Friday, September 17, 2010

Saved From Sacrfice; a theology of the cross

S. Mark Heim's book, Saved From Sacrifice; a theology of the Cross, influenced largely by Rene Girard, offers a perspective on the cross of Christ that is relevant and adds a positive contribution in the discussion as to the meaning of the cross of Christ.
Heim begins his work by noting there is a growing uneasiness among followers of Jesus with the  developments which seek to explain what happened in that work.  The satisfaction theory of the atonement as advanced by Anselm of Canterbury (1033 - 1109) has had a prominent place in the past 1000 years but there are points where Anselm's proposition breaks down relative to the fullness of scripture. 

Heim suggests that Anselm is at one level helpful, but at another level he doesn't read the depth of what scripture is pointing to.  Heim early on introduces the reader to the concept of stereoscopic reading of scripture.  That is, scripture can describe an event literally, while also offering a counter interpretation.  Scripture can describe how people act, while leaving the reader with the impression that something isn't right with what's being described.  Read through the book of judges and you'll have example after example.  One of the first points Heim will point to is Caiaphas projection in John 11.49ff - "it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."

Heim suggests that on one level this description of Caiaphas is how the world works, not only with Jesus, but across the host of civilization.  When there is cultural trouble, when there is great angst in the body politic, when the gods are presumed to be angry, the crops fail, people go looking for a means to peace.  Since the beginning of time the way of humanity to achieve peace is to declare someone or some people group as the cause of the chaos and therefore make a sacrifice, of the person, or of the people group - to employ the scapegoat philosophy.  The Lord gave the Jews the scapegoat, but in other cultures, when things went bad the scapegoat was a person or persons.  This is the belief of Caiaphas, it's the belief all around us in contemporary culture.   

The result of this practice is a community that is held together, experiencing moments of tranquility, or of lack of war, but maintaining that community through use violence.  The scapegoating culture is a culture of victims, death and myth. 

Heim works hard to paint a detailed and expansive map detailing the narrative of scripture that is marked by this assumption and also the underlying current of interpretation that says there is something wrong in this assessment.  On the one hand Caiaphas is right in that the sacrifice of Jesus will in that moment bring an end to greater violence between Jerusalem and Rome.  But there is something very wrong about sacrificing the innocent.  And Jesus is not alone in the history of humanity who is the innocent victim.  But he is the victim unlike all others who returns from the dead, and instead of meeting out vengeance, He distributes forgiveness and welcoming into his arms those who abandoned who violated him.  He is at once victim and victor. 

Here is Heim in his own words:  "I unequivocally advocate a reversal of polarity in our common theology of the cross.  We are not reconciled to God and each other by a sacrifice of innocent suffering offered to God.  We are reconciled with God because God at the cost of suffering rescued us from bondage to a practice of violent sacrifice that otherwise would keep us estranged, making us enemies of the God who stands with our victims.  We are reconciled with each other because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity.  So long as our peace depends on scapegoats, we are never truly reconciled with each other.  We only appear to be one community until the next crisis, at which point the short straw of exclusion will be drawn by some one or more of us.(320)"

Heim's work is helpful in thinking again about the work of Christ on the cross.  He unpacks the unease that scripture carries about Jesus being killed on a cross, especially in light of the Abraham and Isaac story.  (Why would God want the death of his Son when he clearly instructed Abraham not to sacrifice Isaac?)  His work can be a framework for gauging the language and actions in the present body politic, in family structures, in church community.  Personally it's given me a different set of lenses to read the newspaper through. 

The one drawback to Heim's work is its length.  It runs for 329 BIG pages of small print. Cliff notes would be helpful.  The reader can have an almost full grasp of the work by reading chapters 2 and 10.  (For my friends in Kentucky who read this blog, you can almost read this book in 10 minutes:-)

If you've been musing about the work of the cross of Christ, I'd recommend this work to you.  Heim is fair and appreciative of previous work, even when he critiques it so that he might offer a differing perspective.  He illustrates in theological discussion what his book advocates - avoiding scapegoats and the offer of grace.  His is a challenge to our contemporary culture; in the world and in the church.   



Rich said...

Jason, I have been drawn and intrigued by Rene Girard's work for several years now (at least, as I have encountered it in the pages of FIRST THINGS). Admittedly, I have not been able to get my mind around all that I have read, and some of what I think I understand I don't fully agree with. But there is no doubt that he is touching on a deep, dysfunctional nerve within the social psyche of man. Therefore, I appreciate you bringing Heim's work to my attention. I will be looking into it.

I have never been comfortable in the "On the Cross, Jesus received God the Father's wrath on our behalf" theory of Atonement. I believe in God's wrath-- no doubts there. It really does not make good sense of Scripture and in the West it has caused us to be rather myopic in our vision of the Cross.

Recently, as I was reading through Wesley's Eucharistic hymns (many of which are wonderful) I was deeply saddened to see how many talk about Jesus absorbing God's wrath as a key component of what happened at on the Cross. Alas! the Wesley's, with all paradigms of their age that they broke, seemed to have remained trapped in that one, at least.

I agree with Heim that God did not need Jesus' innocent blood in order to save us from His own wrath-- rather Jesus is the perfect sacrifice because He freely offered Himself unto suffering so that we might be set free from the demonic cycle of "sacrifice" which our broken world had sold itself to.

In C.S. Lewis' image, the Stone Table cracks when Aslan arises never to be used again. In the biblical image, the curtain is torn in two -- the sacrificial system is undone, not only for the Jews, but for all humanity. (In the film, "The Passion of the Christ" I love how Mel Gibson depicts not only the tearing of the veil, but crack that grows into a fissure right down the middle of the Holy Place in the Temple.

As it says in the Anglican Liturgy, the only sacrifice we now offer is a "bloodless sacrifice". Thanks be to God!

Duke said...


Thanks for your comments.
You will appreciate Heim's work.
your work in writing for the Kingdom is helpful. May it enrich your soul, your home and the community seeking grace.