Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jesus: The Final Scapegoat


The Gospels show that faith emerges when individuals come out of the mob.
Rene Girard

...the women around Jesus are just as important but in a different way: they are that part of humanity which has nothing to do with scapegoating him.
Rene Girard

The 87-year-old French anthropological philosopher Rene Girard has a couple of important contributions for all of us who are deeply jaded or downright irate with mainstream Christianity, longing for a more compelling way to follow Jesus: mimetic rivalry & the scapegoat mechanism. Before you stop reading this post because of the big words contained in that opening sentence, hear me out--I'll make this very simple.

Mimetic rivarly (or mimetic desire) is the universal human condition: the nonconscious imitation of others. As Girard would say, we are not really individuals at all, but instead "interdividuals." We mirror each other and inevitably end up grasping for the same things: status, resources and trophies (etc). The things don't create the desire. We do. And then it snowballs exponentially into violence: "You want what you don't have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can't get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them" (James 4:2).

Mimetic rivalry creates violence and in order for communities to survive this violent chaos these tribes, cities and nations have historically identified and isolated a scapegoat, an innocent 3rd party to channelize and appease collective anger and violence. This "sacred violence" has been used in religious rites to appease God(s): an innocent victim to take upon the sin of the community.

Enter Jesus whose death has been mostly interpreted by mainstream Christian communities as just this kind of sacrificial death. In this construal, God needed Jesus, the innocent victim, to die in order to satisfy the honor of God or appease God's anger or to become the substitute of the collective sins of the people.

Along with biblical scholars and Christian theologians like Joel Green, Ched Myers and James McClendon, Girard acknowledges that there is some of this language in the New Testament and within the writings of the Church Fathers, but he proposes that the real signficance of Jesus is that God forever terminated this wayward human understanding of sacrificial death. There was (and is) nothing divine about it. In fact, Girard proposes that Jesus' death on a cross clearly revealed how unsacred violence really is:

I think the power and truth of Christianity is that it completes the great forms of monotheism, as in Judaism and Islam, by witnessing to the God who reveals himself to be the arch-scapegoat in order to liberate humankind.

According to Girard's studies and therefore his reading of the New Testament, the scapegoat mechanism is a cultural factor not approved by God. Scapegoating has always had a powerful grip on communities and this herd instinct was in full effect during the last hours of Jesus' life, the Passover crowds turning on him and echoing the leaders' calls to "Crucify him!" After all, according to John's Gospel, "Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people" (John 18:14). Caiaphas, the powerful and privileged religious leader...not God.

Girard's minority report of the meaning of the cross is compelling because it confronts the powerful and universal human penchant towards scapegoating. Indeed, a faith that has turned Jesus' death into a sacrifice to appease God takes humanity off the hook. The signficance of the cross is already worked out with no real direct application to our lifestyles. However, Girard's focus on the waywardness of the scapegoating mechanism implicates humanity and calls us to repent from ever scapegoating again. In fact, to be like God is to seek out the scapegoats of our society and resurrect them from the powers of death.

Followers of Jesus today can take upon themselves the vocation of the women in the Gospel stories, the characters who had nothing to do with scapegoating Jesus, following him all the way to the brutal cross. Mimicing the women, instead of the scapegoaters, we proclaim God's precious gospel: that there is nothing sacred about scapegoating and that it compounds the cycle of violence in our lives.

If God intended for Jesus to be the final scapegoat, then we contemporary American followers of Jesus ought to, first of all, be very careful how we simplistically isolate and blame certain individuals and groups of people for complex problems in our world. The collective exaltation over the death of Osama bin Laden, blaming the President for the downward spiral of the economy and the overfocus upon the addict ("the difficult child") within the family system are just a few examples of the way we bind our anxiety and violence by pinpointing one person.

And second, we ought to re-examine how we understand the supposed sacred nature of sacrificial violence. American soldiers who die in battle "for our country" and women who stay in emotionally and physically abusive relationships "for the children" are just two examples of counterfeit notions of "taking up the cross" of Jesus.

Now more than ever, the death of Jesus matters. And, now more than ever, the primary signficance of Calvary matters. Was Jesus a once-and-for-all sacrifice or the final scapegoat? Or as Marcus Borg and John Domminic Crossan ask: was this violence a divine necessity or human inevitability? The answers to these kinds of questions paint the picture of what following Jesus looks like in real time, ultimately shaping the outcome of our lives.

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