Two thousand years ago, Jesus of Nazareth died on a cross. Ever since then, those who consider themselves his disciples have been putting forth various interpretations for what Jesus’ death means for humanity. Unlike such subjects as the Trinity and the dual-nature of Jesus, what happened on the cross was never included as part of the great creeds of the early church. It is as if Christians have always realized that the cross was too big an event to squeeze into one explanation.
So we have various “theories of the atonement“. There is the penal substitution theory which states Jesus Christ took our place and accepted the wrath of God that our sin deserved. There is Christus Victor, where Jesus defeated Satan and the evil powers that held us in slavery, freeing us to know God. Then there is the exemplarist view, where Jesus on the cross is the ultimate example of how we ought to live and it moves us to live differently.
Of course each of these views is open to various nuance, and holding to one of them does not rule out the others (it makes me think of Scot McKnight’s great book, A Community Called Atonement, where he likens these theories to golf clubs: each different club has a purpose in different situations and all are needed for a full game of golf…or understanding of the cross).
Mark Heim, in his book Saved from Sacrifice, presents another theory of the atonement (to be set alongside others, not put in place of them), relying heavily on the work of Rene Girard. Briefly, humans tend to mimic each other, leading us to desire the same things which brings us into conflict. Such conflict causes unrest in societies, so historically all this unrest would lead to one person being chosen and killed as a sacrifice. This person was the scapegoat, blamed for all problems and evils in the society. At the same time, since this killing brought peace, this person was honored. Girard argues that this story is seen throughout religions and literature. But it is hidden, for the real story cannot be told, in other words the innocence of the scapegoat cannot be admitted. For the sacrifice to do its work, the society must convince itself of the guilt of the scapegoat.
What is unique in the Jewish scripture is the unmasking of this story. Alone among ancient religion, Girard argues that the Bible is filled with stories of innocent victims. The clearest example of this is Jesus himself who dies as the ultimate innocent victim.
Heim’s book spends a lot of time looking at what this all means. It is one of those books that is hard to grasp, I think, because I am so familiar with the source material. In other words, I am so familiar with the New Testament that I have preconceived notions of what it all means. Heim’s book tries to show the stories in a different light which is fantastic as you read it, but hard to grasp in the face of a lifetime of reading it differently. That said, working to get your mind around this understanding of the cross is rewarding.
One point Heim returns to over and over is that the stories in the gospels of Jesus’ crucifixion emphasize two points: the crucifixion should NOT be happening, for Jesus is innocent, yet it is good that it is happening. Holding these two points together is the challenge for any explanation of what it all means.
Heim argues that Jesus going to the cross was not God’s plan so much as it is God condescending to a human idea. Many Christians think God became human in Jesus Christ and went to the cross because it was all God’s plan and idea. Yet Heim argues, following Girard, that executing innocent victims is not something God would do, it is something humans do throughout our history. Thus Jesus goes to the cross to save humans from our tendency to sacrifice innocents and through that to bring peace.
On the cross God identifies with innocent victims. Thus, those who claim to be on God’s side can no longer take part in the sacrificial, scapegoating system. We are saved from creating scapegoats, from blaming our problems on others, from forming unity via violence and excommunication. Jesus on the cross pulls back the curtain, unmasks the evil of scapegoating sacrifice, and shows us a new way to live. Instead of unity through violence, diverse people join together in communion (mass, eucharist), a ritual that requires no continued sacrifice and no continued violence. You could say we are set free to live in relationship with God and one another.
I thought it was especially interesting how Heim shows that part of the reason we miss this way of looking at the cross is that it was so successful in changing how our culture thinks of sacrifice. The fact that some people reject Christianity because Jesus was crucified though innocent is a testimony to Christianity’s influence: it is Christianity’s influence that makes us show revulsion at scapegoating. This goes so far as to see the complete redefinition of sacrifice. We still talk about sacrifice and self-sacrifice but not in literal terms, such as those prior to the execution of Jesus spoke.
One thing I wish Heim had spoken of more was how this would preach. It is clear how Christians, as a subculture, utilize the scapegoat idea today in such things as the “culture war“, casting all the blame on one group, seeing them as the reason why everything is wrong. As I was reading, I was thinking of individual people and how they may scapegoat others and how this message of the cross could be applied to free them from that. Is it as simple as saying not to blame your coworker, neighbor or whomever when something in life goes wrong? Again, I wish Heim had done more to apply this message of the cross practical ministry.
As you can see, this book has given me a lot to think on, which alone makes it a worthwhile book.