolatrous religion, but the idol must be named and its economy exposed. The Christian koinonia must be as dispossessively generous as her Lord, so as not to be found among those whose gold and silver “will consume your flesh like fire” (James 5:3).


[1] For Jonathan, Scott, and Matt and the special koinonia we share and for inspiring this blog.

[2] David Bentley Hart, “What Lies Beyond Capitalism? A Christian Exploration” Plough https://www.plough.com/en/topics/faith/discipleship/what-lies-beyond-capitalism?fbclid=IwAR0KPKstix_yBjp5QjfJvGAyZMzs4T4VbIDLpoiSC8xZajuZDV0dh8n9gpI