Rejecting the Sacrificial System

Theophrastus asked the other day,

A central theme in the New Testament is on Jesus’s sacrifice proper; so what would it mean to reject the sacrificial system?

This is still an incomplete and pretty rough&rambly essay in response, but I’m hoping your feedback will help me improve it.

As background, let me reiterate that mimetic theology interprets the bible as a “text in travail”, which contains the conflicting perspectives of the guilty victim who deserved it; the innocent victim who cries out for vengeance; and the innocent victim who does not seek vengeance. These respectively correspond to the mythic/sacred religion generated by the scapegoat mechanism; the beginning perception of the scapegoat mechanism as unjust; and the full revelation (and thereby disabling) of the scapegoat mechanism. These three perspectives in the bible are then understood to correspond to varying levels of human understanding of divine revelation: different levels of reliability in the transmission of the message, so to speak.

Mimetic atonement theory is one strand within a broader interest of non-violent understandings of the atonement — see for example the recent book Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ.

Mimetic soteriology applies two fundamental premises to the interpretation of the crucifixion: the theological premise that God has nothing to do with violence, and the anthropological premise that rituals of animal sacrifice are ritual re-enactments of the killing or expulsion of a human victim, which is reinterpreted through the myth associated with the scapegoat mechanism as a sacrifice necessary to bring about peace — but which, in actuality, achieves the resolution of a mimetic crisis and averts the war of all against all by unifying the desires of all against one.

Thus, rather than the death of Jesus on the cross being the willing sacrifice who died on our behalf to appease the wrath of an angry God, it is the lynching of an innocent victim who died to appease the wrath of an angry mob.

According to this understanding, Jesus went willingly to this death in order to reveal the scapegoat mechanism and thus subvert it. The mechanism only functions successfully when it is unconscious: like the emperor’s new clothes, a unanimous conspiracy of silence is required for its unifying power to function. The crowd cannot feel unified in its justified condemnation of the victim if it is forced to become aware that its condemnation is not justified after all. (The substitution of animal for human sacrifice makes this easier in cultures that regard animals as inferior: it’s much less likely that someone will object to the slaughtering of a goat than to the lynching of a human.)

As James Alison puts it, Jesus came to live among us and willingly accepted the role of the scapegoat, even knowing it would result in his death, because that’s the only game we know how to play — the only way we humans know how to interact with each other — and he desired to make us aware that there was another game we might play together. If he refused the role of scapegoat, somebody else would get stuck with it, because somebody always does. If he tried to simply tell us, as the prophets tried to simply tell us, we would be unable to hear and understand, because the scapegoat mechanism is anthropological, not merely sociological, in nature. It results from the nature of mimetic desire which constitutes us as “interdividual” human persons, running in well-worn patterns of rivalry and violence.

The Passion accounts describe the gradual unification of the crowd against Jesus: the religious authorities, the political authorities, members of the crowd who testify against him, mock him, and are caught up in the frenzy of a mob intent on a killing. The disciples are not caught up in the incitement to active violence, but do succumb to the passive abandonment. Milbank notes that in the events leading up to the crucifixion, no one will own Jesus as an associate: he is handed off from one party to another, and excluded from all meaningful human relationship. This exclusion is fundamental to the process of scapegoating; the exclusion and expulsion of the scapegoat is sometimes enough to activate the unifying power of the scapegoat mechanism.

Persons who are familiar only with penal subtitutionary atonement (PSA) theory may find this interpretation shocking and heretical. But PSA did not come to dominate Christian theological discourse in the West until about a thousand years ago: prior to that, the dominant understanding was Christus Victor, in which Christ was understood to have achieved victory over death, sin, and Satan. These phrases should still sound familiar – they’ve survived in our liturgical texts.

Mimetic atonement theory combines a variety of Christus Victor, in which by his death and especially his resurrection, Christ destroyed the satanic (literally or metaphorically, as you prefer) mechanism that keeps us embroiled in patterns of rivalry, violence, and murder, with a variety of moral exemplar theory, in which Jesus accomplishes our salvation by providing us with a model for our behavior (and more importantly, for our desire).

However, this isn’t a Pelagian sort of moral exemplar theory, as if all we need is to be shown how to live morally and then make up our minds to do so. Given the mimetic nature of desire, human beings must have a moral exemplar to model the way of salvation, because human beings inevitably do have a mimetic model, and will desire according to the desires of that model. Mimetic patterns of desire are constitutive of the human person: this is what Girard indicates by the evocative term “interdividual.”

