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.)