Tag Archives: mimetic theory

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 3

The last post about S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice focused on chapters 1 & 2 of the book, which discuss some of the difficulties in talking about the atonement in our current, modern society, and specifically how the language of ‘sacrifice’ is virtually unintelligible to us because of the cultural and religious differences that exist.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

Another important piece of the ‘sacrifice’ puzzle comes from being located within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those of us who grew up in a tradition that focused on penal substitution as the defining mechanism of Jesus’ death and resurrection will have enormous difficulty seeing the Hebrew sacrificial system as anything other than substitutionary in nature. Heim’s suggestion, however, is that looking at the Hebrew sacrificial system this way is to read our own cultural and religious biases into the text. In chapter 3, he takes the wide swath of the entire Hebrew Scripture and (I think successfully) attempts to use Girard’s model of violence and scapegoating to explain the what was happening in the sacrificial system. In doing so, he takes biblical inspiration seriously while creating a path towards a non-violent atonement in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Violence in the Text

In chapter 2, Heim also pointed out that for the sacrificial scapegoating system to really work, the victim (or ‘scapegoat’) must remain ‘invisible.’ The use of myth in most (all?) religions generally helps to do this. They tell a story about why sacrifice is useful or necessary, usually from a cosmic standpoint, thus giving the community an excuse to use myth without fear of consequence. Further, each time the scapegoat is sacrificed for the sake of the community, he/she/it cannot be seen as actually innocent or victimized. Otherwise, the true nature of scapegoating becomes unveiled, causing the mechanism to unhinge. “Texts that hide scapegoating foster it. Texts that show it for what it is undermine it” (64).

The interesting thing about the Judeo-Christian narrative (not that it’s that simple or cohesive) is that its texts actually begin to bring the scapegoating theme to the forefront. Put another way, the Old Testament – in some instances – reveals scapegoating for what it is: the victimization of the innocent for the sake of communal reconciliation.

This is part of the reason why many see the biblical narrative as ultra-violent and wonder why. How could Christians, whose primary leader was radically non-violent, worship such a seemingly barbaric, tribal, violent deity (the one seen often in the Old Testament, particularly the conquest narratives)? Heim’s answer is that the violence shown in the text isn’t coincidental, but necessary, especially if humans are to be shown how scapegoating is ultimately harmful and evil. In answer to the question, what is violence doing in the Bible, Heim responds: “It is showing us the nature of the mimetic conflict that threatens to destroy human community,” and “…certain characterizations of sacrificial violence and God’s relation are a crucial part of the whole narrative… They are a necessary part of our understanding, even while they are not themselves a sufficient model for our behavior” (103). Unlike myth, which can ‘sweep over’ the evils of scapegoating, the Bible offers vivid pictures of violence so that victimization cannot be even implicitly affirmed.

All that said, let’s take a look at some of the places where mimetic rivalry and sacrificial scapegoating (and its critique) are featured in the OT.

Creation / Post-Creation

Interestingly, unlike other creation myths, the Genesis creation account is noticeably non-violent. While other myths might include gods cutting other gods in half to create the world or something similar, “the Bible insists that the true origin is a nonviolent one” (70).

Nonetheless, three chapters later, Adam and Eve’s ‘fall’ handily demonstrates why humans need sacrifice, as their casting out of the garden can be seen as a type of sacrifice in order to restore peace. In the next scene, Cain and Abel also shows mimetic rivalry in explicitly “antimythical terms” (71). While Abel’s blood sacrifice is accepted, God “has no regard” for Cain’s non-animal sacrifice. While some of the implications of this are unclear, what IS clear is the existence of jealousy that leads to murder, showing the beginning of the downward spiral of violence post-fall. From here, we see God promise Cain he will be avenged sevenfold if he is harmed, to Lamech who says he himself will be avenged seventy-sevenfold. Further along, God regrets the creation of the world because of the violence and immorality found in it. Even God participates in the cycle by destroying the world to start over, explicitly affirming using violence to fend off violence. Here, in clear terms, mimetic rivalry and violence show their ability for destruction.