Contrary to the popularly held notion that penal substitution theory and its associated forensic understanding of salvation is justified (ahem) by Paul’s letters, Paul actually uses a variety of metaphors to describe what Christ did for us on the cross. He uses not only the forensic metaphor of the courtroom, but also metaphors taken from medicine, inheritance, adoption, and clothing.

As Hamerton-Kelly points out, the language of sacrifice in the New Testament is not always intended to mean literal sacrifice. In his discussion of Mk 9:42-50, he argues that once the workings of the scapegoat mechanism have been sufficiently revealed, and patterns of desire have begun to shift from rivalrous exclusion to peaceful inclusion, it becomes possible to use sacrifice as a metaphor, “in a moral exhortation to behave so as to achieve the peace that the sacrifice achieved.”{Hamerton-Kelly, 1994, 109} Of course, such metaphorical language was already familiar from the language of the prophets, in passages from the Shared Scriptures that are already beginning to uncover the scapegoat mechanism.

A fully de-mythologized mimetic reading of the gospel would stop at the death of Jesus, asserting that his teachings and revelatory death were sufficient to begin the undoing of the sacrificial machinery. But James Alison, among others, insists that the resurrection is equally necessary. In a purely human story, after Jesus had been betrayed and abandoned by his followers to a mob that lynched him, if he came back from the dead it would be to avenge himself on them. Christians today are so familiar with the story of the gospel that it doesn’t occur to us to wonder, why isn’t this a horror story?

It is miraculous that Jesus comes back from the dead in order to forgive his betrayers: to stand there in front of those who were complicit in his murder, and still be the teacher and beloved friend who loves them and gives them peace.

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10 Responses to Rejecting the Sacrificial System

  1. I really like this article. it makes me realize that I need to learn more about how Christians have historically interpreted the idea of atonement as well as the crucifixion and the resurrection.

    • Thanks, Emma. I was amazed, when I started grad school, to realize just how much there was in theology and the development of doctring and tradition that I’d never even heard of before.

      If you’re looking for resources, I can recommend Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: An Introduction. This was our textbook for the Intro to Systematic Theology course, so it’s pretty accessible. It covers more than just the crucifixion, resurrection, & atonement, but it is organized thematically so it’s easy to read just on the topic that currently interests you.

      I liked it because within each thematic area, it covers both historical development and contemporary trends, and sometimes includes discussions of how the ideas developed, how this viewpoint developed in response to that one.

  2. Pingback: Why did Jesus die? | Gaudete Theology

  3. Seek Truth says:

    You mention Satan, but I wonder, do you believe that there is a Satan?

    • I think the question as you pose it is underspecified, because I’m guessing that you have a particular understanding of “Satan” that you’re asking me if I believe there “is.”

      But to take a stab at it, guessing at what your understanding might be, I tend towards a belief in the existence of a personal entity we call Satan. Certainly Satan as the personification of evil and/or temptation is a powerful symbol in the biblical and theological narratives. Because I think such symbols are so powerful, it doesn’t actually matter to me very much whether Satan is “just” a symbol, or is an actual creature; and anyway, we’re meant to be focusing on God, not on Satan.

      I’m intrigued by interpretative approaches to the texts that can work equally well whether Satan is understood as actual or metaphorical, because I think they have a lot of potential for bringing together Christians despite disagreements about this question.

      • Seek Truth says:

        Assume Satan, as described by Christ non-metaphorically in the gospels. He is either real, or Christ was a liar, or the gospel texts are to be discarded as fiction. Which is it?

        • Well, I’ve already answered the question, and I find this formulation of it problematic for several reasons. Your approach to scripture is sufficiently different from mine that we can’t productively engage on this issue; and given that it’s already rather off topic from the blog post. I’ll end this here.
          Thanks for stopping by, and best wishes as you continue to seek truth.

  4. On sacrifice, follow Rene Girard’s work. Or cut to the chase, and see Robert Doran’s THEOLOGICAL STUDIES Vol. 71:1 work on Bernard Lonergan’s “Law of the Cross” which
    neatly parallel’s Girard’s mimetic understanding of human culture with Lonergan’s grasp of the way humans “know.”

  5. Pingback: Redekop’s Mimetic Structures of Violence and of Blessing: as applied to the church and particularly to the sex abuse scandal | Gaudete Theology

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