Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

[This series reflects my views and not "official" CVA positions.]

1. Introduction
2. Mimesis
3. Mimesis vs. Imitation
4. Anger
5. Displacing Anger
6. The Scapegoating Mechanism
7. Myth, Ritual, and Taboo
8. The Bible Reveals Sacred Violence
9. Mimesis in the Garden of Eden
10. The First Murder Victim
11. The Flood
12. Idolatry
13. Abraham and Isaac
14. Jacob and Esau
15. Joseph
16. Joshua 7
17. Job
18. A Brief Review of Girardian Thought
19. Sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures
20. Violence in the Hebrew Scriptures
21. Exodus
22. The Suffering Servant as Scapegoat
23. The Later Prophets
24. Desire
25. Fear of Death
26. The Fundamental Desire for Self-Esteem
27. Fear and Anger
28. Animals as Scapegoats, part 1
29. Animals as Scapegoats, part 2
30. Animals as Scapegoats, reply to a question
31. The New Testament: Introduction
32. Jesus’ Birth
33. John the Baptist, part 1
34. John the Baptist, part 2
35. The Three Temptations, part 1
36. The Three Temptations, part 2
37. The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12, Lk 6:20-38) part 1: The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth
38. The Beatitudes part 2: Blessed Are the Poor
39. The Beatitudes part 3: Blessed Are You That Weep
40. The Beatitudes part 4: Blessed Are the Peacemakers
41. The Beatitudes part 5
42. Interlude: Reflections on this Series by the Author
43. The Passion, part 1: An Anthropological Look
44. The Passion, part 2: Anti-Semitism
45. Further Reflections on Anti-Semitism
46. The Resurrection, part 1: Jesus’ Innocence
47. The Resurrection, part 2: Death
48. The Resurrection, part 3: Breaking Free of Our Culture of Death
49. The Resurrection, part 4: Jesus’ Return
50: The Ten Commandments
51: The First and Second Commandments
52: The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Commandments
53: The Sixth Commandment
54: The Last Four Commandments
55: The Great Commandment
56: Loving Our Enemies
57. The Wrath . . . of God? part 1: Introduction
58. The Wrath . . . of God? part 2: Romans 3
59. The Wrath . . . of God? part 3: Romans 9:22
60. Forgiveness
61. Forgiveness and Peace
62. Forgiveness and Anger
63. Forgiveness and Judgment
64: "Forgive Us Our Debts"
65: “Forgive them, Father”
66: The Adulteress (John 8:3-11)
67: Born Again, part 1
68: Born Again, part 2
69: Forgiveness: A New Law Written on Their Hearts
70: The Sunflower
71: How Can We Distinguish Scapegoating from Justice?
72: Forgiveness: Animal Abusers, part 1
73: Forgiveness: Animal Abusers, part 2
74: Forgiveness, the Hardest Thing
75: Forgiveness and Theology
76: Love, part 1: God is Love
77: Love, part 2: Jesus’ Forgiving Peter
78: Love, part 3: For God So Loved the World
79 Love, part 4: Human Love Versus Divine Love
80: Love, part 5: Committed Relationships
81: The Faith of Christ
82: Guided by the Faith of Christ
83: Faith and the Bible
84: Living Out One’s Faith
85: “There Is Neither Jew Nor Greek” (Gal 3:28)
86: Romans 8:18-26: The Creation Waits with Eager Longing
87: Satan, part 1
88: Satan, part 2: “Get behind me Satan” (Mt: 16:21-23)
89: Who or What Is Satan?
90: Satan the Accuser and the Trickster
91. Satanic Desire
92: “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”
93: Can Satan Cast Out Satan?
94: “It Is Finished”
95: The Parakletos: Defender of the Accused, part 1
96: The Parakletos: Defender of the Accused, part 2
97: Christian Faith
98: Faith in the Living God
99: Further Reflections on Christian Faith
100: The Theodicy Problem: God and Evil
101: “For God So Loved the World”
102: Death
103: Abundance Versus Scarcity
104: Abundance Versus Scarcity: The Miracle of Feeding the 5000
105: Receiving the Kingdom of God “Like a Child”
106: The Kingdom of God
107: “I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice”
108: Romans 12:1 and 6:23
109: The Letter to the Hebrews, Part 1
110: The Letter to the Hebrews, part 2
111: Original Sin, part 1
112. Original Sin, part 2
113. Christianity and the Roman Empire
114: Atonement Theology, part 1: Leading Theories
115: Atonement Theologies, part 2: Satisfaction Atonement and Moral Influence Theories
116: Atonement Theologies, part 3: Further Problems with Satisfaction Atonement 117: Atonement Theologies, part 4: Narrative Christus Victor
118. Jesus Made to Be Sin
119. The Nature of Prophets
120. Prophecy
121. Prophecy and Creativity
122. Prayer
123. Healing in the Synagogue
124. Holistic Healing - The Man with Leprosy
125. Healing and Empathy - Raising Lazarus from Death
126. Spiritual Healing - The Invalid Man
127. Healing and Faith - The Woman with Perpetual Bleeding
128. The Gerasene Demoniac - Did Jesus Kill 2000 Pigs?
129. Healing a Broken World - The Man Born Blind
130. Healing - A Christian Calling
131. Peacemaking: Violence and the Churches

Part 1: Introduction

This is the first in a series of commentaries that borrow heavily from the work of Rene Girard, a cultural anthropologist/theologian who argued that the Bible has provided profound, perhaps even unique, insights into human nature and God’s will. In particular, the Bible shows that, while human violence and destructiveness are universal, God’s love and forgiveness is infinite. Importantly, the Bible offers a way towards overcoming the human tendency to harm innocent victims, which is what God wants.

Before continuing, I want to stress that these opinions are my own. They do not reflect “official” positions of the Christian Vegetarian Association. I think they dovetail nicely with the CVA’s ministry to apply Christ’s love, compassion, and mercy toward all of God’s Creation, but one may disagree with my “Girardian” thinking and still embrace fully the CVA and its mission.

Is Christianity Unique?

Many people reject Christianity largely because they doubt the Bible’s stories of God’s intervention into human affairs and Jesus’ working miracles. They argue that these stories are unproven and have dubious documentation. Believing in Christianity, many argue, is no more reasonable than believing any other religion.

Rene Girard similarly had little faith, until his studies revealed that Christianity has in fact offered insights that make Christianity distinctive, if not unique. Christianity, perhaps unlike any other religion, can explain a remarkable finding: Every known human culture either currently engages in sacred violence or has rituals that recall sacred violence. Why is sacred violence universal? Is all human violence, in a sense, sacred? Can Christianity, which has a sad history of victimizing innocent people, including persecution of the Jews, the Inquisition, brutal colonization of indigenous peoples in the name of God, and the massive witch burnings of the Middle Ages, show us a way to transcend the human tendency to engage in sacred violence? We will explore these questions over the next weeks.

Part 2: Mimesis

Before I delve into the implications of Girardian thought for Christianity, I need to provide some crucial background information. In an effort to understand human violence, Rene Girard looked at a wide range of primal and technologically advanced cultures, and he found parallels that yield insights into human psychology and sociology.

Suspecting that frustrated desire was a critical component of human violence, Girard aimed to understand how we come to desire things. He recognized that we determine what we want by seeing what other people seem to desire. This process, called mimesis, is almost like an involuntary reflex. We do it without thinking—it is a natural human tendency.

Mimesis is crucial to human social development. We learn social behavioral standards and even language by observing others and then mimicking their behavior. Then, we need to determine if our behavior is “proper” by gaining feedback from other members of the community. Therefore, language is fine-tuned by feedback from older people regarding word use and syntax. Similarly, “inappropriate” behavior is corrected by condemnation or ridicule. It is possible that the reason that the human brain neocortex is much larger than that of nearly all animals relates to the complex tasks associated with mimesis.

How does mimesis relate to desire? We have natural biological desires, e.g., for food and touch, but we are not born with knowledge about what foods to crave or whose touch most satisfies. We learn this by observing others. Thus, certain foods become highly desirable, for reasons that actually have little to do with taste. It is more reasonable to think that people crave caviar or snails because of mimetic desire than that these feeds actually give inherent pleasure to the palate. Similarly, whose embrace we might desire is heavily influenced by others’ standards of attractiveness. To illustrate how the actual object of desire is quite arbitrary, women who would be widely considered unattractively overweight by contemporary standards were once admired as beautiful, while the slender female frame that many men now find attractive would have been regarded as very unappealing five centuries ago.

Next week, we’ll explore the difference between imitation, which is conscious, and mimesis, which is not. Because mimesis is unconscious, it has a powerful grip on our beliefs and actions.

Part 3: Mimesis vs. Imitation

We will soon explore the implications of Girardian thought for Christianity, but first we need to gain a foundation in mimetic theory. Last week, I talked about how mimesis—observing and copying others—guides human desire. Mimesis is not the same as imitation, and this is a critical distinction

Imitation is a conscious process. As such, it is without emotional content. For example, if I wanted to learn how to fix my transmission, I would consciously choose to imitate the technique of a skilled mechanic. I would not feel envy towards the mechanic—in fact, I would probably appreciate the instruction.

In contrast, what we desire—in other words that which we believe will make us happy—is generated by unconscious mimesis. We see this all the time with children. In a room filled with toys, the one toy a child desires is the toy another child is playing with. We like to think that we adults have gotten past such childish thinking. To be sure, we’re more subtle than children, but mimetic desire’s pull on us is just as strong. Indeed, nearly all advertisement is aimed at creating mimetic desire.

To illustrate mimetic desire, I imagine a hypothetical brother-in-law who has a new sports car. He seems to love his car, and he often talks enthusiastically about its powerful engine and incredible sound system. I now find that his incessant “jokes” about my beat-up Pinto more annoying than usual. I wish I could afford a sports car, but I won’t admit to him or myself that the reason I desire a sports car myself is envy. Such an admission would further damage my bruised self-image—it would show me to be petty and a slavish imitator. So, I convince myself that the reason I want a sportier car is not because of mimetic desire, but because sports cars provide a more enjoyable ride.

However, since I can’t afford a sports car, I become resentful towards my brother-in-law. Again, (unless I’m unusually self-reflective and insightful) I won’t recognize the source of my resentment. I may say to myself that he’s “arrogant” or that he doesn’t show me the respect I deserve. While there is much about my friendly brother-in-law that I have liked, increasingly I resent him.

The above dynamic illustrates several things. First, my desire is mimetic—my brother-in-law’s love of his car convinces me that what it would take for me to feel good about myself is to have a sports car. Second, the object of desire is arbitrary. I naturally desire whatever someone else seems to desire. Third, the model—in this case my brother-in-law—can easily become my rival. Competition with one’s rival often leads to bitterness and resentment, which threatens to undermine an otherwise good relationship. Indeed, anyone who has seen sibling rivalry will likely recognize these dynamics.

Mimetic desire leads to rivalries, which readily induce anger when failure to successfully compete with one's rival causes a sense of humiliation. Next week, we’ll explore how anger is such a powerful passion that it can override reason. Furthermore, the object of anger can be just as arbitrary as the object of desire, because both are influenced by mimesis.

Part 4: Anger

As discussed previously, our desires are mimetic. The problem is that whatever we desire invariably becomes a scarce resource. As people mimetic desire the same item(s), demand invariably outstrips supply and competition arises in pursuit of the scarce item. This scarce item could be tasty foods, material goods, attractive mates, esteem by peers (because not everyone can be esteemed), or something else. The failure to satisfy our desires injures our self-esteem, generating resentful towards those who have gained the desired item(s).

In our culture, having material possessions is a sign of “success.” In a materialist culture like our own, where self-esteem is associated with wealth, there will always be people regarded as “poor.” What it means to be “poor” varies between cultures, because wealth and poverty are relative terms. In our culture, a family with one beat-up but running car, a small home in need of repairs, and inexpensive but sufficient food might be regarded as “poor,” while such a family would be “wealthy” in other parts of the world or at other times in human history. In materialistic cultures, it is essential that there are disparities in wealth, and it’s necessary to the self-esteem of the wealthy that they be envied by “the poor.”

Envy leads to resentment. As mentioned previously, we don’t want to attribute our resentments to frustrated desire. To do so would acknowledge our failings, and this would augment our injured self-esteem. Instead, we tend to conclude that the people we resent are contemptible people who we dislike for very good reasons. We become angry at perceived offenses. Consequently, we treat badly those who we resent. In angry, mimetic response, they treat us badly. This makes us feel more angry, encouraging a cycle of escalating, mimetic anger that could lead to outright hatred and possibly to violence.

The problem is that we rarely have insight into our anger. Anger reflects feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, which damage our self-esteem. We like to think of ourselves as rational and objective, but we frequently fool ourselves. Because anger is such a powerful emotion, it often overrides reason and easily recruits “reason” to justify itself. For example, I might convince myself that the reason I dislike a classmate is not because I’m angry about his humiliating me at sports, but because he’s arrogant. In truth, he’s no more arrogant than anyone else, but now I’ve convinced myself of a good “reason” to dislike him.

Anger’s ability to override reason has important implications. One of those implications, crucial for Girardian thought, is that anger is easily displaced from the original object (e.g., the classmate I resent) to a substituting object (e.g., somebody weaker than I am, such as a small classmate or a defenseless animal). We’ll explore this further next week.

Part 5: Displacing Anger

Last week, we talked about how anger is a very powerful emotion that can easily override reason. One implication is that we frequently displace our anger. This may seem foolish to an outside observer using purely rational modes of thought, but it seems reasonable to the angry person.

For example, if I stub my toe on the door, I may angrily hit the door with my fist, though from a rational point-of-view such behavior is absurd. The door did not decide to stub my toe.

If I strike someone in anger, I am very unlikely to attribute my violent behavior to anger. I will not say to myself, “I’m hitting you because I’m angry.” I will consider my violence an appropriate response to that person’s offense. I may later regret that my anger overpowered my self-control, but I am unlikely to ever conclude that my anger was responsible for the action—my self-image will encourage me to conclude that it was the other person’s behavior, not my angry feelings, that precipitated the violence.

Now, let’s start to put all of this together. To review: 1) Humans are inherently mimetic—mimesis is like an involuntary reflex that is critical to our learning language and culture; 2) Desire is mimetic; 3) Mimetic desire invariably leads to conflicts; 4) Conflicts generate resentment; 5) As resentment turns into anger, rationality takes a back seat and a thirst for revenge can emerge. So, mimesis—so central to our becoming social beings—also threatens to drive people apart. Since the objects of desire always become scarce, rivalries invariably emerge that lead to resentment, anger, and ultimately hostility that can disrupt or even destroy human communities.

In primal (“primitive”) cultures, survival often depends on hunting and protection from predators. Hunting and defense require communal efforts, because physically we are very slow and weak compared to animals of similar body size. But, how can primal cultures maintain cohesiveness, given the human tendency to develop mimetic rivalries that threaten to destroy bonds of loyalty or even lead to violence? The “solution” is to find a scapegoat. If everyone can agree that one person is responsible for the growing hard feelings that threaten to destroy a community, then killing or expelling that person can restore peace. We’ll explore the scapegoat mechanism further next week.

Part 6: The Scapegoat Mechanism

Last week, we reviewed how mimetic rivalry leads to resentments and anger. We explored how anger can be readily displaced, and we started to look at how growing hostilities within a community might be alleviated by finding a scapegoat.

Scapegoating works well to quell the resentment, angry feelings, and thirst for vengeance that invariably arise as a consequence of mimetic rivalries. There are two critical components for scapegoating to restore peace to a community. First, everyone must agree that the scapegoat is truly responsible for the crisis. (The scapegoat victim may not agree, but the voice of the victim has little relevance to the scapegoating mechanism since the scapegoat is exiled or killed.) This is possible because reason is easily rendered a servant to the powerful emotion of anger. If there are many angry people, their rational faculties are easily convinced that X is responsible for the problem. In addition, the accusatory gesture (that is, pointing to the prospective scapegoat and declaring, “He/She is responsible!”) is mimetic, just as all social behavior is mimetic.

Second, scapegoating must be unconscious. If people are aware that they are blaming the wrong person for the community’s rising tensions, then obviously killing or expelling the scapegoat won’t restore peace. People must genuinely hold the scapegoat responsible for the problem. This is possible for two reasons. First, as we recall, mimesis is automatic, reflexive, and not conscious, so people have little insight into their getting caught up in the scapegoating mechanism. Second, we’ve also discussed how reason tends to be subservient to anger, and “rational” thought confirms the supposed guilt of the scapegoat.

It’s not hard to think of examples of scapegoating and how all this plays out. The classic example is the Nazi scapegoating of the Jews, blaming the Jews for Germany’s humiliating defeat in World War I and the suffering in post-war Germany. Some people have said, “All of Nazi Germany went mad,” but this merely avoids explanation. What happened in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and in countless communities and families around the world has a common theme—scapegoating one individual or group of individuals in order to restore peace and a sense of well-being.

Who is the scapegoat? In general, scapegoats are peripheral members of a community who can be abused without much fear of retaliation by family and friends. They are usually seen as “abnormal,” and they may have distinctive physical or psychological characteristics, such as a limp or an inclination towards psychotic delusions. Whatever their specific characteristics, all primal (“primitive”) cultures accuse people of being “witches” who cast evil spells and give rise to discord or natural disasters. When a community experiences a crisis, as a consequence of growing interpersonal hostility or natural disaster, the mob mimetically finds and accuses one or more “witches,” whom the mob then exiles or kills.

Remarkably, with eradication of the “witches,” people generally feel much better, confirming their conviction that the “witches” were responsible for the crises. Feuding tribe members, united in their hatred of the scapegoat, feel better towards each other. In the case of a natural disaster, the sacrificial murder of the scapegoat really does seem to appease the Gods. For example, earthquakes—and other infrequent natural disasters—rarely recur in the near future. Similarly, droughts tend to end on their own accord. Consequently, the efficacy of the sacrifice seems confirmed.

Next week, we will explore how the scapegoating mechanism gives rise to religious myth, ritual, and taboo. Then, we will be ready to start applying an understanding of the scapegoating mechanism to Christian faith. Does God approve of scapegoating? If not, how might the scapegoating mechanism—hidden and unconscious as it is—be revealed?

Part 7: Myth, Ritual, and Taboo; The Scapegoating Mechanism as the Foundation of Culture

(This is the longest part in the series, covering some important topics.)

The ongoing discussion shows how Girard’s mimetic theory, I think far better than any other, explains why every primal (“primitive”) culture engages in ritual sacrifices and has myths that recall one or more killings that were central to the foundation of their worlds. We will eventually see how Christianity exposed sacred violence as perpetrated by humans and not the will of God.

Last week, we discussed how scapegoating restores peace and stability to communities whose cohesiveness has been threatened by hostilities generated by mimetic rivalry. To community members, the transformation seems miraculous. Initially, people were feeling angry and hostile. After the community finds and exiles or kills the scapegoat, everyone feels much better, convinced that the cause of their troubles has been eradicated. Invariably, they believe that their god(s) demanded the sacrifice to eradicate evil.

In an attempt to avoid repeating the crisis that necessitated finding a scapegoat, communities develop myths. These myths describe how their god(s) want sacrifices. Indeed, the “truth” of these myths seems evident precisely because sacrifices do restore peace and tranquility, “proving” that sacrifices please the god(s). The myths include instructions for sacrificial rituals. These rituals aim to re-enact the circumstances of the original sacred violence. This is a complex topic, and I refer readers to Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard (1972) for numerous examples and a more complete discussion. For our purposes, it’s important to note that ritual sacrifice renews the sense of camaraderie that the original sacrifice engendered.

Taboos are linked to sacrifice. Those activities that seem to have generated the destructive mimetic rivalries become taboos. For example, nearly all cultures have taboos involving castes, classes, gender, or other socially prescribed roles. More specifically, many cultures prohibit marriage between castes. Such taboos reduce mimetic rivalries, because fewer people compete for the scarce resources of power, privilege, “attractive” mates, and material well-being. In Ancient Egyptian society, one’s entire life role was dictated by one’s class. There was virtually no personal freedom, and there was also little mimetic rivalry. Many people, including myself, applaud dismantling of unjust racist, sexist, and other exploitative institutions, which themselves survive only by using violence or threat of violence to maintain social roles. But, an unintended and potentially divisive consequence can be increased mimetic rivalry. And, as discussed previously, mimetic rivalries lead to resentment, anger, and potential violence.

As more people violate the taboos that help maintain social order, there is a risk of what Girard calls a “sacrificial crisis.” In a “sacrificial crisis,” social hierarchies break down and mimetic rivalry leads to an “all-against-all” environment of chaos and potential destructiveness. The answer, again, is the “all-against-one” scapegoating mechanism, which unifies the community.

The memory of the terrifying chaos of the “sacrificial crisis,” which is easy for later generations to forget, is preserved in myth, and the preventive medicine against a new “sacrificial crisis” is ritual and taboo. Myths tell people that taboos are ordained by the god(s), giving taboos an aura of sacredness. People do not need to understand why there are taboos or even the circumstances around their genesis. If people believe that violating taboos will anger the god(s), this will usually ensure compliance and help maintain communal peace. The sacredness of taboos explains the vigor with which ethnic, gender, and other differences in communities are defended, even today. Contemporary social reformers often contend that taboos maintaining oppression of women, people of color, etc. are sinister attempts to selfishly exclude some people from the community’s bounty. However, there is genuine terror that, if the “sacred order” were undermined and women assumed traditionally male social positions, or if people of a traditionally subservient group were put in a dominant position, a “sacrificial crisis” would ensue that would result in chaos. This helps explain the vigor with which many Southern Whites once defended the subservient position of African-Americans. The notion of a Black foreman telling a White laborer what to do was terrifying to many Whites. Whites often said, “Everyone gets along with each other down here.” But, “getting along” included a violent response to African-Americans who “didn’t know their place.”

One frequent cause of a sacrificial crisis is a natural disaster. Because people have traditionally interpreted earthquakes, draughts, etc. as signs from the god(s), natural disasters often prompt people to lose faith in the power of the myths, rituals, and taboos that have held their community together. They seek a scapegoat to blame for the crisis, which is usually a “witch” who has cast spells, violated the social order, and precipitated disaster. After the witch (or witches) have been exiled or killed, new myths, rituals, and taboos arise. Specifically, the myths, rituals, and taboos reflect the community’s beliefs about what caused the sacrificial crisis in the first place.

And so it goes—every time there is a sacrificial crisis a new scapegoat is found, and myths, rituals, and taboos are created and/or modified. When Girard asserts that all cultures are founded on sacred violence, he does not see culture founded as a single event in the remote past. Rather, culture is an ongoing entity that repeatedly gets broken down and renewed—always with the scapegoating mechanism as central to the story.

Some might wonder what all this discussion of primal culture has to do with our technologically advanced, intellectually sophisticated cultures. As future discussions will reveal, we are not at all immune to becoming embroiled in the scapegoating mechanism ourselves.

I hope you have been able to stay with me this long. We will soon be ready to look at the Bible from a Girardian perspective.

Part 8: The Bible Reveals Sacred Violence

Rene Girard argues that all culture is founded on sacred violence. While this may be true on theoretical grounds, what is empirical evidence? A remarkable observation is that all primal cultures either engage in blood sacrifice or have myths that relate back to blood sacrifice. There are some traditions that reject the human desire to participate in mimetic rivalry or to engage in vengeance, most notably Buddhism. However, as Brit Johnson argues, (http:/ this reflects a conscious effort to expunge the human desire to participate in mimetic rivalries and does not necessarily refute the claim that the larger culture was founded on sacred violence.

Girard and his students have looked at a wide range of myths and found that they consistently both reveal and conceal the scapegoating mechanism. They reveal the mechanism in that they recall a person or “monster” who created chaos who was killed by the god(s) or the community. They conceal the mechanism by asserting that the god(s) killed the victim or demanded the victim’s death for evil deeds. In other words, what they conceal is the victim’s innocence and the fact that their culture was founded on murder.

For example, The Nawatl Aztec’s ritual for the renewal of fire (recorded circa 1500) recreated the communal killing of a victim as the origin of culture. First, all blankets were burned and pottery destroyed (to re-enact an original, pre-civilization state). Then, the sacrificial victim was placed atop a pyramid and had his chest cavity opened up and his heart ripped out. A bowl of tinder was placed in the chest cavity and a fire was started by rubbing sticks. The new fire lit a torch that was passed from torch to torch throughout the community.

In a given culture, there is no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the myths. The myths offer an explanation for the origins of the Universe in general and the given culture in particular. The myths recall the collective, “sacred” violence, but the scapegoating mechanism makes it impossible for the killers to realize that they have engaged in collective murder. That is, they don’t recognize that the victim, while not always totally innocent of all wrongdoing, is not nearly as guilty as accused, and therefore not nearly as deserving of punishment as the mob believes. The myth that evolves from the event, then, invariably describes the victim as guilty and deserving to die, and this lie becomes the foundation for the culture. This lie also tells people how they are central to the designs of the god(s), in part because they have carried out divinely ordained sacrifice. Their ancestors were unified after destroying forces of evil and chaos—forces that they attributed to the victim of sacred violence but were in fact a manifestation of the divisive nature of their own mimetic desire (see Parts 2 & 5). Therefore, the lie about the victim’s guilt forms the foundation for their convictions about what is right and wrong; meaningful and irrelevant; and true and false about the mysterious universe in which we live. This is the lie that has been “hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35)—the lie that Jesus will expose.

Because the lie forms the foundation for all knowledge and all values, it should be impossible for the given culture to recognize its foundational story as hiding the truth of the victim’s innocence. Even scientists would be incapable of exposing the lie. Scientists like to think of themselves as objective, but in truth science is a cultural enterprise that reflects the values, biases, and beliefs of a given culture. What questions scientists pursue, how they design and execute experiments, and how they interpret results are all culture-laden choices. This is not to say that the sciences tell us nothing meaningful about the world, but humans determine what is it means to be “meaningful.”

Therefore, anyone who might question the guilt of the original victim (and later sacrificial victims deemed to resemble the original victim) would be seen as insane and/or satanic; it would challenge the beliefs, held by everyone enmeshed in that culture, about what is good, meaningful, and true.

How, then, did Girard come to recognize the scapegoating mechanism? After all, he’s a product of his culture as much as the rest of us. The answer, he says, is that we have the Bible. The Bible is distinctive in that it reveals the innocence of victims, from Abel to the prophets to Jesus to St. Stephen. And, only because of the biblical revelation can the modern sciences assist in our understanding of sacred violence. Regardless of whether a given scientist is Christian, or even believes in God, all scientists now grow up in a culture that has a strong tradition of recognizing the innocence of victims, thanks to the Bible.

What has science shown? The branch of the social sciences known as cultural anthropology has demonstrated that sacred violence is universal. It is with this knowledge that we may recognize our own scapegoating. Without the Bible, we might regard scapegoating by other cultures with contempt, but we would not recognize our own scapegoating. As we will see in the next several weeks, the Bible has revealed the scapegoating mechanism, which can easily ensnare anyone. Since the Bible's revelation cannot derive from human culture (which always hides the truth of the victim's innocence) it follows that the Bible must have had influence from outside human culture—a divine influence, if you will. Next week, we’ll start to look at our foundation story--the Book of Genesis.

Part 9: Mimesis in the Garden of Eden

All religions have creation stories that explain the origins of evil and suffering. The Judeo-Christian story is distinctive at its outset, when God nonviolently creates order from disorder. In many myths of other religions, the disorder is personified by monsters who are killed by gods.

The Biblical creation is also distinctive in that it recognizes the importance of mimetic rivalry. Adam, Eve, and all creatures initially lived together peacefully. There was no violence or death in the Garden. However, the snake tempted Eve, awakening desires that threaten the blissful harmony among all of the Garden’s inhabitants.

Adam regarded Eve and mimetically desired the fruit. Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, and God’s love and care should have been their model. They should have striven to be like God in benevolent “dominion” over Eden. Instead, they looked to each other as models of desire. Eve craved the forbidden fruit because the snake encouraged her, and Adam wanted a taste because he saw Eve’s evident pleasure. Evidently, we humans seem attracted to physical models, and perhaps the only way that God could encourage us to model God would be for God to come to earth in human form. But, I’m getting ahead of the story.

When caught by God, Adam blamed (scapegoated) Eve and then Eve blamed (scapegoated) the snake. The problem is that Adam and Eve were not modeling their behavior upon God and God’s will. Rather, they had become rivals with God for leadership in Eden, making it impossible to live in peace and harmony under God’s benevolent directorship.

Adam and Eve were banned from Eden, and I see the ensuing consequences as descriptive, not proscriptive. In other words, what happened to Adam and Eve describes what happens when people refuse God’s love and instead crave God’s power. No longer supplied by God, Adam was forced to struggle to obtain food, clothing, and shelter. Physically weaker than Adam, Eve had to accept a subservient role to the man in the family. In the unharmonious, violent world outside Eden, social order (maintained by taboos) was needed to avoid divisive mimetic rivalry, but these taboos would undermine true love and compassion. Similarly, relationships with animals were broken. The Bible relates that humans would kick the head of the snake while the snake would bite the humans’ heal. This is the tragic, fallen world in which we live, a world that can only be redeemed and reclaim peace by the grace of God.

One question that many theologians have pondered is why the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was forbidden. Today, we generally regard knowledge as desirable, and understanding good and evil is perhaps the most important knowledge of all. From a Girardian perspective (but not the only possible Girardian viewpoint), I offer an explanation. In the Garden of Eden, there was no violence because there were no rivalries. Everyone had everything they needed, and there was no scarcity that could lead to bitter disputes. What did Adam and Eve learn when they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? Insofar as they desired to know good, they became rivals with God for leadership in Eden. In learning about evil, they learned about scarcity. Previously, they had no desires because they had no sense that what they wanted might not be available. Now, they desired things that they feared might become scarce. So, knowledge of evil would encourage them to want to have more—more than they really needed in order to thrive. If there were no real scarcity before, hoarding would certainly create scarcity. With scarcity, people would struggle—some to hoard more objects and some to merely survive—and conflicts would arise. The only way to restore peace would be to exile/murder a scapegoat. Such a world of violence would not be a Garden of Eden. Their knowledge of evil made it impossible for them to live in a truly harmonious world.

Rev. Paul Neuchterlein sums it up well: “God’s loving desire for the whole creation is the only desire that can save us from lives of suffering the consequences of our violence. Choosing our fellow creatures as models of desire leads to a perpetual fall from paradise.”

Next week, we will explore the first murder and how this story differs from the myths of other religions.

Part 10: The First Murder Victim

According to Girardian theory, sacred texts are stories composed by those responsible for collective murder. The killers believe their actions were fully justified, and their accounts of the killing do not take the victim’s perspective. Indeed, the killers don’t even recognize that the murdered individual was a victim—they see the murdered individual as an embodiment of evil who deserved to die. The Hebrew scriptures are distinctive among sacred texts in that they repeatedly take the point-of-view of the victim.

The first murder illustrates this well. The story begins noting that God “has regard” for Abel’s animal sacrifice, unlike Cain’s sacrifice of plants. Before I continue with the story of the first murder, I want to address whether or not this passage indicates that God wanted animal sacrifice. The story does not explain why God found Abel’s sacrifice acceptable. Perhaps, Abel’s sacrificing the valued firstlings from his flock showed respect for God. In other words, God appreciated Abel’s humility rather than the sacrifice itself. Another possibility is that this story illustrates the ancient Hebrews’ conviction that God prefers animal sacrifice to the human sacrifice that was so prevalent among other ancient people. Animal sacrifices, then, would be preferable to human sacrifices, but not necessarily desirable.

Meanwhile, Cain’s countenance fell, because he experienced mimetic rivalry with Abel for God’s “regard.” Interestingly, God says to Cain, “If you do well, will you not be accepted?” In other words, God is telling Cain that Cain will be judged on his own merit, not on how he compares to Abel. God’s attempt to quell mimetic rivalry fails—Cain kills Abel. Cain denies knowledge of Abel’s disappearance, and God says, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” God hears the victim’s cry, the first of many times in the Bible that we are told to empathize with the victim rather than the murderer.

Cain fears reciprocal (mimetic) violence against himself: “whoever finds me will slay me.” God prevents escalation of violence by putting an identifying mark on Cain and declaring, “If anyone slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” People were unable, at this point, to resist mimetic violence, so only fear of far greater violence could prevent escalating violence and death.

Interestingly, Cain builds the first city, indicating that the scapegoating mechanism (in this case the death of Abel) forms the foundation for human culture.

Next week, we’ll explore the Flood and its aftermath.

Part 11: The Flood

“Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen 6:11) Mimetic violence encouraged God to re-create the world, starting with Noah and his family and two of every kind of animal. After the Flood, God made a covenant with Noah, his family, and all the animals not to deliver another flood. God recognized that there would be violence, and he told Noah, “The fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth … into your hand they are delivered. Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you; and as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning … Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”

It is a curse that animals will fear and dread Noah. If Noah killed animals, they would naturally fear and dread him, and the harmonious relationship with animals that Adam and Eve enjoyed would not be possible. God gave Noah permission to eat animals, but I see this as a concession, not a command. Since God promised to not deliver another flood, God had to give Noah an outlet for his violent tendencies. After all, Noah was human and humans naturally tend towards scapegoating violence.

God tried to limit human violence in two ways. First, people were not to consume the blood of animals. I think this prohibition was meant to prevent “blood lust” that might encourage wanton killing. Second, God declared that anyone who killed a human would be killed by another person. I see this as a prediction rather than divine ordination. In other words, God reminded Noah that violence mimetically begets violence.

Noah may have been righteous by the standards of his day, but he was far from perfect. After harvesting grapes from his vineyard, Noah got drunk and fell asleep naked. Ham saw his father in this disgraceful state, and Noah cursed Ham. I think the point of the story is that even Noah, the best of his generation, was a violent, impulsive, imperfect man. Such a man could not refrain from killing, and God gave him permission to kill animals in an effort to discourage him from killing people.

Part 12: Idolatry

The Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly warn against idolatry. What is idolatry, and why is it such an offense to God? I think idolatry is the attribution to God of human characteristics. We are idolatrous when we create God in our own image.

Many people attribute God’s repeated admonition against idolatry to jealousy, but I am not convinced that such an apparently petty motive adequately explains God’s denunciation of idolatry. From a Girardian perspective, what God is trying to show us is that scapegoating victimization, which people have been doing since the formation of human culture, is wrong. People have never recognized that their scapegoating victimization derives from their own mimetic desires and their own mimetic violence. Rather, they invariably attribute their own violence to the god(s), insisting that the god(s) demand sacrifice. This is idolatry, and it runs directly counter to the God described in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.”

I see the Bible as God’s revelation that sacred violence is scandalous. The ancient Hebrews repeatedly wanted to worship a range of gods, because they had difficulty seeing God as having one essence. Polytheism is needed if one envisions the divine as having diverse (and conflicting) attributes and desires, but monotheism posits that God can be defined and understood as a single concept, and I think John is right when he asserts that God is love.

God’s attempt to reveal what has been hidden since the foundation of the world (Mt 13:35) has required human growth and maturation. The first step has been to discourage idolatry, which prepares the way for a monotheistic way of thinking and believing. This was the challenge set before Abraham, which I will discuss next week.

Part 13: Abraham and Isaac

Many people are troubled by the story in which God tests Abraham by commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Does God really approve of human sacrifice?

A Girardian way to interpret this story is to suggest that the voice Abraham believed was from God came, rather, from Abraham’s own culture. Since primal cultures typically engaged in human sacrifice, often the first-born son, it was natural that Abraham would believe that such a painful sacrifice was expected of him. Since the beginning of time, people have been attributing the “need” for sacrifice to man-made false gods. In order for sacred violence to maintain social order, people must believe that the god(s) demand sacrifice, but, as discussed last week, attributing human desires to the god(s) is idolatry. However, Abraham was as much a product of his culture as anyone else, and it was tempting for him to believe that the idolatrous demand for his son’s blood came from the true God.

If Abraham were commanded by God to kill his son, the God of Abraham would differ in name only from other man-made ancient deities to which people made human sacrifices. Instead, this story has a dramatic twist. Radically, God commanded Abraham to not kill Isaac. This, I suggest, is the God we meet in the New Testament, a God who “desires mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13, 12:7). Interestingly, Abraham then saw a ram caught in a thicket by his horns. Abraham believed that God wanted him to sacrifice the ram as a substitute for Isaac, but the text does not mention that God desired sacrificing the animal.

I don’t think this story illustrates that God wants animal sacrifice. However, the ancient Hebrews could not envision a God who had no interest in sacrifices, since, worldwide, the purpose of religion was to perform sacred ritual sacrifices. Slowly, the Hebrews would question the role of sacrifice in God’s plan, and eventually it would require Jesus’ remarkable ministry to demonstrate God’s desire.

Part 14: Jacob and Esau

The story of Jacob and Esau illustrates a profound understanding of mimetic desire and conflict. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with stories of brothers in conflict, starting with Cain and Abel. In this story, Jacob is born moments after Esau, remarkably grasping Esau’s heel. This portends the rivalry for Isaac’s favor that will violently separate the boys.

As is often the case in the Hebrew Scriptures, the younger brother eventually prevails over the older brother, undermining notions of the sacred order, in which the older brother should assume family leadership. Jacob and Esau’s parents promote sibling rivalry, with Rebecca favoring Jacob and Isaac loving Esau more. The boys compete for their father’s fortune and love, and Jacob cleverly wins by first capitalizing on Esau’s impulsiveness and shortsightedness to trade Esau’s birthright for a bowl of porridge and then fooling his father into giving Jacob the father’s blessing.

Fearing Esau’s wrath, Jacob flees. Jacob’s struggle at Jabbok is very interesting in that he is injured and yet emerges victorious. Prepared to meet Esau, Jacob bestows his father’s blessing upon Esau and they make peace. As James Williams observes in The Bible, Violence and the Sacred, this story is about mimetic rivalry that is resolved without violence. Jacob neither scapegoats nor is scapegoated.

Recalling how differences are needed in order to maintain social order, twins represent a profound threat. In many primal cultures, when there are identical twins, one or both are killed. While we don’t kill identical twins in our culture, they are certainly a source of fascination, if not discomfort. We naturally want to categorize everyone, including children, in terms of intelligence, athleticism, and other features, yet identical twins’ similarity confounds our efforts at differentiation. Lack of differentiation opens the floodgates of rivalry, and we’ve discussed how rivalries can divide and destroy communities. The Jacob and Esau story illustrates the divisive potential of twins, yet the story resolves without violence.

In several Bible stories, the younger son prevails, and it is tempting to see the Bible as scapegoating older sons—victimizing them in order to maintain a theme of dominant younger sons. Yet, older sons in the Bible often fair well. For example, Ishmael and Esau become patriarchs of great peoples. Another distinctive feature of the Bible is that the younger sons must first endure ordeals in which they are victims (e.g., the near-sacrifice of Isaac and the flight of Jacob from Esau’s wrath). Able to appreciate the victim’s perspective, younger brothers may more readily see the mechanism of victimization.

The story of Joseph expands the theme of younger brothers who are victimized but eventually prevail and flourish. Importantly, Joseph shows how love and forgiveness are central to reconciliation, and love and forgiveness will become central components of Jesus’ ministry.

Part 15: Joseph

In the story of Joseph, we again see the theme of brothers in rivalry in which a younger brother prevails. Jacob’s gift of the multicolored robe to Joseph causes mimetic rivalry and resentment: “when his brother saw that their father loved him [Joseph] more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.” (Gen 37:4) Then, Joseph dreams that his brothers will bow down to him, furthering resentment and anger. While mimetic rivalry often leads to murder, Reuben spares Joseph’s life. Reuben fails, however, to prevent his brothers from selling Joseph into slavery. I think that this story illustrates that it is difficult to avoid the pull of mimetic rivalry, mimetic accusation, and mimetic violence, but Reuben shows that love (in his case for his father, who would be grieved by losing Joseph) can sometimes prevail.

Joseph’s adventures in Egypt are filled with mimetic rivalry issues, but I want to focus on the end of the story, in which Joseph forgives his brothers. The brothers return to Egypt during the famine, and they do not recognize Joseph, who is in charge of food distribution. Eventually, Joseph forces them to bring the youngest child Benjamin, who is beloved by the father. Joseph frames Benjamin for theft and threatens to enslave the young man. Judah requests that he be enslaved instead, and I think that this demonstrates that the brothers’ love for their father outweighs resentment they might now feel towards Benjamin. Joseph, evidently satisfied that his brothers are now loving and contrite, forgives them.

We will see similar themes in the New Testament. Joseph, who has been treated terribly by his brothers, is not embittered. He claims that the events were part of God’s plan to “preserve life” and manage the famine. We will later see that Jesus retains love for those who persecuted and abandoned him, in part because he saw his fate as God’s plan. Also, Joseph forgives his brothers, after they showed genuine contrition. We will later discuss how we may be forgiven of our sins, if we are contrite and aim to sin no more, and how forgiveness is critical to our transcending the human tendency to engage in scapegoating violence.

In preparation for next week’s installment in this series, I encourage you to read Joshua Chapter 7.

Part 16: Joshua 7

In Joshua, we read how the Israelites are conquering the Promised Land. Their repeated triumphs seemed to confirm that God has ordained their land-acquisition. Then, they suffered a humiliated defeat at Ai when Joshua, acting on poor intelligence information, sent an insufficient number of soldiers to the battle. The story relates that the defeat was a consequence of Israel’s sin. We are told that someone violated God’s command not to take the spoils of victory from a previous conquest. Who was responsible? The story relates that God-directed selections identified Achan, and indeed illicit spoils were found in his tent. After he confessed to the crime, he and his family were killed and all their property was destroyed.

One can read this story literally—God has ordained punishment for violating God’s command. Or, one can read this story as a classic example of scapegoating. How does the scapegoating explanation work? Joshua wisely forbade his soldiers from seizing spoils of war, because this could engender mimetic rivalries that would prove divisive and change their focus from land conquest to personal gain. The only way to convince his soldiers not to take the spoils of war was to attribute the command to God. With a disciplined, unified force, Joshua had been riding a wave of popularity, thanks to his impressing string of military victories. However, his forces then suffered a humiliating defeat against Ai, which Joshua had underestimated. As commander-in-chief, he would be held accountable for this debacle (and he might have become the sacrificial victim of the “sacrificial crisis” arising from defeat), unless he could shift the blame. There is a lottery of sorts (perhaps drawing straws), and the text asserts that God directed Joshua to the “guilty” party. Indeed, Achan confessed and gold was found in his tent, but it is possible that the confession was under duress and that the gold was planted by Joshua’s agents.

Achan was stoned to death, and his family was likewise stoned, so there was little chance that anyone would come forward to assert Achan’s innocence. Then, Achan’s belongings were destroyed, eliminating the mimetic rivalries that might have accompanied competition for them.

