Violence, both coercive and systemic, reigns in the world. This is institutionalized in modern social structures. The myth of redemptive violence undergirds popular culture, civil religion, nationalism and foreign policy. It lies at the root of the system of domination that has characterized human existence. Religious traditions promise to heal the wounds of human existence by uniting human beings to ultimate reality and to one another. Through centuries church has claimed the atoning significance of the crucifixion of Christ. Theories of atonement have interpreted Jesus’ death in order to argue for its universal significance in reconciling human beings to God and to one another. However, a theology that affirms the salvific power of violence results in denigration of people, who are not part of the “saved community”, permitting discrimination and violence. This reality is reflected in the violent history of the institutional church marked by Inquisition, Crusades, Slave Trade , Segregation and collaboration with Colonialism, to name a few. Collaboration of the church and imperial power in violence against native peoples around the world is vividly illustrated by David Stannard:
At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the Indians they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance ‘as vassals’ to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer ‘all the mischief and damage’ that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you.
The collaboration with imperial power in violence undermines the claims of the church about the significance of the Christ event in relation to all forms of violence and itself as an alternate nonviolent community. The history of religions is also steeped in blood, sacrifice and scapegoating. The brutal facts of the history of religions pose stark questions about the intertwining of religion and violence.
Due to violence embedded in general understanding of the significance of Jesus’ death and the violence-seeped history of the institutional church, dominant theories of atonement have come under intense scrutiny. The impetus for this inquiry has come particularly in the late twentieth century from the perspectives of victims of violence, the marginalized. The Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating, as it relates particularly with the question of sacrifice, proves illuminating with regards to the general understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus Christ.
The Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating provides an important analysis of the function of violence in human society. This theory is concerned about the role of religion and violence in the formation of human culture. Rene Girard views violence as the foundation of religion and social system. It is the violence that generates a mechanism, which he calls “scapegoat mechanism”. This mechanism is generated to protect social order in a community. Girard believes that in the mechanism linking violence and religion lies the origins of culture. It is the death of Jesus Christ, the victim of the scapegoat mechanism that exposes the sacrificial structures of society. Girard develops his theory in his books: Deceit, Desire and the Novel, Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World, The Scapegoat, and Job, the Victim of His People.
A. Theories of Atonement
Twentieth century experienced sharp debates, sparked primarily by contextual theologians such as black, womanist and feminist about the traditional understanding of the death of Jesus Christ. These contextual theologians have criticized the atonement theology that delineates the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ, because it starts with divinely sanctioned violence, namely killing of an innocent person Jesus Christ. The atonement theology assumes that the killing of Jesus has resulted in something good, that is, the salvation of sinful humankind. Thus, the traditional understanding of the significance of the death of Jesus Christ has glorified divinely sanctioned violence against the weak, poor, women and marginalized.
Three major theories of atonement are prominent in the church to interpret the death of Jesus Christ.
1. Theory of Christus Victor
Power and military imagery dominates the articulation of the theory of Christus Victor. This theory stresses on the theme of victory. It uses the image of cosmic battle between forces of God and forces of Satan. Gustav Aulen discusses how influential this view of atonement was in patristic thought.
According to the theory of Christus Victor the fundamental human predicament is that human beings are enslaved to the powers of sin, death and Satan. The classic Christus Victor, which is identified with Irenaeus and other early church fathers, and several versions of it emphasize on the cosmic battle between forces of God and forces of evil. They see in the death of Jesus Christ victory over cosmic powers such as sin, death and demonic powers that held human beings in bondage. The emphasis on Christ as victor makes Jesus’ death a turning point in the battle against evil powers that enslaved human beings. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead assures final victory. Thus, the struggle is cosmic and the victory of Christ is cosmic. The overriding emphasis of the theory is that God alone, through Christ, accomplishes victory. Therefore, the redemption of human beings from the enslaving cosmic powers is to be understood as a gift bestowed by grace alone.
