Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Religion (Page 2 of 4)

On Jesus’ death, communion and scapegoating

GoatIn church last Sunday we took communion. As I was sitting holding the bread and wine (well, okay, the bread and juice) and thinking about the meaning of the eucharist (literally “thanksgiving”), a thought came to me that I’d like to explore a little today.

If you’ve been reading along here for a while, you’ll know that my understanding of Christ’s death on the cross has evolved significantly in recent times (see this post in particular). Specifically, I no longer buy into the notion that Jesus died to endure God’s wrath in my place – a notion I’ve come to see as little more than a Christianised version of a pagan sacrificial cult to an angry deity. Rather, I believe that Jesus died at the hands not of an angry God but of an angry mob, and that in his death he decisively demonstrated the all-enduring, all-forgiving love of God. (There is much more that I believe about Christ’s death than this, but this brief account goes some way towards explaining the core of the shift that has taken place in my understanding.)

One of the things that has shaped my thinking in this area is the work of French Christian anthropologist René Girard. Girard has written many books in his ninety plus years of life, and one of his central themes is the foundational role of scapegoating in human culture. An essential thesis of his is that human societies typically form, cohere and sustain themselves by identifying an enemy “other” who is then blamed for various evils and sacrificed (whether literally or metaphorically). In sacrificing a victim (which may, in practice, be an individual or a group) in this way, cultures are able to unite against a perceived common enemy and purge themselves of evil. (There is much more to Girard’s understanding of the foundations of culture and religion, but this will do as a basic introduction.)

It seems clear to me that, in his death, Jesus functioned as a scapegoat. The High Priest Caiaphas understood that it was better for one man to die for the people than for the whole nation to perish, while Pilate and his Roman cohorts undoubtedly saw Jesus’ death, at least in part, as a way to assuage an angry mob and thus defuse a highly charged atmosphere that was dangerously close to veering into open revolt. When we stand back and take a dispassionate look at the events surrounding Jesus’ death, then, it’s not difficult to discern this scapegoating dynamic. And, in discerning it, it’s not difficult to name it and condemn it as evil.

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Religion as reality avoidance

AddictAmerican shame researcher Brené Brown describes the current generation of adults as “the most obese, in debt, medicated and addicted adults in human history”. I don’t think I know many people who would seriously disagree with that assessment.

What’s driving this trend? I would say it basically boils down to one thing: reality avoidance. The world is just too painful and difficult a place, so rather than deal with the distressing reality of it, we find all kinds of creative ways to distract and numb ourselves.

Some go shopping, even when they don’t really need anything and can’t afford it anyway (sometimes half-jokingly but tellingly referred to as “retail therapy”). Others begin to indulge in eating sweet or fatty foods; at first, they find comfort in it, but it soon morphs into something they need in order to survive. Many immerse themselves in social media, spending every spare moment presenting a curated version of themselves to the world, all the while carefully hiding their true selves. Some are addicted to work; for others, it might be porn or sex; still others find themselves enslaved to alcohol or drugs.

In one form or another, addiction is all around us.

(As a bit of an aside, you might think the world has surely always been just as painful as it is now, if not more painful. I would agree with you. In which case, why the recent massive increase in addictive and compulsive behaviours? I’d say the key difference is that we now live in an age that is driven more than ever before by image. From TV and magazine ads and celebrity idols to the carefully crafted perfect personas with which we are bombarded hour after hour on Facebook, we are surrounded by unrelenting pressure to look the best, be the best, know the most, earn the most, have the nicest house, raise the nicest kids. And, conveniently, the consumer model quickly steps in to constantly pepper us with an array of products and services that will help us achieve those very things. It’s a double whammy: we feel more pressured than ever before to live up to an idealised image, and we’re offered more promises than ever before to help us do it. The prevalence of addictive and compulsive behaviours is simply evidence that these promises never deliver.)

But there’s another form of addiction that I haven’t mentioned so far, yet which is very common and very subtle – and which serves exactly the same purpose as all the other addictions we’ve already talked about. I’m talking about being addicted to religion.

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Erasing the lines

PrisonYesterday I wrote about how easily and subconsciously we make rules and draw lines that set us against others and define who is “in” and who is “out”. And I pointed out that the only people with whom Jesus seemed to regularly take issue were the uber-religious types who saw themselves as ticking all the right boxes while consistently ruling others out of God’s favour.

It seems to me that Jesus was all about freedom. This was and is in stark contrast to our deep-seated propensity to make rules for everything, whether implicitly or explicitly. In fact, I think there’s a case for saying that it’s our very rule-making and associated score-keeping that makes us bound up and not free in the first place.