A literal reading of this story is disturbing. It suggests that God is vengeful, not only against the guilty party but his relatives as well. An alternative reading suggests that Joshua skillfully manipulated peoples’ penchant for scapegoating and sacred violence to shift blame. He attributed the accusation to God (as always occurs in scapegoating), and he utilized the mimetic accusatory gesture to convict Achan. Once Joshua started to blame Achan, others quickly joined the chorus, eager to find the “evil person” responsible for the military debacle.

I think this story illustrates that the ancient Hebrews, like other ancient peoples, engaged in sacred violence. But, the author of Joshua leaves room for speculation as to whether Joshua was indeed at fault for the military defeat. The beginning of the story relates the miscalculation that proved costly, even though later Joshua blames Achan for the disaster. Therefore, we can read this story literally as demonstrating that the Hebrews engaged in God-ordained sacred violence, like all other primal religions. Alternatively, we may consider that this story is starting to reveal that “sacred” violence is scandalous and actually derives from human scapegoating.

Part 17: Job

In revealing the scapegoating mechanism, few books are more helpful than the book of Job. A series of terrible misfortunes befall Job, a righteous man who had previously been blessed with a good family, good health, and material wealth. His predicament outlines the “theodicy problem.” In a world governed by God (i.e., a theodicy) it is not possible for all of the following propositions to be true:

God is righteous.

God is all-powerful.

There is injustice.

Any two may be true, but not all three, and this presents a problem. Since the world certainly seems to contain injustice (#3), it follows that God is either not all powerful or not righteous. Yet, Jewish tradition had held that God was all powerful and righteous, and thus the “problem.”

The book of Job addresses the theodicy problem and offers a path towards its resolution, but does not fully answer the theodicy problem. Job believes his treatment has been unjust, but he does not deny that God is both righteous and all-powerful. Despite his misfortunes, Job refuses to curse God.

His friends visit and do nothing to alleviate his misery. Their solution to the theodicy problem is not to doubt that God is righteous and all-powerful. Rather, they conclude that there is no injustice—Job deserves his suffering. They tell Job (rather uncharitably) that he must have sinned against God, though Job (and the reader) knows otherwise.

From the perspective of mimetic theory, Job is a scapegoat. The sacred order has been violated—an evidently righteous man has suffered the most grievous misfortunes. Rather than offer him the solace he needs, they cruelly accuse him of wrongdoing, despite having no evidence to substantiate their claims. They scapegoat him in order to maintain their own sense of the sacred order.

Job, convinced that he been treated wrongfully, demands an explanation from God. God eventually addresses Job, but God does not appear to answer Job’s question. Instead, God addresses Job directly and respectfully. In doing so, God avoids a relationship that involves jealousy and rivalry, which would normally cause resentment and retribution. If God had taken a condescending attitude, Job would have been embittered by God’s arrogant abuse of power. If God had approached requesting Job’s understanding of God’s motives, such an attitude of supplication would have encouraged Job to have contempt for a God who hurts innocent people for no good reason. Instead, God simply points out God’s grandeur, power, and mystery, and this respectful engagement engenders Job’s respect.

Britt Johnson, commenting on Job, notes that this story has parallels with New Testament stories about God incarnate as Jesus Christ. Johnson writes, “The issue of theodicy is not resolved by discussion of right and wrong, nor by power and suffering, but by nonrivalrous relationship that completely sets aside issues of reward and punishment.” (“Repenting of Retributionism”)

This is the relationship with Christ that the New Testament offers. Christ doesn’t desire our suffering, but Christ doesn’t make our suffering go away, either. Rather, Christ is a loving friend who gives us no reason to consider him a rival. Christ does not demand our subservience, nor does Christ try to win a popularity contest by saying and doing whatever we want. Christ gives us no cause to compete with him or to feel that he is a rival in our projects to satisfy our desires. This nonrivalrous relationship itself is Christ’s demonstration of a way to deal with the theodicy problem—the problem that in a world governed by a powerful, just God, there is immense suffering among innocent victims. On the Cross, Christ did not bitterly accuse God of injustice or impotence, but instead asked (like Job), “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34) In John, the passion story relates, just before dying, “It is finished” (19:30), indicating an acceptance of God’s plan.

Jesus did not curse God, nor did he curse those who were scapegoating him (“Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do”). The response to the theodicy problem is to trust in God rather than to participate in the scapegoating mechanism or reciprocal accusation and violence (the two end-products of mimetic desire and rivalry). Therefore, both the book of Job and the passion of Christ don’t fully answer the theodicy problem. Rather, they offer a way to respond to it. We are called to participate in loving, respectful, nonrivalrous relationships, with God and with each other. We have a free will that enables us to choose to not scapegoat, to not create new victims, to not participate in reciprocal, escalating violence. We are mimetic creatures and we need models, and our model for such relationships is Christ’s relationship to God and to us. Christ’s model shows us how to live lovingly and compassionately. There will still be pain and suffering in this fallen world, but, to the degree that we imitate Christ, we become instruments of the solution rather than contributors to the problem.

Part 18: A Brief Review of Girardian Thought

This short review is for new members of this list and for those who have found this discussion challenging. Modern science has weakened the faith of many Christians, because the scientific method has indicated that we don’t need God to explain the world around us. Many scientists scoff at Christianity as unscientific, superstitious, and anti-intellectual, noting that believers often seem to reject scientific fact in favor of biblical beliefs. Girard makes a powerful move—he grounds his theology on the social sciences. He asserts that the Bible has revealed truths that are only now being confirmed by modern social sciences. Indeed, Girard has denied that he has made novel anthropological insights—everything, he claims, is already clearly described in the Bible.

In particular, the Bible reveals how mimetic human desire leads to the scapegoating mechanism, which has been “hidden since the foundation of the world.”(Mt 13:35) The Bible describes how our desires are mimetic, i.e., we unconsciously desire what others have or want. Recently, science has more clearly defined the nature of mimetic desire, finding that, in fact, humans are fundamentally mimetic creatures who learn language, manners, and other social skills through mimesis. Girard notes, as Bible stories attest, that “Acquisitive desire” is unconscious—we don’t choose to desire things but rather we unconsciously desire what others have or want. This is important, because if mimetic desire (and its consequences) were conscious, we would not need the Bible to reveal mimesis.

The problem is that what we desire invariably becomes scarce, and competition for objects of desires leads to rivalry, bitterness, and, potentially, violence. When other animals experience frustrated desire, they are briefly angry. Their anger abates when the object of desire, such as food or a sexual partner, are gone. In contrast, humans crave self-esteem, and frustrated desire threatens our self-image as valuable, capable individuals. Therefore, the anger that accompanies frustrated human desire easily engenders bitterness and a thirst for revenge designed to restore self-esteem. These sentiments can divide communities, reducing their ability to obtain food and make them vulnerable to enemies. The “solution” is to find a scapegoat who is held responsible for a community’s growing hostilities, and then to kill or banish the perceived evildoer. Just as the acquisitive gesture is mimetic, the accusatory gesture—pointing at the future victim and declaring, “He’s responsible!”—is mimetic. (See essay 6 for a more detailed discussion of the scapegoating mechanism at

Previous essays have discussed how the Hebrew Scriptures are distinctive among ancient sacred texts in that they see scapegoating from the victim’s perspective. We will see how, increasingly, the Hebrew Scriptures show that God does not want sacred violence. This revelation becomes most clear in stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Next week, we will explore one of the thorniest aspects of a Girardian, non-violent reading of the Bible—the sacrifices delineated in Leviticus.

Part 19: Sacrifice in the Hebrew Scriptures

The prescriptions for sacrifice described in Leviticus present problems for those seeking a Girardian, non-sacrificial reading of the Bible. The ancient sacrifices also pose a problem for Christian animal advocates, who claim that God cares about animals. Why would such a God accept or even encourage killing innocent animals?

A closer look at Leviticus offers some insights. First, Leviticus chapters 1 and 2 repeatedly refer to the proper way to make sacrifices of animals or plant foods if one wishes to make an offering to the Lord. God does not command animal sacrifices here. The ancient Hebrews lived among animal-sacrificing peoples, and arguably they could not imagine a God who had no desire for animal sacrifices. They were convinced that sacrifice was necessary to approach God and to appease God after one had transgressed God’s laws. Later revelations by the prophets and Jesus would help the Hebrews, and then all humankind, realize that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt 12:7).
Leviticus chapter 3 discusses peace sacrifices, and again the Scriptures describe such sacrifices as optional. Once again, Leviticus elaborates on the proper ritual “if” the sacrifice is an animal.

Chapter 4 gives instructions for sacrifices if one unwittingly violates one of God’s commandments. Given the cost of animals, this would have encouraged mindfulness of God’s laws, which were crucial in maintaining the ancient Hebrews’ unique identity and in maintaining faith in the radical notion of a solitary, invisible God.

Leviticus chapter 5 discusses how one is to make amends for sins against other people and then offer a sacrifice to God. The ancient Hebrews were not prepared for the injunction to forgive, and Leviticus chapter 5 offers a more primitive means of avoiding mimetic escalation of violence. Even today, even after receiving Christ’s ministry that teaches love and forgiveness, we find forgiveness extremely difficult.

Anger prompts violence, and killing animals was a scapegoating alternative to escalating human violence. Indeed, uncontrolled violence was the reason that God delivered the Flood: “the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen. 6:11) Perhaps God allowed Noah to eat animals as an outlet for human violence, since unrestrained violence was unacceptable. Similarly, animal sacrifice may have been a substitute for human sacrifice. There are many biblical references to human sacrifice—primarily children--and even Abraham was set to heed the command to sacrifice his first-born son. In such a culture where one was often expected to sacrifice one’s own beloved children, a prophet who called for an end to all sacrifice would have been dismissed as absurd or banished as demonic. The path towards ending all sacred violence, then, required animal sacrifice as a substitute for human sacrifice.

Therefore, God’s concern for animals is not disproved by the Levitican sacrificial code. The code indicates that God is more concerned about humans, but this does not mean that we have license today to treat animals with cruelty or neglect. As we will see next week, the Hebrew Scriptures dedicate considerable attention to the problem of violence, presumably because the ancient Hebrews understood that violence can easily escalate and always threatens to tear communities apart.

Part 20: Violence in the Hebrew Scriptures

As discussed earlier, all primal religions involve blood sacrifices which, the religions hold, are prescribed by the gods. Failure to perform sacrifices in the proper ritualistic manner would anger the gods and leave people vulnerable to catastrophe. The ancient Hebrews, likewise, feared God’s wrath and offered sacrifices. However, a distinctive feature of the Hebrew Scriptures is that they rarely attributed wrathful violence directly to God.

Violence is a central theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, with over 1000 passages discussing violence or threats of violence. (See Raymond Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?) Rarely, God is violently destructive for no apparent reason. Uncommonly, God angrily takes out revenge for evildoing. Much more frequently, God hands over evildoers to violent humans, who do the punishing for God. An example of God turning over evildoers to violent humans is Ezekiel 21:31, which describes God’s wrath against the Ammonites: “And I will pour out my indignation upon you; I will blow upon you with the fire of my wrath; and I will deliver you into the hands of brutal men, skillful to destroy.” One might see this as divine retribution, but one may also read this passage as illustrating the effects of mimetic violence. The Hebrews, hating their enemies, believed that their own violence was ordained by God--sacred acts of retribution and justice. It is certainly possible that God is indeed bent on violence and revenge. I think that one may also, reasonably, adopt a Girardian approach and conclude that the ancient Hebrew’s own written account of conflicts attributes their own vengeful violence to the will of God.

It is remarkable that, in about 70 passages of the Hebrew Scriptures, people are punished by the effects of their own sinfulness. For example, the writer of Proverbs observes, “He who digs a pit will fall into it; and a stone will come back upon him who starts it rolling.” (26-27) Similarly, the Psalmist writes, “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole which he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own pate his violence descends.” (7:15-16) From a Girardian perspective, this is a profound insight. These passages assert that our violence is not the solution to injustice but rather the cause of discord and misery that ultimately hurts everyone.

How are the Hebrew Scriptures different from the justifications for violence seen among other people? The answer is that the picture is ambiguous. The ancient Hebrews were starting to recognize the process of victimization. Perhaps their experience as slaves in Egypt made them more sensitive to the predicament of the scapegoated victim. Whatever the cause, the Psalmist’s lamentations articulate well the victim’s perspective. About 100 of the 150 psalms relate the writer’s anguish at being a victim. He is, for example, “despised” and “hated without cause” and his tormenters are “numerous” and “deceitful.” However, like other ancient people, he often dreams of revenge (for example Psalm 137: “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall be he who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”). The ancient Hebrews often sought mimetic, reciprocal violence, even if the victims of revenge were innocent children, but at the same time they were starting to recognize the scapegoating mechanism, the process of victimization, and the hazards of mimetic violence.

Next week, we’ll explore another challenging story—the violence against the Egyptians in Exodus.

Part 21: Exodus

At first glance, the story of the exodus from Egypt seems to demonstrate God’s violence. Many have been troubled by the suffering of the Egyptian citizens and soldiers, victims of the ten plagues, particularly the killing of the first-born son. Why should Egyptian citizens suffer so much on account of their hard-hearted Pharaoh? And, Pharaoh himself could be regarded as an victim, in that the text attributes his hardened heart to God.

James G. Williams (The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred) argues that a non-sacrificial reading of the Bible is compatible with the Exodus account. First, the account focuses on the innocent victims—in this case the Hebrews. Williams notes that this story is distinctive not because the Hebrews were once oppressed—nearly all peoples have been oppressed at some point in their history. Rather, the Hebrews’ sacred story relates their oppression and abuse in detail. Most people have origin stories in which they arise and conquer according to the wishes of their gods. The Hebrews’ acknowledgement of their disreputable origins makes God’s justice, mercy, and compassion more clear.

Second, there is a series of substitutions that reduce violence, particularly violence against the innocent. For example, the killing of the first-born is less violent than the previous Egyptian edict to kill all of the Hebrews’ male infants. Similarly, the sacrifice of lambs constitutes a substitution that promises, ultimately, to reduce sacred violence. Of course, the later prophets (who we will discuss next week) and Jesus go much farther in their opposition to sacrifice, but such ancient people could not imagine a God who does not want some kind of blood sacrifice.

A remarkable point about the Exodus story is that the Hebrews did not aim to retaliate against the Egyptians, only to leave. Traditionally, people sought revenge as much as their freedom, but the Exodus story suggests a different approach to injustice.

Interestingly, there are Greek accounts of the Exodus that derive from now-lost Egyptian sources. According to those accounts, the Egyptians faced a major crisis related to a group of people suffering from various diseases, and the Egyptians decided to expel this group from the country. One remarkable way by which the Egyptian account differs from that of the Bible is that the Egyptian story blames the Hebrews for the diseases (or whatever crises they experienced) and then, like the scapegoat sent into the wilderness, banned the accused troublemakers.

Next week, we’ll look at the later prophets, who offer a radical departure from the tradition of scapegoating, sacred violence. We will begin with the song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, a story that presages the coming of Christ.

Part 22: The Suffering Servant as Scapegoat

The Suffering Servant described in Isaiah is a remarkable account of the scapegoating mechanism. All religions have stories that describe scapegoating, though the truth of the victim’s innocence is hidden and the violence is attributed to a god. The Suffering Servant is distinctive because it articulates the victim’s perspective.

Isaiah introduces the Suffering Servant: “Behold my servant, whom I [God] uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, and he will bring forth justice to the nations.” (42:1) The Servant will bring forth justice, but not in the traditional sense. All primal religions had regarded justice in terms of divinely sanctioned retributive violence. The justice brought by the Suffering Servant will involve revealing to “the nations” the scandal of sacred violence. Isaiah later relates, “I will give you [the servant] as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” (49:6) We will see that the notion of “salvation” here is very different from traditional understandings.

The text is remarkable for its unambiguous articulation of the scapegoating mechanism. Isaiah 53:1-3 describes how the Suffering Servant was ugly and friendless. In all cultures, the scapegoat typically derives from society’s fringe, because these people are often held in suspicion (and are therefore easy to accuse of demonic possession and casting evil spells), and few people come to their defense. Remarkably, Isaiah recognizes that his community attributes the Suffering Servant’s pain, suffering, and death to God, but in truth the Servant suffers as a consequence of the people’s sinfulness: “Yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” (Isa 53:4-5)

Isaiah reinforces this message: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:6) Then, Isaiah reminds readers that the Servant was innocent: “although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” (Isa 53:9) It cannot be clearer that the Suffering Servant is a victim, not deserving of the violence he receives.

Paradoxically, after acknowledging the Suffering Servant’s innocence, Isaiah still maintains that his suffering was God’s will: “Yet it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief; when he makes himself an offering for sin. (Isa 53:10) Then, the text reads, “…through him the will of the Lord shall prosper…The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” (Isa 53:10-11) Commentators observe, I think correctly, that this passage predicts that people will learn from the self-sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, and this will lead to righteousness. Many commentators, however, fail to take the next step, which is to see the Suffering Servant as part of God’s plan to reveal the scandal of sacred violence. If the Servant were guilty in any way, his death would be defensible as divine justice, but his stark innocence shows that he is a victim of the scapegoating mechanism.

In the New Testament, we will find an even clearer example of the innocent Suffering Servant, who will expose the scapegoating mechanism, which has been “hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Mt 13:35) His story will demonstrate that God wants mercy and not sacrifice. (Matthew 12:7) First, we will look at the later prophets, who assert that God does not want sacred violence.

Part 23: The Later Prophets

See Isa 1:11-16, Jer 6:20, Hos 5:6, 6:6, 9:11-13, Amos 5:21-25, Micah 6:7-8.

It is helpful to review how animals were used as scapegoats: “Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land; and he shall let the goat go in the wilderness.” (Leviticus 16:21-22) The text explicitly demonstrates the ancient Hebrews’ beliefs that their own sinfulness could be transferred to the goat.

We see in Micah a very different understanding. Micah asserts that God does not want sacrifices for sinfulness, but rather God desires righteousness. Micah writes: “With what shall I come to the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:6-8) Remarkably, this passage recalls the ancient tradition of human sacrifice, and it then argues that God doesn’t even want animal sacrifice.

Jeremiah similarly says, “For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (7:22-23)

Likewise, Amos writes, “Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and cereal offerings, I will not accept them, and the peace offerings of your fatted beasts I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your song, to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (5:21-24)

Isaiah expresses a similar sentiment: “‘Your countless sacrifices, what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I am sated with whole offerings of rams and the fat of buffaloes. I have no desire for the blood of bulls, of sheep and of he goats. Whatever you come to enter my presence—who asked you for this? No more shall you trample my courts. The offer of your gifts is useless, the reek of sacrifice is abhorrent to me… There is blood on your hands; Wash yourselves and be clean… cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.’” (1:11-13, 15-16)

Jesus echoed these sentiments when he declared, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13, 12:7) This is a radical sentiment, a break with the universal focus on sacred violence. Throughout his ministry Jesus, like the later prophets, asserts God really wants righteousness. What is righteousness? As will become more clear in the New Testament, the answer involves love.

Part 24: Desire

This week’s essay looks more closely at desire, reviewing and expanding upon some previous comments. We have previously explored how mimetic desire leads to rivalry, bitterness, and divisiveness, and communities repeatedly restore peace by scapegoating. Buddhist thinkers have recognized that desire is the root of human misery, and they have recommended eliminating desire through meditative exercises.

It would seem that Buddhists would be well-equipped to contain the destructive consequences of desire, yet historically it appears that Buddhists have not been significantly kinder or less violent than non-Buddhists. I think Buddhism’s program to quell human desire often fails because (despite Buddhism’s teachings) people generally have little insight into the nature of human desire. People typically believe, incorrectly, that noble aspirations motivate their desires, when in fact their desires are mimetic.

The Christian approach (rooted in the Judaic traditions) is to acknowledge desire and then to encourage the right kind of desire. A stumbling block has been a failure to appreciate the difference between romantic desire and acquisitive desire. In romantic desire, one desires something because it is good. For example, in Christian traditions, one is supposed to desire righteousness because it is ordained by God and is, therefore, good.

In contrast, nothing is inherently good about the objects of mimetic desire. One directs one’s mimetic desires at those objects that other people find attractive. Girard asserts that human desire is largely, if not totally, mimetic. We see mimetic desire most obviously in the play of children, who want whatever toy another child starts to play with. We see it somewhat more subtly in the advertisements aimed at adult consumers. Adults, seeking self-esteem, want to believe that their desires are based on the inherent goodness of the objects (such as practical value), rather than crass mimetic desire.

I think that the appeal of “romance novels” is that people want to see all desire, particularly love, as romantic rather than mimetic. In romance novels, the lovers are attracted to qualities that make them universally desirable, such as looks, humor, courage, kindness, etc. Interestingly, romance novels are rarely classics that people continue to read for generations. Rene Girard, in trying to determine what makes a novel a “classic” made a seminal observation that led to his studies of cultural anthropology and, eventually, theology. Girard found that literature “classics” see desire as mimetic. For example, Dostoevsky captures mimetic desire well in The Brothers Karamazov. Dmetri and his father Fyodor Pavlovitch clash in their competition for Grushenka’s affections. Remarkably, Grushenka is not particularly attractive, dramatizing how the men’s desire for her is more mimetic than romantic. For more details and examples, see Girard’s book Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.

Why should we care whether or not certain fictional stories are read for generations? The reason is that stories become “classics” if they have themes that resonate with people. While we like to fantasize about romantic desire (and like to think that our own love is purely romantic rather than mimetic), I think that, intuitively, we recognize desire as mimetic. Consequently, when we read novels that describe mimetic desire, it resonates with us as true.

Girard pointed out that what we desire is guided by mimesis, but he did not articulate what motivates our having desires in the first place. In the next essays, I will explore how our innate fear of death generates a fundamental desire to gain self-esteem as a means by which we may have a sense of transcending death. I think that any program aimed to eliminating scapegoating violence must recognize this.

Part 25: Fear of Death

[Several people, responding to last week’s essay, noted that Buddhist countries tend to have lower crime rates and that nobody has gone to war in the name of Buddhism. These are valid and relevant comments. My point was that Buddhist thinkers have recognized that desire often leads to violence and destructiveness. Some Buddhists seem to incorporate this insight and lead peaceful lives, yet many Buddhists seem unable to transcend mimetic desire and its consequences. The book Zen at War discusses how Buddhist thought was incorporated into Japanese imperialism and used to justify Japan’s activities before and during the Second World War. I would not blame Buddhism for Japanese aggression; I only note that Buddhism has often failed to arrest human mimetic desires.]

Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, argued that humans are animals, and evolutionary and behavioral data show that humans share with other animals an innate fear of death. However, Becker asserted, humans are probably unique among animals in recognizing that humans are always vulnerable to death and humans know that mortality is inevitable. Rather than feel terror (animals’ likely sentiment when facing death) constantly, humans have “death-transcending stories” derived from their culture. Such stories include beliefs that people really don’t die with the cessation of our body’s life functions (e.g., a soul lives on, elsewhere) or that people can contribute to something that transcends death, that lives on after they die (e.g., their children, their nation, or something they have created).

One’s sense of death-transcendence is integrally linked to one’s culture, because one’s culture provides stories that give life meaning and context in which one may regard one’s actions as meaningful. For example, one is remembered as honorable in some cultures by being a courageous warrior in other cultures by being nonviolent. Consequently, people tend to vigorously defend their culture’s goodness and rightness. Indeed, for many people, the survival of the culture (which affirms a sense of death-transcendence) is far more important that survival of the individual him- or herself. People know that their bodies are mortal, but the death of their culture threatens their psyches with permanent extinction.

One thing that our (Western) culture tells us is that humans are a kind of special creation. From Becker’s perspective, an important reason that many of us see ourselves as fundamentally different from animals is that it appears that animals’ existence is defined by struggle to survive and then anonymous death. Animals don’t seem to transcend death, and it’s important to our psyches that we not perceive ourselves as creatures who just die and vanish forever.

I think fear of death explains widespread acceptance of two apparently conflicting premises. Evolutionary theory is the basis of modern biology, and the vast majority of Americans accept the theory’s validity. Yet, surveys show that most Americans still believe that humans are a special creation, which is an unnecessary hypothesis if one embraces evolutionary theory. I don’t think it’s reasonable to believe in evolution of species and then exempt humans from the process. Why would educated, scientifically oriented people accept such a contradiction? It seems that these people don’t want to acknowledge human “animal-ness,” because to do so would suggest that we, like animals, will someday permanently die.

Herein lies a difficulty for secular animal advocates who argue that homo sapiens is just one among many kinds of animals, and the term “lower animals” is not defensible on evolutionary grounds. It would follow that humankind’s mistreatment of fellow creatures is a matter of might makes right, not justice. This may be supported by evolutionary theory and be morally consistent as well, but it fails to account for peoples’ strong psychological need to not regard themselves as animals.

In the next essay, we’ll explore the importance of self-esteem in gaining a sense of death-transcendence.

Part 26: The Fundamental Desire for Self-Esteem

Those who survive episodes in which death seemed imminent describe the terror. Yet, in a sense, death is imminent for all of us, and, at some level of consciousness, we know that we will all die in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, we are aware intellectually that we may die at any time. How do we maintain equanimity in the face of death? The answer is that we utilize our impressive denial mechanisms to gain a sense of mastery over death. According to Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death), self-esteem is a critical component of death-denial.

Self-esteem—a sense of competence and importance—makes us feel less vulnerable. If we have a strong sense of self-esteem, we feel less likely to be a victim of life’s vicissitudes (injury as well as death) for two reasons. First, those with strong self-esteem tend to believe that they can adjust to situations and escape relatively unharmed. Second, self-esteem engenders a sense of importance, which leads to a sense that “it couldn’t happen to me.” Although this may appear irrational to outside observers, there is a widespread sense that, if we are important, God (or one of God’s agents) will protect us from harm.

Self-esteem helps us feel that our existence will not end with the termination of our body’s functions. If we have strong self-esteem, we may envision people fondly remembering us, and this is one means by which we may feel as if we can transcend death. Alternatively, we may believe that, as “good” people, God will reward us with eternal paradise. On the other hand, if we believe ourselves unworthy of praise from people or favorable consideration from God, we are more inclined to see death as permanent and total, and consequently psychologically terrifying.

Although the above analysis involves speculation, there is ample evidence that self-esteem is a primary human concern and intriguing (though less overwhelming) evidence that links self-esteem to fear of death. The intense anger many feel after being humiliated appears to be related to their hurt sense of self-esteem. Similarly, self-esteem appears to underlie fierce competition in sports, business, and many other walks of life. People may even gain self-esteem vicariously—consider how good many people feel when “their” sports team wins.

Our dreams shed light on the importance of self-esteem. Dreams often reflect our fears related to our vulnerability, and many people dream about terrifying, perilous situations. Dreams often involve embarrassment and/or public humiliation, such as public nakedness or being unprepared for a presentation.

Terror Management Theory has provided fascinating experimental evidence for Becker’s analysis. A broad range of experiments have shown that thinking about death encourages people to defend their culture, prefer people of similar ethnic background, and even become violent. Strikingly, when people are asked to think about what it will feel like being dead in a coffin, they deny that the mental image is upsetting. But, subsequent testing shows that they are deeply disturbed by the mental image, indicating that people don’t recognize how terrified of death they are. An excellent review of Terror Management Theory is in Zygon 1998 Vol. 33 pp. 9-44.

I have argued that self-esteem is a core human need. Our quest for self-esteem invariably leads to competition, because you can’t be “good” at something unless you are better than other people. When animals compete for a desired object, such as a piece of food or an attractive mate, they express anger during the conflict. Afterwards, their anger quickly subsides; one has won and the other has lost, and they both move on to other concerns. For humans, the struggle is much more important. Getting the desired object is more than just satisfying an immediate desire--is a matter of self-esteem. Losing hurts one’s self-esteem and threatens one’s sense of mastery over death. Such a profound loss engenders anger and bitterness that can easily tear communities apart. As discussed extensively previously, scapegoating violence is the glue that keeps communities together.

Importantly, the self-esteem humans seek is symbolic—real object are not what people, in general, really want. If all people wanted were real objects then, like animals, the passions aroused during competition for the object(s) would subside once one individual successfully competed for it. In contrast, self-esteem is not something one either has or doesn’t have. One’s sense of self-worth may increase or diminish throughout life. If someone feels humiliated, their self-esteem may suffer as long as the offender goes unpunished for the offense. Consequently, the desire for revenge may persist indefinitely.

Because self-esteem is tied to satisfaction of desires, we often have the sense that we “need” things that actually are not essential for contented living, much less essential for survival. However, what we really “need” is self-esteem to soothe our fear of death. And, when it comes to self-esteem, it’s not what one has that matters, it’s what one has in relation to others. People will constantly want more than their peers, regardless of how much they have. Furthermore, even those with the most will not be satisfied, because they can never fully eliminate the fear of death from their subconscious minds. This is the tragedy of materialism—people keep thinking that if they only had more things they would be content, yet no quantity of material goods can overwhelm their fear of death.

In the next essay, I will explore how self-esteem relates to anger and its close relation, fear. I will then discuss how, in our attempts to gain self-esteem, animals are contemporary sacrificial victims. Subsequently, I will address how the life and death of Jesus Christ offers us a non-competitive, non-violent, non-sacrificial way to gain self-esteem.

Part 28: Animals as Scapegoats, part 1

A key tenet of Girardian thought is that the scapegoating mechanism is hidden. Those who engage in sacred violence believe they are acting accord to divine will and would not characterize their activities as violent or destructive. Historically, humans have often been victims of the scapegoating mechanism for several reasons. As we recall, a “sacrificial crisis” occurs when there is growing hostility within a community, which is an inevitable consequence of mimetic desire and which can be aggravated greatly by a natural disaster such as a drought, epidemic, or flood. Just as desire is mimetic, so too is the accusatory gesture mimetic. Someone (typically a peripheral member of the community who has a physical disability or a mental disorder) is accused of demonic possession and casting evil spells. Once this person has been banished or killed, peace is restored. In the minds of those who scapegoat, this validates the victim’s guilt. As we saw, the ancient Hebrews often substituted animals for humans, which appears to have been a necessary step towards ceasing sacrificial violence altogether.

Most people believe that in this modern, “enlightened” era we have abandoned sacrificial violence. While we often go to lengths to avoid scapegoating people and making them victims of sacred violence, I maintain that sacred violence persists, with animals as frequent contemporary substitutes. One gets a sense of the sacred nature of activities that involve hurting and/or killing animals from the intense emotions expressed by those who defend these activities. Just as people tend to be most defensive of religious tenets that are difficult to justify on rational grounds, animal advocates frequently arouse anger that seems out-of-proportion to the nonviolent, compassionate message animal advocates encourage.

What arouses such passions? Certainly, perceived quality of life concerns is one factor—people want the taste of animal flesh, the feel of animal skins, the (supposed) benefits of animal experimentation, etc. In addition, I think that it disturbs people when animal protectionists assert that humans are among the members of the animal kingdom.

Humankind’s connection with the natural world in general and animals in particular reminds people of their mortality. To many people, animals seem to lead meaningless lives characterized by struggle followed by anonymous death. (I think animals do have rich and meaningful lives, but this is not always evident to the casual observer.) When people kill animals, it gives people a sense of superiority, a sense that they are fundamentally different from the animals. I think that the act of eating animals generates a similar symbolic message—if people can consume animals’ very bodies, then people don’t feel like they are “one of them.” This might also help explain the horror engendered by stories of people being eaten by animals—it reminds people that they are 1) vulnerable to death and 2) made of flesh. Along these lines, many cultures deal with corpses in ways that avoid people seeing flesh decompose.

Next week, we will examine why animal experimenters talk about “sacrificing” animals, and we will explore how animals are scapegoats in the universal quest for self-esteem.

Part 29: Animals as Scapegoats, part 2

Last week, we started to discuss how animals are often scapegoats, victims of human concerns about mortality. It is remarkable that animal researchers talk of “sacrificing” animals rather than killing them. One reason for this, I think, is that there is an element of sacred, scapegoating violence in animal experimentation. In pre-scientific times, people often made sacrifices to God in hopes of restoring their own health or that of someone they loved. (This could include self-sacrifice, such as fasting.) Today, in a more secular manner, people often blame nature for illness, and the scientific establishment sacrifices animals to force nature to yield its secrets and permit restoration of health. While we now know that many Western diseases are related to lifestyle choices, including eating animal products, people don’t want to accept the consequences of their behavior. First, of course, people don’t want to be sick. Second, if people regarded illness as a sign of unwise decisions, then disease could damage their self-esteem as well as their bodies. Third, just as natural disasters can generate a “sacrificial crisis,” severe disease is often seen as a violation of the sacred order and constitutes a “sacrificial crisis” that prompts a search for scapegoat(s). (See Part 7.) Animal experimenters play a role analogous to the tribal medicine man, who offers sacrifices to heal the sick. Profane objects (particularly, but not exclusively, animals) become sacred when they are destroyed during special sacred rituals. By analogy, the “sacrifices” of animals in modern laboratories purportedly transform the profane (animal bodies) into what researchers and the public now regard as sacred (data that lead to life-saving discoveries).

Sometimes, animal experimenters assert that animals benefit from animal research, particularly veterinary research. What is remarkable about this claim is that it deprives each animal of his or her importance. Justification of veterinary research requires ignoring or greatly discounting the needs and feelings of individual animals. In truth, however, it does not appear that utilitarian calculations (greatest benefit for animals at the least cost) dictate veterinary research. The choice of which veterinary research projects to pursue is likely influenced far more by financial considerations, such as the development of profitable drugs and treatments. And, we should not forget that love of money is tied to our mimetic rivalries, illustrating another way that animal mistreatment is linked to the scapegoating mechanism.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in our pursuit of self-esteem (see recent essays), there are always winners and losers when people compete against each other. The ability to dominate and/or kill an animal can give anyone a sense of self-esteem. For example, the National Trappers Association Trapping Handbook writes, “While many youths develop interest in sports or good grades in school, some do not when they realize that they can’t excel. . . . Any young person, regardless of social advantages, can excel and be an achiever by catching the big fish of the day, or making a nice shot, or catching a mink.” In other words, those who can’t generate self-esteem by comparing favorably to their human peers can gain self-esteem by killing an animal.

Animals are indeed scapegoating victims of humankind’s universal quest for self-esteem. They help restore communal peace and tranquility because those who perform poorly at sports, academics, or attracting members of the opposite sex can gain self-esteem by outwitting and killing animals. Furthermore, like all scapegoating victims, animals are blamed for their own predicament, e.g., “They reproduce too fast and threaten to offset nature’s balance”; “They are dangerous”; “They are disgusting”.

Must there be losers (human or animal) in order for people to gain self-esteem? If so, there would seem to be no hope of transcending the tendency towards scapegoating violence. Christianity offers an alternative. If God’s capacity to love were infinite, we would not need to compete for God’s affection. And, if God loved us unconditionally, we would not need to harm anyone else to demonstrate our own worth. We would not need to prove to ourselves or anyone else that we “deserved” God’s love—we would have confidence that we were important and valuable regardless of how we lived. If that were the case, we would not need to engage in scapegoating violence. We would not need to convince ourselves that our violence was ordained by God. We would then be freed from the bonds of human mimetic desire, rivalry, and destructiveness to become instruments of love and peace. As we turn to the New Testament, this, I will argue, was the central message of Jesus Christ.

Part 30: Animals as Contemporary Scapegoats: Reply to a Question

I appreciate those who have responded to this ongoing series with thoughtful comments and questions. The last two essays on animals as scapegoats prompted one person to wonder whether those who harm and/or kill animals today are really motivated by the scapegoating mechanism. Those who catch fish and hunt, for example, often express such sentiments as an appreciation for nature, a fascination with animal behavior, and the necessity to kill animals to provide food for their families. Intensive confinement systems often seem to derive from economic forces rather than a human inclination towards sacred violence. Those who eat animal flesh generally perceive the meal as nourishing and tasty, and they would generally deny that the food symbolically reflect their domination of nature. There are many possible ways to explain the motives of those who harm and/or kill animals. Is a Girardian perspective superior?

I do not want to repeat material detailed in the first 8 essays of this series, which can be viewed at the above Internet address. In a nutshell, Girard has argued that all human culture derives from the ability of sacred violence to unify people around the victim. Whereas mimetic rivalries constitute a powerful force tending to drive people apart, scapegoating helps resolve their conflicts and brings peace and order. In primal cultures, subsequent to the chaos and ensuing scapegoating violence, “prophets” announce a divinely sanctioned social order, which people believe because intuitively they understand that social order helps reduce mimetic rivalries and conflict. In other words, when the prophets say that the gods decree that certain people, usually defined by family heritage, enjoy power and first choice among sexual partners, people accept this because they intuitively recognize that social order is necessary to protect them against the terrifying chaos of escalating mimetic rivalry. The social order involves identifying differences between groups of people, such as gender, race, family lineage, or other criteria, and defining rules that prohibit competition between the social ranks. This is most evident in the Indian caste system, in which, for example, most Indians would find it unthinkable for an Untouchable to marry a Brahmin.

According to Girard, primal societies maintain the social order by attributing it to their gods. Their sacrificial rituals reenact the lack of differentiation that led to chaos, as well as the differentiating process by which the gods established the social order. Purportedly speaking for the gods, the prophets had defined the categories and declared as taboo actions which violate the now-sacred social order. With the social order divinely sanctioned, primal people have genuinely believed that violating this order (i.e., violating taboos) will cause societal collapse, which helps explain the fervor with which many Whites once defended school segregation.

Differentiation is fundamental to culture. What it means to have culture is to have rules—rules of social conduct, rules about “good” versus “bad,” rules about what is “right” versus “wrong.” These rules about what may or may not be done to members of different tribes, genders, etc. derive from the scapegoating mechanism. Similarly, species differentiation is grounded in the scapegoating mechanism. Of course, there are biological differences between humans and non-humans, but there are biological differences between every living thing, and there are limitless ways in which people may categorize biological entities. Since, according to Girard, the scapegoating mechanism is the process by which differentiation occurs, it follows that defining the role of an individual animal by its species membership, whether it is to be a companion animal or a source of food, similarly derives from the scapegoating mechanism. Unfortunately, neither Girard nor most of Girard’s pupils seem to have made the connection between scapegoating humans and scapegoating animals.

Girard’s principle empirical evidence is the observation that every primal culture either engages in sacred violence or has rituals linked to past sacrifices. This, Girard asserts, is the only thing that can be said about all cultures, and consequently Girard maintains that sacred violence is central to the origin of culture. If it could be proven that a single primal culture were free of sacrifice in both contemporary practice and ritual reenactment, then his theory would collapse.

What about “civilized” cultures? They are not free of sacred violence, but it tends to be more hidden, for at least two reasons. First, courts of law have generated order in “civilized” societies such that there appears to be no need for scapegoating to maintain social order. If someone feels slighted, they may take the issue to a supposedly impartial court, and peaceful resolution is possible in ways that are often not available to primal cultures. The need for sacred violence therefore appears reduced. In truth, judges have become the high priests, rendering judgment and punishing wrongdoers. A Girardian analysis still points to sacred violence at the origin of differentiating “good” from “bad,” from which the law derives.

Second, recalling that the scapegoating mechanism is always hidden, it is hard for us to recognize the ways in which our own culture engages in sacred violence. If we are to recognize our own sacred violence, we must listen to the voice of the victim, because otherwise we (like members of all cultures) will regard our actions as righteous and just rather than violent. Third, there are situations in which actual necessity, such as the need to put food on the family table, accounts for killing animals. Similarly, defending one’s home against invaders can involve acts of violence for which sacred violence is not a primary motivation. However, few acts of violence are so black-and-white. Few of those in the West who hunt absolutely need to do so, and military acts of “defense” are often not as defensive as claimed.

The failure to recognize the victim as a victim helps explain why so many people who harm and/or kill animals fail to recognize their actions as involving sacred violence. For example, to many hunters, “the deer” are too numerous, and “culling” a proportion of the population is good for “the deer.” But, the very act of calling a group of individuals “the deer” is a kind of differentiation that has its origins in sacred violence.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) As we will see, in Christ Jesus, we are all loved by God. The distinctions that have their origins in sacred violence are often attributed to God, but in truth they are human distinctions, not divine ones.

Genesis relates that God cares about all of Creation. Humans were given the sacred task of caring for Creation, a task that humankind has handled poorly. The main reason we have done so badly is that humans have tended towards idolatry—believing in false gods of their own design rather than the true God who is loving, compassionate, and merciful.

Part 31: The New Testament: Introduction

[Acknowledgement: I have received many insights into the application of Girard’s thought by Rev. Paul Neuchterlein, whose insightful commentaries on the Lectionary and sermons can be found at]

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)

This opening passage describes the Word of God creating order from chaos. From a Girardian perspective, chaos describes the primal human condition. Mimetic rivalry engenders universal hostility, and community (and therefore culture) is impossible. The human creation story we see in nearly every religion is that killing a scapegoat unifies the people and generates civilization. What is remarkable and distinctive about the Judaic-Christian creation story is that there is no violence. In contrast, consider the central Hindu creation myth, as described by Rev. Paul Neuchterlein:

Purusha, the primal human being who is described with godlike, grotesque dimensions (symbolizing the chaos), is dismembered and made into an offering to the gods by the gods. From his body derives everything, but what is specified in the myth is not so much the universe in general as things of human culture and institutions: purified butter for the ritual sacrifice, verse and chants, domesticated animals. Most telling is the Hindu hierarchical order for human community itself, the caste system: Purusha’s head becomes the priestly class, the arms the noble-warrior class, the thighs the populace, and the feet the untouchables. The anthropologist can begin to deconstruct this myth: behind Purusha there is a real person collectively murdered who represents the chaos of the mimetic crisis and whose murder brings the ensuing order. In The Scapegoat, Girard elaborates such demythologizing with numerous examples.

“Light” is a frequent metaphor for revelation, and The Gospel According to John frequently equates God’s revelation with light. “He [John the Baptist] came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. . . The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world.” (John 1:7,9) John (the Gospel writer) also proclaimed: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Similarly, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the light” (John 14:6).

From a Girardian perspective, Christ’s ministry is about revelation. Jesus said, “I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world.” (Mt 13:35; see also Luke 11:50-51) What does Christ reveal, which has been hidden since the foundation of the world? The Girardian answer is the innocence of the sacrificial victim. Since the beginning of human culture, scapegoating has bound communities together. People have always attributed the scapegoating violence to their gods, failing to recognize that the people themselves have generated the violence. Jesus, reflecting the growing recognition among the ancient Hebrews that God wants love, not violence, declared, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13, 12:9) As we will see in future essays, Jesus exposed the scandal of sacred violence and showed that God wants us to love.