There are variations of the theory of Christus Victor. One variation is God defeating Satan through deception. Failing to perceive the divine nature hidden behind the human nature of Jesus Christ, Satan swallows the human nature of Christ and is caught by the deity hidden under it. As Douglas John Hall summarizes:
Christ, the Victor, cloaking for the time being his divine omnipotence beneath the apparent weakness of the flesh, deceives and finally destroys the forces of evil that are responsible for human misery, and delivers the human victims from the bonds of sin, death, and the demonic.
Another variation of the theory of Christus Victor is the Ransom Theory. According to this theory, the death of Jesus Christ is described as a ransom price paid to Satan in exchange for freeing the sinful humankind from the bondage of Satan. With the resurrection, Jesus Christ escaped the clutches of Satan and at the same time freed sinners from the bondage of Satan. Thus, Jesus constituted the payment God owed to Satan in exchange for the release of human beings under the captivity of Satan. In this image, God sanctioned Satan’s violence against Jesus as a price for freeing human beings from the clutches of Satan.
The basic weakness of the theory of Christus Victor is that it locates the cause of evil in “an objectifiable, transhistorical demonic power, separable from human community.” The cosmic powers become the cause of Jesus’ death. As a result, the theory ignores the violence of the “lynching mob”- religious and political authorities, and populace. By sanctioning Satan’s violence against Jesus, the Ransom Theory intrinsically contains divinely authorized violence. Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker rightly criticize the Christus Victor theory for the divinely sanctioned violence and abuse. Because God delivers the son for Satan to kill in exchange for freeing the humankind in Satan’s bondage. Brown and Parker further say that “suffering is a prelude to triumph and is in itself an illusion,” because Jesus’ suffering and death are understood as mere “divine trickery” in a plot to “deceive the deceiver”. This “divine trickery” expresses the essence of mimetic theory, where God mimes the original action of Satan (that is, deception), and thus, becomes mimetic double.
Further, Brown and Parker contend that a divine model of submission to victimization can have dangerous consequences for those who live in abusive and oppressive situations. They declare:
Victimization never leads to triumph…(rather) it can lead to destruction of the human spirit through the death of a person’s sense of power, worth, dignity, or creativity….By denying the reality of suffering and death, the Christus Victor theory of atonement defames all those who suffer and trivializes tragedy.
2. Theory of Satisfaction
A great change took place in understanding the death of Jesus Christ with Anselm’s book Cur Deus Homo? Anselm rejected specifically the ransom version of Christus Victor theory. He removed Satan from the atonement equation and made human beings responsible to God. Anselm’s theory of Satisfaction maintains that the basic problem in the world is disorder. This disorder is introduced by human sin into the cosmic order governed by divine justice. Human sin did dishonor to God. Now God’s honor is to be satisfied in order for the universe to remain just. According to the theory of Satisfaction, the death of Jesus Christ has satisfied the honor of God, and thus enabled salvation to humankind. As Williston Walker summarizes:
Man, by sin, has done dishonor to God. His debt is to God alone. God’s nature demands “satisfaction.” Man, who owes obedience at all times, has nothing wherewith to make good past disobedience. Yet, if satisfaction is to be made at all, it can be rendered only by one who shares human nature, who is himself man, and yet as God has something of infinite value to offer. Such a being is the God-man. Not only is his sacrifice a satisfaction, it deserves reward. That reward is the eternal blessedness of his brethren.
A post-Reformation variation of the Satisfaction theory is the Penal Substitution theory. According to this theory, Jesus’ death is understood as substitution for sinful humankind in bearing the penalty of the divine law incurred by them. In the Penal Substitution theory God’s law, not God’s honor, becomes the object of the death of Jesus Christ.
The theory of Satisfaction assumes that God’s retributive justice demands compensatory punishment for human sin. The premise is that justice is accomplished by inflicting punishment. The theory assumes that “doing justice consists of administering quid pro quo violence.” By bearing the punishment on behalf of the sinful humankind, Jesus paved way for human salvation. Thus, the theory of Satisfaction links atonement with the system of retributive justice or violence of God. In other words, this theory models the assumption that doing justice or making right depends on compensatory punishment or sanctioned violence. The implication of this is that the “lynching mob” in the killing of Jesus Christ – religious and political authorities, and people- is, in fact, aiding God in providing satisfaction for the divine justice or honor. Therefore, the Satisfaction theory promotes divine sanctioned violence.
