In 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.