After this, God promises Noah, in Genesis 9, that this would not happen again. “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, / by a human shall that person’s blood be shed.” This is roughly equivalent to the “eye for an eye” phrase most of us are familiar with. God’s command about vengeance in this scenario, however, leads to “a dramatic de-escalation” (73) of the violence in previous stories. This leads us to the territory of sacrifice: “From a world of wholesale violence we have entered the realm of proportioned violence, the realm of sacrifice” (ibid.).

The Practice of Sacrifice

Most people understand, at the very least, that sacrifice plays a prominent role in the Old Testament. This is true, not only in Leviticus (where nearly the entire sacrificial system is laid out), but is then continually referenced in the remainder of the OT canon. What IS interesting is the way in which it is presented, even when it is endorsed.

Heim mentions Leviticus 24:10-14, where a man, the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man “blaphemes” the name of God with a curse during a fight that breaks out. The man is singled out as a blasphemer in front of the people of Israel and is stoned for his offense, and his stoning brings about peace and reconciliation within the community. The text completely endorses this version of scapegoating, but does so in a seemingly unprecedented way:

  1. Heim mentions that the behavior (scapegoating) is the same as in other cultures, but the description of the scapegoating event is not. Normally, this kind of event would be presented in a type of mythical account that overlooks the violence within. Instead, “It is presented in a flat and quite nonmythical setting” (75).
  2. This particular type of scapegoating is only found twice in the Leviticus text. The remainder of the text focuses on animal sacrifices and particular commandments for the Israelites.
  3. This particular instance of sacrificial scapegoating is linked to the commandments given in the text (“blaspheming the Name”). These commandments are meant to stop the escalation of retributive violence, but when this fails (as in Lev. 24), “the community will have to resort to communal unity against a scapegoat to restore peace.

The other major detailed focus on sacrificial scapegoating in Leviticus is found in the discussion about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). This is actually where we get the term “scapegoat” in the first place. In this ritual, among other things, two goats are chosen to be sacrificed for the sins of the people of Israel. One’s blood is offered in the sanctuary while the other is used for the transference of the people’s guilt. After having the sins of the people symbolically placed upon this scapegoat, it was expelled to the desert (or a rugged cliff), sent away from the people, ridding them of their sins.

Just like in the previous story, the community collectively centers its violence onto a single victim, which is charged with all of the sins of the community itself, thus ridding the community of its guilt. Heim notes, “What is striking about the ritual is not that it differs from [the scapegoating] model, but that it is so extraordinarily explicit in expressing the underlying dynamic” (77). Here we can see a subtle move in the text; although the text explicitly endorses scapegoating as useful and/or necessary, it also begins to make the victim ‘visible,’ thus working towards a move away from the effectiveness of scapegoating.

The Critique of Sacrifice (The Victim Revealed)

Further, in other canonical books, we can see explicit references to the downfalls of sacrifice and scapegoating.

For example, several of the Psalms reveal the psalmist himself as a victim or scapegoat being treated unjustly (though if the situation were presented from the community’s point of view, he/she would not have been revealed as such). Take Psalm 69:4, for example:

More in number than the hairs of my head / are those who hate me without cause; / many are those who would destroy me, / my enemies who accuse me falsely.

Is this not the scapegoating dynamic we see in the earlier texts, but reversed?

So too, in Job, we see the same thing in longer form. Furthermore, we see Job revealed as a scapegoat and refuse to consent to the guilt his friends are telling him to take on. While we cannot do justice to the entire book of Job here, it is important to note that Job can be seen not just as a book on suffering and faith, but as a critique of the sacrificial system as truly effective. Heim also says this:

The book of Job can be read as a kind of struggle for the soul of the biblical God, a trial as to whether this is a divinity of the classic, mythical, sacrificial sort, or something different (87).