Part 32: Jesus’ Birth

The scapegoat is typically a peripheral member of the community, and Jesus’ humble beginnings follow this pattern. His parents were neither wealthy nor powerful; he was born in the remote, insignificant town of Bethlehem; and he was born in a manger because there was no room in the inn. While his lineage (described in Matthew and Luke) traces his ancestry to King David, there is nothing obviously distinctive that would foretell his role in saving humankind. Indeed, Jesus told his disciples, “The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing.” (Mt 21:42, see also Mk 12:10 and Lk 20:17) In other words, the foundation of the Lord’s plan was the stone that the builders rejected as unsuitable for any use.

The shepherds were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth. Shepherds were unwashed and considered unscrupulous, and they had low status in biblical times. I think the story drives home the point that social status is unrelated to salvation. Whatever society thought about shepherds, God respected them.

Jesus, child of poor parents, was born among animals. One might interpret this as further evidence for a humble birth, and to a degree I think it is. I think that including the animals at Jesus’ birth also illustrates God’s concern for all Creation, just as the revelation to the shepherds demonstrates God’s concern for all people, regardless of their position in human society.

In many religions, heroes are born into wealth and privilege. Often, this person’s special status will position him to lead a military campaign to vanquish a people’s enemies. This is the “righteous” violence in the name of God that has excused violence throughout human history. This was not to be Jesus’ calling.

Jesus would reveal the scapegoating mechanism, but to do so he needed to have both humble and human origins. If Jesus were God without human features, then he would be a poor model for us, for how can we imperfect humans hope to emulate God? The Bible describes Jesus not only as human but as a vulnerable child. He needed love and care so that we would not obey him as one obeys a powerful monarch but instead revere him for his understanding of God’s will and his faithfulness and obedience to it.

If Jesus had been a child of privilege, he would likely have engendered jealousy, a manifestation of mimetic rivalry, and bitterness. If a mob were to later kill such a person, they might justify their violence on the grounds that this person was “arrogant” or didn’t deserve his privileged status. They could cite the sins of his wealthy ancestors as excuses to kill him. Therefore, if Jesus were to expose scapegoating and the scandal of sacred violence, his humble beginnings were necessary. To the degree that he was honored by the shepherds and the wise men, it reflected his relationship with God, not any special position within human society.

Part 33: John the Baptist, part 1

John the Baptist introduced the first, key element in overcoming sacred violence. He exhorted, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Mt 3:2) Unless we repent, we will constantly struggle to convince ourselves that our mimetic hostilities are justified and we will call our vengeance “justice.” Furthermore, if we recognized our own sins, we would be prepared to forgive others and, in so doing, relieve the cycle of mimetic violence.

Jesus did not need baptism as forgiveness of sins, but he was baptized in obedience to God. John initially balked at baptizing Jesus, but Jesus answered, “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” (Mt 3:15) The Bible then relates that Jesus perceived God embracing him: “And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, ‘This I my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Mt. 3:16-17)

An important aspect of John the Baptist’s ministry was his exclamation, upon seeing Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) John the Baptist did not say “sins,” but rather the singular “sin.” What is the “sin of the world?” According to a Girardian, anthropological reading of the Bible, the sin of the world is the scapegoating mechanism, which has victimized the innocent since the foundation of human civilization. Girardian anthropology ties all violence to the scapegoating mechanism, and the Bible describes violence as the reason that God flooded the earth: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen 6:11) Noah, whose relative righteousness spared him and his family, was still flawed; for example, he cursed Ham, who had seen him drunk. It is not surprising that the descendents of Noah would exhibit violence, since the scapegoating mechanism has always been the glue that holds human communities together. But, God had promised not to deliver another flood, so God would need a different strategy for taking away the sin of the world.

In what way was Jesus the Lamb of God? We will turn to this question next week.

Part 34: John the Baptist, part 2

John the Baptist announced Jesus’ arrival, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Why did John the Baptist regard Jesus as the Lamb of God?

Recall that those who engage in scapegoating regard their violence as sacred as a manifestation of divine justice. If Jesus had violently destroyed scapegoaters, then the formerly weak, victimized people would assume power. They would quickly resort to scapegoating themselves, since they, too, would envision that their violence was the will of their violent leader. The only way to dismantle the scapegoating mechanism, to take away the sin of the world, was to expose it as a falsehood and a scandal. Since nonviolence was essential to revealing the scapegoating mechanism, Jesus had to assume the role of the innocent scapegoat himself!

Normally, people justify victimizing the scapegoat by pointing to some misdeed of their future victim. He or she deserves death, they say, for their sin against God. Since all of us sin, it’s usually pretty easy to find some charge with which to condemn the victim. However, the gospels describe Jesus as sinless, and when people realized that they had murdered an innocent man, they started to recognize their involvement in, and the scandal of, the scapegoating mechanism. What they needed was revelation, the truth, the light.

John the Baptist was uncompromising when it came to truth, and this literally cost him his head when he shamed Herod’ wife. What differentiated John the Baptist’s martyrdom from that of Jesus and St. Stephen, however, was that John the Baptist exhibited anger and resentment. In this respect, Jesus was indeed greater, because he loved everyone and even while being crucified he declared, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.”

John the Baptist was a prophet, and Jesus noted that prophets had repeatedly been killed. Indeed, Jesus and his early disciples met an early, violent end. People have always resisted the truth, because they intuitively know that scapegoating keeps communities together. Since the message that God wants mercy and love undermines the scapegoating mechanism, there is a strong temptation to scapegoat the messenger as evil and deserving to die, rather than acknowledge the truth of his prophecy.

John the Baptist called for repentance of sins, and he baptized with cleansing water. John the Baptist announced “he [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Luke 3:17) What does this mean? I think “fire” refers to the sentiment that underlies total love for God. This passionate love makes one prepared to do whatever it takes to reflect God’s love and forgiveness. John the Baptist continues, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Looking at the Bible through the lens of mimetic theory, I don’t see Jesus as being called to participate in the all-consuming fires of sacred violence. Rather, I think, Jesus will destroy the chaff—the sin of the world—which is the scapegoating mechanism in which our mimetic desires lead to destructive rivalries that are resolved by scapegoating the innocent.

Jesus revealed how to live for God. This could involve simple acts of kindness and generosity, but it might mean choosing to be a victim of the scapegoating mechanism rather than resorting to “righteous” violence. From this perspective, John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by cleansing people of sins, and baptism from Jesus’ hands was even more cleansing and liberating, because Jesus offered the guidance and the inspiration to carry out God’s will.

A difficulty remains: How can we recognize our violence as inspired by human desires rather than divine will? After all, the scapegoating mechanism is always hidden (see Part 6). We needed Jesus to expose the scapegoating mechanism, to “take away the sin of the world.” Before he could do that, however, he needed to directly confront and overcome his own mimetic desires that derived from his human nature. In addition, Jesus needed to show his followers that it is possible for humans to transcend our own acquisitive mimetic desires. He did this by allowing himself to be fully exposed to the most powerful human acquisitive mimetic desires. This is what happened when Satan tempted Jesus three times in the wilderness. We will turn to this story next week.

Part 35: The Three Temptations (Mt: 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), part 1

As we recall, acquisitive mimetic desire leads to rivalry, conflict, and violence. The story of the Three Temptations illustrates how Jesus overcame acquisitive mimetic desire, preparing him for his ministry of love and peace.

In the desert, Jesus fasted and prayed for 40 days, which left Jesus physically weakened and more vulnerable to Satan’s enticements. Satan then offered Jesus bread, but Jesus rebuked Satan, quoting scripture (Deut 8:3), “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) This passage illustrates that our principle focus should be on God’s will—it is an even greater imperative than eating when hungry. An important implication of this, which will be a focus of future essays, is that we are called to trust in God.

Having tempted Jesus with food, Satan encouraged Jesus to test God by jumping from a pinnacle of the temple and forcing God to save him. This was a challenge to Jesus’ self-esteem in that Satan implied that God might not save Jesus. This, like a “dare,” was designed to tempt Jesus to prove his worth. Yielding to this temptation would have shown rivalry with Satan, because jumping from the pinnacle would have been motivated by a desire to impress Satan. Mimetic rivalry between Jesus and Satan would have then led to greater and greater “dares” in a power struggle between them. In addition, if Jesus had yielded to this temptation, it would have reflected rivalry with God, because compelling God to rescue Jesus would be tantamount to challenging God’s authority.

Finally, Satan appealed to the nearly universal human desire for power and control, offering Jesus all the kingdoms he could see from a high mountain if Jesus worshipped Satan. We gain a sense of mastery over death via power and control (see part 25 and 26). We believe that we can keep death at bay as long as we are “king of the hill.” Remarkably, referring to all the kingdoms of the world, Satan said, “All these I will give you.” (Mt 4:9) The Gospel does not deny that Satan owns these kingdoms, and indeed all human kingdoms are grounded on and maintained by the scapegoating mechanism. The “sacred order” that puts the king at its pinnacle derives from the scapegoating mechanism, and those who challenge this sacred order commit a taboo that is usually punished, often by death. (See Part 7.) Jesus’ kingdom would be very different. It would be grounded on love and forgiveness, not accusation and violence. Therefore, Jesus rejected this temptation, declaring “it is written, ‘you shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Mt 4:10)

We naturally want power and control, because we recognize our vulnerability to injury, infirmity, and even death. The king seems confident and in control, and people envy the king. However, the king’s invulnerability is an illusion. For one thing, the king is mortal. For another, in primal societies, the king purchases his power by selling his soul. The king must assume the satanic role of the accuser by scapegoating innocent people in order to avoid becoming a scapegoat himself whenever there is a drought, plague, military setback, or other crisis. Is this not what Joshua did in order to avoid blame for a humiliating military defeat (see Part 16)? In more developed societies, the scapegoating mechanism that maintains the king’s power is often harder to discern because it is more institutionalized, but I think it’s still there.

Jesus emphatically rejected the satanic, acquisitive mimetic desire for power. Jesus replied that we should serve God, from which our greatest satisfaction derives, rather than seeking to be served.

Part 36: The Three Temptations, part 2

Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, describes the universal story of the hero, who leaves the community, goes into the wilderness, struggles against dangerous forces, and returns with new, divine knowledge. The Three Temptations story fits this mould, but with an unusual twist. Unlike most such hero stories, Jesus’ struggle did not involve violence. Jesus overcame not a fierce beast but rather the mimetic desires that have led to violence since the beginning of human civilization. (See the previous essay.)

The version in Luke concludes, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (4:13) When will this opportune time be? Jesus was most vulnerable during the Passion, when he was tempted to avoid arrest, prosecution, and persecution. Jesus, in rejecting the three temptations in the desert, was now prepared to carry God’s message. But, being human, he would often meet temptations, just as we are tempted throughout our lives. Indeed, the Lord’s Prayer includes the request, “lead us not into temptation.”

An important implication of this story is that it teaches that mimetic desire is not bad. This is fortunate, because, once our most fundamental biological needs are met, all of our desires are mimetic (see part 2). We are not told to resist mimetic desire, which we humans would find impossible, but rather we are told to not derive our desires from fellow humans. When we do that, we engender rivalry and resentment, and eventually hostility and violence. Instead, we should mimic Christ, who derived his own mimetic desires from God rather than from other people, as our human model. If Jesus did not have a human nature, then we might find him an impossible model. But, this story relates that Jesus had a human nature and he was therefore susceptible to human mimetic desires. However, his faith inspired him to have his mimetic desires reflect God’s desires instead.

In Matthew, the story concludes, “behold, angels came and ministered to him.” I think this shows God’s care and concern. But, if this were so, how can we reconcile God’s care for Jesus with God’s apparent abandonment of other faithful people? When faithful people die young or suffer, where is God’s protective hand? This question recalls the story of Job, which we will explore in later essays.

Part 37: The Beatitudes (Mt 5:3-12, Lk 6:20-38) part 1: The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

Jesus’ articulation of the Beatitudes in The Sermon on the Mount strikes many people as paradoxical and surprising. I think that a Girardian perspective helps make sense of Jesus’ message. The Beatitudes provide profound insights about how to avoid mimetic desire and its consequence, scapegoating violence.

How can the meek inherit the earth? Are not meek individuals, human and animal, regularly abused? Jesus assures the downtrodden that they will prevail and that their woes will abate. However, it is not exactly clear how this will happen. When Jesus said that the meek will “inherit the earth,” some listeners probably envisioned that God would hand over the reigns of power. This would have accorded with traditional notions of justice, in which those who have been oppressed avenge their misery by destroying those they have deemed responsible. Indeed, this passage has inspired many contemporary Christian liberation movements to violently overthrow their oppressors.

Revolutionary violence, however, merely substitutes one group’s perceived righteous violence (meted out by powerful rulers) with another group’s perceived righteous violence (meted out by the formerly meek who have gained power). I don’t think Jesus was trying to tell the meek that one day they would hold the reigns of power, enabling them to exact revenge. Rather, he was teaching that submission, faithfulness, and love would eventually prevail.

How will this happen? Jesus said, “You are the light of the world,” indicating that discipleship itself is the means by which his followers will prevail. He said, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” In other words, to “inherit the earth” does not mean a reversal of fortunes in which the strong are humbled and the meek are exalted to a position of power and control. Jesus envisioned a moral and spiritual revolution, not a violent one.

Jesus’ nonviolent message went beyond the injunction against killing. He stated, “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” (Mt 5:21-22) Jesus continued that one must reconcile with one’s brother even before offering a gift at the alter—indicating that making peace with one’s brother is more important than religious observance.

Why does anger, even without action, prompt Jesus’ condemnation? The reason, I think, is that Jesus understood that anger leads to violence. The problem with anger, as discussed previously, is that it blinds the mind to the truth. When anger incites violence, the angry person almost always considers his/her response justice, not violence. Unless we reconcile with one another, we will blame each other for our own anger, we will aim to avenge our damaged self-esteem, and we will initiate or reinforce a cycle of mimetic violence that will likely lead to either murder of one another or of an innocent scapegoat.

Part 38: The Beatitudes part 2: Blessed Are the Poor

In First Century Palestine, people regarded poverty, sickness, or disfigurement as signs of divine judgment. People believed that disenfranchisement reflected punishment for one’s own sins or the sins of one’s ancestors. It’s easy to see the scapegoating mechanism at work here – people felt justified in excluding or even abusing those who were poor, sick, or disfigured. Mistreatment of disenfranchised people had a sacred flavor in that it complimented punishment by God.

Again, Jesus turned common beliefs upside down. He said, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the “kingdom of God.” The rich, he would later teach, have great difficulty entering the kingdom of God. As we will explore in later essays, we should not regard the kingdom of God as an other-worldly place where poor people are rewarded with paradise while malicious rich people get there comeuppance. A First Century Jew would not have denigrated God’s earthly creation in favor of an other-worldly paradise. I think Jesus was teaching that the poor can receive and give God’s love, and there is no greater gift than communion with God and God’s creation.

In order for wealth to generate self-esteem, rich people must find the lives of poor people pitiable and contemptible. Rich people must own better things and have a superior “lifestyle” that poor people actually (or “should”) covet, and display distinctive manners that poor, less educated people have difficulty emulating. Rich people consume conspicuously in order to encourage envy in others, because such envy confirms in the mind of the rich person that a more modest lifestyle is indeed pitiable and contemptible.

Rich and poor are relative terms, and poor people of one community may have more material wealth than rich people of another. From a mimetic rivalry standpoint, it really doesn’t matter how much actual material wealth one has. What matters is how much one has in relation to one’s neighbors. In other words, a principle purpose of wealth is to enhance self-esteem by making wealthy people feel superior to poorer people. However, this tends to make poorer people feel humiliated, which breeds resentment, which easily leads to violence.

Rich people protect their assets (often ill-gotten gains originally obtained with deceit and/or force) with police and military forces. The police force protects their “property rights,” and the military can both defend their wealth by excluding envious neighboring countries and can enhance their wealth by invading weaker neighbors and stealing their resources. Of course, violent defense of wealth can be dangerous, and when the resentment of poorer people starts to threaten wealthier people, those with money and power generally first try to appease the angry mobs by uniting with them against a common “enemy” – a scapegoat.

All these activities disconnect rich people from the loving, compassionate God who could provide meaning and direction to their lives. To the degree that wealthy people believe that the lives of poorer people are pitiable and contemptible by comparison, wealthy people stand apart from the rest of humanity and the rest of Creation, increasingly alone in a mysterious, often terrifying Universe. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, it is vanity to think that striving for personal gain situates people better in the Universe; every living thing shares the same fate of death. Jesus said, “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24)

So, indeed, the poor are blessed. Their lives may be harsh, but they are not drowned spiritually under the weight of wealth.

Part 39: The Beatitudes part 3: Blessed Are You That Weep

We spend much of our time and effort trying to avoid suffering. Why, then would Jesus have considered those who weep blessed? The reason, I think, is that those who mourn also experience love, because love and grief are two sides of the same coin. It is through loss that we appreciate and rejoice in the relationships we cherish. And, given that change is an inevitable component of life, we grieve when we lose love through death or changed relationships. Since the ability to mourn is a requisite for the ability to love, Jesus said, “Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.” (Lk 6:21)

The gift of pain also holds true for our relationship with all of God’s Creation, not just personal relationships. Only those who love animals and nature grieve when animals suffer and when the nature is harmed. Yet, few animal protectionists and environmentalists would prefer not to love and care. We do not celebrate our pain, and I think many of us sometimes wish we weren’t so sensitive to and empathetic with those who suffer. But, from this sadness springs compassion and love, which enriches our lives and makes us feel blessed.

Sometimes, sadness can give way to a sense of despair, but Christianity also offers a message of hope. We may anticipate the eventual “Peaceable Kingdom” envisioned by Isaiah in chapter 11, in which all creatures will live peacefully together. In addition, we may take solace in the words of the Apostle Paul, who wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.” (Romans 8:22-24a) The grace of God’s redeeming powers offers us salvation.

Part 40: The Beatitudes part 4: Blessed Are the Peacemakers

Violent people always believe that their actions are justified, and violent resistance only heightens their righteous indignation. However, Jesus said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52). The only way to stop the cycle of escalating violence is to be a peacemaker.

Jesus’ instructions deviated from traditional teachings. Remarkably, he told his listeners to not follow the ancient Hebrew rule “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24). Such reciprocal violence has always been a recipe for escalating mimetic violence. Instead, Jesus advised “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the left cheek also” (Mt 6:39). Along this vein, Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 6:43) This is the only path towards peace, because retributive violence always begets more violence. Showing love for one’s enemies is the only path towards reconciliation.

Notably, Jesus exhorted his listeners not only to be righteous, peaceful, and merciful but to avoid even thinking about hurtful actions. I think Jesus understood that behavior is the outward manifestation of feelings. Sometimes we repress our feelings in order to avoid saying or doing things we would later regret. But, if those feelings persist, we will express them eventually, often transferred from the original target to a scapegoat. Consequently, Jesus admonished against remaining angry with one’s brother or regarding women lustfully.

Does peacemaking apply to animals? Given that animals belong to God, blessed are those who protect them. Avoiding cruelty to animals, and attending to those in need, is one aspect of faithful living. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures mandate than one must rescue an animal on the Sabbath, even if the animal belongs to one’s enemy. In addition, I think peacemaking, to be effective and meaningful, must be a way of life, not something that is done selectively when it’s convenient. I think anytime we close our hearts and minds to the suffering of victims, whether human or not, we become increasingly calloused to all forms of violence.

I think it’s also important to keep in mind that Jesus stressed the immanence of the Kingdom of God. Christians have often envisioned the Kingdom of God as other-worldly and remote, but I think Jesus teachings, including the parables, were trying to demonstrate that the Kingdom of God also applies to here and now. Jesus prayed for God’s will to be done on earth, as it is in heaven. If we are to share Jesus’ hope and dream, if we are to be genuine disciples of Christ, we must be peacemakers, because God is not about violence, hatred, and destructiveness. And, we must be peacemakers for all of God’s Creation, because otherwise we are just posturing. When we care for a select fragment of God’s Creation, that usually means caring for members of our family or ethnic group or being concerned about people who, if provoked, might threaten our well-being. Such a stance may be prudent, but it does not engender lasting peace. Jesus was teaching that true peacemakers are not grounded in pragmatic self-interest; they seek to be peacemakers for all God's Creation, because God is about love, not violence.

Part 41: The Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes are part of the Sermon on the Mount. I would like to touch on some other components of this Sermon that are relevant to mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism.

Regarding Jesus’ prohibition against regarding women with lust, mimetic theory posits that desire underlies mimetic rivalry. Rivalries for sexual partners are particularly prone to engender communal discord, for two reasons. Biological sexual desire is a strong feeling among most people, and our self-esteem is often highly dependent on performance in the competition for “desirable” sexual partners. Of course, this does not pertain solely to sexual desires; Jesus even said that one should pluck out one’s eye or cut off one’s hand rather than let the desires of the body cause one to sin. While Christians generally agree that we should not take these instructions literally, it dramatizes the serious consequences of desire.

Jesus then permitted divorce on the grounds of unchastity; otherwise divorce results in adultery. This was a radical teaching, because at that time only men had the right to divorce, and the grounds for divorce could be trivial. Consequently, this teaching helped protect women from victimization. In addition, from a mimetic theory standpoint, fidelity to one’s spouse helps avoid divisive sexual rivalries.

Jesus told his followers to always be honest, not just when they swear. Jesus went so far as to discourage making oaths, because to do so suggests that one may be dishonest when not taking an oath. The role of honesty in promoting healthy relationships should be obvious. Indeed, when we are loving and compassionate, we have no reason to hide the truth about ourselves.

The teachings of Sermon on the Mount promote truth, light, and love. John wrote, “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5) and “God is love” (1 John 4:16). There is no falsehood or violence (darkness) in love. This, then, helps us realize how the peacemakers are blessed. They reflect God’s love.

Historically, peacemakers have often been victims of violence. Why is this? Mimetic scapegoating theory holds that the mob seeks a scapegoat. Those who demonstrate the victim's innocence are prophets, because (according to Girardian theory) prophets reveal God’s desire for peace and justice by exposing the innocence of the scapegoating mechanism’s victims. However, the perennial human desire to scapegoat in order to maintain temporary peace and social order puts the same prophets at risk of being scapegoated. This is why prophets have been killed since the foundation of the world. Indeed, Jesus allowed himself to be a victim of extreme violence at the hands of Roman authorities. In order to make sense of Jesus’ ministry, we will soon examine the Passion and the Resurrection.

Part 42 Interlude: Reflections on this Series by the Author

Some have asked me why I’ve written this essay series for a Christian vegetarian e-newsletter.

For one thing, Rene Girard and his students have offered a way to understand the Bible that is well-grounded in the social sciences. As a scientifically oriented person, I find the Bible much more “reasonable” and “believable” when it accords with our best scientific understanding of the world around us. I think mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism are powerful tools for understanding the human condition. Humans are caught in a bind between desperately seeking self-esteem by overcoming rivals in competition for objects of desire (which leads to rivalries, envy, bitterness, and violence), and simultaneously needing to live peacefully in communities. Mimetic theory helps us understand rivalries, and the scapegoating mechanism is the means by which communities have maintained peace since the beginning of human civilization.

Second, many people have found this series illuminating. As previously offered, I will consider publishing the thoughts of those who disagree with any aspect of this series. I wish to stress that one does not need to agree with these “Girardian” essays to conclude that Christianity supports vegetarianism.

Third, theologies that attribute violence and destructiveness to God make it much easier to justify violence today “in the name of God.” Claiming to know “God’s will,” Christians have often called their violence (which is often self-serving) righteous. This makes it easier to understand how many Christians who have regarded God as generally loving and compassionate could still endorse violence against all kinds of vulnerable individuals, including people of color, women, and animals. Looking at the Bible with a “Girardian” lens helps us understand 1 John 4:8 “God is love”; violence and suffering reflect human fallenness and are not of divine origin.

Fourth, we recently completed the most homicidal century in human history. The prospect for world peace is no better today, and modern weaponry has made war even more terrifying than in the past. Meanwhile, the number of animals treated with cruelty at human hands is unprecedented in human history. The problem is greatest in the predominantly Christian, Western nations. As this series evolves, I hope to make clear that the Christian revelation offers a distinctive, if not unique, solution to the problem of human violence. Furthermore, I am doubtful that any other proposed solution will work. Consequently, I see the very survival of humankind and of the world as we know it as likely depending on whether humankind receives Christ’s message of love and compassion.

As always, I welcome feedback on this series. Next week, we will turn to the Passion story.

Part 43: The Passion, part 1: An Anthropological Look

Many people focus on what the Passion means for Jesus and his ministry, and we will explore this important topic shortly. I want to first look at what the Passion reveals about the nature of mobs. The throngs in Jerusalem who greeted Jesus with “Hosanna!” shouted, “Crucify him!” a few days later. Whatever the theological implications of the Passion, the crowd’s behavior calls for an anthropological explanation.

The mob’s fickleness illustrates how sentiments are mimetic. When the people hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, their enthusiasm was mimetic. When the people condemned Jesus, their accusatory shouts and jeers were similarly mimetic. These scenes are not difficult to imagine, because television gives us frequent images of people caught up in the excitement (whether joyous or angry) of a mob, seemingly out-of-control. Perhaps we have recognized times when we have joined the mob, swept away by the group’s self-reinforcing emotions.

Two Passion narratives nicely demonstrate mimetic theory* and the scapegoating mechanism.** The chief priests and the Pharisees deliberated on what to do with Jesus. They acknowledged that Jesus “worked signs” but they feared the consequences of a Roman response to his growing movement. Caiaphus advised that Jesus be used as a scapegoat: “But one of them, Caiaphus, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than have the whole nation destroyed.’” (John 11:49-50) This is the logic of sacrifice – that one innocent person should die in order to restore order and peace. In order for the scapegoating mechanism to “work,” i.e., to restore peace, it must remain hidden. Ancient people, not having the benefit of modern psychology and anthropology, could not understand how scapegoating (targeting a common “enemy”) maintains communal cohesiveness. In ancient times, Caiaphus correctly observed, people did not “understand” how it came to pass that the death of one man could spare the nation from destruction. John the Evangelist, through the voice of Caiaphus, fully understood the hidden scapegoating mechanism.

Another passage that reveals the scapegoating mechanism is Luke’s relating that, after the Crucifixion, “And that same day Herod and Pilate became friends for before they had been enemies.” (23:12) Interestingly, Pilate did not find fault with Jesus, while Herod was angered by Jesus’ refusal to answer Herod’s questions. How would Jesus’ execution bring two rivals together, particularly since they disagreed on Jesus’ guilt? A reasonably hypothesis*** is that Herod and Pilate both recognized and benefited from the scapegoating mechanism.

The Jewish masses were often agitated during the Passover, and there was ongoing bitterness regarding Roman rule. The mob sought a Messiah who could liberate them from the yoke of Roman occupation. Many thought that Jesus, who spoke with wisdom and worked wonders, would free them, and the authorities (Herod and Pilate) were concerned. Meanwhile, the powerful rabbis were offended by Jesus’ disregard for their authority. The rabbis had the power to incite a riot, and they might do so if they felt threatened by Jesus. Consequently, Herod and Pilate were pleased to see the mob united against Jesus. They became friends because their roles in Jesus’ execution were complimentary – Herod declared Jesus’ guilt and Pilate presided over the execution. The way Herod and Pilate manipulated the scapegoating mechanism could be analogous to Joshua 7, in which it appears that Joshua scapegoated Achan, blaming Achan for a military defeat to avoid blame himself. (See part 16.)

Next week, we will explore the irony, and the tragedy, of how the Passion story has often been distorted in order to scapegoat Jews.

* Mimetic theory (parts 2,3) posits that people derive their desires from each other, and this leads to envy, rivalries, bitterness, and, eventually, violence.

** The Scapegoating mechanism (part 6) is the process in which the hostilities engendered by mimetic rivalry are resolved when a scapegoat is found, blamed, and then banished or killed.

*** I thank Tom Youngjohn for this insight.

Part 44: The Passion, part 2: Anti-Semitism

A cursory look at history reveals that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did not eliminate scapegoating. In fact, Christianity has a long and sad history of scapegoating, the victims at various times including people of color, women, homosexuals, people of differing faiths, and fellow Christians who do not share the particular Christian theology of those in power. Even the Passion, which should have revealed the scandal of the scapegoating mechanism, has been an impetus for scapegoating. Many Jews have suffered ostracism or violence because Christians have blamed “the Jews” for Jesus’ death.

Those who have scapegoated “the Jews” have evidently neglected that Jesus and Jesus’ first followers (including his disciples) were Jewish. Neither Jesus nor his followers rejected Judaism; instead, they propounded a new theology grounded in Judaism. Indeed, it is not surprising that Jesus’ ministry found fertile ground among Jews. One reason for this is that Judaism had made great progress in the difficult task of revealing the scapegoating mechanism, exemplified best by the song of the Suffering Servant (see Part 22) and the writings of the later prophets (see Part 23). If Jesus had first presented his theology to Gentile communities, he would likely have been dismissed out-of-hand.

Jesus tried to make clear that the scapegoating mechanism was universal and not particular to the Jews. Jesus cursed the Pharisees, “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Lk 11:49-51). Notably, neither Cain nor Abel was Jewish. Violence arising from mimetic rivalry, “shed from the foundation of the world,” is as old as humankind and has nothing to do with Judaism, per se. Also, Abel is not normally considered a prophet. However, Abel’s story is prophetic in that it, like the Cross, reveals the innocence of the scapegoated victim.

Finally, as Rev. Nuechterlein has observed, “The crucifixion’s anthropological significance is lost if responsibility for its violence is shifted from all to some.” In other words, to the degree that Christians attribute the crucifixion to a group of bad people, the crucifixion fails to reveal the universal scapegoating mechanism. We fail to appreciate the full significance of the Cross if we fail to recognize that, every time we scapegoat, every time we fail to reflect God’s love and forgiveness, we are participating in the crucifixion of Christ. Jesus said that whatever we do to “my brethren,” we do to him (Mt 25:35-45).

Should we consider animals among Jesus’ “brethren”? I think so. The Bible teaches us that God cares for animals and Jesus cares for animals. Whether we should regard animals as equal to humans is not the issue. They are weak, vulnerable, and able to suffer and, consequently, are undoubtedly among the “least of these.” Humankind’s cruelty to animals is a form of sacrificial violence (see parts 28-30) and is part of the ongoing crucifixion of Christ.

Next week, I will further explore ways in which I think Christians have often misunderstood the passion story, which has contributed to scapegoating violence.

Part 45: Further Reflections on Anti-Semitism

I would like to comment further on anti-Semitism, for several reasons. Although Christians are called to follow Jesus’ example of love, compassion, and forgiveness, Christians have engaged in many episodes of scapegoating violence in which the victims were Jews. Of course, Jews are not alone among those who have been ostracized or killed in Christ’s name, other victims including people of color, Christians whose theology differs from that of the dominant culture, and homosexuals. I think such scapegoating is incompatible with a notion of a just and loving God. Unless we can show that scapegoating represents a perversion of Christianity, one must seriously question the value and validity of the faith.

I should add that I have a personal interest in anti-Semitism, because I am of Jewish heritage. Had I been living in Nazi Germany (an overwhelmingly Protestant Christian country), I would have been killed (despite my current Christian identity), my wife (raised Christian) and children would have been killed. While I may feel more vulnerable than most people, nobody is safe in a world in which anyone may become a victim of the scapegoating mechanism.

Anti-Semitism has always been a manifestation of scapegoating violence. Whether or not Christianity encourages anti-Semitism, then, is a good barometer of whether or not Christianity encourages scapegoating in general. Since the beginning of human civilization, people have maintained communal peace by scapegoating innocent victims, justified their violence as the will of their god or gods. Is Christianity like other religions in this respect, or does it reveal a way to avoid scapegoating? An encouraging sign is that leading social reformers, including many animal advocates, have been inspired by their Christian faith. Is Christianity part of the problem or part of the solution?

I turn to two passages that have often been used to justify anti-Semitism. As Jesus carried the cross on his back, he said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never gave suck!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:28b-31) Some have interpreted this as a curse, but I think it is a prediction. Jesus predicted violence, destructiveness, and misery for those who failed to follow him. And, their children would experience even greater misery, because they would not have the benefit of a living Jesus to guide them towards a path of peace and love.

In the other passage, the high priest admonished the disciples, “‘you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s [Jesus’] blood on us.’ But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.’” (Acts 5:28-31) The first part sounds like blaming – it appears that the disciples have accused the priests of murder. But, Peter answers that Jesus’ resurrection has been designed to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. In other words, the campaign is not to shift guilt from Jesus to the priests, but rather to demonstrate that Jesus’ ministry is about repentance and forgiveness.

We, not Jesus or the 12 disciples, are the ones who obsess over blame. Consequently, we scapegoat by either killing the innocent or attributing far more guilt to scapegoats than they deserve, thus absolving ourselves of any blame. This is why forgiveness is so central to Christian faith and why Jesus prayed, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do” rather than, “Give these killers the punishment they deserve.” Blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death is antithetical to Jesus saying, “Forgiven them father.”

The resurrection is a central event in the revelation of how people may become new creations in Christ. I will turn to this next.

Part 46: The Resurrection, part 1: Jesus’ Innocence

The resurrection is a central event in Christianity. From a Girardian perspective, one important aspect of the Resurrection is that it unequivocally revealed the scapegoating mechanism as victimization of the innocent.

The Roman authorities were convinced that Jesus was a troublemaker who threatened the peace; the Jewish authorities charged that he had blasphemed against the faith; and the mob, angered that he had failed to liberate them from the Roman yoke, cried “Crucify him!” Those involved in Jesus’ crucifixion, believing that he deserved an ignominious, painful death, would not have expected him to be resurrected and to join God in heaven. The Bible, in relating Jesus’ resurrection, sends a clear message that the Roman and Jewish authorities and the mob were wrong about Jesus. He was innocent, and they participated in his murder. They had become caught up in the mimetic accusation that leads to scapegoating violence. While they called for his execution, the resurrection demonstrated that Jesus, justified in God’s eyes, was a victim of scapegoating.

The Bible describes Jesus as without sin, like the Suffering Servant. (See part 22.) However, I complete innocence is not required for justification, which is fortunate for us sinners. While on the cross, one criminal admitted his sins to Jesus, acknowledged Jesus’ innocence, and proclaimed his faith in God. Jesus said that this criminal will join Jesus in Paradise. I think this man’s story illustrates a subtle but important point. Usually, those who are punished are guilty of something, but they are rarely guilty of as much as people attribute to them. Scapegoating most often involves excessive blame, and this serves to shift much of the blame from the punishers to the punished. The thief, for example, did steal. But, those who punish the thief may contribute to the crime by denying the thief genuine opportunities for an honest living, oppressively taxing the thief in order to line their own pockets, etc. The thief with contrition and faith may be far more worthy of justification than the “honest” people who profit from unjust laws.

Getting back to Jesus’ innocence, people were starting to sense that Jesus had been unjustly killed even before the resurrection. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words were “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!” (24:46) Luke continues, “Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, and said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (24:47) (Matthew and Mark quote the centurion saying, “Surely, this man is the Son of God.”) Luke’s Gospel then relates that the mob similarly recognized that an innocent man had been killed: “And all the multitudes who assembled to see the sight, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts.” (24:48)

This point is driven home further by Thomas, who had difficulty believing that Jesus had risen from the dead. It was not the act of rising from the dead that caused Thomas’ doubt. People at that time generally believed in resurrection of the dead, and Thomas was surely aware that Jesus had recently raised Lazarus from death. What was remarkable was that an executed man, who was deemed guilty of crimes by the people and the authorities, was raised. This could only make sense to Thomas, and to anyone else at that time, if Jesus had actually been innocent.

I see the resurrection story as critical to realizing the realm of God “on earth as it is in heaven.” Faith in the resurrection may help alleviate the universal fear of death, which is a principal source of human violence and destructiveness. (See parts 25 and 26.) We will turn to this topic next week.

Part 47. The Resurrection, part 2: Death

The death of the body is biologically inevitable. However, the way we experience death is cultural. That is, how we envision and prepare for death reflects cultural beliefs. Ernest Becker has argued that fear of death profoundly shapes cultures (see essay 25). I think this is particularly true today, because death is becoming one of the only remaining great mysteries. Science can now adequately explain most aspects of the world around us, including the biological bases of our own existence. But, science cannot describe what it is like being dead. It appears that all science can do is to assert that, since experience as we know it requires a functioning brain, there is no experience at all after the brain’s demise.

This explanation, however, does not altar how we experience the mystery of death. Perhaps death is mysterious to us because our minds cannot comprehend non-existence or non-experience; perhaps death is mysterious because we have such difficulty understanding the nature of our unique identities (often called the “self” or the “soul”).

A cursory look at popular culture reveals that our culture is fascinated by death. Death takes center stage in many songs, books, movies, and news reports, and many books about “the afterlife” sell well. The reason that we generally don’t recognize this as bizarre or pathological is that we are so immersed in a culture obsessed with death.

Does Jesus’ resurrection mean that everyone will enjoy an everlasting existence of their same personality in a benign, pleasurable, distant place called “heaven”? This theory is problematic for several reasons, and I will articulate two of them. First, as Jesus made clear in his discussion about the woman who married seven brothers, “life” after death will likely be far different from what we currently experience. Perhaps even the core aspect of existence, the “I” that we feel as unique individuals is radically altered.

Second, change makes life interesting. How many conversations get started with “What’s new?” If we existed forever in time and space, with no possibility of death or decay, it would be either terribly boring or such a fundamentally different kind of existence that we can’t start to understand it in terms of our everyday existence.

Rather than speculating on something about which our science and everyday experience teaches us nothing, I suggest that we focus on what the resurrection story teaches us. We learn that there is something much more important than our brief terrestrial existence. We learn than our struggles on earth are a small part of God’s plan, and through Jesus Christ we get a glimpse of this plan.

Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has noted that the Gospel always relates to human needs; it never provides truth in a vacuum. He has written, “If it is true that God’s truth is aimed at a particular human need, and if the focal point of that truth is the cross, then what does the cross say about particular human need? … If the lifeline God throws us is the cross and resurrection, then doesn’t that say we are drowning in our own violence?” We will explore this further next week.

Part 48. The Resurrection, part 3: Breaking Free of Our Culture of Death

Mimetic theory posits that culture is founded on the scapegoating mechanism. (See parts 2-7.) Consequently, all social institutions, all academic disciplines (including the sciences), and even the languages of primal societies are grounded in scapegoating violence and murder. Like the fish who cannot appreciate water, primal societies cannot see how their entire notion of righteousness and justice is based on “sacred” violence. They regard their scapegoating as “sacred” because they believe that their violence has been ordained by their god (or gods). After the Judeo-Christian revelation exposed the scapegoating mechanism, we now recognize the scandal of scapegoating violence. However, we remain attracted to scapegoating, because it offers the hope of peace, order, and protection from perceived evil forces.

James Alison (The Joy of Being Wrong) notes that people whose values and sense of identity have developed in a culture grounded in death* can’t see how death affects every component of that culture. It is somewhat analogous to fish being unable to recognize the water in which they live. Only someone from outside such a culture can see its morbid outlook. Allison has written, “It is in this sense that Jesus was able to understand with perfect clarity the way that human culture, including the culture in which he lived, is produced by, and runs towards, death.” How would we describe someone who is not part of this culture of death and who refuses to participate in its acts of violence? Such a person is a prophet, who recognizes God’s desire for love, peace, and reconciliation. The problem is that people have always intuitively understood that it is better to have small doses of “sacred,” scapegoating violence, which they believed is ordained by their god or the gods in order to maintain peace and order, rather than to allow profane violence (due to envy and bitterness engendered by mimetic rivalries and not ordained by the divine) to get out of hand. Prophets, by claiming that God has compassion, mercy, and love for those who have been scapegoated (e.g., women, slaves, gay people, people with diseases, people of other ethnicities, etc.), have exposed the scapegoating mechanism as scandalous and encouraged people to question their justifications for violence. Since the prophets have challenged the scapegoating mechanism, which has seemed essential to keeping general peace, people have often despised prophets and have frequently killed them. Alison has observed, “Human culture reacts as if faced by a threat, expelling, and preferably killing, such a person.”

Alison’s thesis is that we have been very wrong about death and life. God is about creativity and life, not death. Whatever fate awaits us after our bodies cease to function, as creations of God, we are not about death, either. This, I think, is what Jesus was trying to communicate when he told Martha (Lazarus’ sister), “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believe in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25)

The resurrection assures us that death is not the final word, it just seems this way because our culture has roots in violence and death. If this is so, then it doesn’t make much sense to claim that humans experience everlasting life, while most of God’s creation (the animals) do not. If humans are saved from death, then we may thank God’s compassion for our destiny. I see no good reason to believe that God’s compassion stops at the species barrier. Indeed, Revelation 21:4 describes that, at the end of time, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more.”

Next week, we explore the implications of Jesus’ return after the Resurrection.

* As discussed in parts 6 and 7, the collective murder of scapegoats binds people together and generates human culture.

Part 49: The Resurrection, part 4: Jesus’ Return

For many Christians, “believing in the resurrection” is a prerequisite for calling oneself “Christian.” Yet, there are scientifically oriented people who consider themselves Christian who also find it hard to believe that the resurrection really happened.

I don’t think there is any way to determine, scientifically, whether or not the resurrection actually happened. However, concern about its scientific proof is largely a modern problem, because science was not the measuring rod of truth in Jesus’ time. Theologically, the important question is not whether the resurrection is scientifically true, but whether or not it is eternally true, that is, does it reveal knowledge about God.

Christianity is distinctive in another crucial way. In most religions, the hero gets revenge on evildoers either during life or upon the hero’s return after death. In Christianity, Jesus did not return to avenge his death but rather to pardon those who had betrayed and abandoned him. Jesus did not accuse or abuse his disciples; he greeted them in love and friendship saying, “Peace be with you.” In doing so, he participated in reconciliation, not an endless cycle of mimetic recrimination, accusation, and violence. This, then is one of the eternal truths about the resurrection: God is about love and forgiveness, not revenge and hate.

There is another, related eternal truth upon which I have dwelt previously. In the 19th century, the new scientific discipline of anthropology was making an amazing discovery: Throughout the world, religions were telling remarkably similar stories. All primal cultures relate foundational stories in which there was a crisis, then death, and then reconciliation, often associated with a resurrection. In primal myths, the resurrected victim has often become a God, reflecting the miracle of reconciliation that occurred after the murder of the scapegoating victim. Influenced by Enlightenment thought, which tended view Christianity as mere superstition, many 19th century thinkers saw anthropology as confirming their skepticism about Christianity’s stories. Christianity does indeed have the same structure as the primal myths: a crisis, a death, and reconciliation with resurrection. However, Christianity is distinctive (if not unique) in that the story describes the victim as innocent. The community comes together because they have heard the cock crow, not because they have destroyed the evil in their midst. The eternal truth is that God loves all of God's creation; God does not hate the one who has been blamed for crises, particularly those arising from mimetic rivalries (see parts 2-6).

