Girard, Jesus, and the True Meaning of the Broad & Narrow Roads.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

I read a great post on the cross by Morgan Guyton that I wanted to respond to. In that post Morgan discusses Girardian theory, contrasting it with penal substitution. He writes,
The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin ... Yes, Jesus’ death is a payment for my sin, but God doesn’t need to see the blood to be okay with me; I need to see the blood to be okay with God.
This sounds very much like the kind of thing I myself said in my essay Penal Substituion vs. Christus Victor that I wrote many years ago. There I write,
God does not need the cross to forgive us or love us. Jesus forgave and loved people before the cross. But some of us needed the cross to be able to really accept that forgiveness. God does not need the cross to love us: God has always loved us. But many of us needed the cross to really grasp that.
My concern with both of these statements (both mine and his) is that they could be interpreted as meaning that God allowed Jesus to die to appease our need for satisfaction, to appease our need for payback justice. If we have a problem with the idea that God would need to be appeased with the blood of an innocent before he could love us (as both Morgan and I both do), it is equally wrong for us to demand the same. It would be profoundly immoral for God to indulge this desire of ours.

That's what I see as a fundamental problem with Abelardian moral influence theory: It is a nice idea that we are moved by the love of God, but if Jesus died a brutal and violent death just so that we could be moved, then frankly that would be really sick.

So then, that brings us to the question: If we should not think of the death of Jesus as appeasing us, how does Girardian theory work exactly? What does it mean to say that "we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin"? How would that liberate us exactly? I think Morgan gets it right when he says,
It was humanity who needed to crucify Jesus so that we could be convicted by seeing our wickedness made plain and naked before us.
Let's unpack that dynamic a bit more: The idea of scapegoating is that the people believe that the person being blamed and condemned and punished is in fact bad and guilty. They deserve it. Roman crucifixion, just like our own practice of capital punishment today, was intended to be the fulfillment of justice. What the cross shows is that the one who has been condemned by the authorities is in fact innocent and good and holy and that those authorities (both religious and political) are in fact not just and not good. It reveals the injustice of our justice system based on retribution. Thus Paul writes, that Christ "having disarmed the powers and authorities, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross" (Col 2:15). Seeing Jesus in the place of the victim, in the place of the accused, of the criminal, unmasks the injustice of the system, and to the extent that we have embraced that system of retribution as good, it unmasks our hurtfulness, too.

When Jesus says "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Mt 7:13) The common Christian interpretation is to associate this with being a Christian vs. a non-Christian. The "broad road" is thus the one of drinking and sex and sin, and the narrow road is for those who have "accepted Jesus." But I don't think this is at all what Jesus had in mind when he said it. 

The context of this statement (the Sermon on the Mount) is one of Jesus presenting his way of enemy love in contrast to the way of an eye for an eye. It is in the context of Jesus' radical message of undeserved forgiveness. The audience for that message is not primarily those who are outsider "sinners" but insider religious folks who believe in and long for hell and wrath, who believe in punishment and payback as being good and want to see the "bad guys" punished. 

The reason that road is wide is because most people believe in payback justice. So the people on that "broad road" are not only the criminals, those who hurt others with their cruelty, those who victimize, but also those who want to see those people suffer for what they have done, those who want to make them pay, those who long for hell. They are on that same broad road because they are swept up in that cycle of violence of hurting and being hurt, that endless spiral of retribution. Our blind-spot is that we think that it's good and we call it "justice." The broad road is thus filled with religious people, with "good" people.

Jesus instead is calling us to the narrow road of compassion and forgiveness and enemy love. He is pleading with us to recognize that blame and payback are killing us. Literally. I saw a documentary recently about how the Russians, when they invaded Berlin in the final days of WWII, had a widespread practice of plundering and raping civilians. Why were they so brutal? One word: Retribution. They had suffered brutality under the Nazis in a way that we Americans had not, and now they wanted retribution. That's a pattern that we see tragically repeated in history over and over again. 