The prophets take this further, as many of them criticize the nation of Israel for giving itself to the sacrificial system but ignoring the God who set up those systems in the first place. Amos, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah all deal with this subject in detail, as God (through the prophet/writer) laments the festivals and sacrifices done in God’s name. Instead, God “desire[s] steadfast love and not sacrifice / the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hos. 6:6).

Finally, Heim spends a significant amount of time on the suffering servant passage in Isaiah 52:13-53-12. It may be helpful to read this passage, specifically with the scapegoating themes in mind that we have discussed. Heim quotes Gil Bailie in reference to the suffering servant passage: “The Suffering Servant Songs combine two insights: first, that the victim was innocent and his persecutors wrong, and second, that his victimization was socially beneficial and that his punishment brought the community peace” (98, emphasis mine). Setting aside the preconceived ideas we have about this particular passage as Christians, it is important to note that neither the author of the text nor God seem to endorse the use of scapegoating in this passage. They call it out for what it is – wrong. However, this does not mean it doesn’t have good results (namely, communal and divine reconciliation). Though God does not endorse the use of sacrifice, God is still able to use sacrifice to benefit the community.

From here, Heim will move towards the crucifixion of Christ and how this is not only a continuation of the scapegoating theme, but virtually a cosmic critique of it.

Advertisements

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapters 1 & 2

Our last post on S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice focused on the four major ways the atonement has been understood by (western) Christians since the crucifixion itself. It is true that there have been more than simply four ways of understanding the atonement, but most (or all) of them fall within one of the four major categories (I found this diagram particularly helpful). Also, the introduction of the book ended with a basic understanding of the atonement from the Girardian point of view. If you missed it, click here.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

Today’s review portion will focus on chapters 1 & 2, and chapter 2  is the first chapter in part I (“Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World”) of Saved from Sacrifice.

Chapter 1 – Atonement on Trial

Chapter 1 begins with a more in-depth summary of penal substitution, particularly because – from my understanding – penal substitution and Girard’s mimetic/non-sacrificial atonement cannot co-exist. The trajectory of the book seems to indicate that, from the author’s viewpoint, penal substitution is no longer viable, and this newer theory can replace it.

Penal substitution, as Heim says, can be summarized as follows: “The cross is a punishment for sin (hence penal). The punishment is applied not to a deserving guilty humanity (us) but to the innocent, divine Jesus (hence substitutionary). And the result is forgiveness, acceptance, and reconciliation between God and humanity (atonement)” (21).

Our inherent sinfulness and disobedience to God, from the moment we are born, means that we are always-already deserving of punishment, damned from the get-go. Not only that, but the punishment we deserve for such disobedience can never be repaid by humans. Thus, Jesus (God-in-the-flesh) comes to bridge the gap that exists between humanity and the divine. He is able to do so because he is actually human (i.e., his humanity allows him to take the punishment in humanity’s place) and he is completely innocent, serving as a sort of unblemished sacrifice to the Father. The problem, however, is that multiple indictments exist against this particular atonement theory:

  1. Penal substitution always trades in the language of sacrifice. – Most of us in the western world are both unfamiliar and uncomfortable with “sacrifice language,” and even sacrifice in general. We are far removed from the practice of sacrifice as some kind of “saving act.” It would have made sense for the NT writers to talk about Jesus’ death in terms of sacrifice, but it means little to us today. Often, Heim says we “[conjure] up some idea of sacrifice from this dim prior history, one that we can half-believe in long enough to attribute meaning to Christ’s death” (23).
  2. The cross has been a keystone of Christian anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. – This is particularly true when we our atonement theology requires a divine victim for our salvation. Thinking of the crucifixion in this manner has historically led (and can lead) to the demonization of Jews.
  3. Our knowledge of world religions and mythology puts Jesus’ death in an unavoidably comparative context. – We cannot deny that myths about dying and rising gods existed across human cultures. The gospels may have claimed Jesus’ death and resurrection was unique, but in what way? Penal substitution fails to answer this question, and (some would argue) may attempt to get some of the same morals across, but does so in a much more crude, violent manner.
  4. Traditional interpretations of the crucifixion are criticized for moral failings. – Personally, this is a common criticism of penal substitution I’ve heard from outside of the evangelical community. Many fail to understand the necessity of the death of God’s son just so God’s ‘justice’ can be fulfilled. Why must this be the case? The notion that God chose this particular way to reconcile Godself to humanity simply seems unnecessarily violent. And then, of course, if God had to do it this way, God is subservient to some ‘higher’ form justice. Either answer leaves some gaping holes.
  5. (Many people say that) Christian ideas of atonement foster toxic psychological and social effects. – In short, Heim asks, “By making the cross God’s recipe for salvation, do we validate violence as a divine way of doing business?” (25). As we said before about the historical tendency of the cross to bring about anti-Semitism, an unhealthily violent view of the cross can also validate the use of (or even unnecessary submission to) violence on earth to bring about God’s ‘will.’

