Why Christ? (Part 2)
December 3, 2006
Yesterday, in Why Christ? (Part 1), I laid a foundation for my realization that we need Christ as a mechanism for our salvation, not because God requires it of us but because we are incapable of accepting the fullness of God’s love and grace on our own– God gives us more of Godself in order that we may more fully accept God’s grace. Reading this sentence by itself may sound like I believe we are more bad than good; I do not. Because we are interested in the topic at all and care about reconciliation with God, we are more good than bad (otherwise we’d just do bad stuff and not care about the consequences).
As a part of that, I talked about Christ’s life and death in solidarity with the world, living and dying with our joy and our pain.
I mentioned the teaching of Rene Girard, with whom I am not intimately familiar. What I do know about Girard is that he is not a theologian as such, which is what makes him fascinating. He is an anthropologist. But he weaves together sociology, psychology, group dynamics, and theology which I think make some really solid connections on how we work as human beings.
It seems somehow fitting that all of this is being hurled at me right here on the cusp of Advent– a time of waiting for Christ and reflecting on the reason we need him.
The first stepping stone on this journey is to understand that as humans, we like to imitate. This seems pretty obvious. Girard calls this need for imitation “mimetic desire”. We imitate our neighbors– wanting what they want. Parents are our neighbors, mentors, etc. The first people we learn to imitate as children are our parents. This is not strictly a bad thing. If we didn’t model our parents behavior, for example, we wouldn’t be able to grow as children into (hopefully) productive adults.
But Girard posits that over time this desire to imitate leads to violence. Because we desire to be like our role models, we end up in competion with them. We may also compete with others who have the same role models (perhaps brothers or sisters). We may continue imitating our rivals or role models even as we compete with them. The most dramatic example I can think of this phenomenon was portrayed in the movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” or maybe better, “Single White Female”.
These occurrences can causes “stumbling blocks” (Girard refers to them as scandals), or things that prevent an individual or group from getting what they want, whether that is “power, prestige, or property that the [role] model possesses or is imagined to possess.” Again, this isn’t hard to imagine– in parish life this happens often. Whatever the parish wants– a new building, a new rector, a better worship experience, more change, less change, or whatever– anything getting in the way of those experiences would be the “stumbling blocks” for the parish. Group dynamics aren’t too hard to predict. The new building can’t be had because we don’t have enough money. A better worship experience can’t be had because we don’t have the resources for a stronger choir. Whatever. Stumbling blocks are easy to find.
Here we are at the crux of the argument for me: When those involved have enough “stumbling blocks”, they have to find a way to release those tensions. How long can the parish withstand the building of anxieties surrounding a number of issues before some action has to be taken? Again, this is common sense group dynamics. In Girard’s model, this is accomplished because the group– all those involved in the whole mimetic competition, select a “victim”, or scapegoat. This is not done on-purpose (it is unconscious). In the parish example, perhaps the group begins to believe that the capital campaign might have been successful had not Joe insisted on including a new columbarium. Or whatever. The victim is then ostracized from the group as the offender causing the stumbling block(s) and the group actually believes that the victim is responsible for the problems at hand. “We don’t have a new building because of Joe.” By expelling the victim, the community restores peace as the stumbling blocks have been removed and the community is now back at equilibrium. “There is genuine satisfaction, among rivals, of this victim/scapegoat process.” The word “scapegoat” itself derives from the Hebrew purity and sacrifice code. The scapegoat was a goat which was to bear the sins of the community and take them into the wilderness. Perhaps the excommunication of Joe is a bit of an extreme example, but then again, perhaps not.
We can see how, in this model, “the golden rule” of treating others how we want to be treated is so important. Our behavior is modelled for others, which is then reflected back at us. The community as a whole amplifies the goodness or badness of our behavior and benefits or suffers as a result of our own good or bad actions.
