The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free/, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now , in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

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.

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.)

Are We in the Midst of Violence Unleashed by Christ?

In René Girard’s reading of history, the time after Christ unleashes an apocalyptic violence, which accords with the apocalyptic portion of the New Testament. The insight which Girard brings is his explanation of how the Cross inaugurates apocalypse. Christ’s sacrifice exposes the fact that human civilization is a result of sacrificial religion (the sacrifice of the scapegoat). Only sacrificial religion has been able to direct and contain the violence which has allowed for the rise of civilization but the life and death of Christ expose this evil and thus the scapegoating mechanism is no longer effective. As a result, as Christ explained, he did not come to bring peace but a sword, as the evil means of suppressing violence (the very violence which put him on a cross) is rendered inoperative. As Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures…”[1]  Continue reading “Are We in the Midst of Violence Unleashed by Christ?”

The Story of Frank and Two Goats

Hans Urs von Balthazar has formulated what he calls the “theological law of proportionate polarization” in which “the more God intervenes, the more he elicits opposition to him.” Love and sin, intervention and opposition, work in reciprocal relation: sin escalates in the presence of love and ever-greater mercy arouses ever-greater anger.” What is most holy and pure, such as the Tabernacle and the Temple, will draw to itself—like a magnet—what is least holy and what is least pure. This is why the day of atonement requires two goats, this is why evil accumulated in direct opposition to Christ, and this is why the Church is peculiarly conducive to the growth of both wheat and tares.  Great evil and great good will grow up together and tend to accumulate in one time and place.  It is the story Scripture tells and it is a life principle which calls for a peculiar discernment. Continue reading “The Story of Frank and Two Goats”