At this point, however, Heim makes a separate point by citing some anecdotes of human responses to the message of the crucifixion (even of the penal substitution kind) that do not respond violently. Suffice it to say that the author does not lay all of his evidence on the charge of violence against penal substitution. The fact of the matter is, humanity’s improper response to the crucifixion in any manner does not necessarily negate a particular theory’s truthfulness outright.

Chapter 2 – The Cross No One Sees: Invisible Scapegoats

Rene Girard

Rene Girard

As I stated earlier, this chapter is the first chapter in part I of Saved from Sacrifice. This section focuses particularly on ancient sacrifice in chapter 2 and then the Hebrew sacrificial system in Judaism before the time of Christ. Heim opens up the chapter with this:

If the work of the cross is a universal saving act, there must be something universally wrong in human life that is directly involved in Jesus’ death. But it must not be universally apparent, otherwise the crucifixion would be obvious good news rather than foolishness and a stumbling block (38).

Being that the New Testament is bathed with the language of ‘sacrifice’ in reference to Jesus’ death, this means we need to take a hard look at (1) the meaning of ‘sacrifice’ itself across all human cultures, especially since it is common factor in all human cultures, and (2) what it is that makes Christianity unique in the history of sacrifice.

In the first instance, as Heim stated in chapter 1, sacrifice is completely foreign to modern humans, and particularly westerners. While many theories abound as to why cultures participated in sacrifice, the fact remains that we know that it doesn’t actually do anything now. Unfortunately for us, however, “The biblical texts… are increasingly perplexing to us precisely because of their literal attention to sacrificial practices and their serious engagement with issues of sacrificial causality” (40).

Once again, Girard comes into the picture to supply us with a theory (which he calls Mimetic Theory), not only about why sacrifice actually works, but also makes sense of the biblical texts about sacrifice (something Heim talks about in the next chapter) – and, eventually, the crucifixion.

Basically, mimetic theory seems to be a kind of sociological expansion upon the theory of evolution. Heim states, “What distinguished emergent humans from other primates was an increased mental plasticity coupled with susceptibility to cultural formation, a combination that spurred an explosion beyond simple genetic collection” (41). In other words, humans seem to have the innate tendency to imitate the behavior of others as well as “shape our own inner life and consciousness on models we infer from others” (ibid.).

However, this is not the only consequence of mimesis. Humans are also susceptible to desiring what we see others find desirable. This allows humans to create particularly intense communities in which ‘mimetic openness’ allows for creativity and innovation to flourish. Unfortunately, the human tendency for imitation also responds in the same manner to destructive dynamics. In other words, “Anger, suspicion, and fear ricochet quickly from one mind to another like light bouncing from mirror to mirror, and their power multiplies” (42). Further, violence (whether purposeful or accidental) begets violence. One person harms another, which leads that family to take revenge on the other, and so on. Without a cure, Girard says that human community can’t even hope to function.

