Welcome to my ‘Layman’s Lectionary’ series where I stumble my way through the liturgical year and share my layman’s testimonies and confessions on modern culture and daily life as it corresponds to scripture.
Monday of Holy Week
As I mentioned the other day, modern Western theology has it that the crucifixion of Jesus was a blood sacrifice to appease an angry God. This God, Jesus’s dad, was mad at humans for being bad and someone had to pay. Instead of all of us, he took his wrath out on his only son.
Thank you, God — I guess??
Anyhow, it’s called the substitutionary atonement theory, heralded by Anselm of Canterbury who lobbed it out there and it happened to catch on and spread through the medieval church.
I’m obsessing over this because, if this is TRULY (as if there is such a thing as ‘truly’ in theology) the case, I don’t know if I can call myself a Christian (and this is a big deal being that I’m a seminarian).
I just have a hard time getting behind the notion that God was so cruel and incompetent so as to create a species that offended him so profoundly. It puts humanity and God in a very precarious — irreconcilable, even — position.
So thank God for the so-called ‘nonviolent’ atonement theory heralded by the French philosopher, René Girard and built on by similar theories that align with it.
Here, Fr. Richard Rohr sums up Girardian atonement theory better than I can at the moment…
The ingenious Hebrew ritual from which the word “scapegoat” originated is described in Leviticus 16. On the Day of Atonement, a priest laid hands on an “escaping” goat, placing all the sins of the Jewish people from the previous year onto the animal. The goat was then beaten with reeds and thorns and driven out into the desert. It was a vividly symbolic act that helped to unite and free people in the short term. Instead of owning their sins, this ritual allows people to export them elsewhere — in this case onto an innocent animal.
French philosopher and historian René Girard (1923–2015) recognized this highly effective ritual across cultures and saw the scapegoat mechanism as a foundational principle for most social groups. The image of the scapegoat powerfully mirrors and reveals the universal, but largely unconscious, human need to transfer our guilt onto something or someone else by singling that other out for unmerited negative treatment. This pattern is seen in many facets of our society and our private, inner lives — so much so that we could almost name it “the sin of the world” (note that “sin” is singular in John 1:29). The biblical account, however, seems to recognize that only a “lamb of a God” can both reveal and resolve that sin in one nonviolent act.
Jesus was the human scapegoat — showcasing a God who jumps into human skin so as to announce to the world that no more scapegoating is needed because the God who they think demanded it is now… dead.
Paul’s letter to the Hebrews from this week’s reading points to this notion in laser-like fashion…
he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.
For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified,
how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!
For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant.
Paul’s missive above points directly to Jesus being the hopeful final scapegoat of all scapegoats.
In Jesus’s day, sacrificial scapegoating was the way we operated — religiously but also socially and politically. Scapegoating was ubiquitous. The only kind of God we could imagine at the time (and for many of us in this day) was one of Law — one that needed payment in blood for wrongdoings. It was the only God we knew.
We expected this out of Jesus. If Jesus was more of a badass, we would have respected him more. If he would have cursed his accusers from the cross and demanded retribution, this whole crucifixion thing would make more sense. It would fit more neatly into our socio-political/religious box.
But he didn’t. This was God dying to God-self in the name of God’s very own Law (at least, that’s the narrative we carried about a Law-enforcing God).
Jesus realized that Law never causes change for the better. We humans don’t do what we’re commanded to do for very long, if at all. If we do, it’s usually with a clenched jaw and a hard heart. But in most cases, we do exactly the OPPOSITE of what we’re commanded to do (from our spouse, kids, boss, coworkers, friends, and God). I’m the dad of a 5–year-old human, so I testify to the truth of this statement.
Jesus knew that humans can only live in accordance with divine Law when they stop telling stories about a God who imposes it on them.
Jesus knew that God had to get out of the Law business and into the heart-softening business. And he was the one to initiate this ginormous cultural shift. It would take something bold.
He also knew that humans only act in accordance with the Law (because, don’t get me wrong, the Law is actually a beautiful thing — we can all agree that this world would be much better without murder, stealing, and all of that nonsense) when we’re forgiven and freed from it. We only act in accordance with Law when we’re loved — especially when we don’t think we deserve it.
Law is lived only from a gracious, loved, and forgiven heart. Not obligatorily.
This is grace and it’s what this innocent and articulate scapegoat was ushering in through his submission to the dominance system he stood against. He knew that it wasn’t God who needed blood, but us.
And so, God had to die to the Law in order to free us from it. Humans had to stop hearing Law from God in order to live aligned with it.
This is an atonement theory that brings me hope. It wasn’t us being sacrificed for God. It was God sacrificing God-self for us.
God tried to get out of the Law business over two thousand years ago. For some reason, we want to keep God employed in this role.
Maybe a different take on things to get us through the bloodiness of this sacred week:)