We see this over and over. We have all probably experienced this in one way or another. We have all been a part of an organization at some time that is going through some turmoil or at some crossroads and unconsciously chooses a victim to expel in order to move forward. After all, we do have a group of people trying to excommunicate themselves from the Most Rev. Katherine Jefferts-Schori over anxieties left over from a very long time ago…
Of course this model is not any different at a sociological level. Look at 9/11. Our country bonded for a few days. But instead of looking to foundational, systemic, root causes, or even staying focused on healing, the US looked for a scapegoat. This was not the action of a single person, president, nor administration (although it was certainly helped along with the desire to imitate the leader in the time of crisis). There was a Girardian scandal of epic proportions in this country, and we had a choice. We could follow the model for scandal resolution that Christ set out for us by turning the other cheek or we could find a scapegoat. We chose the latter– with I believe only a single representative in the House voting against the war when it began. The desire to imitate the leader of the country was strong. Saddam Hussein became the scapegoat for the 9/11 tragedy. The country demanded it. It was and continues to be a sin of tragic proportions.
And then, when the war failed, we turned again, looking for another scapegoat. Interestingly, the very same war which won so much support during the first vote has now been the downfall of the administration which lead us into it. The leader of the Iraq war has now become its scapegoat. He has tried to find his own scapegoat with the firing of Rumsfeld, and we will see if it works.
But I think you see the point– society is appeased with a sacrificial offering. The expulsion of the offering, the victim, appeases society. In the years following 9/11, America was appeased with the offering of Saddam Hussein. Now, America wants a new sacrifice for the mistakes of being poorly prepared for the problem of being poorly prepared for throwing an innocent country into civil war, and for the losses we are sustaining there. Bush has offered Rumsfeld as that sacrifice.
We, as GLBT people are scapegoats too. We are scapegoats of the religious right. Bush’s “other” scapegoat (or should we say Karl Rove’s). I found this article, and interview with Jim Wallis of Sojourners magazine, very enlightening in the context of Girard’s teachings. Note particularly what he says about us as GLBT people. I think he is dead on.
So what does this have to do with atonement?
Well, hopefully some of it is falling into place for you.
The “scapegoat” story is found several places in the Bible. Look at Joseph. Twelve brothers, sons of Jacob. They all compete in an effort to imitate the father. They are all competing for the place of Joseph, the most beloved of Jacob. What is the result? Sacrifice. Joseph is victimized in an effort to restore balance to the remaining competitors. We see the Bible take the point of view of the victim, taking a negative view towards the cycle of violence.
The narrator of Job, too, takes the victim’s side. Remember that in the time of Job, the prevailing theology was very much that if something bad happened to you, you must have done something bad. For the Bible to take the victim’s side given the theology of the day is radical.
Christ? Easily we can see that Christ is a scapegoat. Easily we can see that Christ was the target of the anxiety of the people in a hostile time. I haven’t finished theologizing on this yet– traditional teaching says the Jews killed Jesus, but that isn’t true. Biblical scholarship says that Romans killed him, and that is technically true. But a careful reading of the text shows that the crowd condemned Jesus. Yes, the crowd in fact turned on Jesus and shouted “Crucify him, crucify him”– the very same crowd that greeted him with Hosannas as he rode into Jerusalem, and listened to him preach and teach in the Temple, and allowed him to heal their wounds. Why? He became the ultimate scapegoat.
It is not your standard old sacrifice, though. It is God offering himself to us in love, because we need to find a victim in order to make ourselves whole due to our brokenness. He does this through Jesus Christ.
Christ came at a pivotal point in human history, to turn things around from the way they were, spiraling downward into oblivion, to set a model for the way they should be, beginning to reduce the cycle of violence. It is no coincidence that the arc of history bends towards justice. Girard seems to indicate that the arc was headed the other direction until Christ came, and with Christ’s death and resurrection the arc began to turn the other direction. It does so because we now start to model ourselves after Christ– to imitate him. The world is far from perfect, but had Christ not come we would have killed each other off long ago. Now we are headed towards the kingdom of God. “God sides with the victim, who is truly innocent. As human history continues, the [cycle of violence] will be subverted more and more– at least identified for what it really is.”
Clearly this is not orthodox atonement theory.
Tomorrow, in part 3, which I think will be the final thought, I will answer the Catechism questions surrounding atonement based on this new working doctrine of mine.
Cook, Charles (2006). “Rene Girard: Some Important Definitions of Terms,” Lecture, Seminary Peace Fellowship. Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest, unpublished.