Since human culture has always involved the scapegoating mechanism, humankind can only become fully reconciled (i.e., abandon scapegoating) if people learn about God’s love. How can this happen? The Bible provides two main approaches that compliment each other. One involves explicit instructions, such as the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. The other involves demonstration, and the Bible relates how Jesus showed love and mercy through his life, resurrection, and teachings.

Next week, we will begin to explore the Ten Commandments from the Girardian perspective of mimetic theory, and then we will reflect on Jesus’ “Great Commandment.”

Part 50: The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17; Deut 5:6-21)

In this essay series (see essays 2-8, 24-28), I have argued that the biological and social sciences have demonstrated that humans have innate biological desires, such as for food when hungry, and psychological desires, particularly self-esteem, which is a salve against innate fears related to injury and death. We identify our specific objects of desire, such as what foods to eat or what we must do to gain self-esteem, by mimesis, that is, by observing what other people want. Since we want what others want or have, mimesis leads to rivalries, which in turn result in violence and scapegoating. Most of the other essays in this series have explored how the Bible has similarly revealed the scapegoating mechanism, which seems miraculous, because the scapegoating mechanism, by its very nature, is hidden from human view. Indeed, the modern sciences that have demonstrated the scapegoating mechanism are arguably indebted to the Bible for revealing this universal practice.

Earlier essays discussed how the Hebrew Scriptures show that the ancient Hebrews were moving towards understanding the scapegoating mechanism. According to Girardian thought, this was a profound challenge, because the scapegoating mechanism has been the means by which humans come together and develop culture. From the foundation of human civilization, the scapegoating mechanism has been necessary to unify communities in times of crisis. For scapegoating to work, people must not recognize that the victim is innocent, or at least not as guilty as they believe. If the lie about the victim’s guilt were revealed, scapegoating would lose its ability to keep communities together. Intuitively, people have always understood that scapegoating is the glue that maintains peace and order, and I think this is why so many prophets have been and continue to be killed – they have exposed the scandal of sacred violence that has always tried to pass itself off as “righteousness” and “justice.”

I think we can regard human history as like a person who, advancing from childhood to adulthood, can only gradually come to understand the truth. The ancient Hebrews, fully immersed in a world grounded on the scapegoating mechanism, were not ready to fully appreciate the scapegoating mechanism. Consequently, they needed rules to help them avoid the mimetic desires that lead to scapegoating. The Ten Commandments embody these rules effectively.

From a Girardian perspective, the Ten Commandments almost read like a summary textbook of mimetic theory and how to avoid the consequences of mimetic rivalry. Commandments 6-9 prohibit killing, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. These acts fuel mimetic, reciprocal violence, which result in either communal schisms or, more commonly, scapegoating violence (see essay 6).

It is not enough to prohibit acts that involve or quickly lead to violence. We are so quickly consumed with a sense of righteous indignation that we often see our violence as justice. Therefore, the tenth Commandment gets to the root of the problem – envy. We are instructed not to envy our neighbor’s possessions, and envy (derived from mimetic desire) is what leads to resentments and hostilities. Jesus said we should love our enemies as ourselves, and when we do this we cease to envy their personal strengths and their material possessions, and our resentments against them vanish.

Next week, we will explore the first two Commandments and the ancient Hebrews’ greatest insights about God – that God is unitary and that we are to love God.

Part 51: The First and Second Commandments

When the ancient Hebrews received the First Commandment that they were to worship only one God, this was a radical departure from the pantheon of gods that characterized other ancient religions. For one thing, this avoided the easy temptation to project peoples’ own desires and conflicts onto their gods. People believing in polytheism envisioned their own mimetic rivalries as having parallels among the gods, making it easy for them to justify their violence on the grounds that their violence reflected the violence among their gods. With only one God, it was difficult for the ancient Hebrews to see analogies to their squabbles in God.

This monotheistic outlook did not guarantee peace, because the Hebrews still saw God as multifaceted. God could still be angry and jealous, as well as loving and compassionate. I think the ancient Hebrews failed to fully appreciate God’s nature, as well as the brilliance of monotheism, because they were unprepared for a complete revelation of divine will. For example, loving parents sometimes believe that they must feign anger in order to instill obedient fear in children. Similarly I think that it was necessary for the ancient Hebrews to fear the Lord’s anger because they could not comprehend, nor adhere to the dictates of, a God who was completely loving and forgiving. As God’s love was gradually revealed, the Hebrews’ understanding of God evolved, as the later prophets demonstrated. For example, Micah declared, “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you God?” (8:8)

The brilliance of monotheism is that it allows us to see God as having only one essence. The Second Commandment, prohibiting “graven images,” tries to discourage the universal human tendency towards idolatry, which involves projecting human attributes onto God (see essay 12). Even the common practice of envisioning God as a single person somewhat misses the point, because this permits people to regard God, like humans, as having many personality traits. I think it’s more helpful to regard God as having a single essence. This essence includes creativity, goodness, and love: “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5) The darkness we see is not divine, but rather it reflects human judgment, condemnation, punishment, and murder, which we are tempted to attribute to God. Christians see darkness as the absence of light, or in this case the absence of God’s presence in human decision-making and action.

We have been created in God’s image and likeness, which gives us the capacity to receive God as our ultimate model for our mimetic desires and behavior. Indeed, Jesus said, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). We should direct our desires not towards what fellow humans want, but towards God’s desire, which includes creative goodness. We should strive for Godly perfection, and not try to make excuses for accepting the imperfect ways of the world, just because we are imperfect. When we seek God’s perfection, our faith is truly monotheistic.

Part 52: The Third, Fourth, and Fifth Commandments

The Third Commandment prohibits taking the Lord’s name in vain. I think the reason for this is that we must respect God, as a child respects a parent. As I will discuss in a later essay, Jesus taught that we must be as children to enter the Kingdom of God. If we took the Lord’s name in vain, we would not be showing the respect and deference due a parent. If we don’t abide by God’s law, then we will be left to establish the law among ourselves. This is problematic, because we are mired in mimetic rivalries, and our laws (if uninspired by an ideal that points to God) will tend to exacerbate rather than relieve these rivalries. In other words, laws without a notion of divine goodness and righteousness tend to become mere tools for oppression and abuse as people act out their mimetic rivalries and resentments.

Regarding the Fourth Commandment, to keep the Sabbath holy, I speculate that it serves several functions. It reminds people of God’s creativity and goodness. Also, the Sabbath has historically been a time of prayer, reflection, and study, which would normally be overlooked if there were no injunction to put aside the many other demands of daily life. Some people wish for more hours to the day, but I strongly suspect that they would only fill the time with more activities and responsibilities and find themselves as time-stressed as they are with a 24-hour day. The only way we might relax and learn from study and reflection is if we were ordered to do so, and this is the value of the Sabbath rest.

Nonetheless, Jesus healed on the Sabbath, and for this “the Jews” criticized him (John 5:5-16). Jesus answered, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” (5:17) I regard this as demonstrating that, while the Sabbath is reserved for prayer and reflection, work that helps heals a broken world, that fulfills God’s ongoing creativity towards a world of love and peace, remains permitted. Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Mt 5:17)

Mimetic theory offers insights into the value of the Fifth Commandment, to honor one’s parents. First, such respect parallels our call to honor God, the ultimate creator. Second, our most intense rivalries often take place within the family, and honoring one’s parents helps to reduce potentially explosive conflicts. As children grow, there is increasing rivalry with parents for power and control. Also, parents generally try to reduce conflict among siblings, and honoring parents encourages children to respect the parents’ desire for familial peace.

How might one reconcile the commandment to honor one’s parents with Jesus telling a disciple to not bury his father, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Mt 8:22; [see Luke 9:57-62])? This surely shocked many people, because the Jewish community expected a loyal son to bury his parents. What Jesus was trying to show, I think, is that our principal responsibility is to honor one’s living parents, not their lifeless bodies. Let those who are spiritually dead, who have nothing better to do, bury the dead. Those spiritually alive in Christ have more important work to do in their service to God.*

Next week, we will explore Commandments 6-10 from the perspective of mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism.

* I thank Rev. Frank Hoffman for helpful comments about this passage.

Part 53: The Sixth Commandment

The Sixth to Tenth Commandments are all prohibitions against those behaviors that are mostly likely to tear apart communities. The Sixth Commandment is “You shall not kill,” and in other translations it is “You shall not murder.” Obviously, this helps maintain communal peace, since killing engenders reciprocal violence, which prompts yet more killing. Many commentators do not believe that this commandment forbids killing during times of war or killing animals, since there are passages describing killing enemies and animals, evidently without reprobation. However, Jesus evidently understood the prohibition against killing to include all humans, since he encouraged pacifism, saying, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52), and the early Christians were pacifists.

What about killing animals? There have been many Christians who have refrained from killing animals themselves or by proxy (i.e., having someone else kill animals for them), and the first Christians, the Jewish Christians, were vegetarian (Hans-Joachim Shoeps, Jewish Christianity; Keith Akers, The Lost Religion of Jesus). In modern times, vegetarianism is a minority viewpoint in Christendom, though more and more people believe that Christian love and compassion should include all God’s Creation. Many note that the Sixth Commandment does not exclude animals, and they believe that this was intentional. Indeed, Isaiah 1:21 uses the same Hebrew word for murder as in the Sixth Commandment, and in this context it appears that Isaiah refers to killing animals. Earlier in Isaiah 1, God condemns animal sacrifices and declares “your hands are full of blood.” (1:15) There is no mention of killing people in this passage, so “murderers” in Isaiah 1:21 evidently refers to those who have killed animals.

From a Girardian viewpoint, mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism offers strong reasons to apply the Sixth Commandment to animals. Even today, killing animals has a sacrificial element (see Essays 28, 29), and Jesus said, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice” (Mt 9:13, 12:7). If we seek to abandon scapegoating, it will not suffice to transfer our sacrificial tendencies onto animals. Not only is scapegoating wrong and a violation of God’s will (according to the Girardian understanding of God’s will), but it keeps humans at risk. As long as people believe that scapegoating violence can maintain peace, then in times of great crisis, when animal sacrifices seem insufficient to restore order, humans become victims of the scapegoating mechanism.

Next week, we will explore the last four Commandments.

Part 54: The Last Four Commandments

The Seventh, Eighth, and Ninth Commandments, which prohibit adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness, all serve to maintain peace. Ideally, people would choose to respect marital bonds, to recognize the legitimate property on their neighbors, and to not lie. In the New Testament, Jesus served as a living model for these and other values. However, the ancient Hebrews needed a codified system to establish boundaries of behavior, and the Ten Commandments were likely very helpful in maintaining community.

Jesus understood the sources of conflict and destructiveness. He said, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder [6th Commandment], adultery [7th Commandment], fornication, theft [8th Commandment], false witness, slander [9th Commandment].” (Mt 15:18-19)

The Tenth Commandment forbids coveting, because this fuels mimetic rivalries that lead to resentments and, eventually, violence. The Tenth Commandment does not condemn wanting more; it discourages us from wanting to take our neighbor’s possessions, spouse, workers, and animals. Of course, the usual reason we want more is mimetic desire; if we did not covet, we would likely be very content with far less.

Humans are mimetic creations, and mimetic desires are universal and unavoidable. Yet, mimetic desire (coveting) one’s neighbor’s possessions, spouse, workers, or animals threatens to tear communities apart. The solution is not to eliminate mimetic desire, but to find a better model than one’s neighbor to admire and attempt to emulate. The First Commandment instructs us to love God. In other words, our desires should be directed at God, not our neighbor or what our neighbor has. It follows, then, that the model for our desires should be God’s loving desire for the whole creation. Therefore, the Tenth Commandment, not to covet (i.e., not to love what our neighbor has), is closely related to the First Commandment, to love God.

Next week, we will consider Jesus’ Great Commandment, that we should love our neighbor as ourselves.

Part 55: The Great Commandment

When asked what is the great commandment, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37b-40) Jesus’ reply recalls Lev 19:18, which reads as follows: “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” While the Hebrew passage regards “neighbor” as members “of your own people,” Jesus had a different, broader notion of “neighbor.” One of Christianity’s greatest contributions has been to universalize the Judaic law. When asked who is one’s neighbor, Jesus gave the example of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:30-37) The choice of a Samaritan is important, because his disciples had been previously taught by their culture to despise Samaritans, who were certainly not considered “sons of your own people.”

In this story, the Good Samaritan was a neighbor to the injured man. Are animals our neighbors? To be sure, animals can be our friends and protectors, just as the Good Samaritan embraced the injured man. Should we, likewise, befriend and protect animals? I think so, because we have something fundamentally in common: We all have received the spark of life from God. The Bible forbids cruelty to animals and teaches that God cares about animals. For example, after the Flood, the Bible describes God’s covenant with all Creation, including the animals, to not flood the earth again. According to the Bible, in God’s eyes, we are one community. We are not equal members are that community – humans, created in God’s image, have special privileges and responsibilities. But, when we forget who are neighbors are, we tend to abuse those privileges and renege on our responsibilities.

I would also like to point out that Jesus taught that we should love ourselves, as well as our neighbor. This makes sense when we recall that we are creations of God. Some religious authorities teach self-loathing, evidently in an effort to combat the human tendency towards narcissism. Other authorities encourage people to promote their own self-interest, which is a welcomed message for those with power and money but neglects the weak, vulnerable, and poor people with whom Jesus so often identified. Jesus did not promote either deception – self-loathing or self-aggrandizing. In loving ourselves, we care for our bodies and attend to our needs. In loving our neighbors equally, we don’t take self-love to unhealthy extremes.

Next week, we will explore how loving our neighbor and loving our enemy (Mt 5:44; Lk 6:35) are related.

Part 56: Loving Our Enemies

Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. However, because of mimetic rivalries, we often regard our neighbor as our enemy. Yet, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies (Mt 5:44; Luke 6:35). We often find it difficult, or seemingly impossible, to love our enemies. How can we love those who have wounded us badly, or who continue to hurt us and/or those we care about? I think Jesus offered some helpful guidance. For Jesus, love was always about actions, not feelings. The Good Samaritan story did not describe empathy with the injured traveler; it showed how love involves actively helping those in need. When trying to explain the concept of the Kingdom of God with parables, Jesus did not describe a place or a state of mind; he repeatedly described people doing things.

Loving our enemies, then, is something one should do, not necessarily feel. Recognizing that all life comes from God, we may act lovingly towards everything as expression of our love for God. This may be easier to do when we realize that we have all been enemies of God, victimizing the innocent to maintain our worldviews, our self-esteem, and our lifestyles. We almost always see our violence as righteous and just, but all violence is violence against things God created.

When one thinks about the massive torture and killing of animals, for example on factory farms, one sees that humankind has been an enemy of God’s animals. People typically justify their violence against animals on the grounds that animals are “inferior” (as if any of God’s creations are unworthy of respect) or our enemies (e.g., “pests” or “vermin”). Even if we have trouble finding love for God’s animals in our hearts, as disciples of Christ was have a sacred calling to act lovingly towards our animal neighbors.

The problem is that we almost always regard our violence not as violence per se, but as righteous punishment of evil-doers. One reason that Christians believe in retribution and punishment is that they believe that God endorses punishment. The Bible says “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deut 32:35). Theoretically, this should discourage human vengeance, but in practice those who seeking vengeance have generally believed that they are assisting God. Our desire for revenge is strong, particularly when our self-esteem has been damaged or when those who have offended us seem to live smugly and comfortably. It is tempting to expedite God’s “justice” by avenging those who, we believe, have wronged us. However, the declaration, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” does not necessarily mean that God will mete out punishment. What it says is that, if there is vengeance to be had, it is the proper province of God, not people. A principal source of the conviction that God demands punishment derives from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Next week, we will begin to explore how Paul’s discussion of “the wrath of God” has been widely misunderstood.

Part 57: The Wrath . . . of God? part 1: Introduction

Many people struggle to reconcile the temperament of the God as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (HS) with that of Christ in the New Testament (NT). Many passages in the HS describe God as angry or even wrathful, though this image is not uniform. As discussed in previous essays, the HS also describe God as concerned about victims, and many stories portray violence as inspired by humans rather than God. The later prophets described God as loving and compassionate, epitomized in Micah’s famous passage, “what does the Lord desire of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and walk humbly with your God?” (6:8b) The NT shows Jesus as kind, compassionate, loving, and forgiving. The only time Jesus appears to have acted in anger was at the Temple, when he turned over the money exchange tables and liberated the animals. Even here, Jesus did not hurt anybody.

Is God multifaceted, sometimes inclined towards anger and wrath and other times towards love and compassion? Many Christians think so, but (as articulated in an insightful essay by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein) there is good reason to hold that this is incorrect. Nuechterlein has argued that a principle reason for this error is a mistranslation of “the wrath” in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Nearly all texts have translated the Greek wording for “the wrath” in Paul’s letter to the Romans as “the wrath of God” or “God’s wrath.” Attributing the wrath to God has reflected translators’ assumptions about what Paul meant, but “God” isn’t there in the Greek texts.

Why is this important? For centuries, Christians, seeing God as vengeful, have been tempted to assist in “God’s work” and mete out violence against perceived wrongdoers in the name of righteousness and justice. In theory, whatever vengeance God might want to mete out, God is fully capable of doing so: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deut 32:35; see also Heb 10:30). In practice, however, when we believe we have been wronged, our desire for revenge can be great (recalling previous essays on self-esteem), and our offense is heightened by the frequent smugness of perceived evildoers. So, eager to see “God’s vengeance” satisfied, people have been inclined towards righteous violence. But is God really vengeful, or does God have only one essence, which is love (see, for example, essay #51)? Let’s take a closer look.

The Apostle Paul used the word wrath (orgé) ten times in Romans. The first time, Paul actually wrote “the wrath of God” (Rom 1:18), but not subsequently. In Paul’s time, people generally attributed calamities and general strife to God’s wrath, so it was reasonable for Paul to introduce orgé – the problem of human misery and strife – in association with God. Otherwise, readers would likely have been confused. However, Paul then quickly clarified his position by showing that human suffering was actually a consequence of human action. In Romans 1:24, 26, and 28 Paul described how God “gave up” people to the consequences of their idolatry of worshipping human desires rather than God. In other words, in Romans 1:18, Paul introduced the well-known topic of “the wrath of God,” because it was universally believed that our miseries are a consequence of God’s anger. However, Paul next argued that human misery is actually a consequence of human actions. After Romans 1:18, Paul repeatedly described conflict and misery as “the wrath,” and did not attribute “the wrath” to God.

In next week’s essay, we’ll explore Romans 3, which more fully articulates Paul’s position that the wrath is a consequence of human wickedness. We will then look at Romans 9:22, which, due to translators’ dubious work, again attributes the wrath to God.

Part 58: The Wrath . . . of God? part 2: Romans 3:1-7

I will go through the first 7 verses of Romans 3 carefully, because they reveal much about Paul’s theology. Paul wrote, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews are entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3: 1-2) Here, Paul reminded readers that the Law was the way God tried to exert God’s will before Christ. Jews, entrusted with the Law, had a special mission and privilege.

Paul continued (verses 3-4), “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every man be false, as it is written, ‘That thou mayest be justified in thy words, and prevail when thou art judged.’” Paul had begun his letter to the Romans discussing how everyone sins and fails to fully live according to the Law. Yet, even when Jews were unfaithful, God had remained faithful to the Jews. God has been faithful to God’s promise to the Jews even when they have been faithless.

Now we come to a key verse, Romans 3:5, which is challenging and must be read carefully. Paul wrote, “But if our wickedness serves to show the justice of God, what shall we say? That God is unjust to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.)” Paul has said that we are inevitably wicked but God’s justice prevents God from condemning us. Yet, if this is so, is God unjust to inflict wrath on us? Paul then, remarkably, notes that this is a human way of thinking! The “human way” of thinking attributes the wrath to God, which is what people have been doing this since the beginning of human civilization. Since the foundation of human culture, in fact, people have attributed their misfortunes to God or the gods, and they have offered sacrifices to “appease” the divine.

Romans 3:6-7 reads, “By no means! For then how could God judge the world? But if through my falsehood God’s truthfulness abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” In other words, since we are all sinners, God can’t judge the world according to our sinfulness. Despite our sinfulness, God’s truth abounds in God’s glory. What is God’s glory, which reveals God’s truth? I think God’s glory involves God’s creative goodness, and God’s truth is that God does not want suffering or violence to harm God’s wonderful Creation. (See, for example, Romans 8:18-22.) God’s love of Paul, a sinner, exemplifies God’s love for all Creation, since only God’s loving forgiveness can justify Paul, not Paul’s actions. Why did Paul say that he was condemned as a sinner? It was because he lived among humans who were judgmental and vengeful. As we saw in last week’s essay, the wrath is related not to God’s violent hand but to God handing humans over to the consequences of their idolatries and wickedness (Romans 1:24-28). Humans, failing to reflect God’s love and forgiveness, condemn Paul. Similarly, humans, not God, are eager to punish anyone they think has sinned.

In the next essay, I will discuss why I think Romans 9:22 is another point of misunderstanding regarding the wrath. Then, I will discuss why this is such an important point for Christian theology.

Part 59: The Wrath . . . of God? part 3: Romans 9:22

The two previous essays have explored how the notion of “the wrath” has repeatedly been mistranslated as “God’s wrath” or the “wrath of God,” reflecting translators’ assumption that “the wrath” derives from God rather than from human idolatries and wickedness. Romans 9:22 reads, “What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction.” Rev. Nuechterlein has noted that the first “his” (autou in Greek) is not there. A more literal translation is, “What if God, desiring to show the wrath and to make known his power . . .” In other words, I think Nuechterlein is correct in arguing that “the vessels of wrath made for destruction” reflect human destructiveness and include things like the whip, the crown of thorns, the nails, and the cross. The power of God is not manifested in creating the wrath; rather, it is in enduring the wrath “with much patience” in the personage of Jesus Christ. Wrathful judgment is something the power of God endures; it is not something God sponsors.

Why is human judgment wrathful? It is because people have repeatedly worshipped false gods to whom people have attributed their own desires for violence and scapegoating. This is why Jesus told his disciples, “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think that they are offering a service to God, and this they will do because they have not known the Father nor me.” (John 16:2-3) I think this is the reason that Christianity has a long and sad history of scapegoating violence against Jews, non-Christian people of color, Christian sects with “heretical beliefs,” homosexuals, “witches,” animals, and others. Christians have repeatedly made the error that has plagued humankind since the foundation of human civilization of projecting their own wrath onto God. Believing in a wrathful God has encouraged people everywhere, including Christians, to perform acts of violence “in the name of God.” It is tempting to believe that God hates the same people we do, but I think the apostle Paul was trying to show that the wrath exists among humans and is not an attribute of God.

Why have translators of Paul’s letter to the Romans so often converted the Greek orgé (literally, “wrath”) to “wrath of God” or “God’s wrath.” I think the reason is that, despites Christ’s messages of love and forgiveness, we have remained so mired in scapegoating violence that it seems natural and obvious to attribute our own wrath to God. In addition, the Bible has passages that seem to describe God as wrathful. One of the most notable passages is Deuteronomy 32:35, which reads, “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Deut 32:35). But, there is another way to look at it. Perhaps we are to understand that only God has the right to mete out vengeance, though God does not necessarily do so. If prophets had told the ancient Hebrews that God had no desire for vengeance at all, these prophets would have been dismissed as insane or killed as heretics. Mired in the scapegoating mechanism, the ancient Hebrews would have found it impossible to believe that God did not seek retributive “justice” against evildoers. The only way to have the ancient Hebrews refrain from vengeance against those they hated as perceived “evildoers” was to convince them that God punishes “evildoers.” They would have found it unacceptable to believe that “evildoers” would not eventually get their comeuppance. The pronouncement “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord” satisfied the ancient Hebrews that God would punish evildoers, because they likely did not consider it possible that vengeance is not part of God’s plan.

We are now ready to turn to one of the hardest aspects of Jesus’ ministry, the instruction to forgive those who have offended us. I will devote a considerable amount of time to this subject, because I think it is central to Christian faith.

Part 60: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the embodiment of love. Therefore, after the Resurrection, Jesus greeted his disciples, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you . . . Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:21, 22b-23)

Jesus’ disciples had abandoned Jesus in his time of crisis. Yet, upon his return, Jesus did not rebuke them. Rather, he said, “Peace be with you,” which demonstrated that Jesus still loved his disciples and that he forgave them. Their experience of being forgiven for their betrayal was a valuable lesson in the importance of forgiveness. Once they learned this lesson, they were prepared to become disciples of Jesus’ ministry of love. Previously, they were likely akin to most people, who naturally desire to avenge perceived wrongdoing. However, on finding that Jesus has, out of love, forgiven them, they could appreciate the power of love and the appropriateness of forgiveness. Similarly, Jesus forgave Saul, who was so transformed by the entire experience of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus that he subsequently became Paul. Saul, the persecutor of Christians, believed his violence was righteous. Paul, the forgiven disciple, recognized his past errors and, forgiven grievous misdeeds, was prepared to love and forgive others.

What did Jesus mean when he said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven”? I think this means that forgiveness of sins allows people to move past old resentments. Commonly, anger and resentment from perceived offenses remain in one’s heart, and this causes misery to the person carrying these resentments while poisoning the possibility for growth and deepening of relationships. Therefore, “if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” – those who retain resentments for others’ sins are unable to forgive and grow in love.

After the Resurrection, immediately before departing from the Disciples, Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24: 46b-47a). Repentance and forgiveness of sins would be the Disciples’ principle teaching, because these are the ingredients of love and peace.

How can we forgive, when it is so natural for us to respond to offenses (including those that bruise our self-esteem – see essay 26) with deep resentment? The answer is to follow Jesus’ example. Since Jesus forgave those who crucified him and the friends who abandoned him, we too can forgive people who have committed relatively petty offenses against us. But, what about those who have deeply wounded us? For this, we need pure love in our hearts that, many believe, requires the Holy Spirit. It takes God’s grace to relieve us of our natural desire for vengeance, and being forgiven is central to this grace: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 22b-23) Once we are forgiven, as Jesus did for the disciples and the Apostle Paul, we may be prepared to forgive the sins of any. Once we, like the Apostles and Paul, recognize that we are forgiven, we are prepared to be disciples of Christ, showing love and forgiveness and being a light unto the nations to help others similarly express God’s love.

I think forgiveness was central to Jesus’ ministry, and the next essays will further explore this topic.

Part 61: Forgiveness and Peace

The Prince of Peace was trying to show how people (who seem to fall into rivalries that lead to violence) might live peacefully with each other. Jesus recognized the importance of forgiveness, and when Peter asked if he should forgive his brother as many as seven times, Jesus replied, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matt 18:22) The path to forgiving others starts with our understanding that we ourselves are forgiven.

Our desire to feel justified in God’s eyes strongly encourages us to rationalize even our most violent or hurtful acts as justified or even righteous. The writer of Proverbs wrote, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” (21:2) However, if we believed that we were forgiven for past wrongdoing, we would be much more inclined to regard our past deeds objectively and to recognize when we have erred. Our faith teaches us that God’s love is so boundless that God forgives any and all transgressions. God’s unconditional forgiveness allows us to reflect honestly on what we have done and to identify times when we have sinned. Upon recognizing our own misdeeds, we become much more open to forgiving other people.

When there is conflict, the only nonviolent path to reconciliation and peace involves forgiveness. When articulating forgiveness, of course, one should not convey an implicit accusation. When our words or actions communicate, “I am so magnanimous that I can forgive you, even though you are a scoundrel,” we are being condescending and not truly forgiving. Rather, in forgiving other people, one can acknowledge one’s own contribution to the conflict and ask for their forgiveness, while simultaneously forgiving them. In such a loving environment, they will be more likely to recognize ways in which they have been selfish or thoughtless. This can engender in them a much more loving, forgiving frame of mind, opening up paths towards reconciliation. This is an important way by which disciples of Christ may be lights unto the nations. If we are accusatory and judgmental, we become locked into conflicts that are ultimately resolved by violence. If we are loving and forgiving, we open avenues of peace.

Of course, even if our forgiveness were unconditional, it might not be accepted. Some people refuse forgiveness, either because they don’t believe they have done anything wrong or because they cherish their resentments, which forgiveness threatens to disarm.

Though some resist forgiveness, many people respond to love with love. Jesus said, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” (Mt 10:16) This is prudent, in part because we are often wise to focus our love on those who are willing to accept it. However, but Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has argued that this passage is more about forgiveness. Jesus taught that being innocent (i.e., loving and non-judgmental) can be dangerous, I think there are at least two reasons. First, people often expect that their aggressiveness will be met with resistant force, and they are often perplexed, and consequently angered, when they meet an unexpected response from peacemakers. Second, some aggressive people interpret peacemaking as a sign of weakness, which may encourage further aggression. Yet, ultimately, “the meek shall inherit the earth.” Why? Because “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) The only path to peace is to follow the Apostle Paul’s instruction: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Col 3:12-13)

We will explore forgiveness and anger next week.

Part 62: Forgiveness and Anger

Generally, and perhaps always, angry, bitter people have been deeply wounded. We tend to dislike such people, because they are generally unpleasant company. Often, their anger reflects fear of being hurt again, and they express anger to keep people at a distance, where they seem less threatening. But, if we are willing to patiently listen to their stories with an empathetic ear, withhold judgment, and have compassion for their pain, we will often ease their fear, lighten their burden, and relieve their anger.

Some people seem incapable of love, and I think this is because they don’t love themselves. Deep down, they feel humiliated and unworthy of love. As a psychological defense mechanism, they project their antagonism onto other people, and commonly the things they despise most in other people are attributes that they inwardly despise about themselves. Are these people aberrations, or does this describe us to varying degrees? Do we not find it difficult to love others because we often find it difficult to love ourselves? To the degree that we find it difficult to love others, we find it hard to forgive them for their “debts” against us – the various offenses that we have resented. If we can’t forgive them, how can we reconcile our differences nonviolently?

The path to the nonviolent living that Jesus taught and practiced is simple to articulate but difficult to practice, because it takes a great faith. We must believe that God forgives us. In other words, we must believe that God loves us so much that God can forgive our transgressions. If we recognized that God loves us, even though we have offended God, we would much more readily forgive those who have offended us. And, by forgiving them, we seek reconciliation rather than revenge.

Many people have trouble believing that God loves them. They know they have sinned in serious ways, and they don’t feel forgivable. This is particularly the case if they (in my opinion mistakenly) regard God as wrathful (see essays 57-59), when their image of God is a father-figure (because many people have had fathers who were harsh and judgmental), and when they live in communities that are unwilling to forgive their more egregious transgressions, even those that occurred in the remote past. However, I see God as like a loving parent who might be disappointed in the child’s behavior but whose love for the child never wanes.

Why should we believe God that God loves us enough to forgive us? Because God created us. Science can describe chromosomes, cells, and organs, but it cannot explain the spark of life, and I think the only reasonable explanation is that the spark of life comes from God. Of course, this spark is not unique to humans, and our faith teaches us that God loves all of Creation. Once convinced that we are truly forgiven, then, we may forgive all who have wronged us, love everything, and enjoy the serenity that comes from following Christ. This is the peace-of-mind enjoyed by the saints and by Jesus, who genuinely suffered on the Cross but was still able to observe, presumably with satisfaction, “It is accomplished.”

Those who have been deeply wounded may have difficulty believing that God loves them, and I think recognizing God’s love is a form of grace. We can help people experience that grace by expressing God’s love in our lives. Our love, forgiveness, and compassion constitute our witness to God’s love. To the degree that we make choices that are hurtful and not loving, which could include participating in the inherent cruelties of factory farming, we fail to witness for Christ and we fail to be “lights unto the nations.”

Next week, we will explore forgiveness and judgment.

Part 63: Forgiveness and Judgment

Forgiveness is a central component of love. How do we forgive? We may start by not judging other people. It is natural for people to judge others, but Jesus said, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3) The problem is that our judgments are always scandalous; we rarely see our own faults, and when we accuse other people they defensively avoid seeing their own misdeeds. Consequently, judgments nearly always evoke resentment and hostility, which lead to violence.

Jesus taught that God makes the sun shine on good and bad alike. God does not participate in our judgments. Indeed, Jesus asked God to forgive those responsible for murdering him “because they know not what they do.” Similarly, as the murderous mob descended upon St. Stephen, “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord do not hold this sin against them.’” (Acts 7:60) It is critical to note that Stephen articulated the sin against him, but he asked God not to judge the sinners harshly. Refusing to judge people as evil or worthy or punishment is different from discerning right from wrong.

The theme that we should avoid judging other people helps explain the paradoxical parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30). The third servant has judged his master to be harsh, and consequently the third servant is judged accordingly. Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” (Matthew 7:1-2) In other words, when we judge other people, we are liable to similar judgment. The reciprocal accusations impede reconciliation and in fact tend to escalate hostilities. Indeed, if our words and/or actions show condemnation of meat-eaters, they will react defensively and refuse to hear our pleas for mercy. On the other hand, when we condemn modern animal agricultural institutions and point out that the general public, when buying its products, promotes these institutions, we are not attacking individuals, pointing fingers, or assuming a “holier than thou” posture.

Not only does being judgmental impair community-building, it is often based on false premises. By condemning others, we absolve ourselves of our own contributions to conflict and misery. This is the essence of scapegoating – judging someone as guilty and punishing accordingly. The scapegoat, as I’ve said previously, is generally not completely innocent. Rather, the scapegoat is almost always far less guilty than the scapegoating mob believes. The mob is united in a common conviction that they are all innocent, because they have attributed all guilt to the scapegoat.

For example, many people believe in demonic possession, and frequently the mob believes that the scapegoat has been possessed by demons or “the devil,” who has sown conflict and misery. Once the possessed person has been destroyed, they believe that peace and tranquility will return, and indeed this usually happens because they are united in their participation in the scapegoating mechanism. Analogously, we are quick to judge and punish a thief, and indeed the thief has done wrong. But, doesn’t theft often reflect unjust social, political, and economic relationships? By judging the thief evil, we absolve ourselves of our contribution to the illegal act.

Next week, we will continue this discussion on forgiveness with reflections on that part of the Lord’s Prayer in which Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts.”

Part 64: “Forgive Us Our Debts”

The Lord’s Prayer includes the words, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” I don’t see this as a request or petition to God. Why should God listen to our request for forgiveness? If God were judgmental, God would simply reward the righteous and condemn the sinful, with little regard for those who petitioned for mercy. What difference should it make that a person deserving of harsh judgment requests mercy? In truth, we are all sinners, and a judgmental God would probably have good cause for rendering an unfavorable judgment on everyone. We are sinners because we are human, and fundamental to human nature is having mimetic desires that engender lusts, rivalries, resentments, and, eventually, violence. I see the above part of the Lord’s Prayer as a reminder that God forgives everyone, because God loves everything: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17) Note that God lovingly sent the Son not to judge but to save the world, not just humankind.

How can the Son save the world? In general, religions envision their hero engaging in “righteous” violence, vanquishing the powerful forces of evil and permitting the weak and downtrodden to gain their rightful places of power. The problem is that the formerly weak and downtrodden quickly become the victimizing powers and principalities themselves. The only way to bring peace is through love. Love isn’t vengeful or violent; it is forgiving. By debtors, Jesus meant more than just those who were financially indebted. He also meant those who had a debt of honor. For example, if someone has humiliated us and hurt our self-esteem, we naturally feel like they “owe” us, and the only way to repay the debt is for them to apologize (i.e., humiliate themselves) or for us to exact revenge. Jesus taught that we should forgive such debts of honor, though many of us find doing so extremely difficult. The reason we find it so difficult to forgive after being offended is that forgiving someone who has hurt our self-esteem often leaves our self-esteem damaged. Of course, this presumes that our self-esteem is determined by how other people regard us.

I think that Jesus was trying to teach that avenging perceived slights and offenses is the wrong way to respond to injured self-esteem. Rather, the first step in gaining and maintaining self-esteem in a harsh and judgmental world is to recognize that our neighbors should not determine our worth. Instead, we are valuable because we are loved by the Creator, who endowed us (as well as God’s creatures, plants, etc.) with the spark of life. I think that Christianity teaches that our sense of worth and accomplishment should come from participating with God in the reconciliation of all Creation, however imperfectly we may perform this task. Therefore, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Even though we often fail, God forgives us because God loves all Creation, and true love forgives all shortcomings.

This essay has considered the situation in which we are to forgive debts of honor. What about when we have been injured, such as a crime against us or someone we love? I think some insight comes from the example of Jesus on the cross, when he said, “Forgive them, Father.” We will consider this next week.

Comment from Gracia Fay Ellwood: Regarding the difficult parable of the talents, it is I think worth noting that Jesus does not begin it with his usual formula "The kingdom of God (or heaven) is like. . ., (though one could argue that it is implied). It absence, however, authorizes us to consider that the slavemaster does not, as is usually assumed, represent God at all. In fact he seems to be typical of the landowners and slavemasters of the day, who were indeed harsh, "reaping where they had not sown," exploiting the defenseless and discarding them heartlessly when they were unprofitable. The slave is judged by the master he has judged, but the Kingdom of God has not appeared in this situation. Rather, it is when we show the unconditional love and forgiveness of God that the Kingdom can appear, as you point out.

It is a unhappy fact that when we present the case for animals, we are likely to be considered by some to be judgmental and accusing whether we in fact are or not. Probably most of us have had the experience of initially speaking up on the issue with no accusatory intent, assuming that our spiritual community is ready to share our compassion and only needs to be informed in order to rally behind the animals, and then being devastated by accusations of being an accuser. Ironically, this kind of response is likely to create in us the very judgmentalism it projected onto us. Only by facing this fact, and continually opening ourselves to God's love, will we be able to break through this painful impasse and be, in St. Francis' words, instruments of divine Peace.

Part 65: “Forgive them, Father”

While suffering and dying on the Cross, Jesus said, “Forgive them, father, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 32:34) This comment, which likely surprised the mob, has profound implications for Christian faith. First, note that Jesus asked God to forgive them; he did not forgive his tormentors himself. This would have been difficult, given his suffering. Furthermore, the mob, believing Jesus guilty, would have scoffed at his forgiving them. They might even have regarded his forgiveness as an attempt to gain mercy or as a condescending and sanctimonious effort to get in the last word.

Jesus asked God to forgive them. When one genuinely loves everybody and everything, one wants them to be forgiven, even for the most heinous crimes. One will want them to desist from hurting other individuals, of course, but one will not desire vengeance against those one loves. Being human, it can be very hard for us to forgive those who have deeply wounded us. When we find it impossible for us to forgive, sometimes the best we can do is, like Jesus, to pray for God to forgive them, just as God’s unconditional love prompts God to forgive sinners like us.*

In addition, Jesus recognized that the authorities and the mob had become caught up in the scapegoating mechanism. As has been true since the foundation of human civilization, the scapegoating mechanism has been hidden and “they know not what they do.” In fact, Jesus told his disciples, “Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering a worship to God.” (John 16:2) Is this not the scapegoating mechanism par excellence? From the foundation of human civilization, people have murdered innocent victims and attributed their own violence to God or the gods. As Jesus continued, he explained why people have always thought their violence was righteous: “And they will do this because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:3) Those who know God’s unconditional love are peacemakers; they do not engage in scapegoating violence.

Finally, our ability to love our enemies derives from our having been sinners who have been forgiven. By our sinfulness, we have worked against God’s desire for love, compassion, and harmony in God’s creation. Yet, God has forgiven us out of love. If God can forgive and love us, then surely we can forgive and love our enemies. Indeed, if we fail to forgive, our position is often like that of the ungrateful ­­­debtor, whose king forgave his large debt but who then refused to forgive another man a much smaller debt. Jesus illustrated the principle of forgiveness when he encountered his disciples after the Resurrection. They had abandoned and denied him, yet Jesus greeted them, saying, “Peace be with you.” Notably, Jesus did not first demand repentance. Forgiveness came first, and the repentance of the Disciples came later.

Next week, we will consider how the story of Jesus saving the adulteress from stoning informs this ongoing discussion on forgiveness.

* I acknowledge Julie Shinnock for her contributions to this topic.

Part 66: The Adulteress (John 8:3-11)

We all know the story of the adulteress who Jesus saved from stoning by challenging the enraged men, “Let him who without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) Mimetic theory offers some interesting insights into this story.

The story relates that the scribes and Pharisees tried to trap Jesus by asking whether they should stone her, according to the law of Moses. Initially, Jesus did not reply, instead writing in the sand. This broke the mob’s momentum towards stoning her. If they had not been forced to pause and think, they would have stoned her regardless of Jesus’ response. Then, Jesus wrote in the sand once again after saying “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Why? Mimetic theory suggests that, if Jesus had met their gaze, the angry accusers would have seen their own hatred and violence in Jesus’ eyes and likely would have killed him as well.

Jesus understood mob violence. No one person starts it. Just as acquisitive desire is mimetic (see essays 2 & 3), the accusatory gesture is also mimetic (see part 6). The accusation against the woman could have snowballed within the mimetic crowd, going something like, “I hear she is a sinner”; “Yes, she was seen with X, even though she is married”; “I hear she hates her husband”; “She must have committing adultery”; “The Law says that adultery must be punished by stoning”; “Then she must be stoned”; “Yes, she must be stoned”; and the accord spreads quickly. When Jesus challenged the crowd to produce someone without sin to cast the first stone, he was demanding that someone step away from the crowd and take responsibility for the violence himself. Mimetic theory posits that people are very reluctant to take this step, and indeed nobody came forward to commence the stoning.

Jesus forgave her sin, before she asked for forgiveness or even expressed repentance or regret. Then, he told her to sin no more. If Jesus had demanded her repentance, she would likely have sought excuses for her behavior, since presumably she had once felt justified in committing adultery. When Jesus forgave her, he communicated that God loves her unconditionally, even if she had sinned. Therefore, she did not need to find excuses for her behavior, and she could then acknowledge her sinfulness.

Unconditional forgiveness is a recurrent biblical theme: “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.’” (Matt 18:22) The natural human response when our brother offends us is to condemn him, which does two things. First, it engenders hate, which results in either escalating offenses against each other, or resolution of our conflict by our blaming and then victimizing an innocent scapegoat. Second, when we judge and condemn our brother, we deflect attention from our own contribution to the conflict. While it is often hard for us to see, we are almost always partially to blame when there is conflict that offends us. The only nonviolent way to reconcile with our brother is to genuinely reflect God’s unconditional love and forgiveness. Forgiveness is more than a strategy; it is what our faith calls us to do. Just as God unconditionally forgives our own violence and destructiveness, as disciples of Christ and children of God, we are similarly called to forgive.

Next week, we will explore how forgiveness informs the concept of rebirth in Christ.