So again, when I say it is "killing us" I really do mean literally. People right now kill other people in the name of justice, whether it's a personal vendetta or a state action. We send drones overseas and those drones rip people into ribbons-- often times killing little kids or other innocent bystanders. That's sin. All sorts of people are abused or raped. That's sin. So we don't need to make up a pretend sin problem. There are very real ones right in our neighborhood, and for many of us in our own past. Perhaps we are perpetrators or perhaps we are victims (to some extent we have all hurt others, and been hurt ourselves), but either way we need to get off that treadmill of hurt, and learn to walk in love. That's a very hard road to walk. That's what those two roads are about. That's what Jesus meant.

When Paul speaks of our declaring that "Jesus is Lord" he means that the crucified one is Lord and the one who crucifies (Caesar) is not Lord. It means that the one who appears as a criminal, a failure, as forsaken, damned, blamed, rejected, as the terrorist, the criminal... that one hanging on the cross is the holy and righteous Son of God. In contrast, the one who stands for justice, who is strong and rich and glorious and right... that one is a sham. The whole system is a sham. That's what Paul was doing in proclaiming the crucified one. That's why he said it was "foolishness" and a scandal. It still is.

Jesus calls us to identify with the "least" and with our enemies. By the "least" he does not mean someone we sympathize with, like Dicken's Tiny Tim or poor Cosette from Les Mis.  No, the "least" are those who we regard as the least and the lowest. Those we are revolted by and find unworthy. To identify with the crucified is to identify with them. The beauty is that when we can make room in our hearts to love the unlovable that also includes an unconditional embrace of ourselves.

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Questioning "Thus Saith the Lord"

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Over the last several posts I've been showing how the Old Testament does not speak with one unified voice, but in fact presents us with a catalog of opposing views. It is a record of dispute that models for us that it is good and healthy to question.

We began with the example of how Job and the Psalmists question the Law. Next we looked at the two opposing narratives in Ezra and Ruth: One which sought to strictly follow the commands of the Law by telling men to divorce and deport their foreign wives and children, and another that tells the story from the opposite perspective, letting us see through the eyes of one of those foreign women.

We thus have in the Hebrew Bible a record of a people questioning, arguing, struggling to understand God and life around them; struggling to understand what faithfulness and holiness and love and justice look like. Because the Bible presents us with multiple conflicting views of what this means, we are forced to enter into that struggle, too. We are forced to choose which of these conflicting narratives we will embrace, and allow to shape us. To instead attempt to harmonize the Hebrew Bible into a single cohesive narrative is to deny what it in reality is.

The previous examples I have given have been examples of people challenging the declarations of God in the law. Job challenges God. The Psalmist questions the law of Moses. Ezra challenges it, too. In each of these we find examples of faithful humans essentially saying, as Moses said, "Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25). The motivation is to plead for justice. It is a continuing theme of theodicy.

This time I'd like to share an example where we find the voice of God directly challenging and contradicting the voice of God, where we find one "thus saith the Lord" statement confronting and reversing another. One prophet boldly declaring God's will, speaking in God's name directly, and another prophets declaring in God's name that the first prophet is completely wrong.

The first prophet is Moses who declares, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers” (Ex 20:5; Dt 5:9). This is then taken up by the prophet Samuel as a consequence for king David’s sins. Samuel prophesies to David, “Because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the Lord the son born to you will die.” (2 Sam 12:14). The text continues to describe a father’s anguish, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and spent the nights lying in sackcloth on the ground” (v. 16). But David’s prayers were not heard. We are told that “the Lord struck the child” (v. 15) with sickness, and he soon died.

In this account King David sins, and God kills his little boy. Despite his plea for mercy and his repentance, God directly strikes the child dead. “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers!” Thus saith the Lord.

Seems pretty cut and dry until we come to the prophet Ezekiel who declares, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord: You will no longer quote this proverb in Israel” (Ezek 18:3). What is he referring to? His prophesy continues, “He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live … The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son” (v. 17, 19). The command of God, declared by Moses, is emphatically denied and rejected here by Ezekiel.