Sacrifice is the cure to this violent, mimetic problem. In particular, “Spontaneous and irrational collective violence rains down upon some distinctive person or minority in the group” (43). The person or group can be arbitrary, though it is common for one who is sacrificed to be seen as an outsider or is somehow marginal. And the even more unfortunate thing is that this type of sacrifice works. The sacrifice of the scapegoat actually staves off the building violence within the community due to several factors. Mostly, though, it works because the community is able to unite against a common enemy (either explicitly or implicitly) who is seen as at once evil (the cause of the initial problem) and supernatural (in that their death somehow ‘magically’ stopped the cycle of violence).

Though we cannot go into much detail here, one final point needs to be made. Along with scapegoating, myth plays a large role in Girard’s theory of religion. Sacrifice and myth can be seen as two sides of the same coin: “Scapegoating is the event. Myth is the memory and the image of the event as perceived by those who carry it out” (52). Girard’s theory seems to indicate that scapegoating would have come first, as a remedy to violence that threatens to destroy the community, and myth would have come later to help explain why it is sacrifice works and to help propagate its future use.

In the next chapter, Heim will turn specifically to the Hebrew scriptures, in hopes of making sense of the sacrificial content there as a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death as a non-violent atonement.

Saved from Sacrifice // Introduction: A Stumble to Start With

At the risk of adding too much to my plate, I’d like to start another series on the blog, mainly for my own purposes. Since I graduated back in December, I decided that I would spend my extra time reading books that I was unable to during my undergraduate career due to time constraints or whatever else. In keeping with the promise I made to myself, I have read six books up to this point this year (which may not be much to some, but with a toddler running around, I have to say I’m impressed with myself!), and plan to read about thirty to forty by year’s end.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

While doing so, I would also like to start an intensive book reviewing series. I’m not sure how often, but the current plan will be weekly, and I would like to start with Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (if you would like to see the other books I plan to read this year, click here).

Since the period of deep doubt and deconstruction of my faith began (it is by no means complete, nor do I think it ever will be), I have found my former understanding of the atonement as a penal substitution both untenable and – the more I read – unbiblical. This is where Saved from Sacrifice comes in. In his rethinking of the atonement, Heim is most strongly influenced by René Girard’s mimetic theory and sociological discoveries. These topics will be covered as we engage with Heim’s writing, chapter-by-chapter. Bear in mind that my primary reason for these reviews is for my own future reference. However, if you are reading and feel like you can contribute helpful dialogue and push-back, I will gladly welcome it!

So, let’s kick it off!

Heim starts the introduction with a recognition that any book about the atonement will be necessarily lacking. To reduce the work of Christ to simply the crucifixion and/or resurrection is always a mistake, and the author recognizes this from the start. However, this does not eliminate the need to talk about what happened at the cross, and why it’s important. Most of the current evangelical atonement theologies center around Christ as a sacrificial atonement for the sins of humanity. In other words, humanity has disobeyed God, and because of this, God’s sense of justice requires a blood sacrifice in repayment. Jesus, in this scenario, operates as the sacrifice that takes the punishment we ‘deserve,’ thereby allowing us to once again live in harmony with God (assuming we intellectually assent to this ‘truth’).

The problem is, in an increasingly modern culture, a God that demands a such a brutal punishment so that the ‘chasm’ between humanity and the divine could be crossed simply doesn’t make sense. Surely if God is ‘omnipotent,’ there had to be another way? (An idea Tony Jones discusses in one of his recent “Questions that Haunt Christianity” posts.) And if there was another way, we need to squarely come to grips with the fact that we believe in and worship a vengeful, violent deity. Heim says it this way:

This book is written because many find it hard to make sense of “Christ died for us.’ And it is written because others find it perfectly understandable and entirely objectionable, a dark brew of self-abnegation, violence, and abuse. They contend that belief in the redemptive power of Jesus’ death amounts to masochistic idealization of suffering. (3)

Of course, this is not to say that we need to scrap the atonement entirely for the sake of making Christianity somehow ‘relevant.’ Instead, we need to find an atonement that is both viable for the 21st century and takes biblical authority and tradition seriously (a point I agree with, even in spite of my disdain for ‘inerrancy’).