Part 67: Born Again, part 1

I think that our experience of being forgiven by God is central to being born again. We were born human, and consequently we invariably have become embroiled in the scapegoating mechanism. As children, we relieved our mimetic rivalries by scapegoating fellow children. The victim of scapegoating has always been someone on the margins of the community, though the actual attribute that prompts scapegoating is arbitrary. Looking back at our own childhood, most of us recall scapegoats, who were ostracized for being fat or thin, ugly or beautiful, rich or poor. As we grew, we learned which group(s) of people the dominant culture scapegoats. Many of us were taught that certain “inferior” people (e.g., poor people, members of minority, women) had a certain “place” in society, and authority figures told us that “force” (e.g., vagrancy laws, segregation laws, caste rules) was sometimes necessary when they refused to recognize their “place.” Indeed, people have intuitively understood that social strata (grounded on the scapegoating mechanism) are essential in maintaining peace and order. (See part 7.) Because scapegoating is only effective at maintaining peace and communal cohesiveness if people are unaware that the victim is not nearly as guilty as they believe (part 6), people have always regarded the violence inherent in the scapegoating mechanism as righteous and just.

Jesus revealed the scapegoating mechanism, but we still need God’s grace through the Holy Spirit to recognize this. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God … unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, 5) Born human, we fall into destructive, violent rivalries. Water is a universal symbol of undifferentiation; water mixes everything together and wipes out differences. If, with the aid of the Spirit, our souls are washed with cleansing water, we no longer see ourselves as better or worse than our neighbor, because we are one in Christ. Consequently, the Apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

If we are born again, part of what dies is the human sin of believing that God ordains our “righteous” violence. Born again, we are inspired by the Holy Spirit to recognize and reject the scapegoating mechanism, which opens our eyes to the true God, who is a God of love and forgiveness. Once born again, we are prepared, as Jesus instructed, to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39) Born again, we become “new creations in Christ,” and nothing is the same. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17)

Next week, we will reflect further on being born again.

68: Born Again, part 2

Last week, we considered being born again as being new creations in Christ, stripped of the human desire to victimize scapegoats in order to maintain communal peace and replaced with a desire to mimic Jesus Christ, who himself mimicked God’s love. This relates to the recent essay on the forgiveness of debts (part 64). We can now see that, as new creations in Christ, we don’t need to derive our self-esteem from how others regard us. If someone humiliates us, we don’t need to avenge their honor-debt to us. We may forgive them because our sense of worth comes from our participating in the body of Christ, which has nothing to do with worldly possessions or status among humans.

Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has noted that there are two ways of doing theology (trying to understand God): accusatory or forgiving. The human pattern is accusatory – we accuse certain individuals, whom Girard called “scapegoats,” for the fears, resentments, and disorders in our communities. I think that Jesus showed that God’s way is forgiving. Upon reflection, one sees that it takes great faith to believe that the path to peace is not by force but rather by love and forgiveness. From this perspective, being born again is not simply a matter of rejecting the world’s numerous other religions and choosing to follow Christ. It is a matter of believing in the redemptive power of love, which goes against human practices from the foundation of human civilization. Love generates compassion, and compassion undermines the human tendency to victimize individuals for the benefit of the masses.

Does being born again mean that we no longer sin? Paul lamented, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19) Though Paul was evidently discouraged by his shortcomings, he acted in a spirit of repentance. Such a born again person naturally desires to go forth in Christ and sin no more. Being born again should give us the desire to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48). Though we always fall far short of God’s perfection, being reborn should transform us externally as well as internally. Of true prophets, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) Therefore, Jesus said, “Not every one who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Many who claim to be reborn are false prophets whose examples one should not follow. For example, false prophets have always claimed that God wants righteous violence against vulnerable individuals, including minorities, children, homosexuals, and animals. Often, God’s wrath is a convenient excuse for defending self-serving, merciless practices and institutions. Those genuinely reborn in Christ seek peace and healing and have no desire to participate in causing unnecessary harm to any of God’s creation.

I don’t regard being born again as an either/or proposition. Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) The sacrament of baptism prepares one for the experience of rebirth in Christ, but the experience itself involves the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, sometimes we’re in Christ, and sometimes we’re not.

When we experience our faith as born-again in Christ, we don’t become perfect, but we do aim for perfection. Sometimes, like Paul, we may be discouraged by our limitations. When we fall short, I think our faith reminds us that, while we may feel disappointment, we should not feel shame, because God forgives all of us.

Part 69: Forgiveness: A New Law Written on Their Hearts

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34) What is the nature of this new law?

Before answering this question, we must first identify the nature of the old law. All laws involve judgment and separating “good” from “evil” people. By their very nature, they have a scapegoating element in which the transgressions of the mob are heaped upon a minority of people. For example, the law is quick to punish the violent criminal, which makes it easier to ignore how communities – parents, neighbors, schools, etc. – contributed to the violent person’s aggressiveness.

When the Hebrews left Egypt, they needed the law to keep order and avoid chaotic anarchy. Jeremiah prophesied of a time when the Hebrews would no longer need the law. Instead, God’s law would be written on everyone’s heart, and nobody would need instruction. It would be known by the least and greatest. Isaiah similarly prophesied a time in which “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord,” and consequently generate all Creation will live harmoniously and nonviolently. (Isaiah 11:6-9) The key element of the new law comes at the end of the Jeremiah passage above, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Once forgiven, they can become a loving community that has no need to justify themselves. They would not think that, in order to gain self-esteem, they would need to be better than their neighbor. Instead, their self-esteem would derive from knowing that God loves them. With God’s love written on their hearts, they would mimic God’s love and mercy in their relationships with each other. They would no longer need laws to curb their tendencies towards violence and other forms of hurtfulness. Their sense of self-esteem would derive from their knowledge that God values them, not from their ability to dominate their peers (which leads to mimetic hostilities). When one’s self-esteem is grounded on God’s love, one naturally desires to reflect and to magnify God’s love. One’s actions, then, show love, compassion, and caring as natural expressions of faith. Consequently, Jesus gave the following simple formula to distinguish between true and false prophets: “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16a) In contrast, those struggling to gain self-esteem try desperately to magnify themselves, hurting other individuals in the process.

Rev. Nuechterlein has written, “The old law may shame us, and the old law may restrain us, and the old law may blame us, but it cannot change us. But at the foot of the cross, it is God’s merciful forgiveness which can change us.”

Part 70: The Sunflower

We are called to love and forgive our enemies, even those who have abused or continue to abuse us. Can we forgive on behalf of other individuals who have suffered and continue to suffer at human hands? This is relevant to those whose compassion includes God’s animals and was the central question of a remarkable true story called The Sunflower by Simon Wiesenthal, who died about three weeks ago at age 96.

While a concentration camp prisoner, Wiesenthal was called to the bedside of a dying Nazi soldier, who confessed to participating in the murder of about 300 Jews. They had been crowded into a building, which was set ablaze, and he and fellow soldiers shot those who tried to escape out of windows. The soldier asked Wiesenthal, a Jew, to forgive him. Wiesenthal listened to the soldier’s entire story, allowing the soldier to take his hand, and then Wiesenthal left without speaking. The man died the next day and left all his possessions to Wiesenthal, who refused them. Wiesenthal caused considerable consternation among fellow concentration camp prisoners when he asked his friends whether he did the right thing. They could not understand how he could have any concern or compassion for one of those who had murdered their families and friends and would likely murder them.

Having miraculously survived the concentration camp, after the war Wiesenthal asked dozens of people from a wide range of perspectives whether or not he had done the right thing, and their varied responses represent the bulk of The Sunflower. Interestingly, Wiesenthal dedicated the rest of his life to capturing Nazi war criminals.

In refusing to forgive the Nazi, did Wiesenthal do the right thing? Having never experienced anything remotely resembling what Wiesenthal lived through, I certainly can’t judge. I do note that Wiesenthal listened, and I think that his listening communicated to the dying Nazi that his sins were forgivable. Wiesenthal could not forgive on behalf of people he never met. Sometimes, victims can forgive, but in this case the victims were dead. The only one left who could forgive was God.

Wiesenthal expected to die in the concentration camp, yet he yearned to know whether he had done the right thing. After surviving the nightmare, he remained plagued by doubts. Why? I think Wiesenthal needed to know whether the Nazis had destroyed his humanity. They had killed his family, stolen his possessions, and reduced him to a pathetic, starving, miserable man. Had they destroyed his faith that God was on the side of the good? Had they taken away his ability to respect all life, which derives from God? Could they make him curse God, just as Satan had predicted Job would curse God?

Many of us who empathize with the suffering of animals are pained by thinking about animals’ miserable plight. Our natural human response is to feel angry and vengeful. However, if we are to love all God’s Creation, we must also love those who harm the innocent. That’s really hard, but it may help to recognize that they are forgiven by God, just as we too have been forgiven for violating God’s desire that we be loving and compassionate.

Does forgiveness mean that there should be no laws to protect vulnerable individuals or that there should be no consequences for destructive behavior? Simon Wiesenthal didn’t think so. While Wiesenthal showed human compassion and forgiveness by listening to the dying Nazi soldier, after the war he believed it was necessary to bring Nazi criminals to justice, because it was critical that future generations know that people will be held accountable for their actions. There remains a difficult question: How do we distinguish righteous justice from scapegoating, since they look similar and since scapegoaters always believe that their violence is righteous? In the next essay, we will strive to resolve this dilemma.

Part 71: How Can We Distinguish Scapegoating from Justice?

We may feel genuine love for those who harm us or other individuals, and we may find forgiveness in our hearts. But, we don’t want them to continue harming innocent individuals. The problem is that our point-of-view is always clouded by our own desires and prejudices. If we used force (either ourselves or by proxy, e.g., the police) to stop “evil,” “violent” people, how could we know that we were motivated by a desire to protect the innocent rather than a desire to satisfy selfish desires for power, control, wealthy, or revenge?

From the perspective of mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, this is a difficult problem. A central tenet of Girardian mimetic theory is that the scapegoating mechanism is always hidden and that those involved in scapegoating don’t recognize the degree to which the victim is innocent. If they did recognize the victim’s innocence, scapegoating would fail to bring peace to their community. The mob believes that expelling or killing the scapegoat will eliminate the evil in their midst, because they have attributed far more guilt to the scapegoat than is justified. Being mimetic creatures, we readily become caught up in the scapegoating mechanism and participate (directly or indirectly) in scapegoating violence, all the while believing that our actions are righteous and just. Becoming aware of the pervasiveness of the scapegoating mechanism may help prevent us from participating in it, but nobody is immune to its attractions.

One difficulty is that the victim of scapegoating is rarely completely innocent; the error is the victim is far less guilty than the scapegoaters believe. How do we accurately ascertain the degree of an accused person’s guilt? One important way is to remain mindful of scapegoating’s allure. It is very tempting for us to blame others for our shortcomings. Fortunately, as previous essays have discussed, the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection has exposed the human tendency to scapegoat. We have learned how a mob can be convinced of a completely innocent man’s guilt. Only because Jesus was completely innocent (which the Resurrection validated) could the mob (and the Gospel reader) eventually recognize how wrong they were; if Jesus had been partly guilty, people could still have rationalized killing him.

Now that Jesus has exposed the scapegoating mechanism, we are encouraged to view the situation from the victim’s perspective. Indeed, this is what we must do if we aim to distinguish justice from scapegoating. We must seek to understand the perspectives of those we regard as evildoers by listening to their voices and the voices of those who stand with them. Their perspective may be as distorted from the truth as ours or even more so, but taking their point-of-view seriously while recognizing the limitations of our own perspective reduces the chances of misguided decisions.

I wish to emphasize that I am not encouraging moral relativism. I am not claiming that all moral stances are equally tenable, which would put murdering humans and abusing animals as equally justified as showing kindness and compassion for all God’s living creatures. While remembering that we are all sinners and remaining cognizant of our human tendency to scapegoat, we must take a firm stand against practices that harm the innocent. Our faith teaches love and compassion, but showing love and compassion for evildoers should not prompt us to abandon the victims of human abuse. For example, how can we express Christian love for animal abusers while protecting animals? We will turn to this next week.

Part 72: Forgiveness: Animal Abusers, part 1

Just as Simon Wiesenthal could not forgive on behalf of murdered Jews he never knew, we can’t forgive on behalf of abused animals. But, our faith teaches us that everyone is forgiven, “for they know not what they do.” People always regard their violence as justified, and indeed the writer of Proverbs wrote, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” (21:2) For example, violent criminals generally rationalize their actions on the grounds that they have been victims themselves, entitling them to victimize others. In addition, we rarely consider whether mimetic behavior is wrong, particularly when it is widespread in our culture. Therefore, following the examples of their parents and other adults, children in Western cultures learn early in life to adopt exploitative attitudes and practices with respect to animals.

If we recognized that God forgives animal abusers who “know not what they do,” perhaps we could start to love, or at least not hate, them. We may have deep sadness and regret about what they do. We may strive to make it legally impossible for them to harm innocent creatures. However, I think our faith teaches that we must also communicate (through our words and/or our actions) that they are loved and forgiven by God. While God may forgive them, they will only receive and personally experience forgiveness if they repent and strive to “sin no more.” God offers forgiveness freely, but it’s up to the individual to receive it. Those who refuse to receive it lack faith that “the truth will set you free” and that “your faith will make you whole,” and they suffer. Their suffering may not be obvious, particularly since people tend to try to hide their existential pain. Chapter 6 of Good News for All Creation by Nathan Braun and me discusses this in greater detail.

Next week, we will further explore the challenge of forgiving those who mistreat animals.

Part 73: Forgiveness: Animal Abusers, part 2

Many of us find it hard to see how the perpetrators of cruelties towards animals may be forgiven. Consequently, it seems that many animal activists, driven by anger at animal abusers and feeling powerless to stop the cruelties, seek to make animal abusers’ lives miserable. For example, they may protest ominously at an animal researcher’s home, terrifying the family. While this may be viscerally satisfying, I think it usually does little to help animals while alienating people from animal protectionism.

Also, as we have discussed previously, those who abuse animals, like all people, need self-esteem. If they don’t feel forgiven, they will tend to rationalize their behavior. This is why Jesus repeatedly forgave people before they confessed their sins or asked for repentance.

How does this apply in everyday activism? Difficult as it may be, we should recognize that animal tormentors have not shared our sympathy with suffering animals and do not recognize the harm that they do. Therefore, it is very helpful, and appropriate, to say things like, “Many people don’t know what happens on factory farms.” Surely people should not feel guilty if they had been unaware of their complicity in a crime. Similarly, we may say something like, “Many people have not given much thought about animal issues. I think we need to remember that God cares about all of God’s Creation, including the animals.”

How about people who read our literature or see our videos and say, “I don’t care. I like meat.” I would suggest that, in a sense, they still “know not what they do.” Perhaps they don’t believe our claims about modern animal agriculture. Perhaps they have difficulty empathizing with animals, which is tragic for them as well as the animals, because they are stunted in their ability to appreciate and rejoice in God’s Creation. Perhaps they have been so deeply wounded by life that they think they can only derive satisfaction and joy by satisfying their immediate sensual desires. In these cases, blinded by traumatic life experiences, they don’t fully know what they do. Their psychological defenses, often erected in response to life’s wounds, stand in the way of their receiving the grace of God’s forgiveness and the joy that accompanies obedience to God’s desire that we love God’s Creation. For those who say, “I don’t care,” our living witness can be testimony to God’s love. If we show that our faithfulness to God’s love enriches our lives, people will realize that our choices (e.g., not eating animals) is a blessing, not a sacrifice.

I think we need to work for laws that protect animals. However, regardless of legislation, animals will always suffer as long as people fail to recognize animals as important and worthy of respect. People will only love if they feel loved, and our faith tells us that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. The reason that we should love our neighbors as ourselves is that we are all children of God who are forgiven for our inherent propensity to sin. While this probably makes sense to most Christians intellectually, most of us find it very hard to forgive emotionally. We will consider the challenges associated with forgiving those who harm us or others in the next essay.

Part 74: Forgiveness, the Hardest Thing

Even though I think love and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin, I think a lot of people are much more comfortable with the phrase “God loves me” than “God forgives me.” I think there are at least two reasons. First, it’s hard for us to feel worthy of forgiveness, because we know that we have sinned and continue to sin. We can imagine God loving us as our parents have loved us, warts and all, but even our parents may be reluctant to forgive our greatest trespasses.

Second, if we accept God’s forgiveness for our sins against God, then we are inclined to feel compelled to forgive our rivals and everyone else who has offended or scandalized us, and that is very hard. Why? I think it often relates to self-esteem. We feel that, if we forgive, we are acquiescing to an offense. Only “getting even” can restore our sense of honor and worth. This is why it is so important that we are reborn in Christ. Jesus said we should forgive repeatedly, even forgiving our brother “seventy times seven” times, which is probably more times than a person could possibly offend us in a lifetime. If we repeatedly forgave our brother, he would very likely cease to offend eventually, because we would have given him no new cause to offend. Having no debt of honor to “pay back,” he would simply stop offending. If we acted out against him, his “righteous” anger would likely demand “pay back,” causing him to offend us again. Forgiveness breaks this pay back cycle.

Who can forgive? Since God is the source of the spark of life, God can forgive. The victim can also forgive, and the reason that Jesus could forgive the adulteress and other transgressors was that he himself was the “Lamb slain since the foundation of the world.”

Does God always forgive? I don’t know. It is possible that God withholds forgiveness from those who are knowingly hurtful and remain unrepentant. In any event, if God were to forgive such people, they would not feel forgiven, because they would fail to recognize the need for forgiveness in the first place.

How do we forgive? Often, saying “I forgive you” can come across as sanctimonious, condescending, or disingenuous. Frequently, the best approach is to express one’s love in words and/or deeds, and to apologize for one’s own contribution to conflict.

Who needs forgiveness? Since all people and animals belong to God, whenever we hurt someone, we harm God. As Jesus said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). In think we should remain mindful that we do not need to be the actual perpetrators of violence in order to be responsible for violence. If we have paid for people to do violence for us (such as purchasing meat in a grocery store, effectively paying for others to raise and slaughter the animals), or if we have benefited from violent institutions (such as the U.S. government’s support of repressive regimes), we have participated in the crucifixion of Christ.

Forgiveness is central to restoring a loving relationship with all Creation, as well as with our brother. I don’t think Jesus sought to establish a new religion; rather, I think he aimed to help people develop a loving relationship with God. This is the relationship that Adam and Eve briefly enjoyed, and it’s a relationship that the Hebrew Scriptures aimed to describe. This relationship is grounded in love; just as God loves us, we have been called to reflect God’s love for all Creation. Insofar as God loves people, God must give us freedom. However, this freedom inevitably gives us the opportunity to turn away from God and to be poor stewards of God’s Creation.

For many of us, redemption and salvation starts with hearing the cock crow. Until we recognize that we have hurt others and failed in our duty to serve God, we will continue to be judgmental and self-righteous. Knowing, first, that we are sinners, and then that God forgives us, we may be reborn in Christ, dedicated to honoring God with our life and works.

Next week, we will further explore the theological implications of our calling to forgive.

Part 75: Forgiveness and Theology

Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has argued that there are two ways of doing theology: accusatory and forgiving. In other words, we can see God as either harsh and judgmental or as loving and forgiving. As I discussed in essay 51, monotheism calls us to see God in unitary terms, which indicates that we must choose one or the other. Historically, humans have leaned heavily towards the accusatory mode. Primal societies have offered sacrifices to their God (or gods), fearing divine wrath. Though the ancient Hebrews similarly envisioned God as wrathful, they increasingly also saw God as concerned about victims. I regard this evolving view of God as a gradually increasing understanding of God’s loving nature. As the ancient Hebrews increasingly recognized God’s love, compassion, and concern for victims, they prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry among them.

It is tempting to see God in the accusatory mode, because we humans tend to be accusatory. Religions throughout the world have always projected human attributes and desires onto their god or gods. The Bible relates that, in the Garden of Eden, Eve accused the serpent and Adam accused Eve, both trying to deflect blame from themselves. There is a universal temptation to project what we despise about ourselves onto others. This process maintains self-esteem by attributing to others what we are ashamed of ourselves. To illustrate, consider how often a tempted man hates the woman who “tries to seduce” him or how some of the most virulent anti-homosexuals have turned out to be homosexual themselves.

It is temping to regard God as fundamentally accusatory, judgmental, and harsh, perhaps because we want to envision God as hating the same people we hate. In any event, this theology makes it easier for us to adopt accusatory, judgmental, and harsh attitudes. Implicit in this theology is a conviction that sin defines reality. We see so much conflict and suffering that this seems a reasonable perspective. I think the Garden of Eden story, if understood metaphorically and anthropologically, offers insight into the origin of sin as well as God’s intentions for Creation. In other words, I regard the Garden of Eden story as true, but not literally true. Just as we describe complicated things to children with stories and metaphors that they can understand, the Garden of Eden describes creation with stories and metaphors that the ancient Hebrews could comprehend.

Looking at the Garden of Eden story metaphorically and anthropologically, we may regard God as lovingly creating the world, and sin arising when humans became self-conscious, symbolic creatures. Pre-humans competed for food and mates, but they had no anger, bitterness, resentment, or desire for vengeance if they lost. Their desires were immediate and material (like food and sex), not symbolic (like self-esteem and sense of meaning). Anger and frustration at not getting material objects of desire ends when the material object is gone; anger and frustration regarding symbolic objects of desire persist indefinitely.

Metaphorically, the Garden of Eden describes pre-human existence – they did not see themselves as apart from nature or even apart from each other. Even though there was suffering and death, they did not perceive evil, because they lacked the capacity to empathize (an activity that requires abstract thinking)*. They did not even have individual selves, because the self is an abstract, mental construct. What exists is the universe. As the human mind developed, it conceptually broke up the universe into discrete parts, including the “self.” The symbolic human mind started to configure human desires in symbolic terms, particularly self-esteem. Now, competition for objects of desire caused long-standing bitterness and cravings for revenge, rather than brief frustration. Mentally, humans no longer lived in the Garden of Eden; they lived in a world in which God’s showing favor for Abel embittered Cain, generated a desire for vengeance, and led to murder.

Another way to look at this is that self-consciousness brought the capacity to think in terms of good and evil, which had previously been the exclusive province of God. Humans now saw themselves not as embedded in nature but as distinct entities, discerning some things as “good” and other things as “evil.” They defined good and evil in terms of how things affected their well-being. Consequently, humans no longer related to God and God’s creation as in harmonious balance; instead, human self-consciousness and symbolic representation made it impossible to live in the metaphoric Garden of Eden. By analogy, the infant does not separate herself from her mother and her mother’s breast. As she gains self-consciousness, she rebels against restrictions on her desires, angry because her sense of entitlement (a symbolic concept) has been violated. Thus, we have the “terrible twos.”

Once humans see the world in terms of good and evil, humans readily lapse into the accusatory mode, accusing what they don’t like as “evil.” They justify their accusations by projecting the accusatory mode onto their god or their gods. They come to believe that the only way to thrive as individuals and as communities is to root out and destroy the “evil” in their midst. Consequently, as long as people live in the accusatory mode rather than the forgiving mode, they cannot enjoy the harmonious existence of the Garden of Eden. However, another way to live – the way Jesus taught – is to forgive each other, reflecting God’s love for God’s Creation. The Hebrew Scriptures also expressed this message, though not as consistently, for example when Joseph forgave his brothers and Esau forgave Jacob, paving the way for familial reunification.

Satan is often called the accuser. The way satanic forces breed discord is by encouraging people to accuse others of sin. This prompts counter-accusations, escalating hostilities and, eventually, violence. In contrast, Jesus taught forgiveness, which naturally flows from love and is essential for reconciliation. Next week, we will begin a series of essays looking at love.

* There is scientific evidence of empathy in some other animals, which is one basis for granting legal “personhood” to certain animals.

Part 76: Love, part 1: God is Love

John the Evangelist wrote, “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) If God is love, then God is not hate and God does not endorse cruelty, callousness, heartlessness, or vengeance. Indeed, John wrote, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

John recognized that, without love, we fall into bitter rivalries that lead, eventually, to violence and death. He wrote, “Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. . . Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:14b-15, 18) John noted that words alone are meaningless; love is about action. This is similar to Jesus’ comment, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) Therefore, while many people say they “love animals,” truly showing love means helping animals in need and doing one’s best to not contribute to their misery.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus taught that God wants us to love: “a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, ‘Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? How do you read?’ And he answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have answered right; do this, and you will live.’” (Luke 10:25-28) Note that the first part is to love God totally, and then to love your neighbor as yourself. If one dedicates oneself totally to God, one will naturally love God’s Creation, which includes fellow humans, God’s animals, and God’s physical world in which we live.

In this passage, the lawyer then asks who is one’s neighbor, and Jesus replies with the parable of the Good Samaritan. An important point here, and in many other passages, is that the Bible describes love in terms of action. This differs from the commonplace notion that love is about feelings. Showing love, rather than just claiming to love, is how we discern true prophets from false prophets. Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15-16a) In other words, by works can one discern true prophets of God from false prophets who claim God’s inspiration but actually serve themselves. Indeed, John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar” (1 John 4:20).

The Gospels describe only one commandment from Jesus’ mouth: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35-36)

The Apostle Paul recognized the centrality of love in Jesus’ teaching: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Romans 13:8-9) Similarly, Paul wrote, “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:14) I think that it is notable that the law was given to the Hebrews as an act of love from God, and the Hebrews were called to follow the Law to express their love for God. The Apostle Paul did not condemn the Law. Rather, he summarized the Law as Jesus had done: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Next week, we will look at Jesus’ forgiving Peter as an example of love-in-action.

Part 77: Love, part 2: Jesus’ Forgiving Peter

Our faith teaches that we are all children of God, and there is no reason to regard our own needs as more important that those of anyone else. However, we are born as egocentric individuals who feel entitled to what we desire. We naturally desire what other people desire; in other words, our desires are mimetic. Because of mimetic desires, we find ourselves in conflict with rivals for scarce objects. However, if we loved our neighbor as ourselves, then we would desire for them as much as we desire for ourselves, and the rivalry would dissolve.

As an example of love in action, consider Jesus’ encounter with Peter after the Resurrection. Three times, Jesus asked Peter if Peter loved him, paralleling the three times that Peter had earlier denied Jesus. The first two times that Jesus queried Peter, Jesus used the Greek word agape, which describes total, emphatic, unconditional love. The first two times, Peter replied affirmatively, but in the Gospel According to John, Peter used the Greek term philio, which communicates a more constricted concept of brotherly love. The third time, Jesus used the term philio, indicating that he loved and forgave Peter so much that he was even willing to accept Peter’s understanding of what love is about.

Though Peter was exasperated by Jesus asking three times, this allowed Peter to undo his earlier denial of Jesus three times. Therefore, Jesus’ repeated query was an act of love and forgiveness. Once Peter had accepted Christ’s forgiveness, he was prepared to be transformed. He could acknowledge his past sins, because he knew that they were forgiven. Importantly, he could forgive those who sinned against him, because he recognized that he, too, had been a sinner. He was now equipped to be a true disciple of Jesus’ ministry of love, to follow Jesus’ instruction “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) Previously, he could believe that he was so devoted that he would never betray Jesus. He had denied that he would ever abandon Jesus (Matthew 26:35; Mark 14:31), yet he did just that in Jesus’ hour of need. Peter learned that, like all of us, he participated in the crucifixion of Christ, and we do likewise since Jesus said, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Peter was repentant, and therefore he was able to receive Christ’s forgiveness. Similarly, if we approach God with repentance, we may be able to receive God’s unconditional forgiveness.

Another aspect of this story* relevant to the Christian Vegetarian Association is that Jesus, referring to the fish, asked Peter, “do you love me more than these?” (John 21:15) When Peter affirmed his love, Jesus replied, “Feed my lambs.” We may recall that Peter had been a fisherman before been called by Jesus to become a “fisher of men.” In John 21, Jesus once again asked Peter whether he preferred to catch fish or to be a disciple. In the larger context of this series, I think it is reasonable to consider that Jesus had called Peter away from the harmful and destructive activity of fishing toward a ministry that involved reconciliation of all God’s Creation. Though Jesus assisted in catching the fish, he needed fish to make his point.

Next week, we will look at John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

* I thank Frank Hoffman for this observation.

Part 78: Love, part 3: For God So Loved the World

When we love someone, we give them freedom, even if we don’t approve of all their choices. Similarly, God’s love involves allowing people to behave in harmful ways. However, I think that following Christ encourages us to resist the temptation to respond to violence with violence. Indeed, Jesus said, “Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39b)

John wrote, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) God would suffer with Jesus on the Cross, just as God suffers with any suffering part of Creation. But, God so loved the world that God chose to experience suffering in order to reveal the “sin of the world,” which had been “hidden since the foundation of the world.”

I think it is remarkable that John said, “For God so loved the world.” Jesus came to save all Creation, not just humans. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Romans 8:19). I think animal sacrifices were a tragic but necessary step in human evolution from human sacrifices to a nonsacrificial world in which all creatures live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9) (See parts 19, 20). Why didn’t God use violence to stop the sacrifices? Striking a few priests dead would have sent a clear message. However, such an approach would not have been loving, because it would have denied human freedom. Also, it would have been unfair, because the scapegoating mechanism is hidden and consequently those who kill largely “know not what they do.” In addition, it would have been only a temporary solution to a chronic problem, because people would have persisted in a sacrificial mentality and concluded that the priests had been killed because they did the sacrifices incorrectly. The only nonviolent, loving way to stop the endless cycle of scapegoating violence was to reveal it as a scandal.

Jesus offered one new commandment, and it was about love: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13) Since Jesus loved all Creation, he was willing to lay down his life for the world and, by doing so, he exposed the scapegoating mechanism. This had two implications. First, people would much more readily recognize when they were engaging in scapegoating. Second, they would know that God does not want us to participate in scapegoating. Loving each other is a way to show love for God, as Jesus said, “to love him [God] with a whole heart and a whole mind and a whole strength and to love the neighbor as oneself is more than holocausts and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:32-33) This, I think, is why Jesus said, “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)

Next week, we will explore different kinds of love.

Part 79 Love, part 4: Human Love Versus Divine Love

Rene Girard began his career in comparative literature, and he sought to determine what makes some novels “classics” and while others enjoyed only brief popularity. He found that “classic” novels offered more profound insight into the nature of desire. Many novels focus on love. Girard noted that, in popular romance novels, people are often attracted to each other because they each have wonderful qualities. In contrast, “classic” novels often describe desire as “mimetic,” that is, the characters derive their desires from regarding what other people seem to desire. So, when it comes to love, “classic” novels often portray desire for a specific object of love as inspired by other people. According to mimetic theory, cultural factors determine the specific attributes that people come to regard as attractive. For example, depending on the culture, attributes relating to body shape, skin color, kindness, aggressiveness, etc. may or may not be seen as attractive and desirable.

Popular novels frequently portray love in “romantic” terms, that is, characters love each other because they are attracted to the others’ good qualities. Girard has argued that people like to think of “pure” love in such romantic terms, partly because they like to think that their own affections are based on the attributes of the beloved. However, novels that characterize love in such “romantic” terms rarely become classics. “Great,” classic novels describe human relationships in ways that strike people as more true and accurate. When it comes to love, intuitively people have recognized that the desirability of an object of love is grounded not in the love object’s actual attributes (romantic desire), but in the fact that others (for whatever reason) desire that person (mimetic desire).

A common theme in classic novels (and classic movies) is that those seeking the loved person’s affections fall into rivalry with each other, and frequently the stories’ conflicts involve the rivalry(ies). In novels in which love is a major theme, there are almost always obstacles. In classic novels, mimetic rivalries generate the obstacles. In contrast, the obstacles in romantic novels typically involve rigid cultural barriers or people who, for no obvious reason, are evil. Frequently, the obstacles to love in classic novels are inevitable consequences of human nature. In romantic novels, the author often erects obstacles in order to generate interest, but the obstacles are not inevitable consequences of romantic desire. Classic novels often end with the death or banishment of one or more protagonists; otherwise, the conflict and rivalry would persist and the novel would seem to lack a proper “ending.” In romantic novels, a peaceful ending sometimes involves death, but it may result from clarification of misunderstandings or a willingness of a character to accept the tragic fate of living without the object of love.

Why is this important? If love were romantic (i.e., were grounded in romantic desire rather than mimetic desire), then it would not necessarily cause conflict. However, if the classic novels are correct, and I think their lasting power is testimony to their accuracy about human desires and relationships, then love is typically generated by mimetic desire, and therefore it invariably leads to conflict and violence.

If the love humans typically experience generates conflict and violence, what kind of love does God desire? I think God desires “agape” love, which is what Jesus manifested. It accords with God’s desire for peace and harmony throughout Creation. Agape love is complete, unconditional love. It is grounded in neither the specific attributes of the beloved nor others’ desires. While the mediator of mimetic desire for an object of love is one or more people, the mediator of agape love is the creator/God. Regardless of the loved person’s faults, God loves that person. Consequently, in agape love, one’s love for another is grounded in one’s love for God. Since God cannot be our rival, God’s love for a person does not generate envy, resentment, or hostility. Next week, we will explore the implications of agape love for committed relationships.

80: Love, part 5: Committed Relationships

As discussed in the previous essay, if love is grounded in mimetic desire, it tends generate envy, rivalry, and resentment between models/rivals, which can result in violence. In addition, relationships grounded in mimetic desire are often troubled. In the troubling novelette Kreutzer Sonata, Leo Tolstoy shows the pitfalls of such love. Once the initial excitement of “falling in love” wears off, resentments build. The excitement and sense of self-esteem that accompanies “winning” the affection of a “desirable” object of love invariably wanes, and differing goals and priorities cause discord. Once the object of love is won, there is no further benefit to self-esteem. Indeed, as the object of love ages and becomes less and less a source of mimetic desire, one may find oneself inclined to seek sexual conquests among those deemed more “desirable” by one’s peers.

Since love generated by mimetic desire is related to self-esteem, it is difficult for such love to last. Frequently, person A finds B attractive in part because B expresses affection for A, and vice-versa. This raises mutual self-esteem, but it is a tenuous situation. For one thing, in the initial passion of love, one may be blind to the other’s faults, which become unavoidably obvious eventually. As A comes to recognize B’s faults, in terms of self-esteem, B’s high regard for A becomes less satisfying for A. Furthermore, as A realizes that B knows of A’s faults, A’s regard for B’s opinion will wane if B continues to express unqualified admiration. However, at the same time, there remains a part of A that wishes B would continue to have unqualified admiration for A. Put another way, love grounded in mimetic desire, spurred by a quest for self-esteem, can’t be satisfied. In long-term relationships, mimetic desire encourages people to want two incompatible things: They want unqualified admiration from someone they respect, but can’t respect someone who knows their faults and yet continues to express unqualified admiration.

On the other hand, if we see God as the mediator of committed relationships, it is much easier to keep the promise to love and cherish this person “in sickness and health, until death do us part.” One’s primary commitment, then, is to God. In other words, even though a life partner has faults, and even though a life partner may annoy, irritate, or even offend us, we are called to love and honor that person, because we are committed to them through a divinely ordained relationship.

Ultimately, then, love rests on faith in a God who loves Creation and ordains our relationships. Next week, we will begin to explore the nature of that faith.

81: The Faith of Christ

Some Christians believe that, above all else, Christians must have faith in Christ. In other words, faith, not works, justifies us in the eyes of God. This view largely derives from reading Romans 3:21-22 as follows: “But now, the righteousness of God has been disclosed apart from the law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” However, the phrase “faith in Christ” could also be translated as “faith of Christ,” with profound theological implications.

The Greek phrase here is pisteos Christou (also used in Romans 3:26; Gal 2:16, 3:22; Phil 3:9), which is the genitive (possessive) construction. It could be translated as either “faith in Christ” or “faith of Christ,” and the latter is the more typical meaning. For example, in Romans 4:16, Paul used the genitive construction to describe the faith of Abraham. Obviously, he meant the faith of Abraham rather than faith in Abraham, since the Hebrews did not regard Abraham as a God. When Paul clearly wished to communicate “in,” he used the Greek work en. Two exceptions, of sorts, are Ephesians 1:15 and Colossians 1:4, where en is used for “faith in Christ,” but neither passage states that faith in Christ is essential for justification. Further, scholars have doubts about Paul’s authorship of these two epistles. Therefore, it appears inaccurate to translate the genitive pisteos Christou as faith in Christ, as many translators have done in Romans 3:22 and 3:26, Galatians 2:16 and 3:22, and Philippians 3:9. A difficulty is that translators, in trying to determine what particular passages mean, invariably impose their own theology and values on the text. Even with the best of intentions, translators can misrepresent a writer’s intent, and I think the theology that equates of Jesus with God has prompted translators (perhaps mistakenly) to translate pisteos Christou as “faith in Christ.”*

Why is this important? For one thing, it seems to denigrate the importance of works, because it seems to hold that faith alone justifies us. However, on closer inspection, it does not fully dismiss the value of works; instead, justification requires only one work –having faith in Christ. People may think that this is relatively simple and easy, but it can be exceptionally hard for those who have experienced great loss or other kinds of suffering. On the other hand, our experiencing the faith of Christ happens by grace. We know from Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, that the faith of Christ involves love, compassion, and caring. When this faith abides in us, we may find it soothing and/or empowering. However, if we cannot experience that faith we are not bad, evil, or unjustified in God’s eyes. I don’t think that God’s love for people depends on their performing the task of believing in Christ.

The Holy Spirit saves us by commuting the faith of Christ to us. We become new creations in Christ, and our works reflect Christ’s faith in us. Therefore, the Apostle Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17) Though we are not saved by works per se, our loving, compassionate works reflect Christ’s faith in a loving God, which dwells in us. Jesus said, “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

Another important implication is that faith is not just an individual choice or event. It is a communal event, which is why we need the church to strengthen our faith. At the Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out on everyone present, creating the church. So, while the vicissitudes of life may strengthen or weaken our own, individual faith in Christ, our church community is always there to support us by virtue of its collective expression of the faith of Christ. We may not always have the faith that Jesus manifested when he surrendered himself to his destiny on the Cross, but the faith of Christ is available to us through the work of the Holy Spirit in us individually and collectively. Indeed, when we manifest the faith of Christ in our works, we make it easier for other people to receive that faith, which helps them cope with difficult situations and encourages them to perform works of love that help others.

This is one reason that the Christian Vegetarian Association is an important ministry. Many of us despair over the terrible plight of so many of God’s creatures. However, as a community, we can become empowered by the faith of Christ to believe in God’s love and to believe that our struggles, however vain they may sometimes appear, glorify God and, in the final analysis, matter.

* I do hold that Christ is divine. I think Paul was asserting a more subtle and profound point than Christ’s divinity in describing the faith of Christ.

82: Guided by the Faith of Christ

The Bible teaches that Jesus showed perfect obedience to God, reflecting God’s love throughout his life and not resisting his divinely ordained destiny to suffer and die on the Cross. Jesus instructed his disciples to “follow me,” and when we become disciples of Christ we too are charged to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) In order for us to be perfect, we need a human model to emulate. We are inherently mimetic creatures, and we have no choice other than to model ourselves on others. However, humankind’s mistake, from the beginning of human civilization, has been to model our desires upon the desires of fellow humans. Being Christian involves, among other things, having Christ as our model, because Jesus modeled his life on God’s desires. This is why Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these.” (John 5:19-20)

The Apostle Paul understood well the importance of modeling our desires on Christ. Paul told the Philippians, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus.” (2:3-5) Jesus sought only to serve God. The “mind … in Christ Jesus” focuses on God’s desires, and our minds should do likewise. With Jesus as our model, we have the tools to accomplish this. This is what Girard called “good mimesis,” because it promotes love and compassion. In contrast, “bad mimesis” involves deriving our desires from other people, and it results in conflict, rivalries, resentments, and, eventually, violence.

Paul wrote, “… though he [Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” (2:6-8) We are called to be humble and to serve, not be served. Jesus dramatized this by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:5-11), and then he instructed his disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” (13-16)

It turns out that service to God can enhance self-esteem, because we are aligning ourselves with our Creator. When we assess our self-worth by comparing ourselves to our peers, we constantly struggle to succeed over and against them in an ongoing contest that never ends. In this human world of rivalry and conflict, one can never have enough money, power, or prestige. In contrast, by serving God, we gain a sense of self-worth that has no relationship to our standing among fellow humans.

God created us in God’s likeness so that we might be good stewards of Creation. Before Jesus, the Jews need the Law as an external motivation. With Jesus, the law may be written onto our hearts. We are to model Jesus’ faithfulness to God, and if, by grace, we gain similar faith, we will recognize that we are loved by God. Jesus said “you will know them by their fruits,” (Matthew 7:16) and, if we have gained the grace of faith, we will gladly serve God with acts of kindness and compassion towards God’s Creation. Next week, we will further explore the implications of having the faith of Christ.

Part 83: Faith and the Bible

Christian tradition includes the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creek, which are statements of faith. Both were written in the fourth century after there was an organized structure to the Church, which needed to refute heresies. Earlier, faith was solely a matter of experience. The Disciples, who had earlier abandoned Jesus, had an experience at the Pentecost that inspired them to spread the Gospel. The first Christians heard stories about Jesus, and the experience changed their lives. In today’s world, experiences continue to be an important part of Christian faith, because it is only by our senses that we can receive the revelation of God that transforms us. Indeed, we have received the same stories as the first Christians, and these have the potential to similarly transform our lives. Belief that God has worked through Jesus Christ and that God continues to work through the Holy Spirit means that we profess a faith in divine action within the world, the same divine action revealed in the Bible’s stories.

There are people, however, who find the Bible not an inspiration but rather a stumbling block to faith. For example, many conclude that there are numerous inconsistencies and contradictions, and there are stories (e.g., the creation account) that seem to contradict scientific discoveries. For these people, believing in the Bible is tantamount to believing in impossible things. In addition, they are confused by the notion that the Bible is the “word of God,” because words have different meanings to different people and at different points in time. Even if God did “write” the Bible, they posit, the task of discerning God’s mind strikes them as insurmountable. Finally, many readers are troubled by stories that seem to describe God favoring war, mass slaughter, and mistreatment of women, slaves, and animals.

I think that, despite these challenges for some people, the belief that God works within history, a belief that appears to be universal among Christians, can make it possible for them to believe that God’s work did inspire the Bible. On this basis they may regard the Bible as the literal word of God. Then, passages which seem inconsistent with a loving God, taken in the larger context of God's plan made before the beginning of the world for Creation, can be better understood. For example, passages that seem to denigrate women or other people, or that picture violence and destructiveness, can be received as part of the Bible's gradual revelation that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) Therefore, I don’t think the Bible has to be a stumbling block to Christian faith.

One does not need to believe that the Bible’s stories are literally true in order to believe that they are true. Many who doubt the literal truth of the Bible still find its stories profoundly revealing, in the same way that a fictional story can describe important and valid aspects of human experience through fabricated people and events. I think the Bible offers God's truth about human psychology, anthropology, and community; I think those who doubt the Bible’s literal truth can reasonably conclude that the Bible informs us about the will of God. Though, as is often the case, those who hold the Bible as the inerrant word of God and those who receive the Bible as true but not literally true have trouble communicating with each other, this difficulty is not insurmountable. If we focus on Christ as purely loving and forgiving, all Christians, striving to live in love like Christ, have a common ground for living together in a faith community.

Mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, which have been a focus of this series, tell us that humankind has always created communities by the clearly unloving scapegoating of innocent victims. The Bible, however, is profoundly insightful in its stories about community. It teaches us how to generate community, not through violence, but through love. This, I think, defines Christian faith: belief in the power of love, compassion and forgiveness to create community. This is indeed the very experience of the risen Christ! Christ was the last victim and intends that there be no more victims. He died and rose to unite all creation in himself. (Ephesians 1:9-10)

A good example of Christian scapegoating is the Church's sad history of animal mistreatment. The Christian community has generally interpreted certain passages, such as the dominion over creation granted by God to Adam in Genesis 1, as justifying humankind’s exploitation and abuse of animals. Such an interpretation denies the experience of the risen Christ who gave his life in love for all creation. (Colossians 1:20) Certainly when we believe in the statements of our historic creeds and in the Bible’s historical inerrancy we mean to affirm the experiences of Jesus Christ, both on earth and after the Resurrection. Yet these approaches to faith for most Christian individuals and for the Church has been a kind of rote reciting of creeds and Bible verses which has kept us from the Bible's deeper truth about victimization. Any one of our faith practices which has potential to blind us to the reality of victimization, human or animal, also has the potential to deny the risen Christ's experience. All expressions of our faith must be combined with copious prayers for insight into the kind of community God is bringing into being and our part in bringing it.

Next week, we will examine living out one’s faith.

I thank Rev. Linda McDaniel for helpful comments on this essay.

84: Living Out One’s Faith

On the road to Damascus, Jesus did not say to Saul, “Saul, Saul, why don’t you believe in me?” Jesus said, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Saul had been blind to his participating in the scapegoating mechanism. He had believed that stoning Stephen had been a righteous act under the Law, even though the bible describes Stephen’s innocence and holiness. His experience with the resurrected Jesus left him literally blind. When we can see, we readily mimic the values and beliefs of those around us. Unable to see, Saul could search inside his own mind and start to recognize how he had participated in unjust scapegoating violence. This totally transformed him such that even his name changed.

What we need is the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16; Phil 2:5), which I think is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Having the mind of Christ requires a total transformation from the universal human tendency to express fear and hatred in the form of scapegoating violence to seeing the world with love and forgiveness. As discussed in essays 67 & 68, I think this is what being born again is about. Paul, inspired by the mind of Christ, went on to spread the Gospel far and wide among the Gentiles. Christians are called to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19; see also Mark 13:10, Luke 24:37).

Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5-6) We need the mind of Christ to avoid falling into the temptation to participate in “righteous” violence. Without Christ, our lives become meaningless struggles until we inevitably die. Without Christ, our lives tend to focus on petty rivalries and, sometimes, major conflicts, none of which bring us closer to God.

Many of those who claim to be “saved” continue to lead destructive lives. When describing how to distinguish true prophets from false prophets, Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16) In other words, we should make our determinations about who to follow based on the fruits of their activities. Similarly, Jesus told his disciples: “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” (John 15:8) Shortly afterward, Jesus clarified, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) As discussed in previous essays, love is much more than feeling kindly towards someone – love motivates us to act.

Witnessing for Christ against victimization will be inconvenient, challenging, and risky. We will be called to renounce foods that we once enjoyed; we may be called to struggle socially and financially; and we will find ourselves ostracized or even persecuted. Through the grace of God, each of us has the capacity to receive Christ's experience of God’s love for humans and animals – if we allow ourselves to experience it.

Part 85: “There Is Neither Jew Nor Greek” (Gal 3:28)

The human way of relationships is to establish a broad range of boundaries defined by gender, family, clan, and nation. In Acts 10, Peter learned in a dream that these are human, not divine distinctions (10-29). Peter had been taught not to eat with Gentiles, but upon reflecting on his dream, he concluded, “God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” (Acts 10:28) The old sacred order was based on exclusion, which has its roots in the violence of the sacrificial mechanism. The new sacred order heralded by Christ is nonviolent and devoid of scapegoating victims.

James Allison has written, “Every local culture builds frontiers by means of victims; it is only if we begin from the forgiving victim [Jesus Christ, who forgave those who abandoned him] that we can build a culture which has no frontiers – we no longer have to build any order, security, or identity over against some excluded person.” This is the critically important lesson that Acts 10 teaches. I find it astounding and disappointing that, despite the clarity of the message, Christians have a long and tragic history of violence against excluded persons or groups. Furthermore, many Christians have received this passage as only communicating that we may eat animal flesh. Although Peter dreamt that no food is inherently unclean, the biblical account then relates that Peter did not understand what the dream meant (Acts 10:17). Peter concluded that the point of the dream was that Peter should eat with Gentiles. He did not conclude that killing and eating animals raises no ethical issues.

The Apostle Paul emphasized that Jesus sought to eliminate the boundaries that keep us from loving each other: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) What about the distinction between humans and nonhumans? Are humans and nonhumans “one in Christ Jesus”? I think in one sense the answer is yes and in another it is no. In one sense, animals join humans as part of Creation, which God loves. The covenant to not flood the earth was given to all creatures, and Paul’s letter to the Romans notes “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (8:22). However, only humans are created in the image of God, which gives humans special responsibilities. Adam was instructed to till and keep the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:15), and it follows that his descendents should similarly care for God’s Creation.

Next week, we will further explore Romans 8 and the means by which the “sons of God” will save the world.

Part 86: Romans 8:18-26: The Creation Waits with Eager Longing

Paul wrote to the Romans, “I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.” (8:18-19) The sons of God are the disciples who have dedicated themselves to reflect God’s love, and they will therefore bring peace and harmony to all creation. This accords with Matthew 5:9, in which Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

Paul wrote, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (8:22), reminding readers, first, that animals share in humankind’s misery as a consequence of the state of affairs and, second, that God cares about the suffering of all of Creation. Paul continued, “and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes with us with sighs too deep for words.” (23-26) My interpretation is that Paul has told the Roman church that it takes great faith, for which the Spirit provides assistance, to endure the travails of the time. However, all who are disciples of Christ may become peacemaking sons of God, who assist God in reconciling Creation to God’s original intentions, which were to have peace and harmony among all God’s creatures.

We live in challenging times, but Jesus provided grounds for hope. He said, “if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26; see also Mark 3:26, Luke 11:18). The next essays will explore the nature and fate of Satan.

Part 87: Satan, part 1

After rejecting Satan’s “Three Temptations” (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13) Jesus cited Scripture to Satan: “You shall worship the Lord your God.” This passage identifies only the Lord as God, in which case Satan is not a God. Yet Satan has a prominent role in the Gospels. While understanding the nature of Satan is unlikely to tell us much about God, it will likely yield insights into human culture and human relationships.

Rev. Paul Nuechterlein has asserted ( that we should try to understand Satan anthropologically (i.e., in terms of human culture); otherwise, we will gravitate towards one of two dangerous tendencies.1 One is Manichaeism, which envisions the world gripped between two warring forces, one good and one evil, which fight for pre-eminence. Manichaeism encourages scapegoating violence, because a Manichaean worldview, encourages us to project our own anger, hatred, prejudices, and other malevolent sentiments onto other people, and then justify our violence against them on the grounds that we are fighting against the world’s “evil” and “satanic” forces.

The other mistake is to project violence and hatred onto God. This, Nuechterlein has argued, is a form of idolatry, in which people worship not the God of love but rather a human-made God who is angry, violent, and dark. Therefore, to understand Satan in terms of human culture involves explaining violence and destructiveness not as divine attributes but as consequences of human fallenness.

Part 88: Satan, part 2: “Get behind me Satan” (Mt: 16:21-23)

A central theme in Mark’s Gospel is that the Disciples had great difficulty understanding Jesus’ message. They repeatedly fell into mimetic rivalries with each other, and consequently they had difficulty appreciating that God wants us to reflect God’s love. The Disciples expected Jesus to become glorified and powerful, and they eagerly anticipated gaining power and prestige as Jesus’ closest associates. Mark reads, “And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter, and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.’” (Mark 8:31-33)

Jesus knew his destiny. Only by allowing himself to be rejected, killed, and raised could Jesus reveal the scandal of “sacred” violence and give humankind a chance to reject the satanic tendency to scapegoat the innocent. Peter, however, had different ideas, hoping to gain power and glory as Jesus ascended to power. Peter’s acquisitive, mimetic desire was derived from seeing what other people want. Such acquisitive desires are satanic, because they invariably lead to destructive mimetic rivalries. Indeed, Satan had previously tempted Jesus with these same acquisitive desires, and Jesus had rejected the temptations, telling Satan, “You shall worship the Lord your God.”

Regarding human acquisitive desire as a universal human attribute rather than blaming them on an external individual means Satan has lost transcendence. Therefore, Jesus said, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). At best, Satan can tempt us; Satan has no control over humans. When we lose faith in Satan’s power, we are less inclined to accede to satanic desires.

89: Who or What Is Satan?

As discussed in the previous essays, the Bible’s treatment of Satan encourages an anthropologic explanation, which Girardian mimetic theory offers. Mimetic theory posits that satanic forces are within all of us, reflecting our fallen state.

The Bible has several passages that seem to describe Satan a spiritual being, but not as a human, and trying to understand Satan in human terms is very difficult. Many people regard Satan as wanting to create discord for no evident reason. Such a desire is incomprehensible to me. We see humans doing hurtful things all the time, but rarely, if ever, do they merely want to harm. While their actions may be harmful or destructive, it appears that generally their principal motivation is to meet their own “needs,” to assist members a group with whom they identify, or to defend an ideology. Proverbs 21:2 reads, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” We always think we are doing the right thing, even if others disagree strongly. Therefore, I for one am unable to imagine a person who does evil for the sake of evil. Such a creature is a monster, so different from my experience that I cannot understand it.

Many Christians envision Satan as trying to influence other people. It is not clear how Satan does this, and the ambiguity is fertile ground for all sorts of human mischief. Repeatedly, people have accused others of being “gripped” or “controlled” by Satan. The only reasonable approach, it has seemed, is to scapegoat such a person – to banish or kill them. All religions have blamed scapegoats for the community’s destructive desires, claiming that the scapegoats are “possessed” by demons or the devil (Satan). They have projected everyone’s “satanic” fears and hatreds onto scapegoats.

Whether or not Satan is a real being, we all have satanic desires that separate us from God. Our satanic nature includes selfish, acquisitive desires that engender destructive rivalries with friends and family members and encourages us to harm God’s animals and God’s earth. Our satanic nature also prompts us to blame other people for our own failings, reflecting our tendency to derive our sense of self-esteem not by our relationship with God but by how we compare to others. Our satanic nature inspires us to deceive ourselves into believing that our selfish, destructive desires are actually good because they are God’s will.

There is a tension between our natural desires to be loving, compassionate, and constructive, and our natural desires to be egocentric, self-serving, and (if necessary) destructive. When we blame human destructive desires on a non-human person named Satan, rather than recognize them as universal and constitutive of what it means to be human, then we will tend to fail to recognize our own satanic nature and we will tend to destroy others whom we identify as “Satan.”

Next week, we will consider how our evil, satanic desires encourage us to accuse other people and trick us into believing that these accusations come from God.

90: Satan the Accuser and the Trickster

Last week, I discussed how satanic desires are universal. In this essay, consistent with biblical descriptions, I will refer to “Satan” as if Satan were a spiritual being, keeping in mind that some Christians regard “Satan” as that part of human nature that separates us from God.

The Bible repeatedly describes God choosing people to be prophets and/or disciples. Meanwhile, Satan’s attributes include being an accuser and a trickster. Satan’s most effective trick is to make people believe that Satan the accuser is God the chooser. Satan accomplishes this by dividing the world into good and evil. Our satanic tendency, then, is to accuse other people of being evil, which makes us feel as if we have been chosen by God. How does this happen? We humans have a strong tendency to believe that God has chosen us to serve God by accusing and punishing people. We can become convinced about this because we have come together as a community by God, who has ordained our accusing (and scapegoating) one or a few people. The collective belief that our accusation is God’s will reinforces our conviction.

The truth, however, is the opposite. Accusation characterizes Satan, not God. God chooses people without accusing anyone else. When we accuse each other, we try to shame each other. What is the consequence of shame? Addiction. When shamed, we compulsively respond either of two ways: self-destructive addictions that confirm our sense of shame, or compulsive attempts at perfection, which attempt to deny our shame. In the latter scenario, the attempts of perfection typically involve efforts to accuse (shame) other people, in order to shift the shame onto other people.

Jesus described satanic behavior when he responded to those who accused him, “Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and he has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:43-44) Humans have been captivated by the allure of satanic desires from the foundation of human civilization, and they have remained so ever since.

How do we break the endless cycle of lies, violence, and death? The Christian solution is to be reborn in Christ, recognizing that God sends the Holy Spirit as a manifestation of God’s love. We receive the Holy Spirit by grace, not because we deserve it. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, we may establish new relationships based on love, rather than defined by mimetic rivalries. This helps makes sense of Jesus’ comment, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Those who perceived themselves righteous were not ready for Jesus’ call. They believed that they were already chosen, and they did not recognize their need for rebirth. Those who had heard the cock crow and recognized their past sinfulness were ready to receive Jesus’ redemptive love and forgiveness.

Satan the trickster would ultimately claim Jesus’ life. The mob would accuse Jesus, thinking that Jesus was evil and they were righteous. While tragic for Jesus, this was the only way to reveal Satan’s trick without playing Satan’s game of accusation and killing. In last week’s essay, we explored the story in which Jesus rebuked Peter after Peter objected to Jesus’ destiny. Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men.” (Mark 8:33) Peter had expected Jesus to become a Messiah who would reward good people and condemn evil people. However, such a role requires accusation, which always involves scapegoating. Unless Jesus were to condemn everyone (since Romans 3:12 reads, “no one is good, not even one”) Jesus’ followers would invariably project their own sins onto other people, in order to absolve themselves.

Now, let us revisit one of the Bible’s best-known passages, John 3:16-17: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” The true God is not the accuser who condemns but rather one who chooses. And, who does God wish to save? The entire world – not a select group of people and, I would further maintain, not just humans.

Let’s look further into how this relates to animal issues. We are right to denounce animal abuse as evil. However, when we accuse animal abusers as evil, we are playing the satanic game of elevating ourselves and feeling chosen by accusing others. We have been chosen, not to accuse anyone, but to expose cruelty in all its forms (human and animal) as immoral and an affront to God’s love and goodness. We should not seek revenge or punishment, which will only incite mimetic accusation and violence. We should work to eliminate cruelty, and our activism should involve moral persuasion and, if necessary, laws to protect those who are unable to defend themselves.

Part 91. Satanic Desire

Recall (see essay #2) that humans are mimetic creatures. We learn all our social skills, including language, by mimicking other people. Mimesis is not inherently bad; it’s the means by which we become human, social beings. However, nearly all people display acquisitive mimesis, which mimetic theory tells us leads to rivalries, resentments, and violence. Where did humankind go wrong?

The Bible describes how Adam and Eve were initially in dialogue with God. God was their model, and since God is perfectly loving and not acquisitive, there should have been no rivalry between them. God lovingly offered them paradise, and their only charge was to mimic God’s love for Creation by lovingly caring for the Garden. Unfortunately, they fell into acquisitive desire when they listened to the serpent, who tempted them to eat the forbidden fruit. Adam regarded what Eve was eating, and due to acquisitive mimetic desire he wanted to eat the fruit. Their disobedience fractured their relationship with God, because they had become rivals with God for power and control. Then, Adam tried to blame Eve (and God for giving him Eve), and Eve blamed the serpent. Acquisitive mimetic desire (i.e., wanting what other people want because the other people want it) invariably leads conflict and accusation, which eventually leads to murder. This was the tragedy of Cain and Abel. (See essays 9 & 10.)

Acquisitive mimetic desire, then, is satanic, and it inevitably leads to violence. While our acquisitive desires are actually mimetic, we like to think that we want things because of their inherent goodness (romantic desire) rather than as a consequence of slavish mimetic desire of what other people have. (See essay #3.) This makes it difficult for us to recognize our envy. Whenever our acquisitive desires are not satisfied, our self-esteem is hurt and we feel angry. We blame other people for our frustrations, failing to recognize that our own envy often underlies our hostile feelings. Resentments in communities gradually build until a scapegoat is found, who everyone blames for widespread hostile feelings.

How do we stop scapegoating innocent people? The answer is not to eradicate human mimetic desire. Girardian anthropology asserts that humans are created as mimetic creatures. We cannot eliminate mimesis, but we can consciously change the focus of our mimetic desires. When we focus our mimetic desires on what other people want, our desires are acquisitive, divisive, and satanic. When our focus is on God, we have what Girard calls “good mimesis.” Since God is loving and not acquisitive, God does not become our rival when we model God. Therefore, mimesis of God does not engender resentment or hostility.

How can we model God? The Bible offers a wonderful model in Jesus Christ. Choosing to follow Jesus Christ means dying to satanic, acquisitive mimetic desire (which is the kind of desire to which we were born as humans) and being born again, becoming a new creation in Christ. Human nature is to be aggressive and acquisitive, but born again Christians are meek and seek to serve rather than to be served. Jesus said, “the meek shall inherit the earth,” which we will explore next week.

Part 92: “The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”

Jesus must have surprised those who listened to his Sermon on the Mount when he said, “The meek shall inherit the earth.” Everyday experience does not lend credence to this prediction. Indeed, it seems that the advice “if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39) is foolish and invites only more mistreatment.*

After the Fall from the Garden Eden, the logic of violence and domination has prevailed. Being meek has seemed to be a recipe for abuse, which is most readily apparent when we regard the horrors that meek animals experience at the hands of humans. Turning the other cheek has seemed a poor strategy for self-preservation. However, the Bible offers an eschatological (end of time) vision of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which all Creation will live in harmony. Our faith teaches us that the children of God will herald a new creation when everyone (including the animals) will be free from bondage (Romans 8:18-25). Though God will likely play a role in this transformation, humans will be involved. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that the children of God will be peacemakers.

In hope and anticipation of this world of peace and harmony, our decision to “turn the other cheek” is an act of obedience and faith. There is hope for the future, however, because the Bible teaches that the world will one day enjoy peace and the lion will eat straw like the ox (Isaiah 11:7).

Is this faith in eschatological (end of times) justice and peace a reasonable view, or is the instruction to turn the other cheek, as some have claimed, a sinister scheme invented by rulers to help subjugate their people? Fortunately, Jesus did not demand that we adhere to an unreasonable faith. He gave some insight into how turning the other cheek and responding to violence with nonviolence might prevail. One reason the meek shall inherit the earth, Jesus taught, is that Satan invariably destroys himself. We will turn to this next week.

* See Richard B. Hays, “Violence in Defense of Justice,” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (HarperCollins, 1996).

Part 93: Can Satan Cast Out Satan?

The Gospel of Mark reads, “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’ And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.’” (3:22-26)

I think that a Girardian reading of this passage lends some helpful insights. From the foundation of human civilization, people have projected their own anger and hostility onto scapegoats, claimed that those scapegoats were possessed by satanic demons, and then expelled or killed the scapegoats. The scapegoating mob has always believed that their actions were just and the will of God or the gods (the divine). In truth, the human forces that have tried to eradicate Satan from their midst have been satanic. “Satan casting out Satan” describes the scapegoating mechanism. When people call someone Satan, they have assumed the role of Satan the accuser, and invariably they come to participate in scapegoating. Jesus taught that the way of Satan is accusation, while the way of God is forgiveness. Accusation is Satanic because it attempts to absolve the accuser of guilt while simultaneously ascribing too much guilt to the accused. However, forgiveness breaks the cycle of accusation, and it is through forgiveness that Satan falls from heaven like lightning (Luke 10:18), because Satan loses all of his power.

Jesus did not deny that Satan casts out Satan. In the short term, satanic forces can cast out the perceived Satan in a community’s midst. However, Jesus taught that it doesn’t ultimately work, because attempts by Satan to cast out Satan merely divide the house between the satanic forces that scapegoat and the victims of the scapegoating mechanism. People are never fully innocent, given that nobody is without sin. Indeed, as long as the scapegoating mechanism is the glue that holds communities together, the main difference between the victims and the victimizers is who happens to have power at the moment. As long as the scapegoating mechanism pervades human communities, the victims would readily become victimizers, if they could.

While the victims of scapegoating violence are rarely completely innocent, they are never as guilty as perceived by the scapegoating mob. Meanwhile, the mob never recognizes its own satanic desires, because it always attributes its own hate and violence to the divine. Consequently, the peace created by the scapegoating mechanism is always temporary. Invariably, hostilities build up until, once again, Satan attempts to cast out Satan with the scapegoating mechanism. According to René Girard’s anthropologic analysis, this happens perpetually because all cultures are grounded on the scapegoating mechanism (see essays 6 & 7). The only way to break the endless cycle of violence is to develop a new culture grounded in love and forgiveness, which is what Christ offered.

Jesus taught that satanic violence is ultimately self-defeating, because a house divided against itself cannot stand. Scapegoating violence is only a temporary “solution” to the problem of human violence in that it substitutes a small dose of sanctioned, “sacred” violence for the widespread “profane” violence that would otherwise occur. By exposing the scapegoating mechanism as a scandal, Jesus facilitated reconciliation and offered a way to stop the cycle of violence. Inspired by Jesus and, perhaps, assisted by the Holy Spirit, we can refuse to participate in the scapegoating mechanism. If necessary, we may assume the role, like Christ, of the willing and forgiving victim. Whether or not satanic violence is self-defeating, as faithful Christians we should do our best to imitate Christ and participate in the reconciliation of Creation. This includes living prayerfully and peacefully. If we find ourselves victims of the scapegoating mechanism, I think our faith calls us to willingly submit to its powers. If we forcibly resist, the mob will regard our resistance as satanic, and the house will remain divided against itself.

I think this helps explain 1 Peter, which encourages slaves to obey their masters and wives to submit to their husbands. Christians, by their examples of love, should encourage others to reform their hurtful ways. If Christians responded to injustice with violence, they would not help heal a broken world. Tragically, many Christians have applied 1 Peter’s teachings from the perspective of the victimizer, rather than the victim, to justify slavery, mistreatment of women, and other abuses.

Part 94: “It Is Finished”

In the Gospel According to John, Jesus’ last words were “It is finished.” (John 19:30) According to mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, what is finished is the logos (logic) of violence. What replaces it, as we will see, depends on us.

John’s Gospel begins with the Word (Greek Logos) of God, which is the Logos of love. This Logos created the universe and was made flesh in the personage of Jesus Christ. However, humankind was not satisfied to live harmoniously and contentedly in God’s perfect Garden of Eden. Our human nature is mimetic, so the serpent enticed Eve, and then Eve enticed Adam, to be rivals of God by eating the forbidden fruit. Mimetic desire eventually led to violence, which befell Abel. Countering God’s Logos of love is humankind’s Logos of violence.

The Logos of violence, according to mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, is as old as human civilization. The murdered scapegoat is what brings human communities together. Rituals evolved in all primal cultures, recalling the camaraderie that collective violence brings. Most commonly, the seemingly miraculous peace and cohesiveness generated by scapegoating violence encourages the development of myths that convert the scapegoating victim into a god, to whom further sacrifices must be made. All of this may sound speculative, but compelling evidence that scapegoating violence lies at the foundation of human culture is the anthropological observation that all primal cultures either engage in blood sacrifice or have rituals that harken back to such sacrifices.

As previous essays have discussed, Jesus’ life and teachings undermined sacrificial, “sacred” violence. Since he was truly innocent, his sham trial and public execution illustrated the scandal of scapegoating violence. Indeed, those who had witnessed the collective murder went home beating their breasts. (Luke 23:48) The Logos of violence had lost its divine power, though history has shown that scapegoating violence has persisted. What was finished, as a consequence of the Judeo-Christian revelation, was the ability of scapegoating to generate and maintain community. Try as we sometimes might, we can’t help but see things from the victim’s perspective. We hear their cries, recognize their suffering, and realize that they can’t be blamed for their suffering.

This reminds me of the parable of the good shepherd, who endangered the entire flock in order to save the one lost sheep. It was more practical to sacrifice the one sheep than to risk the welfare of the entire flock. Similarly, from a practical standpoint, Caiaphus was correct that “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:50) If we don’t follow Caiaphus’ advice and scapegoat, how can we restore peace in communities divided by mimetic rivalries? The answer is not to try to reject mimetic desire – we are mimetic creatures by nature. The answer is to have God as our model. But God is far away from human experience, which is why we needed the Son to show us how to live according to God’s desires.

Christianity, then, is an incredibly subversive and even dangerous faith. It challenges us to live according to the Logos of love rather than the more socially stabilizing Logos of violence. If scapegoating violence loses much of its power to unite communities, people are left with two choices. One response, which we have tragically seen many times, is to try to compensate with scapegoating on a far grander scale. For example, as an extreme, the Nazis scapegoated and tried to exterminate large groups of people, including Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals. The other choice is to put one’s faith in God and to live compassionately and nonviolently. I will explore this choice further in next essays.

Part 95: The Parakletos – Defender of the Accused, part 1

John 14:15-16 reads, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counselor (Greek: parakletos), to be with you for ever”. According to Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon, the parakletos is the one who defends the accused. Who is the accuser, and who is the accused?

The Bible often describes Satan as the accuser, such as in the Book of Job. According to mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, the mob’s satanic powers accuse an arbitrary victim of responsibility for a crisis, and then they scapegoat the victim. These satanic powers are as old as human civilization; indeed, Girardian mimetic theory asserts that human community was generated by the camaraderie that accompanies mob violence. The accused, then, is the scapegoat, who may not be totally innocent (none of us is totally innocent) but is never nearly as guilty as the mob believes.

Let’s consider the first part of John 14:15. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” According to this analysis, those who love Jesus will follow him in loving God with all their heart, soul, and mind, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. (Mark 12:30-31; Luke 10:27). Such people would not consider participating in scapegoating, and their faith would encourage them to forego violence altogether. Jesus then promised that God would send “another Counselor (parakletos).” I think that Jesus was saying that he was the first counselor. He was the one who defended the accused – those who were sick, poor, widowed, or otherwise disenfranchised – who were the typical victims of scapegoating.

According to this analysis, then, one of Jesus’ principle functions was to serve as the defender of the accused. How does one defend the accused? One approach is to use violence to destroy the accusers, but this merely turns the victimizers into victims and fails to generate peace and harmony. A nonviolent strategy involves showing that the accusers are wrong. In the case of scapegoating, one demonstrates that the accusations are satanic, motivated by a desire to maintain peace and order at the expense of an arbitrary, relatively innocent victim. So, in defending the woman accused of adultery (John chapter 8), Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of the accusers, since they felt free to pass judgment despite being sinful themselves.

Jesus, however, was but one person, and he recognized that future generations, benefiting from the gradual work of the Holy Spirit, would prove effective in defending the accused. Therefore, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (John 14:12)

96: The Parakletos – Defender of the Accused, part 2

John 16:7-11 reads, “…it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor [Greek: parakletos] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convince the world about sin and righteousness and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father, and you will see me no more; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.”

From the perspective of mimetic theory and the scapegoating mechanism, this is a principle function of the parakletos, or Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit works slowly in human communities, assisting their gradual recognition of the scandal of “sacred” violence, i.e., violence done in the name of God which is not God’s will. In many ways, the Holy Spirit can more effectively spread Christ’s message than Jesus himself. Because of the scapegoating mechanism, people always resist prophets. Indeed, they tend to kill the prophets who point out the innocence of the scapegoating victim. Therefore, the subtle assistance of the Counselor may prove more revealing than the actual personage of Jesus.

Jesus said that the Counselor will prove the world wrong about sin, righteousness, and judgment. Regarding sin, the Holy Spirit will reveal that human communities, since the foundation of human civilization, have blamed scapegoats rather than accept responsibility for their own sins. It is not that scapegoats are totally innocent; rather, they are not nearly as guilty as the community believes. If they had believed in Jesus, they would have rejected scapegoating violence.

Regarding righteousness, the Holy Spirit will reveal that the sense of righteousness that always accompanies the scapegoating mechanism is mistaken. The people had wrongly believed that righteousness involved killing an innocent person at the behest of religious authorities. Jesus, judged sinful by the mob, went to the Father. This proved his innocence and therefore proved that the people’s understanding of righteousness (i.e., that God wants “sacred” violence) had been wrong.

Regarding judgment, the Holy Spirit will reveal that God’s judgment is loving and forgiving, not accusatory like the satanic mob. The ruler of our world of violence is Satan (the subject of recent essays), whose temptations Jesus rejected. Accusatory human judgments have always been satanic – people have sacrificed peripheral, expendable members of the community in order to gain communal peace. The revelation of Christ and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit undermine this universal mindset.

Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father.” (John 14:12) Jesus was a single person struggling against strong forces of oppression. With the help of the Holy Spirit awakening concern for victims in society at large, our voices in defense of victims are more readily heard. Consequently, each of us has great potential to “learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression, defend the fatherless, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).

Acting in accord with God’s love and mercy in an expression of faith, to which we will turn next week.

97: Christian Faith

Receiving Christ’s ministry as loving and nonviolent takes profound faith. It is tempting to take an aggressive, acquisitive attitude, hoarding resources as a hedge against life’s vicissitudes, rather than sharing with those in need. In addition, most people, when hit, would prefer to strike back than to offer the other cheek. Christians often try to have it both ways – making modest personal sacrifices that don’t seriously threaten their safety and well-being while avoiding situations that expose them to serious loss or harm. Their faith may prompt them to charity (as much as one is comfortably able) and trying to not be unkind (though feeling entitled to avenge perceived offenses and finding excuses for lifestyle choices that harm other individuals). Jesus’ faithfulness took him all the way to the cross. How many of us are prepared to do that?

Jesus’ faith did not stop at the cross. After the Resurrection, he returned as a forgiving victim rather than the character we so often see in action movies – the avenging victim. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he faithfully expressed God’s love.

However, as discussed previously (see essays 81-84) having faith is a gift of grace, not something God expects of us. Therefore, Jesus criticized Saul (later Paul) for his persecution of Christians, not for his lack of faith in Christ. Paradoxically, much Christianity tends to focus on faith, and many theologians have asserted that faith, rather than works, justifies us. As Rev. Paul Neuchterlein has noted, this theology is actually a revised “works righteousness,” in that one must do the work of believing in Christ. This may sound simple on the surface, but it can be very difficult for those who struggle with life’s challenges.

Neuchterlein has also pointed out that, if believing in Jesus is the main thing about getting to heaven, there is little reason to come to church. Church is important because it is through the collective faith of the church community that people express the “faith of Christ,” supporting and inspiring each other.

James wrote, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (2:17) I think that he meant to communicate that, if our faith fails to inspire us to do works of love, it is a dead faith. Indeed, James further explained, “I by my works will show you my faith” (2:18), and Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16, 20) How we live ultimately demonstrates what we believe. Consequently, what we eat (as well as many other choices we make) reflects what we believe. Next week, we explore Christian faith further.

Part 98: Faith in the Living God

Many people think that the core of Christian faith involves believing that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah predicted by the prophets. I think Rev. James Antal* was correct when he said that faith also involves experiencing oneself as a child of God. We have been taught how to do this by Jesus Christ, who was tempted in every way just like us and showed us how to live reconciled with one another in the absence of scapegoating. Experiencing ourselves as children of God invariably encourages works that reflect one’s reverence for God, the loving parent. How could those who experience themselves as children of God, upon learning about the inherent cruelties of factory farming and upon learning that God takes delight in all God’s creation, continue to eat the products of factory farming simply for taste?

We live in a fallen world of pain, suffering, and death. Clearly, a God who loves the world would not be satisfied with the current state of affairs. This is why Jesus chose to heal an invalid man on the Sabbath, explaining to critics, “My Father is working still, and I am working.” John (5:17) By healing on the Sabbath, Jesus dramatized that the work of Creation was not completed. This, I think, is why Jesus prayed for the coming of God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).

If one has faith in a living, working God, one loses faith in the inevitability of things, which includes both the belief that human progress is impossible (as some despair) and that human progress is inevitable (as defenders of many of our environmentally unsustainable activities, such as factory farming tell us). More to the point of this essay series, faith in a living God eradicates faith in the sacredness of the social order. People have always established boundaries, such as racial, ethnic, and class boundaries, over and against other people (see essays 6 & 7). They have regarded these social strata as sacred – ordained by the divine. However, a living God repeatedly disrupts rigid social boundaries. This is why Jesus repeatedly showed greatest interest in his community’s outcasts – women, people with disabilities, tax collectors, etc. This was indeed scandalous, and Jesus remarked, “blessed is he who takes no offense at me.” (Matthew 11:6) after healing blind, lame, leprous, deaf, and dead people and after preaching to poor people.

The opposite of taking offense is having faith. In order to have faith, one must accept the possibility of offense; otherwise, faith is vacuous. This, I think, was the message encapsulated in the story of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22-28). As a Canaanite, she was despised by the Jews, and after she asked Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus compared her to a dog. She persisted in her request, showing that she was not offended, and Jesus, impressed by her faith, healed her daughter.

We have faith in Christ not because the living Christ is scientifically proven. If it were, it would not be faith. We have faith because, in the face of a world of obvious suffering, decay, and death, we still believe in God’s power to heal and, ultimately, to redeem Creation.

Next week, I will offer further reflections on Christian Faith

* Pastor of Plymouth Church of Shaker Heights (Ohio)

Part 99: Further Reflections on Christian Faith

Many Christians hold that failure to believe in Christ will result in permanent damnation to Hell. This theology holds that a principle motivation for belief is fear of a wrathful God. As discussed in essays 57-59, I think the notion of God as wrathful is mistaken. John wrote, “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). We live among people who are judgmental and wrathful, and we find it difficult not to project such sentiments onto God. Indeed, while Luther emphasized God’s grace, he still believed in the “hidden God” that had dark, wrathful, violent attributes. I think John had a more accurate description of God when he said, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This, as I have argued previously (See essays 12 & 51), is a monotheistic image of God in that it describes God as having one nature. An image of God that involves multiple personal traits has similarities to polytheistic religions, except that such a multi-faceted “monotheistic” God unifies a multitude of personality traits into one personage, while polytheistic religions tend to attribute each of a multitude of personality traits to individual gods.

Does an image of God as loving mean that God does not make judgments? The Bible frequently describes God rewarding some people and condemning others, yet it also describes God’s love for everything that God has created. Indeed, these diverging images of God often divide Christians today. Those who see God as wrathful often feel obliged to participate in God’s wrath, and they often endorse policies that uphold “God’s justice,” even if those policies may strike others as lacking in compassion. Those who regard God as full of love, forgiveness, and grace often favor public policies that reflect compassion for dispossessed individuals and avoid harsh punishment. Consequently, I think these diverging images of God account for how faithful Christians can populate both ends of the political spectrum.

I do not deny that God judges people, but I do not know how God makes those judgments, or what God does with those whom God judges favorably or harshly. The Bible describes many things that God does not want us to do, such as lie, kill, and commit adultery. The Bible clearly shows God caring about our actions, but I do not think it is our place to punish for transgressions. Any punishment that God might desire is the province of God. We may rightly restrict the ability of people to harm others (e.g., imprisonment), but we should regard such restrictions as regrettable and needed for public safety, not righteous vengeance. I think that Jesus taught that our calling is to reflect God’s love and not to judge other people. With our biases, prejudices, and tendency to join the scapegoating mob, we are ill-equipped to determine who deserves punishment. Any punishment, if appropriate, should be left to God.

Those who have the faith of Christ (see the two previous essays) will naturally strive to participate in the redemption of all Creation. Their works will reflect their faith. Therefore, I am convinced that vegetarianism is a natural and obvious expression of Christian faith, given the inherent cruelty, the environmental destructiveness, and the harmful health effects of eating animals. As science teaches us more, our works may more effectively serve God and God’s Creation. I think this is one reason that Jesus was correct in teaching, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” (John 14:12)

It seems to me that, for many Christians, faith means doing whatever it takes to get to Heaven. As Rev. Neuchterlein has written, “If Christianity remains for us primarily about getting to heaven, then we will find ourselves, sooner or later, descending into the Hades of our violence.” The reason is that we will repeatedly find ourselves accusing others of evil in order to feel justified ourselves. We natural feel ourselves and our associates lifted up whenever we condemn other individuals, regarding ourselves as closer to God in comparison to those we condemn. This is human-centered faith; Jesus’ God-centered faith regards God as loving and ready to forgive. True faith, Robert Hamerton-Kelly has noted, involves leaving the accusatory crowd and following Jesus, whose ministry encouraged love, compassion, service, and nonviolence.

How do we know that our faith genuinely reflects the faith of Christ? The theology I have been discussing offers a rather simple answer: We are aligned with Christ when our choices are compassionate and nonviolent.

This discussion begs the question of why there is violence and suffering in the first place. Next week, we will explore why there is evil.

Part 100: The Theodicy Problem: God and Evil

Part 17 (Job) raised the theodicy problem, which has challenged theologians since the time of the ancient Hebrews. At most, only two of the following premises can be true:

  • God is righteous.
  • God is all-powerful.
  • There is injustice.

In other words, if there is injustice in the world, then God cannot be both righteous and all-powerful. Let us briefly consider how theologians have resolved this dilemma.

One approach has been to deny that the world is unjust. Even though there is suffering, this is nonetheless the best of all possible worlds. It is impossible to prove or disprove this theory, but I don’t think it is reasonable. There is so much suffering in the world, so much of it seemingly meaningless, that it is hard to believe that a righteous, all-powerful God could not have done better. Is it really necessary that children should die? Must so many older people suffer chronic pain? Does the widespread pain, hunger, and early death of animals in nature really serve a greater good?

A related approach to the problem is to posit that we often regard suffering and death as unnecessary and undesirable only because we have such a limited view.

However, if we had God’s much broader view of time and space, we would recognize that it is good. While such a view is plausible, I do not find it compelling. The degree of suffering for which there is no discernible benefit raises doubts in my mind. Also, this theory suggests that God’s notion of good is very different from our own, which raises another problem: How should we behave? If God’s views differ so much from our own, how do we direct our lives? If we are relatively clueless as to what constitutes “the good,” how do we discern what to do? The ancient Hebrews had the Law, but Jesus fulfilled the law and, most Christians agree, Christians are not bound by the Hebraic Law. Many Christians seem certain that they know God’s wishes for nearly every facet of life, including sexual conduct, gender relationships, and human domination and exploitation of animals and nature. However, their views often seem grounded on selective and dubious interpretations of Scripture that, to my reading, often involve taking specific verses out of context. I think it is more reasonable to live according to the principles of love, compassion, and mercy that Jesus illustrated through his actions and teachings. This approach can work, as long as what we regard as love, compassion, and mercy resembles God’s notion of these principles. If we only have a vague and often mistaken notion of what God regards as good, then we are ill-equipped to make good moral decisions.

Some have maintained that God is not necessarily righteous. There is no reason, they assert, to assume that God had benevolent reasons for creating the universe. Maybe the creator God derives pleasure from watching us struggle and suffer. Again, this is theoretically possible but, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, has asserted that he would not praise such a God. One might perform rituals to appease such a malevolent deity, but one would not love and respect such a God.

Rather than arguing that God is totally in charge of this often tragic world, Kushner has held that God is not all-powerful. For example, when a place crashes, God is unable to save the kind and decent people who perish along with hateful people. Some people have pointed out that, if God directly intervened in human affairs and violated the physical laws of nature, this would deprive humans of free will. Our praising God, and our receiving God’s calling, are meaningful only insofar as we have free will. However, if God permitted such massive suffering in the world primarily in order to receive meaningful praise from humans, I would question God’s righteousness. I also find unsatisfactory the position that human free will makes this “best of all possible worlds.” While human free will may be necessary for human existence to be meaningful, this strikes me as an insufficient reason to justify the massive suffering of fellow humans and animals at human hands. Furthermore, countless humans and animals suffer for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with human free will, including natural disasters and the commonplace suffering of animals in nature.

I think that, if God were to intervene in any human affairs, it would raise doubts about God’s righteousness. Let us say that God miraculously saved a child who had climbed out a 10th story window and fallen onto the sidewalk. The reason this would be a miracle is that people don’t survive such falls. In other words, it is only because God does not save all the other people (including good people) who fall 10 stories that we would recognize this intervention as miraculous. Here’s another example. After an airplane crash, the TV news often features a stunned airline passenger who missed the plane. That person often concludes that God has a special plan for him or her. However, nearly every flight has at least one person who changed plans or missed the flight, and that is the survivor who ends up before the television camera if the plane crashes. If God had really spared that person for a reason, then one must also conclude that God chose to allow the rest of the passengers to die for God’s reasons. Since many of those people were probably good, caring people who played important and valuable roles in others’ lives, God’s allowing them to die would raise real doubts about God’s righteousness.

I don’t know why God created the universe. By faith, I believe that God cares about it. The alternative to this faith, I think, is nihilism and despair. Perhaps, God created a universe full of possibility that, once created, was beyond God’s power to change. However, we do have the capacity to choose, and our faith suggests that God has the power to help guide us. Next week, we will explore the passage “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Part 101: “For God So Loved the World”

For many Christians, John 3:16 is a favorite passage; it reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Many people understand this passage as indicating that belief in the Son is what one must do in order to go to heaven. I think this understanding is narrow and misses some critically important points.

The passage notes that “God so loved the world.” If the point of the passage had been that God was only interested in saving from death those who believed in the Son, it would have made no sense to mention that God gave the Son for the benefit of the entire world, including those who are intellectually unable to believe, such as young children, mentally disabled people, and animals. Jesus came to redeem all Creation, not just those who have faith in Jesus. This is why “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). The sons of God are those who have faith in God’s redemptive power, and they, being new creations in Christ, will herald a new age where “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes and death shall be no more” (Revelation 21:4).

What does “everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” mean? Many people think this refers to permanent afterlife. A close look at the word “eternal” offers a broader concept. “Eternal” means unbound by space and time, which describes God’s existence much better than human existence, since human lives inexorably head towards death. I think we may experience eternal life when we are perfectly connected to God, which comes from aligning ourselves with God’s boundless love for all Creation.

I think we gain further insight from Buddhism, which I regard as a philosophy, not as a religion, and consequently I do not see Buddhism as competing with Christianity. I think the above notion of “eternal” accords with the state of mind that the Buddhists call “being awake” or “enlightenment,” in which one’s mindfulness is so complete that one no longer feels trapped in a suffering and dying body but rather feels perfectly open to and accepting of the cosmos. Buddhists regard this state of mind as being present to “The Deathless,” which does not perish.