Of course, I’m not saying there’s no place for rules in the Christian life (or in human life in general). The pages of scripture contain plenty of rules, orders and commandments. But where we go wrong is in making all those rules into definitions of who’s in and who’s out.

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New ways to think about sin


In the wake of the World Vision controversy last week, I’ve had a number of conversations about homosexuality and how we should respond to it as Christians. Nothing gets Christian passions aroused like a good morality scandal. (Relax, I wrote that with my tongue in my cheek.)

This has got me thinking not just about homosexuality, but about sin in general, and specifically how we understand it and talk about it.

We could argue about whether or not homosexual practice is sinful, but that’s not where I want to go today. What I’m concerned about is how, as Christians, we talk about sin, both intra muros and, in particular, in the public sphere.

I’ll state my case up front: I contend that the word “sin” is becoming less useful and even problematic, particularly when used in a public forum (including social media).

Now, before you write me off as a moral relativist, you need to know what I’m not saying: I’m not saying that sin doesn’t exist, or that it’s somehow less of a problem today than it used to be, or that we should stop talking about it. What I am saying is that I think we need to give serious consideration to how we talk about sin, because talking about sin tout court might not be helping anyone.

Let me try to explain.

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Embracing the unclean, aka radical inclusion

Hug a leperAncient Israel was a society and a culture ruled by strict laws governing what was clean and what was unclean. These distinctions were fundamental to what it meant to be an Israelite; you could say they lay at the very heart of Israel’s identity as a nation.

A couple of examples. If you had leprosy, you were unclean. What’s more, you had to announce this fact to everyone around you by shouting “Unclean, unclean!”. (One can only imagine how devastating that must have been to a person’s self-esteem.) And you had to live “outside the camp”: you were effectively excommunicated from society.

Now, since leprosy was a life-threatening disease, you might think the Israelites were somewhat justified in strictly separating themselves from lepers. But what about this: equally strict rules applied to women when they had their period, or when they had a discharge outside of their period. They were unclean, and anything they touched became unclean. They could only be made clean again by observing strict rules and offering sacrifices at the temple through the mediation of a priest. (No doubt it wasn’t easy being a woman in that culture. But just so the men don’t feel left out, similar rules applied to any man who had a nocturnal emission.)

There were also, of course, unclean foods and unclean animals. And perhaps the ultimate in uncleanness was a dead body, which no one, not even a priest, was allowed to touch.

Furthermore, uncleanness was catching. The prophet Haggai tells us that if anyone became unclean by touching a dead body and then went on to touch any kind of food, the food he touched would become unclean as a result. Interestingly, he also tells us that the reverse was not true: bringing unconsecrated food into contact with consecrated food did not make the unconsecrated food clean. One might say that uncleanness was more powerful than cleanness.

So many rules determining who was clean and who was unclean, who was in and who was out, who was acceptable and who was unacceptable. To be unclean was to be unholy, to be effectively excluded from God’s people. Uncleanness was like a disease that could be caught and spread.

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The powers exposed

Crucifixion lightningSacrificial religion and violent power have been close allies since time immemorial.

By sacrificial religion, I mean the belief that God must be appeased through blood sacrifices. And by violent power, I mean the enforcement of one’s will through coercive means. Each of these on its own is problematic; put them together and place them in the hands not only of individuals but of nations and empires, and they wreak havoc.

In the Bible, we first see them come together when Cain kills Abel. The same old story is then re-enacted in myriad ways and forms down the centuries: violent power is used to impose the will of a people group, a nation or an empire on others, and sacrifices are offered to various gods – including Israel’s God Yahweh – to keep them happy.

Fast-forward to first century Palestine. The ingredients are in place: a religious machine geared towards maintaining an almost unending flow of blood to keep God happy, and a mighty occupying force determined to keep the people under its heel. And notice how the occupying power is quite happy to collude with the religious system, and vice versa, if it is expedient for both of them to do so.

And so we have it: sacrificial religion sentences Jesus to death, and violent power supplies the apparatus of execution and supervises the gruesome proceedings. It’s the perfect marriage: Caiaphas and Pilate working together to murder the Son of God. No doubt they congratulated themselves on the neatness of their solution: for Caiaphas, it was expedient that one man should die for the people, and for Pilate, the life of one wandering Galilean was an inconsequential price to pay to keep those troublesome Jews from rising up and making trouble. Job done, everyone happy, the world rolls on.

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The five ages of the church

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.

(Attributed to Richard Halverson, former chaplain to the US Senate)

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