Scripture after Girard
Currently, I’m reading through the New Testament chronologically, in the order they were written, with my wife. As I just finished reading S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross, one of my goals in reading through the New Testament is to be intentional about the lenses through which I read. Girard’s Last Scapegoat theory of the atonement has become important enough (and life-changing enough) to me that I am attempting to use that particular understanding of the atonement to inform how I read Scripture.
(As a side note, this goes against some of the things I was taught in my undergraduate degree. I was always taught that we need to attempt to rid ourselves of all lenses, to try and see what was really being said “then and there” in order to apply it “here and now.” The reality is, I don’t think that’s ever possible. Instead, it seems better to me to attempt to be aware of the lenses through which I read and to be intentional about them.)
While I knew that this understanding of the atonement would radically change how I see many passages in Scripture, I honestly didn’t know how much this would happen. The interesting thing is, I’m seeing it everywhere. There seems to be a hidden subtext woven throughout Scripture about the inherent evils of scapegoating that I simply wasn’t aware of before. So as I’m reading through the NT, I imagine I’ll be blogging some about what I see in relation to this atonement theory.
Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a prime example of this hidden subtext. Obviously, not every word written directly relates to the atonement, but it’s also no secret that much of Paul’s theology revolves around the crucified and resurrected Christ.
In the letter to the church in Galatia, Paul seems to have a very specific purpose in mind: namely, the church has forgotten the gospel as presented by Paul in favor of a ‘gospel’ that requires them to follow the Law along with belief in Christ.
This premise brings us to the crux of the letter in chapter 3. It is Paul’s understanding of the atonement that drives his understanding of how ‘justification’ works, post-Crucifixion. Following his expression of frustration at the Galatians for abandoning his gospel in favor of a gospel under the Law, Paul writes, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1).
Interestingly, Paul jumps from their abandonment of faith directly to Christ’s ‘public’ crucifixion. It is Christ’s public, visible crucifixion that seems to be key in his understanding of what the gospel is. Christ, as the visible victim, bolsters the Church’s need to rely on faith alone and abandon the attempt at justification via the Law. In Girardian terms, it is the Law that provides the means for sacrificial scapegoating. The Law helps to create the taboos with which minorities can be blamed. Particularly, when conflict arises in a community, the Law provides a convenient method for determining who might be to blame for the community’s crisis.
Christ’s (visible) sacrifice, however, saves us from this mechanism. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13). And because Christ’s death is visible as such (rather than transforming into a myth in order for us to be saved from the trauma of the sacrifice), that death breaks the system and allows us to see it as unjust.
It is through this visible sacrifice, this transcendence of the Law, that the Spirit is given. Paul says so in verse 5: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” This Spirit is what enables true unity among believers apart from the Law. Because the Law provided a basis for a community’s well-being, something needs to replace it when it is abolished via Christ’s sacrifice. There are certain rituals (the Eucharist and baptism) that help the community to do so, but it is by way of the Holy Spirit’s aid that the community can stay united, even in the face of conflict that arises.
Thus, due to the Spirit’s enabling and the baptism into Christ’s death, Paul can say, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). This unhinging of socio-economic, religious, and political boundaries is only possible in light of the visible sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.