Tag Archives: st. paul

Galatians 3, Girard, and Radical Egalitarianism

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.

Galatians 3

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.

Saved from Sacrifice // Chapter 5

This post is part of a review series for S. Mark Heim’s Saved from Sacrifice. To start at the beginning, click here.

S. Mark Heim - Saved from Sacrifice

S. Mark Heim – Saved from Sacrifice

While Chapter 4 dealt with the passion narratives in light of Girard’s scapegoating theory, chapter 5 (“Sacrifice to End Sacrifice”) moves on to discuss how the early Christians understood Jesus’ death and the sacrificial system post-Resurrection.

Let’s jump right in, shall we?

Acts

One of the major portions from Acts that Heim deals with is Stephen’s sermon in front of the mob that is about to stone him (Acts 7:1-53). Interestingly, though we typically view Stephen’s sermon as a ‘salvation’ message before his death, Jesus is only mentioned once, and just barely. His sermon is split into four sections:

  1. First he speaks about Abraham, which seems like it would be a common starting place for any Jew giving something like a sermon. He talks about Abraham’s faith and willingness to leave his home for a place God would show him
  2. Next, Stephen talks about Joseph, whose brothers gang up on him and, as a result, he ends up in Egypt, helps stop a famine, and shows mercy to his brothers.
  3. The third section of Stephen’s sermon centers on Moses and is the longest portion. While the Mt. Sinai episode receives little attention, a large part of the Moses section focuses on the account of Moses’ murder of an Egyptian to protect his fellow Israelites. Unfortunately, he is even further ostracized from his community rather than drawn near to them. Heim says, “One way ending conflict has been tried and found wanting” (136). Following this, Stephen talks about how God required no sacrifice while the Israelites were in the wilderness, and Stephen uses some of the words of Amos to bolster his claim:”I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them… But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:21-24).
  4. Following his quoting from Amos, Stephen talks about the tabernacle as God’s dwelling place in the wilderness and then Solomon’s temple. But then he turns this around and states, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made with human hands,” and proceeds to rebuke his hearers, saying they oppose the Holy Spirit by persecuting the ones who foretold the “Righteous One” and then Jesus himself.

Interestingly, as I stated above, Stephen says little about Jesus, but draws a (slightly irregular) line between the figures in his story and Jesus. Further, the line Stephen draws from Abraham, Joseph, and Moses to Christ is one of the sacrificial victim. Israel itself has been enslaved and oppressed, as Abraham (as a “resident alien”) and Joseph (as one sold into slavery). Then Moses’ story speaks to this theme even further, first by him unsuccessfully using violence to help reconcile a situation, and then by himself being pushed aside by the Israelite community in favor of using a sacrificial victim (via the temple). Finally, these previous violent acts have been continued in the killing of the “Righteous One.”

Paul

Stephen’s story in Acts segues into Saul/Paul’s conversion story, which also contains some of the elements of scapegoating. Prior to conversion, Saul’s primary focus is persecuting and killing the Jewish Christian communities that are cropping up after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Heim explains,

“Christians represent a threat of dissolution in the community, a crisis, and Paul’s reaction is to isolate and destroy them in order to purify the people and to maintain unity. Once he becomes a Christian, Paul’s hallmark project is to build a community with non-Jews, across all the differing practices that the same Paul would have regarded before as impurities that destroy unity and identity” (140).

Both this encounter with Christ and Paul’s tenacity in the inclusion of the Gentiles greatly affect his later writings that are included in the NT. One of the major passages often used in reference to discuss Christ’s atoning death is Romans 3:10-26 (before you go on, I suggest reading it). In the first half of this section, Paul lays down the claim that all people, both Jewish and Gentile are under the power of sin. In doing so, he uses several quotations from Psalms and Isaiah. Three of the Psalms are particularly scapegoating Psalms, as we discussed here, three of them discuss universal sin in general, and the Isaiah passage quoted references the very nature of the universal perversity in mankind. While Paul addresses the general, universal sin that is part of humanity (i.e., everyone has done something ‘wrong’), he also specifically references a particular sin that everyone has committed – namely, scapegoating persecution.

Continuing in this line of thought, Heim addresses the Law in Paul’s writings. For Heim, through the lens of sacrificial violence, the Law is not the problem, but the way it is used to affirm victimization is. While the Law may have originally been meant to help the community avoid violence (e.g., do not steal, do not commit murder, do not covet, etc.), the Law can be, and was, used improperly; that is, it was wrongly used to justify the murder of innocent victims in order to maintain the community’s peace. Heim also notes: “The fact that the law appealed to in the process is an authentic divine commandment does not mean that the process [i.e., victimization/scapegoating] itself is valid” (143).

That God enters into the human sacrificial sphere does not mean that God endorses or approves of this particular method. Rather, he enters into the system because this is precisely where humanity’s sin universally manifests itself. Heim points out that even the text says as much, as “the effectiveness of the act lies not in the blood or the violence; it relates to faith” (ibid.). In other words, it is not the blood itself that saves us from God’s wrath, but our faith that God has entered into our brokenness in order to repair it.

The Resurrection of Jesus is the final act of redemption in God’s saving work. For by Resurrection, Jesus is not only acquitted and proved not guilty of the charges against him – those who carried out the violence against him are made innocent as well. Heim says, “They can be declared not guilty of Jesus’ death by the fact that Jesus is not dead. The prosecution cannot proceed in this capital case without a dead body, and the tomb is empty” (144). The catch, however, is that those accused (e.g., all of us) must affirm the resurrection, which also means affirming our guilt. We must affirm that our sin killed him before we can also affirm that he rose from the dead. Our denial that Christ rose from the dead is akin to refusing to have a witness testify in our favor (which is why Paul says Jesus was “handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” [Rom. 4:25]).

Hebrews

Finally, Heim addresses the book of Hebrews, which, to most of us, looks to be the most affirming text regarding penal substitution. Just take a look at Hebrews 9:11-14, for example. Killing animals seems to be pretty beneficial, but Christ’s death is infinitely more beneficial. A closer look, however, shows that the writer of Hebrews is not necessarily affirming the system of sacrifice so much as turning it on its head.

Later in chapter 9 of Hebrews, the author indicates that Christ’s sacrifice is not the same as the kind of sacrifice done before. If it were, then Christ would have had to suffer “again and again since the foundation of the world” (Heb. 9:26). Instead, Christ’s sacrifice was meant to stop the cycle of sacrifice. No longer do sacrifices offer peace to a community, and Hebrews makes this clear. In a similar vein, in chapter 12, the writer says, “[Jesus’] sprinkled blood… speaks a better blood than the blood of Abel.” To which Heim says, “Abel’s blood called for vengeance, and sparked the cycles of retaliation that we have contained only with more blood, the blood of sacrifice” (159).

Christ’s sacrifice was not meant to be an affirmation of sacrificial practice, but the sacrifice to end sacrifice.