Do humans and/or animals have an afterlife? I do not think it is reasonable to believe that humans have afterlife and animals do not. Humans and animals have much in common at a genetic, physiological, and emotional level. Some have argued that only humans have a soul, yet the Hebrew Scriptures use the same word, nephesh, to describe the essence of both humans and animals. When relating to humans, translates have called nephesh "soul" (King James Version) or "being" (Revised Standard Version) (Genesis 2:7), and they have translated the exact same word as "creature" for animals (Genesis 2:19, KJV and RSV). Therefore, this common biblical basis for claiming that humans have souls while animals do not reflects translators’ biases, not the scriptures themselves.

Many people with “near-death experiences” (NDE) relate an out-of-body conscious experience which has convinced them in an afterlife. However, it is difficult for those who have not had such experiences to evaluate NDE claims. I do not know what happens to the “I” (the stable sense of self that I carry throughout my life, which seems unchanged even while most of my body’s cells die and some are replaced). I think our fear of death – which relates to the destruction of the “I” – encourages us to envision some kind of existence after our bodies cease to function. Perhaps there is an afterlife, but, regardless of the fate of the “I,” our faith teaches us that faith in Christ does offer the possibility of eternal life.

Part 102: Death

Why is our culture obsessed with death? As discussed in Essay 25, we share with animals innate fears related to vulnerability and death. Consequently, all human cultures have needed to address the problem of anxiety related to death. However, our culture is particularly obsessed with death, likely for several reasons. First, we know that dying tends to be slow and painful, and its inevitability is frightening. Second, many people doubt that there is an “afterlife,” and the prospects of the extinction of the self conflicts with our innate desire to live. Third, science seems to have answered nearly every mystery except that of death, and we dislike not having confident answers to important questions about our existence.

To the degree that death is mysterious, life is also mysterious. The question, “Where did I come from?” is just as mysterious as the question “Where am I headed?” Without a clear understanding of our origins or our destinies, the purpose of our lives becomes a central existential problem. Indeed, a major function of all religions is to try to answer difficult questions about life and death.

Christianity is similar to many other religions in that its hero died and was resurrected, demonstrating the hero’s status as a divine entity and suggesting that an afterlife awaits those who adhere to the religion’s myths, rituals, and taboos. Christianity is distinctive in that its hero returned not to mete out vengeance against evildoers, but rather to forgive those who betrayed him. The forgiving victim participates in love and reconciliation, while the avenging victim sets the stage for future vengeance.

The stories relating to Jesus’ resurrection and return demonstrate that Jesus was very concerned about earthly existence and the well-being of earth’s inhabitants. Indeed, throughout his ministry, Jesus tended to those who were weak, vulnerable, and rejected by the culture’s mainstream, and he showed compassion for everyone. In his “Lord’s Prayer,” he prayed, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

Recalling the previous essay’s discussion about “eternal,” I think it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus’ ministry was not about life and death, but rather eternal life. Jesus showed a way by which one may transcend concerns about the fate of the “I” and attain a state of existence that has no beginning, end, or boundaries. In such a state, we are attuned to God’s infinite love, which transcends time and space, allowing us to feel at one with the timeless, boundless universe.

Those who experience such a oneness with God describe complete contentment, though many people never fully experience this. However, there are degrees of this experience, and I think that we move towards this state of existence when we serve others and love everything. This perspective accords with the views of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Father Zossima who, in The Brothers Karamazov, teaches, “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery of things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble them, don’t harass them, don’t deprive them of their happiness, don’t work against God’s intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you – alas, it is true of almost every one of us!”

Part 103: Abundance Versus Scarcity

Our culture, grounded in individualism and laissez-faire capitalism, teaches that we should regard life as a struggle to obtain scarce resources. Competition for scarce resources often resembles, a zero sum game – every bit more that one person gets is roughly that amount less available to everyone else. There seem to be analogies in nature, where food and other necessities are limited, and animals struggle to survive and reproduce.

Jesus taught that God provides enough for everyone. He said, “Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24) Was Jesus betraying ignorance of basic biological facts, which should have been obvious to even a casual observer? I don’t think so. What he was trying to show was that God cares for all God’s Creation. Does this mean that everyone has enough? Everyday experience would have taught the disciples that both people and animals sometimes go hungry or even die from deprivation. However, acquisitive mimetic desire encourages us to want as much as possible, particularly scarce things, worsening the scarcity.

I think Jesus was trying to teach what is essential to having loving relationships with each other and with the world at large. Our fear of physical discomfort and death entices us to hoard essential resources. Jesus taught that this is putting our priorities in the wrong place. Jesus said to his disciples, “do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” (Luke 12:22b-23) Similarly, Jesus said, “For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36)

I think that our faith teaches that, while material resources may be limited, God’s love is not. God cares for all creation, though everyday experience tells us that some will suffer deprivation. I think that the faith of Christ (see essay 81) is that, eventually, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) All Creation will one day be reconciled and restored to a perfectly harmonious existence as existed in Eden (Isaiah 11:6-9).

The worldview of love sees abundance in Creation. Love engenders trust and sharing, and Jesus taught that sharing helps everyone meet their most essential needs, just as there was miraculously enough to feed the 5000 after a “lad” came forward to share his food (John 6:9).

Other passages take up this theme. Jesus said, “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) Then, Jesus told the parable of the Rich Fool, who hoarded possessions. God, who said that these possessions are temporary and unfulfilling, rebuked the man (Luke 12:16-21). The Hebrew Scriptures also express this wisdom. For example, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2)

God is the source of life, which God provides abundantly. However, human acquisitive mimetic desire often frustrates God’s desires. Because humans want to have more than their neighbors, everyone seeks the same things, which generates scarcities. The way of love sees abundance in the world and encourages sharing. This is the way that Jesus taught, and he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) This image of God is one who celebrates life, not death. To commune with such a God does not require or even desire blood sacrifices. It is sufficient to pray earnestly and to follow Jesus, who said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the light” (John 14:6).

104: Abundance Versus Scarcity: The Miracle of Feeding the 5000

Many people think that the important thing about the miracle in which Jesus divided the fish and bread was that it proved the power of Jesus to perform miracles, thereby confirming his divinity. However, there is much more to the story.

For one thing, the story offers an image of a God of abundance, which seems to contradict everyday impressions that scarcity besets the world. God’s love and compassion is limitless, and Jesus taught that we should trust in God. This is why Jesus so often said, “Fear not,” even though his Disciples lived in a world in which there seemed to be pervasive scarcity, violence, and danger.

How can one reasonably envision abundance when scarcity seems ubiquitous? The answer, I think, is that humans have the capacity to participate in God’s redemption of the world. We can show love and compassion, and one way we do this is by sharing, thereby alleviating scarcity.

Mimetic rivalry invariably leads to a worldview of scarcity. If our desires are defined by what our neighbor has, then the objects of desire will soon become scarce. Indeed, since a fundamental desire is for self-esteem and since we often believe that self-esteem requires our having things that are difficult to obtain, scarcity in inherent to acquisitive mimetic desire. Girard contrasted such acquisitive mimesis, which invariably leads to conflicts and violence, to “good mimesis,” in which we model our desires on those of Christ, who wanted us to love each other.

It is difficult for us to avoid thinking in terms of scarcity, since notions of scarcity are central to capitalism. A fundamental principle of a market economy is that the price of a given good or service reflects its availability. However, believing in a God of scarcity, with limited love and generosity, is one way to define our Original Sin. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve believed that God had not given them enough and that they needed more. This attitude led to Cain’s murder of Abel (in which Cain perceived God’s favorable regard as scarce) and to countless killings ever since.

Getting back to the miracle of the feeding of 5000, it is hard to imagine that so many people traveled a great distance and forgot to bring enough food. However, as time wore on, many people’s supplies started to diminish. It is reasonable to suppose that, envisioning scarcity rather than abundance, they were loath to share with those who had not prepared as well and were now hungry. Only The Gospel According to John identifies a “lad” who provided the loaves of bread and fishes, which were divided and miraculously fed thousands of people (6:1-14). Children have acquisitive mimetic desires like adults, but children are simpler, more trusting, and less cynical. I think this story illustrates one way in which it is true that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17). We explore this passage further next week.

105: Receiving the Kingdom of God “Like a Child”

Jesus said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Mark 10:15, Luke 18:17) I see two features of children that make them more receptive to the kingdom of God. First, children are expected to obey their parents, and the kingdom of God requires that we follow the law of our Creator/Parent. Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment was to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Adults, seeking independence from authority, resist God’s laws. Indeed, the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly describe God’s anger when the Hebrews refused to obey the law to love God and chose idolatry instead.

A second way in which being like a child is necessary to receive the kingdom of God has to do with the nature of their desires. As anyone who has children knows, they are not totally “innocent.” They can be selfish and mean. However, children differ from adults in that children tend to be less complicated and less calculating about getting what they what, and less inclined to carry a grudge if they don’t get it. The last feature is important, from the perspective of mimetic theory. While children, like adults, care about self-esteem, in general their desires are more physical and less symbolic. A child seeing another child playing with a toy will often, on account of acquisitive mimetic desire, want to play with that toy. Failure to obtain that toy will disappoint the child, but the extent of unhappiness will be largely restricted to the frustrated immediate desire. Adults who fail to obtain their objects of desire tend to carry anger and bitterness far beyond the loss of immediate pleasure, because their failure often damages their self-esteem.

Adult desires to receive the kingdom of God often involve a desire to exclude other people, because doing so enhances one’s self-esteem. Consequently, for example, many people who regard themselves as “saved” also emphatically deny that those with different theologies and/or religious practices are condemned. For adults caught in the web of mimetic desires and rivalries, an attraction of the kingdom of God is that, in their view, it is a restricted place.

The disciples often argued among themselves about who was the greatest (Mark 9:34, Luke 9:46, 22:24). Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:37) We need to regard each other as equals in the eyes of God in order to receive the kingdom of God. We need to regard people as the people God wants them to be, even when they fall short of God’s glory (as all of us do – Romans 3:23). How can this happen? I think we must see each of us as children of God. We are equally inferior to God, making us equal to each other in our relationship to God. Otherwise, when we define ourselves by how we relate to each other, we fall into mimetic rivalries that preclude our entering the kingdom of God. These mimetic rivalries made it impossible to live with God, just as these mimetic rivalries made it impossible for Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve fell into rivalry with God after the serpent tricked them into doubting God’s authority to set boundaries and God’s loving intentions for them.

I think that the various secular liberation movements that try to see all people as equal have two serious limitations. First, without a parent figure to truly equalize people, mimetic theory predicts that efforts to regard fellow people as equals will fail, because people will invariably fall into rivalries with each other. For example, it seems to me that certain progressive movements, while founded on admirable egalitarian principles, sometimes promote the interests of their own group over and against the interests of other groups. The Christian way to avoid losing focus from the core principles of love, compassion, mercy, and justice is for everyone to regard each other as equally beloved children of God.

A second failure of secular liberation movements is that they tend to ignore nonhumans, and the rights God created for them to have (including, but not limited to, the right not to be tortured). The difficulty of “drawing the line” prompts many people to choose to ignore all nonhuman beings. However, from the perspective of God the Creator, everyone matters.

We must envision ourselves as children – children of God – in order to receive the kingdom of God. What is the kingdom of God? I will offer my thoughts on this question next week.

106: The Kingdom of God

What is the kingdom of God, about which Jesus talked so much? Thoughtful Christians have offered a wide range of explanations; the best I can do is to share my thoughts and hopefully shed more light. As I read the Bible, I get the impression that “entering” the kingdom of God is an experience that does not lend itself to words. This is why Jesus frequently said, “The kingdom of God is like …” and then he often used parables, which generally described people doing things that involved love, caring, and compassion.

There is a spiritual as well as worldly component of the kingdom of God, and Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (John 3:3). However, I regard the kingdom of God as different from heaven. I see it as a state of existence attained by faith and/or activities that connect a person to God and God’s Creation. It is a state of perfect peace and contentment. It is harder to experience the kingdom of God while in pain, but not impossible. For example, Stephen appeared to be at peace with God and the world, even as he was being stoned: “And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And he knelt down and cried in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’” (Acts 7:59-60).

The kingdom of God is difficult to understand for the same reason that monotheism is a difficult and, I think, often misunderstood concept. I think that monotheism posits that God has one essence, but a problem is that our minds are inherently dualistic. The reason our minds are dualistic is that our minds think with language, which itself is dualistic. Language is dualistic because words obtain meaning from the double (or dualistic) tension between what the words do describe and what they do not describe. Words cannot describe a unitary concept that has no opposite. For example, “big” only has meaning because it is more than “little,” and “chair” gains meaning by virtue of what defines what it is (something with legs upon which someone sits) and what it is not (e.g., something upon which one lies in order to sleep). Without the existence of things that are not chairs, chairs themselves would have no meaning. We understand the meaning of “running” because it involves movement (i.e., not stationary) which differs from other forms of movement (e.g., walking). Indeed, our self-consciousness appears to rely on human dualistic language. We can only be aware that we exist in a certain place and time because we can imagine ourselves not existing in other places and times. An infant and a dog are both conscious in that they have awareness and feelings, but neither appears to have self-consciousness.

If we were able to align ourselves with God, as Jesus did, there would be no you/me, subject/object dichotomies that define our everyday experience. This is why I regard the kingdom of God as both individual and communal – there is no distinction between one’s own ego and desires and that of the larger community. If we were one with God and God’s creation, we would recognize that what we do to anyone or anything, we do to ourselves. The experience of being at one with God and God’s Creation is not dualistic, and therefore cannot be described with language. This, I think, is why the Tao Te Ching begins, “The Tao that can be spoken is not the true Tao.” Therefore, Jesus needed to use parables, rather than simple descriptive language, to describe the kingdom of God.

I think Jesus was trying to describe the kingdom of God in terms of our relationships to God and to each other. He said, “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). With Jesus, relationships should not be grounded on socially constructed power arrangements that have their bases in the scapegoating mechanism; rather, they should be grounded on love and evolve out of doing things for each other. Therefore, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as an act of love and humility, and James said, “Faith without works is dead.” James did not denigrate faith; he recognized that works of love naturally emanate from faith.

Girardian theories about mimesis and the scapegoating mechanism posit that human communities have always come together by expelling one or more individuals. This is the kingdom of humans – communal bonds generated by the act of scapegoating innocent individuals. However, the Bible teaches that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “God is light and in God there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). Therefore, when people experience the kingdom of God, they naturally relate to each other and God’s Creation lovingly and nonviolently, not over and against any vulnerable individuals.

Part 107: “I Desire Mercy and Not Sacrifice”

Did Jesus condone sacred violence? While earlier writings in the Hebrew Scriptures described instructions from God concerning human and animal sacrifices, the later prophets condemned animal sacrifices. (See parts 19 & 23.) Jesus echoed Hosea 6:6 when he said, “Go and learn what this means ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). In this passage, Jesus defended his eating with tax collectors and sinners, whom the people despised. The people scapegoated these people by ostracizing them, but Jesus had compassion for them.

Jesus expanded on this theme in Mt 12:5-7. In response to the priests criticizing his disciples for plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath in order to eat, he said, “…have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” Though Jesus was evidently referring specifically to his “guiltless” disciples, I think that Jesus was providing a more profound teaching. First, righteousness is not determined by temple practices, and a principle function of the temple was to perform animal sacrifices. Second, if people were merciful, they would not engage in “sacred” violence. Consequently they would not condemn the guiltless, which is what happens whenever they become embroiled in scapegoating. Significantly, animals were the guiltless victims of the sacrificial cult in Jesus’ time. It is noteworthy that, in disrupting the animal sacrifices in the Temple, Jesus liberated the animals as well as turned over the money-changers’ tables (John 2:15).

Next week, we will explore Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he said, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1).

Part 108: Romans 12:1 and 6:23

Paul wrote to the Romans, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1). The age of sacrifice had ended, and Paul wrote that we are to dedicate ourselves completely, including our bodies, to God.

This passage, I think, helps us better understand Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Many people interpret this, I think incorrectly, as indicating that, as a consequence of sin, God demands death either of the sinner or a sacrificial substitute (and the ultimate sacrifice was Jesus). Since Romans 12:1 points to self-sacrifice, I do not think we should read Romans 6:23 as indicating that God desires that we sacrifice other individuals to substitute for ourselves. Indeed, Romans 6:23 does not say that God desires death at all. I think the passage is making a simple and valid observation: Sinfulness leads to death. When we model our desires on each other and fall into rivalries, we are on a path that leads inexorably to death – the victims being either those who find themselves in conflict or, commonly, one or more scapegoats who the community blames for growing hostility. Girard has noted that, universally, primal cultures have ritualized sacrifice. Typically, they re-enact the cultural crisis that generated the “need” for sacrifice, and then they kill or expel one or more victims in communal rituals that recreate the sense of camaraderie that originally unified the community. While we like to think that our culture does not engage in sacrificial violence, no culture recognizes its own scapegoating – to do so would eliminate the unifying power of scapegoating. In addition, like scapegoating, violence is almost always invisible to the perpetrators, and those who participate in violence typically describe it as, for example, “justice” or “necessity.” I think that, as long as people have eyes that do not see and ears that do not hear (Mark 8:18), Christ’s revelation that God is about love and not about death will remain incomplete in this world.

Next week, we will explore The Letter to the Hebrews, which I think has often been misunderstood as a text that endorses sacrificial violence.

Part 109: The Letter to the Hebrews, Part 1

On first glance, The Letter to the Hebrews might seem to endorse sacrifices, but a closer reading presents what I think is a non-sacrificial message. Hebrews describes Jesus’ death as a sacrifice, but I think it is a new kind of sacrifice.

The letter’s author wrote, “For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins” (10:4). What will take away sins, if not animal sacrifices? I want to examine Hebrews 10:8-18 closely in an attempt to answer this question. Hebrews 10:8-10 reads, “When he said above, ‘Thou hast neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings’ (these are offered according to the law), then he added, ‘Lo, I have come to do thy will.’ He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:8-10). The writer has argued that the unsatisfactory old sacrifices under the Law have been replaced by “the offering of the body of Jesus Christ.” The critical question that I will attempt to answer is: Who made the offering?

Verse 10:11 reiterates that animal sacrifices cannot expiate sins: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Hebrews 10:12-13 reads, “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, then to wait until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.” I think verse 10:10 describes Jesus’ sacrifice as a self-sacrifice. If we posit that he was sacrificed by humans, then we come to the awkward conclusion that an act of scapegoating and murder justifies humankind. If he were sacrificed by God, this would portray God as one who had killed not only an innocent man, but a man who was also God’s beloved son. Verse 10:13 describes Christ waiting “until his enemies should be made a stool for his feet.” Jesus said Satan’s attempt to cast out Satan divides the house and the house cannot stand (Mark 3:23-25). I think this passage reminds readers that the power of love and forgiveness is ultimately stronger than satanic powers. We do not need to fight evil; we should concentrate on doing good ourselves while we wait for the forces of evil to destroy themselves.

Verse 10:14 states, “For a single offering he has perfected for all times those who are sanctified.” A Girardian understanding of this verse is that Jesus’ sacrifice was a perfect self-sacrifice, and those who believe in Christ no longer need “sacred” violence in order to feel sanctified. In contrast, animal victims of sacrifice, though initially innocent, became “guilty” by virtue of priestly rituals that transferred guilt from people to the animal. The animal victims, therefore, “deserved” their fate, and there was no scandal in sacrificial violence. Until Jesus’ sacrifice, the Hebrews, like other ancient peoples, held the conviction that they needed to sacrifice in order to expiate their guilt. Verses 15-18 clarify, “And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then he adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sins.” Guided by the Holy Spirit, God’s laws will be on our hearts and minds. If we accept the love and forgiveness and that these laws embody and repent of our sinful ways, we will have no need or desire to engage in “sacred” violence.

Many Christians have interpreted Hebrews 10:8-18 to mean that the old covenant has been replaced by a new covenant formed by the divinely ordained sacrifice of Jesus. However, as has been discussed previously, those who regard God as desiring sacrificial violence have been inclined to justify their own violence as sacred, righteous acts for God. An interpretation that I think respects the text and accords with an image of God being centered on love rather than wrath holds that the old sacrificial order has been abolished and replaced by a new order, in which people have been sanctified by obedience to God. According to this analysis, Jesus’ death was not a sacrifice to atone for sins but rather a sanctification of his life by virtue of his choosing to do God’s will. What was God’s will? God’s will was that he would take away the sin of the world, i.e., expose universal “sacred” violence as scandalous.

I will continue this discussion of The Letter to the Hebrews next week.

Part 110: The Letter to the Hebrews, part 2

Last week, we reviewed Hebrews 10-18. I suggested that Jesus death was a self-sacrifice to God’s will. Support for this view comes from chapter 9: “Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the Holy Place yearly with blood not his own; for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself” (9:25-26). The writer has said that, according to former sacrificial order, sacrifice needed to be repeated yearly. The reason is that people needed to regularly transfer their sins onto the scapegoat, which, the writer noted, is what has been happening since the foundation of the world. The writer also observed that the priest shed “blood not his own” – forcing animals to suffer the consequences of human sinfulness. The writer then pointed out that Jesus sacrificed himself in order to end all sacrifices.

This is the crucial difference. Previous sacrifices involved killing an unwilling victim. A Girardian reading indicates that Jesus chose to accept his destiny and to sacrifice himself for all humankind. Jesus did not want to be crucified – on the Mount of Olives “he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will but what thou wilt’” (Mark 14:35-36; see also Matthew 26:38-39, Luke 22:42). Jesus was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices not because God had desired “sacred” violence or because Jesus wanted to die, but because Jesus needed to reveal that God does not want sacrifices. In other words, Jesus did not surrender to death, but rather he chose to die to serve God’s will.

If Jesus’ destiny was to stop the perennial violence against innocent individuals, he would need to reveal the scapegoating process, because it was no longer an option to have God destroy the world with a flood. Jesus could only demonstrate the scandal of scapegoating violence by becoming a willing victim himself, because he was unequivocally innocent. I do not think that either God or Jesus wanted Jesus’ death. However, the Son’s divine nature allowed him to see that submitting to the fires of scapegoating violence was the only way to undermine scapegoating.

Many Christians hold that Jesus’ death was designed to atone for humankind’s sin. However, if the “sin of the world” (John 1:29) is scapegoating, then scapegoating Jesus cannot be God’s desire. Many Christians regard “the sin of the world” as Adam’s “Original Sin,” which all humankind has inherited. There are problems with this theory, to which we will turn next.

Part 111: Original Sin, part 1

Throughout the ages, Christians have struggled to understand why humans sin, the consequences of sin, and how we might overcome sin. A popular contemporary theology is that everyone is sinful because everyone inherits Adam’s “Original Sin” of disobedience in the Garden of Eden. They hold that only the ritual killing of a sacrificial victim can mollify God’s wrath at human sinfulness. Jesus, who was totally innocent, was the perfect sacrifice to atone for humankind’s depravity. This satisfied God’s demand for sacrifice, and further animal sacrifices became unnecessary. I will discuss difficulties with this atonement theology shortly, but here I want to look at the notion of “Original Sin.”

Augustine of Hippo (354-430) was central in developing the theory that everyone inherits Adams “Original Sin” of disobedience. One difficulty with Augustine’s theory has to do with the mechanism of transmission of Adam’s sin. Augustine maintained that human sexuality was the outward manifestation of human sinfulness (perhaps because he struggled greatly against his own sexual desires), and he asserted that the overpowering passions associated with sexual intercourse transmit human sinfulness to infants.1 With our better understanding of the biology of inheritance, Augustine’s theory – or any theory that posits inheritance of Adam’s sin of disobedience – seems unreasonable.

I think mimetic theory offers a more reasonable framework: Humans, as mimetic creations, inherently desire what others have or want, which strongly predisposes us to sin. In other words, according to this view, we do inherit a propensity to sin, but we are not sinful at birth. As we grow and develop mimetic desires that incline us towards sin, we still can choose whether or not to sin. We still sin, because humans have great difficulty overcoming all temptations, but our degree of sinfulness tends to reflect the strength of our will. I think that divine grace involves our gaining self-esteem in ways that do not involve acquisitive mimetic desire, which reduces our desire to engage in sinful behavior.

As discussed in essays 9 and 75, I regard the Garden of Eden story anthropologically and as allegory, rather than historically and as literal truth.* I find that overwhelming scientific evidence from fields such as geology, paleontology, archeology, biology, and astronomy contradict the literal biblical account that the universe is only about 7500 years old. Since I am unable to disregard things I believe are true, I am forced to regard the Genesis creation account in symbolic terms, or to reject the validity of the Bible. My perspective leads me to conclude that Adam was not created innocent or without sin. Rather, becoming human is what inclined Adam to sin. Adam became human by virtue of his self-consciousness, and self-consciousness made Adam aware of that his sense of self exists not only in the present (as animals experience) but also will exist in the distant future (something that, evidently, other animals cannot imagine).** Consequently, anxious that harm might befall the self at some future time, Adam sought to know what would be good for his self and what would be evil. Among things that are evil are scarcity (which threatens the self with deprivation or even death) and the inevitability of death (which terrifies the self with the prospect of the self’s extinction). His fear of scarcity encouraged him to hoard, generating communal scarcity and making harmonious coexistence with the rest of Creation impossible. His fear of death fueled acquisitive mimetic desire to gain self-esteem, which has led to rivalries and violence ever since.

Next week, we will explore Original Sin further, focusing on Augustine’s understanding of Romans 5:12.

1. Eugene Webb, René Girard and the symbolism of religious Sacrifice, Anthropoetics vol. 11 no. 1, 2005,;  Donald Sensing, A short history of Original Sin, 3/11/04,

* I would like to emphasize that either way of regarding the Bible – literally or allegorically – encourages a plant-based diet as a biblical ideal, and the Bible teaches that love and compassion should guide our choices.

** Many animals can anticipate, with anxiety or eager anticipation, the consequences of current conditions for the near future. For example, a dog can fear the consequences of having just urinated on the carpet. However, I am doubtful that the dog is anxious about the possibility that the dog might urinate on the carpet tomorrow.

112. Original Sin, part 2

Last week, we explored Augustine’s dubious theory about how humans transmit Original Sin. Another difficulty with Augustine's ideas relates to the translation of a passage that was critical to Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin. In expounding his theory, Augustine frequently referred to Romans 5:12, which the KJV1 translates as, “Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned.” The key phrase is “for that all have sinned.” Many other translations are similar, and the RSV has “because all men sinned” and the NIV has “because all sinned.” Augustine acknowledged that he had not mastered Greek, and scholars have argued that Augustine made two errors in translating the Greek into Latin.2 First, misunderstanding the Greek eph hō as equivalent to en hō, his Latin translation in quo translates into English as “in which all have sinned” unlike the Greek, which translates into English as “for that all have sinned.” Second, he thought the pronoun “which” referred to Adam rather than to death. Consequently, Augustine concluded that humankind’s sinfulness directly derives from Adam’s sin.

Many translators have understood eph hō to indicate a causal connection between death and “all have sinned”, and therefore, for example, the RSV reads “because all have sinned.” Despite regarding eph hō differently from Augustine, many theologians have retained Augustine’s theological conclusions, arguing that “all have sinned” refers to solidarity with Adam when he sinned. A Girardian reading suggests a different understanding. The sin that Adam introduced to the world was acquisitive mimetic desire (i.e., Adam desired the forbidden fruit that God seemed to desire above all else), and acquisitive mimetic desire has always given rise to dissatisfaction with what we have, conflicts, and violence. Our unending quest to satisfy unquenchable desires and our conflicts with each other, God’s animals, and God’s earth alienate us from God’s love and from each other, causing us to experience both spiritual and physical death. As long as acquisitive mimetic desire motivates us, we will continue to sin (i.e., stray from God’s path of love) and to experience spiritual death. If our lives focus on our acquisitive mimetic desires than rather God’s desires, our lives jump from trying to satisfy one desire to trying to satisfy the next, without ultimate direction or meaning. Furthermore, acquisitive mimetic desires do not provide a concept of a spiritual realm in which we can find peace and contentment apart from this world. In this state of spiritual death, our thoughts about our own physical death are terrifying. If we feel spiritually dead, we physically experience the decay of our bodies with fear and loathing, and we mentally experience thoughts about our eventual physical decline and death (i.e., our departure from this world) as the end of our existence.3 There is no way to know with certainty what happens to the self when the body finally expires, but an important consequence of spiritual death is that it causes us to experience death, in our imaginations and in the relentless decline of our bodies, as final and complete. Since humans innately fear death, experiencing death tends to be psychologically terrifying.

This correlation of spiritual death with the experience of death accounts for Roman 5:12, which relates sin to death. There are two ways to avoid experiencing death. One way involves repression, but repressed thoughts and feelings always emerge eventually, often in distorted ways and often in ways that prove harmful. The other way is to faithfully follow God while regarding God as about life and not about death. One would then celebrate life as a gift from God and trust that the death of the body is not the final word. In dedicating one’s life to God, one’s desire to sin fades away. With such a perspective, one would naturally align one’s desires with God’s loving desire for all creation. Since God is remote and details about faithful living can be difficult to discern, Christians look to the Bible and to Jesus in order to understand God’s desires.

1. KJV: King James Version; RSV: Revised Standard Version; NIV: New International Version.

2. A. B. Caneday, “Comments on Romans 5:12-14”

3. Many people envision a life-after-death in Heaven, in which all our desires are met. However, mimetic theory tells us that it is not reasonable to view of Heaven as a place of unlimited resources that satisfies all our desires, because much of the reason we derive satisfaction from gaining the objects of desire is that they are scarce. Because so many of our terrestrial desires remain unsatisfied, a Heaven in which all our desires were fulfilled sounds appealing, but a moment’s reflection reveals that such a place would rapidly become intolerably boring.

113. Christianity and the Roman Empire

Christianity’s historical development from a small Jewish movement to a major world religion played an important role in the evolution of Christian theology, and the history of Christian theology heavily influenced contemporary Christian thought and belief. Soon after Jesus’ death, the Roman authorities started to persecute the Christians. Constantine legalized Christianity in 313, and a series of decrees starting in 381 made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. With these changes, the Church became a powerful political force.

Among other things, these political changes profoundly influenced Christians’ understanding of personal and political freedom. Elaine Pagels has noted that “the majority of Christian converts of the first four centuries regarded the proclamation of moral freedom, grounded in Genesis 1-3, as effective synonymous with ‘the gospel.’”5 The Genesis account described God giving Adam and Eve dominion over themselves as well as the rest of creation. Although God had expelled Adam and Eve from Eden after they misused their freedom, God did not strip people of their power to choose for themselves. The early Christians held that moral freedom empowered them to control their internal passions, such as greed and sexual desire, and to resist external authorities, such as the oppressive Roman government. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Preeminent among all is the fact that we are free from any necessity, and not in bondage to any power, but have decision in our own power as we please; for virtue is a voluntary thing, subject to no dominion. Whatever is the result of compulsion and force cannot be virtue.”6 The Romans could torture and kill Christians, but the Romans could not strip Christians of their freedom to practice and believe as they chose.7

As the Church gained political power, Christianity’s emphasis on moral freedom gradually faded. In its place, Christian doctrine focused on eradicating sin, by force if necessary. Augustine’s concept of Original Sin, which manifested itself in uncontrollable sexual desires, accorded well with this new outlook. If humans were slaves to sin, then salvation could only come from external forces that prevented people from condemning themselves. In other words, Augustine’s formulation of Original Sin provided a theological basis for a Church/Empire alliance. Although Jesus did not oppose Roman authority (Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” [Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25; see also Matthew 22:21]), he did not endorse earthly church authority, particularly when it was bereft of love, compassion, and mercy. Nevertheless, the Church asserted that it was the vehicle through which Christians obtained salvation, and Church authorities found Original Sin helpful as part of a framework that justified Church repression and violence “in the name of God.”

The alignment of the orthodox Christian church with the Roman Empire significantly modified Christianity’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry and death. As John Douglas Hall has written, “. . . a religion that was ready to become the official cultus of imperial Rome . . . simply had to have a theology that matched its status. A glorious church could not have an inglorious theology. The very idea of a faith whose central image and symbol was a crucified Jew as the official (and after Theodosius) only legal religion of the empire that crucified him – such an idea is absurd and to a temporal power unthinkable.”8 The central figure of the official religion of the Roman Empire could not be a Jew who taught love and peace and who suffered an ignominious death. Early Christians saw Jesus as a triumphant hero reigning at God’s right hand (Matthew 26:64; Mark 16:19; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33, 7:56; Romans 8:34), but the view promulgated by the Romans and their church allies was Jesus as a stern and forceful ruler rather than as a moral authority who showed followers how to live peacefully and righteously.

While Christians have always struggled to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death, Christendom’s alliance with the Roman Empire favored theologies in which God and/or Jesus vanquished the forces of evil rather than theologies that described Jesus teaching followers how to avoid those evil forces. In other words, the Church/Roman alliance encouraged theologies that regarded Jesus’ death as part of a divine plan to physically conquer the forces of evil, just as the Roman Empire strove to conquer and control “evil” forces threatening the Empire. “Orthodox” church leaders, including Irenaeus (c. 130-202), Tertullian (c. 155-230), and Epiphanius (c. 315-403), had condemned as “evil” and “heresy” alternative understandings of Jesus’ ministry; during the fourth century, the Church gained the power and authority to persecute “heretical” Christian communities and to destroy their literature.

Many Christians hold that Jesus’ death was designed to atone for humankind’s sin. However, much of the previous discussion in this essay series raises doubts about this theology. If the “sin of the world” is the scapegoating mechanism, then it makes little sense to scapegoat Jesus. To do that would be tantamount to having Satan cast out Satan, which, Jesus taught, doesn’t work. (See essay 93.) In upcoming essays, we will explore various atonement theologies, attempting to better understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.

114. Atonement Theology, part 1:  Leading Theories*

* This series of essays on atonement theologies has been heavily informed by J. Denny Weaver’s article “Violence in Christian Theology” Cross Currents July 2001.

Jesus’ death was a scandal to early Christians. If he were really the son of God who could work miracles, why did he allow himself to be humiliated, tortured, and murdered? Why did he not walk away from the cross? How could the son of God be executed like a common criminal? Christians, in struggling with these questions, have proposed various atonement theories that suggest that Jesus died to atone for human misdeeds. As the next essays will show, currently popular atonement theologies have problematic theological, sociological, and political implications. I will then describe J. Denny Weaver’s formulation for atonement theology, which I find very compelling, in part because it is consistent with the notion that God is all about love and mercy and not about violence and scapegoating.

Christus Victor (Christ the victor) was the predominant atonement theology of the early church, and it has taken two forms. In the ransom version, the devil once held human souls in captivity. God ransomed the release of human souls by offering up Jesus as ransom payment, and Jesus’ death appeared to be a victory for evil. However, God had deceived the devil, and in raising Jesus from the dead, there was victory for Jesus and humanity.

Another Christus Victor theology has depicted a cosmic battle in which Jesus was killed during the battle between God and the devil. The resurrection constituted a victory for God and definitely placed God as ruler of the Universe.

These Christus Victor images are not very popular today. The ransom theory posits that the devil has the power and authority to demand a ransom of God, which, critics have argued, belittles God. Similarly, the cosmic battle theory uncomfortably depicts the devil with power commensurate with that of God. Next week, we will turn to atonement theories that are far more popular today, which remove the devil from the drama. Please keep in mind the Christus Victor image, however, because the atonement theology that Weaver proposes includes a substantially modified notion of Christus Victor

115:  Atonement Theologies, part 2:  Satisfaction Atonement and Moral Influence Theologies

In 1098, Anselm of Canterbury’s Cur Deus Homo offered a satisfaction atonement theory that maintained that humankind’s sin had offended God, and Jesus’ death was necessary to satisfy God’s honor. Human sin had upset the moral order, and Jesus death was necessary to restore order to the universe. The Protestant Reformers modified this theory with the notion that Jesus’ death was necessary because divine law required that sin be punished. Humankind’s sin, which relates back to Adam and Eve’s “Original Sin” in the Garden of Eden, had created an imbalance of good and evil in the universe, and punishment was necessary to restore order. Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that all humans, as sinners, should have received.

The moral influence theory posits that Jesus’ death was a loving act of God aimed to show us that God loves humankind so much that God was willing to give up his most precious possession, his son, for humankind. This dramatic, loving act would get sinful humankind’s attention and leads us towards a more righteous path.

On closer inspection these atonement theories are problematic. If one asks, “Who killed Jesus,” the Christus Victor theory (essay [previous]) posits the devil. However, if God permitted this to happen, then one might reasonable question God’s goodness. The satisfaction and moral theories intentionally removed the devil from the equation, but difficulties remained. If one blamed the mob, the Roman authorities, or the high priests for Jesus’ death, then one would come to the awkward conclusion that the evildoers were actually doing the will of God.

In fact, if humans killed Jesus, it would make little sense to see Jesus’ death as atonement for humankind’s sins, because this would mean that sinful humankind was saving itself by killing an innocent person. In other words, murder would somehow deliver humankind from sin. Therefore, it appears that, if humankind’s salvation derived from killing Jesus (whether to satisfy God’s honor, to relieve humankind from the burden of Original Sin, or to show humankind how to live righteously), then God must be responsible. So, these theologies suggest that God either killed Jesus or desired Jesus’ death. This seems to portray God in an unattractive light and seems to conflict with God’s previous declaration, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17; see also Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22).

God’s responsibility for Jesus’ death is particularly problematic for a moral influence atonement theory. In essence, this theory holds God orchestrated the death of one child (Jesus) in order to save the rest of God’s children (us sinners). Would we ever approve of a parent who had one innocent child killed in order to teach a lesson to the sinful siblings?

Getting back to Anselm’s satisfaction theory, it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate God’s honor from God. Therefore, saying that Jesus’ death satisfied God’s honor is tantamount to saying that God desired Jesus’ death to satisfy God’s own honor.

Those new to this series may wonder how satisfaction atonement theory relates to the frequent blood sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures and Paul’s statement “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). I have been suggesting a view of God as loving and compassionate and not desiring sacrificial violence, and I refer readers to essays 19 and 20 regarding the Hebrew Scriptures and essay 108 regarding Romans 6:23.

Next week, we will further explore difficulties with satisfaction atonement theories. I will argue that these theories have predisposed Christians to perform acts of violence and injustice, though this was probably not the intent of most of those who have developed or have espoused satisfaction atonement theories.

116:  Atonement Theologies, part 3:  Further Problems with Satisfaction Atonement

Last week, we considered how satisfaction atonement theory and moral influence theory attribute Jesus’ death to God, which is problematic. Satisfaction atonement theories have additional difficulties. They assume that justice and righting of wrongs involve some kind of retribution. According to this framework, the problem with sin is that it causes an imbalance, a disturbance of the moral order of the universe. The only way to restore balance is through punishment, which may involve death.

J. Denny Weaver has noted that this framework, articulated by Anselm in 1098 and later modified by the Protestant Reformers, has parallels with the medieval worldview. The feudal king’s power resided in a belief that the king had divine authority. Those who dishonored the king must be punished in order to restore the moral order, because to offend the king was tantamount to offending God. Sinning against God caused the greatest disturbance to the order, which occurred repeatedly on account of human sinfulness. Only the most extreme punishment could restore the moral order, and the Son, as God incarnate, fulfilled this need. So it seems that Anselm’s satisfaction atonement theory evolved out of the medieval worldview.

Often people describe violent retribution as “justice” or “upholding the law,” but retribution undeniably involves violence. Therefore, Weaver has concluded, “any and all versions of atonement … assume the violence of retribution or justice based on punishment, and depend on God-induced and God-directed violence.” With God involved in violence and punishment, it becomes easier for Christians to justify their own violence and punishment. In addition, satisfaction atonement theories accommodate violence, because they treat humankind’s sinfulness in terms of humankind’s relationship with God. Satisfaction atonement theories treat sin as a legal problem – humankind’s offense against God – rather than as a social problem. The theories do not articulate the problem in terms of society’s institutions or events of human history (other than Original Sin). Consequently, satisfaction atonement theories do not challenge unjust human institutions, making it easier for Christians to countenance violence and/or injustice. With the rise of satisfaction atonement theology, Christianity’s focus changed from what Jesus did and taught to what was needed to preserve “Christian society.” Since Christians have regarded the Church as the embodiment of God, defending the Church has often taken precedence over defending vulnerable individuals. Furthermore, there have been many times when kings and other despots have subverted the notion of “Christian society” to serve their own selfish desires. In such settings, the Church itself has become the “principalities” and “powers” (Ephesians 6:12) that have worked against God. Although Jesus taught that we should show love and mercy in all our relationships, satisfaction atonement theories have changed the focus of sin from injustice against individuals to offense against God and “God’s Church.” Consequently, Christianity evolved into a religion that has (at various times in history) accommodated slavery, subjugation of women, cruelty to animals, and other unjust social arrangements.

Social reformers have pointed out another difficulty with satisfaction atonement theories. These theories portray Jesus as one who was innocent yet voluntarily submitted to suffering. This has often been an obstacle to people who suffer as a consequence of unjust social structures, because victims of abuse have often been told to model their behavior on Jesus’ voluntary suffering. For example, some religious authorities have advised victims of domestic violence to bear their burden rather than to pursue paths that might alleviate their situation.

Additionally, satisfaction atonement theories are problematic in that they adopt the logic of Caiaphas, who, in trying to convince chief priests and Pharisees to call for Jesus’ execution, said, “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish" (John 11:50). Satisfaction atonement theories posit that it is indeed better for one innocent man to die in order to save everyone else, which has been the logic of sacrificial violence throughout human history. Indeed, one might wonder whether satisfaction atonement theory presents Christianity as a new revelation, or whether it presents Christianity as a minor variation on the perennial religious theme that God (or the Gods) demands “sacred” sacrificial violence.

Finally, satisfaction atonement theories focus on Jesus’ death and do not require a theology about his life, teachings, or resurrection. Seeing the Bible through a Girardian lens, Jesus’ death is a critically important component of a broader message that God wants us to love each other and to cease scapegoating the innocent. Jesus’ entire ministry points to the centrality of God’s love, which we can overlook if we focus on a single, violent event.

Next week, I will discuss an atonement theology articulated by J. Denny Weaver (Cross Currents July 2001).

117:  Atonement Theologies, part 4:  Narrative Christus Victor

J. Denny Weaver (Cross Currents July 2001) has demonstrated that satisfaction atonement theories and the moral influence theory are problematic. Anselm and many subsequent Christian theologians have rejected the Christus Victor framework, because it requires that the devil participates in God’s divine plan. However, the cosmic battle framework has retained a degree of popularity, which may be partly a consequence of people reading The Revelation to John as describing a cosmic battle between the forces of God and the devil. The very successful Left Behind series draws on this violent framework.

