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.

Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet

Of the “controversy” surrounding the “take-a-knee” protests among certain players of the NFL (beginning with Colin Kaepernick), much noise and political commentary has already been made.  As is usual, social media and the blogosphere have been lit up with shrill opinions since Kaepernick first refused to stand during the playing of the national anthem in protest of repeated examples of egregious police violence against young black men and boys.  Because opinions on this topic tend to be immovable, I don’t doubt that my contribution here will have little impact.  Yet, I can’t help feeling that the perspective I wish to share here may be very different from the ones typically shared—certainly in “evangelical” circles. Continue reading “Colin Kaepernick as Minor Prophet”

Looking for the Church

Driving on the interstate with my wife tonight, we passed another giant church billboard advertising for a church which, prophetically and almost literally, meets at Six Flags here in Atlanta.  In bold letters next to a picture of the preacher in a slick suit, it said something to the effect of, “[name of church] Feels Just Like Home.”

In the darkest recesses of my mind I found myself thinking, “Then why not just stay home?” Continue reading “Looking for the Church”