Atonement in Tradition

Before discussing what he notes as three or four major atonement theories throughout history that have dominated (at least western) Christianity, Heim briefly notes something very important. Theories of how the atonement work have NEVER been universally agreed-upon. Not only that, but they have also never been a part of creeds or statements of (‘little o’) orthodoxy. In other words, throughout history, Christians as a whole have never said that in order to be ‘saved,’ one must understand the atonement in a particular way. This includes the understanding of the Christ’s sacrifice as a substitution for our sins so humanity would not be punished and God’s wrath could be appeased. This – I think – should give us pause, especially those of us who, either currently or in the past, think (or thought) the only real way to be ‘saved’ is to believe in and accept what Jesus did on the cross as a substitution. That being said, here are the four major atonement theories:

  1. Penal Substitution – We’ve already discussed this one somewhat, so I’m not going to rehash. Plus, if you’re Evangelical or have Evangelical friends, you have no doubt heard this theory in one way or another.
  2. Moral Influence (or ‘Exemplarist’) – This theory suggests that Christ’s death “is meant to save us by making such a moving exhibition of God’s love that we are inwardly stirred to gratitude and service in return” (5). Though I could be wrong here, it seems to me that most of those who adhere to the ‘exemplarist’ model don’t (or at least don’t need to) take the divinity of Christ seriously. Heim also notes that it is best to understand Christ’s death within this theory not as “a transaction, but an inspiration” (5).
  3. Christus Victor – If you are at all familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, then you may have a pretty good idea of how this theory works. Essentially, the cross is seen as God’s victory over some kind of power or third party (e.g., Satan, sin, etc.). God’s victory comes about by either paying a ransom (as if God is powerless to save humanity any other way) or “some form of trickery” — (think about how shocked the White Witch was that Aslan came back, despite their ‘deal’ to save Edmund).
  4. The Incarnational Model – Rather than focusing on the crucifixion as the crux to God’s saving work, the incarnational model views the divine incarnation in Jesus as the saving work. “God retraces the whole pattern of human life… transforming from within what has gone wrong with sinful humanity” (6). This theory/model focuses on God’s solidarity with humanity, up until and even through death.

Heim also notes at the end of this section that Christians most often understand the atonement as a combination of two or three of these theories to address different aspects of life. Although Heim and Scot McKnight seem to think that penal substitution can be combined with other theories, I disagree. If one accepts penal substitution as true, at best, other theories must take a backseat to substitution. (Tad DeLay has some thoughts on this here.)

The problem, for most people, is the notion of Christ as ‘sacrifice.’ Not only is the language archaic (i.e., some of its meaning is lost on us as modern westerners), but – to put it bluntly – it just sounds sort of sadistic. If we are going to take both Scripture and tradition seriously, we cannot simply get rid of the sacrificial language. However, what we can do is re-imagine it – hopefully in a way that gets closer to what Scripture was saying and more closely relates to Jesus’ peaceful, non-violent mission.

The Argument, in a Nutshell (The Anthropology of the Cross)

As Heim re-imagines the sacrificial language, he writes that the Gospels (and particularly the passion accounts) turn sacrificial language on its head. Normally, in ancient sacrificial scapegoating cultures (which is common to nearly every society, according to Girard), “communities solve their internal conflicts by uniting against a chosen victim… [which] staves off more generalized factional or retributive violence” (15). Not only that, but generally, the victim in these cultures generally stayed ‘invisible.’ Their story was unimportant; they were simply a means to an end. The Gospels, however, not only show God entering into our broken system of ‘justice’ – they tell the story from Christ’s (the victim’s!) perspective. The victim is no longer invisible, but is put on display for all to see.

The Hebrew scriptures, as Heim and others have noted, actually already point to the inherent injustice in the sacrificial scapegoating system. Nevertheless, the ultimate portrayal of its injustice is found and shown directly in the murder of Jesus as the ‘victim on display.’

This is where Heim will continue his writing, and where we will begin next time.