Weaver has noted that scholars generally agree that Revelation depicts the conflict between hostile Roman authorities and the early Christian church, not a future war. It envisions the Christians ultimately triumphant in this conflict, though not via violence. (I will discuss Revelation in a future essay.) Weaver has argued that the Gospels relate the same story, in which Jesus’ community is ultimately victorious over the forces that resist Jesus’ ministry. God’s reign on earth is a historical event, realized though the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and not with the sword.

Weaver’s framework does not portray Jesus as a passive victim. Rather, he was an activist who did not shrink from his destiny, even though he understood that his challenge to religious authorities would provoke his torture and murder. The resurrection established Jesus as ultimate victor in the conflict between good and evil. Jesus had made the rule of God visible, bringing life, light, and love to the world. This revelation involved more than Jesus’ death; his entire life and teaching pointed in the same direction.

Weaver calls this framework Narrative Christus Victor, and it puts Satan back in the picture . However, Satan is not a demi-god working independent of humans. As discussed in [essays on Satan], I see “Satan” as describing the human desires that lead to conflict, rivalry, hostility, and violence. In Revelation, the violent and oppressive Roman Empire takes the role of Satan, trying to frustrate the reign of God. Throughout human history, satanic desires for power have undermined the kingdom (realm) of God, and we as sinners have not been immune to satanic enticements. When we harm any of God’s creation, our activities are satanic because we are resisting God’s reign. It is indeed “Amazing Grace” that God forgives our participation with the same kind of powers that killed Jesus and lovingly invites all of us to join in the realm of God.

118:  Jesus Made to Be Sin

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Humans have always divided people into sinners and righteous individuals. “To be sin who knew no sin” makes such a distinction impossible. In truth, none of us is either purely a sinner or purely righteous.

Was it God’s intention to make Jesus so that Jesus would be sin? I think God created Jesus to be the one who we humans made into sin. Humans would heap sin upon Jesus, just as humans have heaped sin upon many scapegoats. God was responsible for making Jesus to be sin only insofar as God knew that this would happen, because this is the fate of prophets (see chapter 12). I do not think that God’s ultimate desire was that Jesus would suffer and die; God offered Jesus this tragic destiny because God wanted to end scapegoating violence. Therefore, I regard God as involved in Jesus’ death insofar as God empowered Jesus to fulfill his destiny to expose the scapegoating process through Jesus’ teachings and actions, but God did not orchestrate the crucifixion. When Jesus exposed the scapegoating process, he scandalized both the Jewish and Roman authorities, making his crucifixion inevitable.

Further insight about how to interpret 2 Corinthians 5:21 can be found in Galatians, in which Paul wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (3:13). Here, Christ is a “curse,” similar to the 2 Corinthians 5:21 passage in which Christ was a “sin,” but Galatians 3:13 additionally notes the way that occurred – through the law. Earlier (Galatians 3:10), Paul had written that anyone who does not keep all the law’s prescriptions is cursed. What was Paul’s view of the law?

In Romans, Paul wrote that the law is “holy and just and good” (7:12) and that the law “which promised life proved to be death to me” (7:10). How did Paul resolve this apparent contradiction? He wrote, “Did that which is good [the law], then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, working death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin” (7:13-14). In other words, the law is good, but human sinfulness perverts the law and makes the law an excuse for sinfulness. Indeed, Paul’s own sinfulness had prompted him to use the law as an excuse for his zealous persecution of Jesus’ disciples.

Therefore, I think that the cause for Christ becoming “sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21) was the corrupting power of sin (which comes from humankind and not God) on the law. How does Christ becoming sin allow us to “become the righteousness of God”? According to a Girardian view, once Christ revealed the scandal of “sacred” violence – that the violence comes from humans and not from God – we could become righteous disciples of Christ and servants of God. We could receive the Law as the source of loving relationships that God intended, rather than as a tool for victimizing innocent individuals.

I think this understanding of 2 Corinthians 5:21 provides helpful ways of looking at other passages that have seemed to favor satisfaction atonement theories. For example, 1 Corinthians 15:3 reads, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures . . .” Although Paul does not clarify to which scriptures he refers, many people have assumed that he was thinking about the Levitican sacrificial code. However, one may also see Jesus’ death as having parallels to the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. This perspective, which accords with narrative Christus Victor, suggests that humankind’s sinfulness led to Jesus’ death.

Similarly, a narrative Christus Victor framework dovetails with a Girardian reading of 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God . . .” The Jews, who had regarded themselves as faithful and righteous, had collectively murdered an innocent individual, which illustrates how humankind has always been drawn to the scandal of scapegoating. This knowledge helps us recognize our propensity to participate in victimizing innocent individuals, encouraging us to reject the attractions of scapegoating violence and drawing us closer to God.

God calls us to establish relationships grounded in love, not collective violence. However, in order to love, we need to be able to forgive. While this can be very difficult, Jesus’ teachings offer us assistance.

119: The Nature of the Prophets

From the perspective of Girardian theory, prophecy involves exposing the scandal of “sacred,” scapegoating violence. Prophets reveal what has been hidden since the foundation of the world – that communal cohesiveness has been bought with the blood of innocent victims. Scapegoating generates camaraderie, while the social order, grounded in violence and injustice, maintains peace. The prophet exposes as a lie the “peace” and “harmony” derived from scapegoating violence, and this is why Jesus had a prophetic voice when he said, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

Prophets have witnessed or personally experienced scapegoating. This, I think, is why the Hebrew prophets typically had humble origins – if they had always enjoyed privilege, they would have been less inclined to empathize with victims. Prophets recognize injustice and, if possible, they denounce it. However, they do so at great peril, because people intuitively understand that scapegoating helps maintain peace and order. At some level of consciousness, people grasp Caiaphas’ logic that “it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (John 11:50). Scapegoating is economical in that it generally requires few victims to prevent widespread outbreaks of violence; it is abhorrent because it is unjust.

Jesus provided considerable insight into the nature of prophecy when he told the Pharisees and lawyers, “Woe to you! for you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. So you are witnesses and consent to the deeds of your fathers; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary” (Luke 11:47-51). Building tombs in primal religions has always been a way of blinding communities to the original murder by glorifying (or even deifying) the scapegoating victim.1 The prophets condemned killing innocent victims and many prophets, and for articulating that message, many were killed themselves.2 However, Jesus denounced the Pharisees and lawyers for building tombs and celebrating the prophets’ greatness, which permitted the lawyers and Pharisees to ignore the prophets’ actual, challenging message.

A person becomes a prophet by virtue of being a victim. Consequently, Jesus described Abel as a prophet, even though Abel neither had a prophetic voice nor was he even Jewish. When Jesus said that the blood of all the prophets was required of this generation, I think Gil Bailie makes a good point that Jesus was not blaming his audience for all the murders of all time. Rather, “generation” refers to the generation of the mob – the process by which people have always coalesced into communities by their collective violence against the scapegoating victim “from the foundation of the world.”3

I offer a different interpretation. I think that the mindset of “this generation” was the same as that of every other generation, and therefore all generations have been equally guilty of all the murders. Each generation can condemn the murders of its ancestors, but it is unwilling to confront its own scapegoating. Therefore many people have been angered when animal advocates have made parallels between contemporary treatment of animals and past human slavery4 or the Holocaust.5 While animal advocates often make clear that they are showing parallels between the mindset of those who have victimized humans and those who currently victimize animals, critics seem to ignore this point. Instead, critics often incorrectly accuse animal advocates of equating humans and animals.

1. Bailie, Gil. The Gospel of Luke [audiotape series]. Glen Ellen, CA: The Cornerstone Forum, undated.

2. Though prophecy carries substantial risks, not all prophets have been killed. Jesus was likely being hyperbolic here, but his basic point is true.

3. Bailie, op. cit. note 3.

4. Spiegel, Marjorie. The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery. New York: Mirror Books, 1988.

5. Patterson, Charles. Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books, 2002.

120:  Prophecy

Jesus said, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country” (Luke 4:24). Some theologians have explained that people have trouble taking seriously someone they remember as an immature youth. Gil Bailie, offering further insight, has argued that one becomes a prophet by virtue of being rejected. The victim of ostracism (and often violence) gains an understanding about the ways in which mobs gain unity through collective violence. This is prophetic knowledge, and it requires being an outsider. Such people could once have been insiders, as members of their communities, but enlightenment has allowed them to recognize their communities’ scapegoating. Their willingness to expose the falsehood about the victims’ guilt, which underlies all scapegoating, alienates prophets from their communities. Those who identify scapegoating as unjust quickly become outsiders, because much of what it means to be “one of us” is to agree with one’s community about who are “evil” and/or “inferior” (i.e., who get scapegoated). To remain a member of the community, one must participate in the community’s scapegoating, and one’s prophetic witness is therefore lost.

For example, if one’s community were racist, sexist, or anti-gay, then the prophet who denounced the scapegoating would become an outsider. Thankfully, most American communities have largely rejected racism, sexism, and many other forms of discrimination. However, scapegoating can still manifest itself, particularly in times of crisis, such as when the economy is weak, when crime is rising, or when people fear terrorism. Human communities are always capable of scapegoating, because it is always difficult for victimizers to recognize that they are scapegoating. Indeed, while nearly everyone abhors scapegoating in principle, many people continue to scapegoat a huge group of sentient individuals who remain the objects of scorn and abuse – animals. As discussed in chapter 1, animals have largely replaced people as contemporary scapegoats.

Those of us who are animal advocates, in identifying animals as victims, have a prophetic voice. One consequence is that we often find ourselves alienated from our communities, because, as with the ancient Hebrew prophets, people resist our message. Robert C. Tannehill has written, “The destiny of God’s prophets includes suffering and rejection, for they must speak God’s word to a blind and resistant world and must bear the brunt of this resistance . . .”5 The scapegoating process helps explain why the world is blind and resistant. Knowing this does not make prophecy any easier or more pleasant, but it may help us maintain equanimity in the face of seemingly insurmountable resistance to our message.

For those of us who are animal advocates, prophecy is our destiny. Many of us believe that our sensitivity to animals is a gift of the Holy Spirit that gives direction and meaning to our lives. It is also a burden in that we often suffer empathetically with the helpless animals abused by humans, and we often find that animal activism alienates us from family and friends. With opened eyes and ears, we recognize animals’ suffering and we reject the notion that victimizing them is righteous and just. In essence, we have heard the cock crow. I do not think one should be proud or ashamed of one’s prophetic calling – whether it seems a burden or a gift, it remains part of God’s plan for which we are mere instruments.

What are we animal advocates to do if we do not embrace our call to prophesy? The mob does not recognize their participation in scapegoating (though cynical leaders can, in order to maintain or increase power, consciously exploit the mob’s tendency to scapegoat). However, we have received a call to prophecy, which I think comes from the Holy Spirit. It is an opportunity to serve God that, while often involving challenges and difficulties, can provide great personal satisfaction. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:28-29). If we rejected our prophetic destiny, we would be committing blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. Will an angry and vengeful God punish us for our impertinence? I do not think so. Rather, if we rejected our destiny and denied the crowing of the cock, then we would live artificial lives devoid of integrity and, ultimately, meaning. Those who deny their prophetic calling are punished by their sins, not for them. By the same token, I think that prophets who abide by the Holy Spirit are rewarded by their faithfulness to God, not for it. The first challenge is to accept one’s prophetic destiny; the next is to communicate one’s prophetic witness to a resistant human community.

121:  Prophecy and Creativity

There seems to be an innate human desire to be creative. What makes one creative person's work "great," while most people's writings, paintings, music, etc. are ignored or quickly forgotten? Great art speaks to important aspects of human experience. "Pop culture" often presents human experience in simple, black-and-white terms. This has certain appeal, because such art is readily accessible, requires little intellectual work, and generally reinforces the values and beliefs of its intended audience. Pop culture has little lasting power, however, because it generally does not meaningfully describe the people's greatest inner conflicts or their deepest spiritual longings and needs.

The writings of the Hebrew prophets exemplify great literature. At first glance, one might expect the ancient Hebrews to have ignored or rejected the writings of the later prophets, who railed against the faithlessness and sinfulness of the Hebrews and denounced scapegoating violence. Yet, these prophets' writings became part of the Hebrew Scriptures and, later, the Christian canon. Part of the reason, I think, is that the ancient Hebrews intuitively understood that "sacred" violence is wrong, and that God wants compassion and righteousness.

"Great" artists aim to speak prophetic truth through their various art media. Often, the public resists the messages of the most insightful prophets. Communities usually reject revelation of the lies that the community wants to keep hidden, for example the lies regarding the scapegoating victim's innocence. However, Jesus said, "The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner" (Luke 20:17; see also Matthew 21:42 and Mark 12:10), and occasionally people eventually hear the prophet's message, when (possibly aided by the Holy Spirit) they are ready.

Everyone has the potential to have a prophetic voice because life invariably involves episodes of physical suffering, social rejection, and psychological grief. Consequently, we have the potential to identify with victims. In addition, nearly everyone can empathize with victims of scapegoating because nearly everyone experiences scapegoating. Nearly all of us have been falsely accused at some point in our lives, and we often perceive that the accusation has a mimetic quality in that one person's accusation encourages other people to join the chorus. Many people have experienced feeling impotent against a tidal wave of accusations.

Another common form of victimization, which one may regard as scapegoating, relates to one's relationship to one's parents. While parents generally mean well for their children, they often wound their children by trying to have their children be a vehicle for the parents' self-esteem. For example, parents often hope that their children will counterbalance the parents' own failings or shortcomings. Through subtle or explicit instructions, children gain an understanding that they should try to "make their parents proud." This often victimizes children in at least two ways.
The children naturally want their achievements to be their own. If they sense that their parent's love is conditional upon their fulfilling their parents' dreams, they will lose the sense of accomplishment that comes from defining their own goals and achieving them. Perhaps more poignantly, children can rarely live up to their parents' high hopes and expectations.

This can readily lead to a sense of shame and guilt, which often significantly damages self-esteem. With lower self-esteem, the children are inclined to do exactly as their parents had done - projecting their sense of shame and guilt onto their own children. The prophet, perhaps inspired by the Holy Spirit, neither internalizes the shame and guilt nor projects it onto others. The prophet recognizes the process of victimization and rejects it.

Nearly all of us have had experiences that have helped us appreciate the perspective of the victim, and this knowledge has helped prepare us to join with Christ in defending scapegoats. Nevertheless, the scapegoating process remains largely hidden. Consequently, even today, we often find it necessary to communicate the deepest truths about human existence and human community subtly and indirectly, such as fiction, poetry, painting, or music. By analogy, Jesus needed to use parables to communicate his radical ideas. I also think there is a place for prose, and I would include this book as an attempt at prophetic witness, but I think prose's appeal is limited to those who are very ready for its message. While fiction and other art forms can enter the resistant mind more subtly, those unprepared for the prose-writer's prophetic witness tend to close their minds to the message.

The medium of prophecy may influence how widely the prophetic voice is heard, but it has no bearing on the experience of prophetic witness. While we all have the opportunity for prophetic witness, many of us decline it, perhaps because we do not want to be rejected. However, our greatest joy may come from a sense of fulfillment when we answer our call to truth. This, I think, is one reason that "the truth will make you free" (John 8:32).

Jesus did not seek immediate popularity. Rather, he envisioned his ministry like a mustard tree that grows slowly and eventually has branches for all the birds of the air (Matthew 13:31-32; Luke 13:19). Will our creative efforts bear fruit? Some will, and most will not. The Apostle Paul wrote, ". . . he who prophesies speaks to men for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation" (1 Corinthians 14:3), but many resist our message. Indeed, we have little control over how people will receive our attempts at prophetic witness. However, whatever we do in service to God honors and glorifies God and gives our lives meaning, purpose, and direction. When we aim to glorify ourselves with riches, sensual pleasures, and status symbols, our lives may seem pleasant, but such self-aggrandizement fails to address the universal human psychological and spiritual needs for a sense of meaning in life. The result is typically misery and despair.

122: Prayer

According to the Genesis account, Eden was a paradise because Adam, Eve (and presumably all the creatures) walked and talked with God. Aligned with their creator, they were at peace with God and with each other.

Consequently, they had no shame or secrets, and they were at-ease in their nakedness. Furthermore, they trusted God and God's purpose, and presumably they did not experience existential angst, which arises from uncertainties about who we are and what our purpose in life is. Adam and Eve lost paradise when their primary dialogue partners became individuals other than God - the serpent, each other, and the inner voices of their own desires.

Listening to these other voices, they fell into rivalry with God, which made it impossible for them to continue their harmonious existence with God and with each other. Upon their dismissal from Eden, humans lost their direct connection with God, and the resulting uncertainties and anxieties about their existence have plagued human conscious and subconscious minds ever since.

Prayer is one way that people attempt to establish a relationship with God. Jesus sought to show people how to re-establish a proper relationship with God, which, Jesus asserted, had been corrupted by the legalism and heartlessness of Hebrew authorities.

Jesus prayed, "thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10), and I think we likewise should pray for guidance (mediated by the Holy Spirit) to do God's will. For example, Peter and John "prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:15). Many people have a sense that God is communicating with them, but sometimes the message they receive is violent and destructive. How do we know that we have received the Holy Spirit? The answer, I think, is contained in the passages "God is love" (1 John 4:8) and "God is light and in him there is no darkness at all"

(1 John 1:5). When we hear the voice of hatred and destructiveness, we are likely listening to a false god of our own, human making. Humans have created such gods since the beginning of human culture to justify violence and scapegoating.
The Apostle Paul provided further instructions on prayer: "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). How can we pray constantly? I think Paul was trying to say that everything we say and do should be focused on God.

Similarly, Paul wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:4-7). Paul did not assure people that everything would turn out well. Rather, he said that, by rejoicing in God and giving thanks, our hearts and minds would be in Christ, and we would find peace in our souls.

123: Healing in the Synagogue

I think that one reason Jesus healed so many people was that he was trying to show that our broken world desperately needs healing. Jesus prayed, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10), and the earth requires much healing if it is to resemble a heavenly paradise.

What has been the illness that has always stricken humankind? No doubt, people have suffered from diseases such as infections, cancers, and heart disease. From the standpoint of human community, the leading disease has been violence, as humans have killed untold millions of each other - approximately 160 million in wars during the last century alone.1 Human violence has also blighted God's nonhuman Creation, and every year humans unnecessarily abuse and kill many billions of animals.

Jesus taught his followers how to heal both the body and the soul, and the ultimate consequence was a path towards healing broken relationships in our communities. For example, in Mark's Gospel, Jesus began his ministry by entering the synagogue and healing a man with "an unclean spirit" (Mark 1:23-25). There are several remarkable aspects to this story. First, Jesus healed the man's demonic possession without harming the man. Previously, humans had frequently accused scapegoats of demonic possession and killed them or banished them. If it were safe for us to have our demons (e.g., addictions to sex, drugs, power, or fame) exorcised, we could acknowledge our demons and face them directly.

Second, the healing occurred in the synagogue. Mark's Gospel describes Jesus repeatedly healing in synagogues: "And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons" (Mark 1:39). Only clean people were allowed in the synagogue, so people with "an unclean spirit" would normally be excluded. It is not clear how the man with an "unclean spirit" got in, but the important point was that Jesus did not do what was customary at the time - to expel the man. Instead, he chose to expel the demon. Historically, religions have always distinguished "clean" from "unclean" people. This is what people always do when they judge others - people believe that they are "clean" and condemn others as possessed by "unclean spirits," or "evil inclinations," or "sinful desires."
People tend to see their own violence against "unclean" people as "God's justice" rather than as the violence that it is.

A third point involves how those in the synagogue received Jesus. Before Jesus healed the possessed man, they admired his teaching: "And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes" (Mark 1:22). Those with "authority" had always been able to "cure" the problem of demonic possession by killing or expelling the possessed person. However, Jesus healed with authority in a new way: "And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, 'What is this? A new teaching!'" (1:27). Remarkably, their amazement was not focused on the healing per se. Rather, they were astonished by the teaching, saying, "With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him" (1:27). The authorities had "cured" possession by scapegoating; Jesus' nonviolent solution to the problem of demonic possession was a new teaching.

124: Holistic Healing - The Man with Leprosy

Scapegoating invariably involves having "insiders" and "outsiders."

According to Girardian theory, all distinctions are grounded on scapegoating. Jesus challenged the legitimacy of these distinctions by healing in the synagogues (where only "clean" people were welcomed) and by going so far as to touch an "unclean" man with leprosy (Mark 1:40-45).

The ancient Hebrews believed that disease reflected God's judgment, and consequently they saw leprosy as a sign of sin. The man with leprosy was rejected by his community, and Jesus was "moved with pity", "stretched out his hand and touched him", and made him clean. Jesus told him to go directly to the priest "and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people.2"

In ancient Hebrew culture, similar to other primal cultures, touching an unclean person rendered one unclean and, consequently, an outsider. Thus, the people believed that, when Jesus touched and healed the leper, Jesus became unclean (an outsider). Jesus had told the man with leprosy that, having been cleaned, he should "say nothing to any one" but "he went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, so that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter" (Mark 1:45).

After Jesus touched a person with leprosy, people regarded Jesus as unclean, and Jesus was forced to reside in the countryside. Those who recognized their need of healing (unlike the members of the crowd) still sought Jesus' ministrations.

The instruction to offer at the temple "what Moses commanded" might relate to the sacrifices involved in the ritualistic cleansing of people with leprosy described in Leviticus 14. If so, I still do not think that this passage shows Jesus' endorsement of animal sacrifice. Jesus likely knew that the man would not comply with Jesus' instruction. I offer as a theory that the man, having been cleansed by Jesus, would not want to go to the temple. In the temple, the cleaning ritual involved shaving the head and eyebrows, as well as performing animal sacrifices. Since the eyebrows grow back very slowly, the man would not want to be marked for years as a former-leper.

Most contemporary medical professionals rely heavily on the "biomedical"
model, which understands disease in terms of dysfunction of one or more body parts. However, the biomedical model does not lend itself well to completely healing afflicted people, because it does not address the psychological, spiritual, and social aspects of illness. Jesus exemplified holistic healing, which includes eradicating shame and social isolation.

Jesus reintroduced the man with leprosy into the community by several means:
Jesus first touched the man, signaling Jesus' regard for the man's worth; Jesus then healed the man's visible lesions; finally, Jesus declared him clean, making shaving unnecessary.

Many healing stories relate Jesus' compassion and concern for afflicted individuals (Matthew 14:14, 20:30-34; Luke 7:12-15; Mark 1:40-42). For example, Jesus wept over the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:33-44).

Remarkably, Jesus twice defended his healing on the Sabbath by pointing out obligations to treat animals humanely on the Sabbath (Luke 13:10-16;

125: Healing and Empathy - Raising Lazarus from the Death

The Bible relates that Jesus was, with God's help, able to raise Lazarus from death (John 11:41). Jesus wept upon visiting Lazarus' grave (John 11:35), and this illustrates how sentiment inspires action. All healers care about those who suffer, and caring relies on empathy. How do we come to empathize with those who suffer, and, conversely, how do our hearts often become hardened towards those we victimize?

Most of us reject historically prevalent forms of prejudice, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. If we aim to explore how our hearts become hardened, it may be more instructive to look at animal abuse, which is much more prevalent in our culture.

Nearly all children have a natural empathy with animals, and (except children who have had traumatic incidents involving animals) children generally like animals. While adults consider children's kindness to animals a virtue, most adults wish to limit children's affections for animals, most likely because nearly all adults participate directly or indirectly in animal suffering and death. Many people, and many business interests, want to maintain animal use in agriculture, clothing, experimentation, hunting, entertainment, etc. In order to garner public support for these activities, animal use proponents emphasize the supposed benefits of their industries, and they denigrate the animal victims as well as the animals' human defenders. Why do so many people uncritically accept self-serving claims from animal-use industries? How do animal-loving children grow up into adults who acquiesce to or even endorse animal abuse?

Many children, upon learning that hamburgers come from cows and that "chicken" is actually a part of a chicken, refuse to eat the meat. In many households, parents sternly reply that the child must eat the meat or forgo dessert. When this happens, most children resolve this conflict between their heart and their stomach by training their minds not to equate the meat on their plate with animals. However, as Christians we must acknowledge that whenever we hide the truth, we open the path to sin: "For every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed" (John 3:20).

Those who live with farmed animals can face particular difficulties. It is easier to suppress mental images of animals when one only sees flesh under cellophane; children on farms must interact with and come to know the animals who will be killed and eaten. I think that an important component of the 4-H program is to transform children from animal lovers into animal killers. Many 4-H participants take infant animals and raise them to "market" size. The children care for the animals, and often the children and the animals develop strong emotional bonds. The children and the animals reciprocate affection, and they trust each other.

Then, many children experience an emotionally traumatic experience that will likely forever change their attitude towards animals. Even though a given child has understood, intellectually, that the animal would be sold for slaughter, present-oriented children usually think about this unpleasant prospect only when that day arrives. On that day, a child who has bonded with the animal bids a tearful farewell (often finding a private place to emote since adults often express little sympathetic understanding) to a trusting, loving animal, who is oblivious to the betrayal.4 Subsequently, the child will likely be either wracked by guilt and self-loathing, or (more commonly) will come to see all farmed animals as "things" meant to be slaughtered and eaten.

Similar to institutionalized animal abuse, institutionalized human abuse typically involves demonizing victims, a common manifestation of the scapegoating process. Demonizing victims helps quell natural human empathy by using terms that rob victims of their individuality. For example, killers during the Rwandan genocide called their victims "cockroaches," and animal names such as "pig," "chicken," and "cow" are often used as epithets to express contempt. Importantly, humans choose these names to express disregard, because these are the animals that humans eat or harm in other ways. Demonizing people and animals compromises truth, and the consequence is injustice. Calling a person a "pig" depicts them as glutinous and overweight and ignores their full humanity. Also, using "pig" as an insult helps people forget that actual pigs are intelligent, sociable, and have individual temperaments.

126: Spiritual Healing - The Invalid Man

John chapter 5 describes Jesus healing a man who has been an invalid for
38 years. The man was among "a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed" (John 5:2) who were at a pool "by the Sheep Gate" (John 5:2), which was the gate through which the sheep destined for sacrifice passed. I agree with Gil Bailey that the juxtaposition of these people and the Sheep Gate was not accidental.5

Ascribing guilt to those with infirmities is a kind of scapegoating, since people regarded infirmity as a sign that the infirmed person or an ancestor had sinned.
What I find most remarkable about this story is the scene in the temple subsequent to Jesus' healing. Jesus found the former invalid there and said to him, "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you" (John 5:14).

The man evidently planned to make a sacrifice in the temple, presumably to thank God for his good fortune and to reduce the risk that he would once again receive God's wrath in the form of an infirmity. However, Jesus said, "Sin no more". What was the man's sin? I do not think the man's sin was related to his previous infirmity, because Jesus said that the man blind from birth (John chapter 9) was not blind on account of his own sin or that of his parents. While disease can be a consequence of sin (e.g., gluttony), the notion of disease as divine punishment for sin seems to run counter to the image of God as loving and forgiving. Furthermore, if those with diseases and infirmities were suffering the consequences of divine punishment, then the Son's healing would, in effect, be undermining the will of the Father.

I think that we may ascertain the man's sin by noting what the man was doing - participating in sacrifice. Therefore, I think the "sin" to which Jesus referred was sacrifice itself. The man's experience of God's power through Jesus should have provided faith in God's love and goodness; he should not have needed to kill innocent animals in order to satisfy God.

Sacrifice as a means to approach God or to thank God shows a lack of faith in God's love. Consequently, Jesus warned the man to cease sacrificing, lest something worse befall him. That something is having one's life grounded on the lie that we can curry God's favor by sacrificing innocent victims. Wholeness is much more about living with integrity than about being able to walk. Therefore, the story describes how, after this meeting with Jesus in the temple, the man told everyone how Jesus had healed him (John 5:15). Formerly disabled, the man was now truly whole, both physically and spiritually.

127: Healing and Faith - The Woman with Perpetual Bleeding

The story of the woman with perpetual bleeding provides important insights into the nature of healing. I will quote the version of Luke: "And a woman who had had a flow of blood for twelve years and could not be healed by any one, came up behind him, and touched the fringe of his garment; and immediately her flow of blood ceased. And Jesus said, 'Who was it that touched me?' When all denied it, Peter said, 'Master, the multitudes surround you and press upon you!' But Jesus said, 'Some one touched me; for I perceive that power has gone forth from me.' And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, 'Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace'" (Luke 8:43-48; see parallel, Mark 5:25-34).

According to Jewish law, menstruating women were unclean and could not touch anyone or be touched. When Jesus asked who touched him, she was afraid, because she feared Jesus would be angry about the violation.

However, Jesus did not express disgust or revulsion; rather, he said only that he sensed power going forth from him. Jesus' healing significantly drained his energy, because it involved more than eradicating disease.

Healing the physical component of disease usually requires relatively brief time and attention. However, holistic healing involves psychological and spiritual assistance, and therefore it usually demands far more effort. The holistic healer must become attuned to all aspects of the sick person, not just the dysfunctional tissue or organ.

The woman was compelled to confess, because she knew that Jesus would identify her. However, in addition to acknowledging her act, she declared that she was healed. This, I think is what Jesus recognized as her faith.

Though he had participated in her cure, he did not say that he had healed her. Instead, he observed that her faith had made her well. She had been perpetually unclean, but her healing involved more than cessation of the blood flow. Her faith made her well in a holistic sense, and this inspired her to publicly declare that Jesus had healed her.

I think this story illustrates an important point about disease. "Dis-ease" is a state of mind in which one is discontented with some aspect of bodily dysfunction. One can have a dysfunctional body and not be dis-eased, and one's body may be functioning quite adequately yet a person may experience dis-ease. Everyone has spiritual needs for a sense of direction and purpose in life, which often involves a sense of connection to God. If our spiritual needs are not met, then we are prone to suffer existential anxiety and guilt and, consequently, to feel dis-eased, even if our bodies work well. The woman's faith made her well enough to align herself with Jesus, and she was prepared to "go in peace."

I do not think that Jesus would have withheld healing from those who lacked faith in him. The faith that helps heal the body, mind, and spirit is a faith that the divine cares about the cosmos, including all afflicted individuals.

128: The Gerasene Demoniac - Did Jesus Kill 2000 Pigs?

Many animal advocates have been troubled by the story, described in Mark 5:1-20, Luke 8:26-39, and Matthew 8:28-34, of the Gerasene demoniac. Jesus exorcised demons from a possessed man, and the demons then inhabited a herd of swine who, crazed, ran down a steep bank and drowned in a lake. A remarkable aspect of this story is that there is no such steep bank near Gerasa. Therefore, I think it is most reasonable to regard this story as revealing allegorical truths rather than as literal historical narrative.

In other words, I do not think that Jesus actually killed 2000 pigs; the story tells truths about Jesus' healing powers, but they are not all literal truths.

René Girard has argued that, according to mimetic theory, the Gerasene demoniac reveals profound insights into scapegoating.6 The possessed man was the communal scapegoat. He bore the burden of the people's unclean spirits - they could blame him for their own forbidden thoughts and desires that threatened social order and peace.

In Mark's account, "Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and bruising himself with stones." Normally, "possessed" people were hunted, stoned, and killed. Here, the man hid in the tombs and stoned himself, protecting himself from the scapegoat's usual fate. His howling was an affront to them, but they did not kill him. Rather than kill him, they bound him in chains that were insufficient to hold him and allowed him to bruise himself with stones without causing lethal damage. His self-expulsion from the community and self-injury satisfied the community's need for a scapegoat.

Therefore, there was a balance between the insufficient chaining by the community and the insufficient self-stoning by the man. This balance allowed the scapegoat to live while serving the community's need for a scapegoat. Perhaps this unusual arrangement began when the scapegoat, recognizing that angry communal members were convinced of his possession and determined to stone him, started to stone himself. Since the "demons" were already stoning the man, the community was afraid to join the demons in stoning him.

The "possessed" man naturally feared Jesus, who had said, "Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!" (Mark 5:8). Jesus threatened the balance of violence between the man and the community, which could lead to the man's death. When Jesus asked their names, the demons replied, "Legion," which means many. The demons represented all the forbidden desires of the community. They were parts of the human psyche, and consequently they could not have had individual names, which would have indicated that they existed independent of human beings. The demons begged Jesus not to send them out of the country (Mark 5:10; "abyss" in Luke 8:31). I think the "demons'" request reflected the community's concern that exorcising the demons from the community's current scapegoat would have forced the community to find a new scapegoat onto whom they could project their fears, feelings of hate, and illicit desires.

Frequently, people have tried to transfer the role of the scapegoat from humans to animals. When the demons asked to be sent to the swine, this represented the community's desire to see its own demons find a new home.

The story refers to swine as the recipients of the spirits, since they, as unclean animals in Jewish eyes, seemed appropriate repositories of unclean spirits. However, the crazed pigs went over a steep bank and drowned. What has happened here? According to Girardian theory, typically people have metaphorically or literally thrown those they regard as "possessed" off a cliff. However, in this story, the "possessed man" was saved, and the demons that had afflicted the community and that had been projected onto the scapegoat were destroyed.

The community's response to the cured man is illuminating: "they were afraid" (Mark 5:15). Their scapegoat was cured, and consequently their peace and equanimity were threatened. Many people have argued that the people were upset about the economic loss of the pigs, but if that were the case they would have been angry, not afraid. The Gerasene people asked Jesus to depart, Jesus having done enough damage to the social order already. Meanwhile, the cured man begged to leave town with Jesus, I think because the man was at high risk of being stoned by a community desperate to reestablish order. However, Jesus refused the man's request, forcing the man to bear witness to Jesus' act of healing by destroying demons rather than by destroying people. People "marveled" at the cured man's story, indicating that destroying demons was not as socially devastating as everyone had feared.

I do not think we should regard demons as individuals separate from human beings. They are our forbidden thoughts and desires that threaten to disturb communal order and peace. However, they do more than possess us individually. Because our desires are mimetic, they can become enshrined in institutions. The Holy Spirit works to cure demonic possession, but institutions can be more difficult to cure than individuals. Institutions can become false gods to which people offer blind allegiance. Consequently, words alone cannot exorcise them. One needs to demonstrate that institutional demons derive from and depend on lies. Jesus' self-sacrifice on the cross showed that "sacred" sacrifice, enshrined in religious "laws,"
was scandalous.

129: Healing a Broken World - The Man Born Blind

In John chapter 9, Jesus healed a man born blind.7 I would like to highlight several remarkable features of this story, which relate to how Jesus' ministry was fundamentally a healing ministry.

The text reads, "And his disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' Jesus answered, 'It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him'" (John 9:2-3). Jesus rejected the commonplace notion that disease is a sign of sin, which accords with Paul's observation that all of us fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). If God were wrathful and punished sinners, there would be no good reason to spare any of us. The "good" among us are merely "good" in relation to others; if everyone were much better, the person judged "good" by peers today would then be regarded by fellow people as "bad."

Jesus then said that he was doing the works of God, indicating that Creation is not complete. This recalls the episode in John chapter 5, in which Jesus healed the paralyzed man and said, "My Father is working still, and I am working." Interestingly, Jesus healed the blind man with dirt, which harkens back to Genesis 2:7, in which God created man with "dust from the ground." Jesus participated in God's work of completing Creation.

Completing Creation involves reconciling the world to God's original intentions, which was that all Creation would live peacefully and harmoniously (Genesis 1:29-30; see also Isaiah 11:6-9). In order to reconcile Creation, Jesus would need to "take away the sin of the world."

Informed by Girardian mimetic theory, I have been asserting that the "sin of the world" is scapegoating. We need culture to be grounded on something other than scapegoating in order to heal a broken world, and our faith teaches us that love and forgiveness is the proper foundation for a community of love and peace. In the crucifixion and resurrection stories, Jesus demonstrated the power of God's forgiveness, which, according to Christian faith, is greater than the power of all armies.

As Christians, I think we are called to help heal a broken world, and by doing so we join Jesus in reconciling Creation. Healing involves restoring spiritual, as well as physical, wholeness. Spiritual wholeness requires acceptance into community, partly because we are social creatures; partly because, in order to serve God, we need others to serve; and partly because our participation in and acceptance by community reminds us that we are all God's beloved children. Therefore, Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).
If it is true that our calling is to participate in the reconciliation of Creation, the universal fear of death is often a major stumbling block.

Jesus recognized this when he said, "For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 16:25; see also Matthew 10:39, Mark 8:35, Luke 9:24, 17:33). Throughout history, people have readily sacrificed others in a desperate, yet ultimately futile, attempt to save their finite lives. It can be difficult to see how this occurs, because the mechanism is usually indirect.

As discussed earlier, self-esteem is a salve against the universal fear of death. If we do not ground our self-esteem in our relationship to God, we can only gain self-esteem by being superior to other individuals. In practice, being superior often involves victimizing vulnerable individuals in an attempt to gain power, wealth, or whatever one's culture regards as "valuable." However, no amount of self-esteem can fully eradicate the fear of death. While humans can repress their fear of death from consciousness, death's inevitability haunts the subconscious mind.

Consequently, the typical human response to mortality fears has been to compulsively, relentlessly seek more self-esteem. Never having enough self-esteem to quell death anxieties, even those who "should" be happy with their degree of "success" tend to find themselves perennially unsatisfied with their lives.
Therefore, the human desire to save one's life (i.e., gain enough self-esteem to overcome fear of death) causes one to fall into conflict with and become disconnected from God's Creation, which in turns alienates one from God. The desperate attempt to save one's life distances the person from the God - the source of life - which increases one's sense of mortality.

Therefore, as Jesus taught, the project to save one's life results in one's losing it. One may find life only by trusting in God's love and goodness and surrendering one's life to God.

The stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus demonstrate that we do not need to fear death. If we believe in a loving God, it follows that, whatever happens to us when our physical body dies, we should not expect death to be bad. If fear of death does not rule our lives, we can become confident healers of a broken world, unafraid of the inherent dangers that accompany being healers and peacemakers in a violent world. We should not squander our God-given lives, but we do not need to fear that, should we perish, all is lost.

130: Healing - A Christian Calling

We are called to express love and forgiveness. This alone can help heal many wounds, including the deep wounds that arise from being treated as "unworthy" by people who gain their own sense of self-esteem over and against other people. Often, the most deeply wounded are those who have been victims of scapegoating. Many have rejected God, either because they have internalized their status as scapegoats and believe they are unworthy of God's love, or because they do not believe that a loving God would fail to protect them.

Specifically, what can we do to help heal? We can listen, which shows that we care. We can also respectfully offer what help we can. Further, we can help heal with respectful, appropriate touch, such as when Simon Wiesenthal let a dying, confessing Nazi hold Wiesenthal's hand. The greatest healing, which is not always possible, is to help people understand that they matter to God. While only God can fully heal the soul, we are called to help, and our life experiences provide valuable tools.

To varying degrees (some much more than others), we have all been wounded by life. We have all experienced loss, and we have all experienced the crushing feelings associated with humiliation. Also, we know what it feels like to be wounded (intentionally or unintentionally) by family, friends, strangers, and life itself, and we have tried to develop coping strategies to make the most of our lives. These experiences help us empathize with other wounded people, even if their pain is far deeper than what we have experienced. Our empathy makes it possible for us to connect with wounded people intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually, which in turn helps us heal other wounded individuals holistically.

How can we help heal those who cannot speak, such as people who cannot express their feelings or voiceless animals? Sometimes, we can help heal through mere presence or touch. Sometimes, we can help heal from afar, by mobilizing efforts to change the conditions that wound them. Also many people believe that prayer can help heal, by directing God's healing energy towards them.
Whatever we do to reconcile God's Creation is a healing ministry.

Consequently, healing often involves being a peacemaker. Next,  we will begin a series of essays on peacemaking.

1. Scaruffi, Piero. Wars and Genocides of the 20th Century
2. The Greek here can also be translated to them (i.e., the priests), which makes more sense to me. The RSV is distinctive in using "the people" here.
3. I thank Vasu Murti for this observation.
4. See, for example, Animal Place. The Emotional World of Farm Animals.
Vacaville, CA, 2003; Robbins, John. The Food Revolution. Berkeley, CA:
Conari Press, 2001, pp. 153-164; "Shnookey". "New Piglet. I'm in trouble"
[and subsequent discussion]. Farm Life Forum - Gardenweb;
Hurley, Blythe; Bernheim, Erica; and Mesaros, Angela. Where We Once Were:
Stories of Childhood.; Lush, Tamara. "Cakes, shakes, and livestock". St. Petersburg Times 2/28/02
5. Bailie, Gil. The Gospel of John [audiotape series]. Glen Ellen, CA: The Cornerstone Forum, undated.
6. Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986, pp. 165-183.
7. For insightful commentary, see Alison, James. Faith beyond Resentment:
Fragments Catholic and Gay. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001, pp. 3-26.

131: Peacemaking: Violence and the Churches

The Hebrew Scriptures describe peaceful, harmonious coexistence throughout God's Creation as an ideal. There was no violence in the Garden of Eden, and Isaiah 11:6-9 prophesied a return to this harmonious state.

Isaiah foresaw a time in which "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more" (Isaiah 2:4).

As Christianity evolved from a movement to reform Judaism into a distinct religion, it developed a hierarchical establishment that has sometimes lost sight of Jesus' ministry. Those with power have been tempted to defend their own privileged positions and other interests rather than to dedicate themselves to participate with Christ in healing a broken world.

Churches serve important religious and social functions, but there is always the danger that churches, like all institutions, can participate in scapegoating violence.
I think that Christians must remain mindful that church authorities who seem to be promoting violence and destructiveness may not be preaching Christ's gospel.

Quite commonly, churches claim to have the "one true faith." This is evidence of the mimetic rivalries that arise even between churches, rivalries that divide the body of Christ. Diversity of theology and liturgy within Christendom can promote intellectual and spiritual growth. However, bitter disputes between denominations and within denominations undermine community-building. Christendom should seek to become a unified body, bound together by a common goal to express God's love, which encourage Christians to tolerate differences in theology or liturgy.

Ironically, many Christian communities have yielded to the temptation to use scapegoating as the glue that holds them together. With the rise of humanism, it has become increasingly difficult to scapegoat people, but churches continue to scapegoat animals. Many churches have emphasized humankind's importance, not by pointing out that we are part of a grand Creation that God loves, but by contrasting humans with animals. I think this is one reason that, in general, the churches have not been animal-friendly. Christian Vegetarian Association members have found that churches generally resist Christian education programs that aim to expose the massive suffering of billions of animals annually on factory farms; many churches celebrate killing animals with social events like "pig-roasts"; and some churches even sponsor "Christian hunting clubs."

As Christians, we are called to witness for Christ, and this includes speaking up on behalf of voiceless victims, human and animal. A fundamental component of being a witness is recognizing when individuals are being victimized. The next task is to challenge the powers and principalities, and this can be dangerous.

[This series reflects my views and not "official" CVA positions. It is being archived at]

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