We find many examples of the prophets doing this, challenging and confronting past prophetic declarations. Isaiah challenges the temple sacrifices "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?” says the Lord. I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats" (Isa 1:11-15). Jeremiah similarly challenges the religious commands of the past emphatically stating "I never commanded—nor did it enter my mind—that they should do such a detestable thing!” (Jer 32:35)

Each of these statements, both pro and con, are placed directly in the mouth of God. In one God is said to kill children for the sins of their parents. In the other God is said to emphatically deny this. If with the complaints of Job and the Psalmist we were tempted to say, "Well, I don't understand, but I have to trust that if God commands it it must be right." This option is no longer open to us here because we have two "thus saith the Lord" statements directly contradicting each other. We have a prophet declaring in God's name, "I never commanded that, and such a detestable thing never entered into my mind!"

That means that even when we have something stated as a direct absolute eternal declaration of God, according to the Bible itself, this is not beyond question. The Old Testament models for us how we can challenge and question such declarations. And what is the motivation for that questioning? Without exception it is always motivated by compassion, as a protest against violence and injustice.

Consider too that all of the examples we have been studying have been examples of scapegoating: Last time we heard the story of how women and children were singled out as the "dirty" and corrupting influence that needed to be purged. They were singled out as the "other", the enemy. This led them to turn on their own wives and children, who at the time in that patriarchal society were the most defenseless. They were the scapegoats. Here in the example of king David we have the most powerful man in all of Israel who has used his power as a king to rape Bathsheba (don't kid yourself, she had no say whatsoever) and then murder her husband. However, just as today where the powerful are "too big to fail" David does not pay for this. Instead his little boy does. Again a scapegoat -- all the blame is placed on a defenseless victim, and this "solves" the problem. Likewise, the complaints of Job and the Psalmists are the complaints of those who have been scapegoated, falsely accused and made to suffer.

When the prophets -- along with the Psalmists and other voices in Scripture like Ezra -- speak out against these divine commands they are speaking out against scapegoating. Why is it that, according to Isaiah, God rejects the people's prayers and offerings? "Your hands are full of blood!" Isaiah declares (Isa 1:15). He then goes on to define the kind of sacrifice that God really desires "Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow." (v 17). Again, the motivation behind all of these protests is always compassion.

Now of course we can see these same concerns for compassion and the plight of the least, the outsider, the unclean, and the enemy expressed in the life of Jesus. We see Jesus challenge the law, saying repeatedly "you have heard it said... but I say to you." In doing this he overturns the law of an "eye for an eye" and the way of enemy hatred that is woven throughout books like Joshua and proclaimed and commanded by Moses.

It is common to thus see Jesus and the New Testament as representing a break from the Old Testament. It is true that we do see a major turning point in the New Testament, however to truly appreciate that we need to first understand that what we are witnessing is the continuation of something that began back in the Old Testament itself. The Old Testament is a record of dispute,  filled with examples of faithful protest. Jesus may have made that protest more articulate and focused with his shift to the way of enemy love, but he is continuing in the tradition of faithful Jewish questioning in the name of compassion that we see modeled throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. 

We need to learn to walk in that way of faithful questioning ourselves. Even when we find statements put directly in the mouth of God, we are invited to deliberate between these conflicting claims, rather than passively accept them unthinkingly. We must make a choice, and so the question is how to we deliberate between them? How do we choose?

We cannot choose based on authority because, as we have seen, we have two prophets each claiming the authority of God, who are making opposite claims. So if we cannot decide what is right based on "the Bible says so" or "God says so" or "the law says so" then how can we decide among conflicting claims which one is right?

The pattern of protest we have seen, modeled for us in Scripture itself, of which Jesus is a part, shows us that the key factor here is compassion. Compassion, love of enemies, seeing from the perspective of the least, the victim -- that is how we can deliberate what God's will really looks like. Love is the summation of the law. As we do the work of learning the way of empathy we will be able to discern what justice really means.

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