I just finished reading James Alison’s Undergoing God, and the more I read of him the more I like him and think he’s onto something important. Alison, to recap, is a student of anthropologist/literary theorist Rene Girard, who has proposed a rather daring new interpretation of Jesus’ death on the cross.
For Girard human selves and human desire are structured by what he calls mimesis, which means that we learn to want things by seeing other people want them. The problem is that mimesis all to often takes a rivalrous form: I want what you want which creates competition and potentially conflict.
This conflict can threaten to unravel the fabric of human society, but societies have found a way to defuse that conflict, at least in the short run. They do this by means of what Girard calls the scapegoat mechanism. When rivalrous conflict gets out of hand, the members of a group will settle on someone who becomes the focus of the group’s “wrath.” This someone – the scapegoat – is “expelled,” often murderously, and this expulsion restores harmony by creating the feeling that the source of conflict has been banished.
What Girard argues is that the history of myth and religion repeatedly display attempts to cover over these expulsions of the innocent. The myths and rituals of sacrifice to appease god or the gods invest the scapegoat mechanism with sacred legitimacy. Thus we invest the victim with sacred power and authority, since the expulsion is that which reestablishes harmony. We cover up our crime of killing the innocent by turning it into a “necessary” part of a divinely ordained order.
However, says Girard, the Bible “unmasks” this sacred lie by presenting the victim as unambiguously innocent. The death of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels, most clearly reveals the mendacity of the scapegoat mechanism. When the Roman and Jewish authorities come together to kill Jesus the gospels leave no doubt that it’s an act of murder, even though it’s rationalized by various parties as a means of restoring order (see especially Girard’s excellent I See Satan Fall Like Lightning).
Alison elaborates Girard’s line of thought in more explicitly theological terms. He contends that Jesus’ death and resurrection defeat the powers of violence and scapegoating by displaying those powers’ ultimate impotence. God, who comes to us in Jesus, is completely “other than” the death and violence according to which we have structured our life together. Jesus’ death, for Alison, doesn’t satisfy God’s wrath, but shows a God of unconditional love who is willing to occupy the place of utmost shame and weakness in order to break down our stony hearts. He absorbs our wrath.
One of the reasons I find Alison’s approach is so appealing is that it shows the gospel as something genuinely new and radical. God isn’t caught up in the same economy of payback and tit-for-tat that we seem to be. He has nothing to do with that retributive scheme. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are an intrusion of a fundamentally different order into the one we have built for ourselves. And this intrusion, which is followed by the gifting of the Spirit, allows us to learn to participate in this new way of being.
Jesus, who comes to us as the “forgiving victim,” enables us to live in a way that doesn’t depend on defining ourselves over against others. And doesn’t depend on sacrificing others to our desire for security. When we live with the understanding that God is unconditionally for us, we can gradually learn to let go of the fear that makes violence and sacrifice seem necessary in the first place.
As an anthropologist and student of texts, Girard seems to see the implications of his theory being primarily for human society, ethics, and politics. And Alison more or less follows him here; the “new creation” that we’re being invitied to participate in seems chiefly characterized by transformed relationships between human beings. As a gay Catholic, Alison deploys these insights to powerful effect in thinking about how the church has victimized gay people but also about how all Christians can begin to live together in ways that don’t depend on defining “in” and “out” groups.
Important as this work is, I’d also like to see this line of thought developed in a way that takes into account our relationship with the non-human world. After all, if God is the creator of all that is, his redemptive action presumably has implications for the entire world, not just us. Moreover, it’s no secret that the victims of sacrifice have often been our non-human fellow creatures. The scapegoat was originally, after all, a goat. Is there good news for him here too? And for us with respect to our felt need to dominate the non-human world?
It’s more than a little ironic that we in the “enlightened” modern world subject animals to suffering and death on a scale that might well have made priests of the most blood-soaked cults of the ancient world blush. For us, animals have long represented both the “base” part of our nature (instinct, lust, violence) and, paradoxically, pure unspoiled nature. Consequently, we project both our fears and desires onto them, investing them with a kind of mythical power. At the same time we reduce them to commodities in our industrial systems of food, entertainment, and science. On a Girardian reading, we inflict violence on them because it’s what we think we have to do to get by in this world, to suppress our fears of our own violence and to assuage our fears of death and of being victimized.
But if Girard and Alison are right, then the death of Jesus shows us that there is no “necessary” violence. Because God loves us unconditionally, and because that love has the last word in a universe seemingly characterized by confict, enmity, and the struggle to get ahead and be on top, we can learn to let go of the need to secure our place in this world by means of violence. We don’t need to sacrifice animals to the “gods” of appetite, safety, health, and science. We can trust that God will hold us in being and that we can even occupy the “place of shame” without losing ourselves. Moreover, as the theologian Stephen Webb has argued, we can be free to make friends with the animals. Just as Jeus is the agent of reconciliation among humans, he is the agent of reconciliation between humans and the rest of creation.