Further, the human condition described in terms of human sin against God’ justice or honor naturally conceives the death of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice, which enables the sins of the humankind to be forgiven. In other words, Jesus’ death is understood as a penal substitution for human sin and to satisfy the violence (or vengeance) of God. If the violence of God is not satisfied, God’s absolute revenge or wrath takes place. If the wrath of God is not appeased, it would overflow into the world. In this harsh reality the need for a scapegoat would be pressing and permanent.
However, the argument of satisfying an angry and vengeful God overlooks the evidence in the New Testament that God is not the object of Jesus’ death, but rather sin. Peter Abelard criticized the theory of substitution for imagining a vindictive God. He deplored, “How cruel and wicked it seems that anyone should demand the blood of an innocent person as the price for anything…still less that God should consider the death of his Son so agreeable that by it he should be reconciled to the whole world.” Contextual theologians have also challenged the theory of Satisfaction as not only offensive, since it portrays God as violent and vengeful, but also a potential source of oppression. Black, feminist and other liberation theologians have shown how certain interpretations of the cross can promote a cult of suffering. As a result, oppressed groups passively identify with Jesus’ death as though suffering itself were part of God’s redemptive plan, rather than seeking to overcome injustice. James Cone criticizes the theory of Satisfaction that it is an abstract theory, which lacks ethical dimensions in historical arena. He comments, “A neat rational theory but useless as a leverage against political oppression. It dehistoricizes the work of Christ, separating it from God’s liberating act in history.” Cone argues that the abstract legal formula enabled “white” Christians to claim salvation through the death of Jesus Christ, while actively accommodating chattel slavery and racism. Womanist and feminist theologians also criticize the theory of Satisfaction as divine child abuse or divine surrogacy. Brown and Parker write:
Christianity is an abusive theology that glorifies suffering. Is it any wonder that there is so much abuse in the modern society when the predominant image of the culture is of “divine child abuse”- God the Father demanding and carrying out the suffering death of his own son? If Christianity is to be liberating for the oppressed, it must itself be liberated from this theology. We must do away with the atonement, this idea of a blood sin upon the whole human race which can be washed away only by the blood of the lamb.
Brown and Parker point out that Anselm’s view of justice is “not that wrong should be righted but that wrongs should be punished…God’s demand that sin be punished is fulfilled by the suffering of the innocent Jesus, whose holiness is crowned by his willingness to be perfectly obedient to his Father’s will.” The theory that glorifies suffering of the innocent for the liberation of others can be dangerous in an abusive society. This conditions the abused to accept their situation. As Brown and Parker notes, “This glorification of suffering as salvific, held before us daily in the image of Jesus hanging from the cross, encourages women who are being abused to be more concerned about their victimizer than about themselves.”
Thus, the abstract legal formula of the theory of Satisfaction not only accommodates violence of the sword and various forms of systemic violence, but also perpetuates suffering, oppression and marginalization of the poor and marginal communities by appealing to the suffering of Jesus or submission of Jesus to suffering required by a divine mandate. As a result, this theory condones the plight and suffering of the poor and the marginalized.
3. Theory of Moral Influence
Abelard rejected the Satisfaction theory of Anselm and its variation, Ransom Theory. He proposed Moral Influence theory. The Moral Influence theory assumes that human beings are to be enabled to engage in agape love. Abelard in his book Know Thyself argues that human beings are capable of deciding what is good through the use of natural reason. Therefore, what they need are knowledge of what is good and strength of resolve to do it. This is what human beings get from the death of Jesus Christ. Christ’s death provides a compelling and inspiring example to follow. Jesus, in persevering through humiliation and cross, embodies God’s agape love. God gave him over to die in order to display God’s agape love for sinful human beings. Thus, the Moral Influence theory features the death of Jesus Christ as a loving act of God for sinful human beings. When sinful human beings perceive this love of God in Jesus’ death, it inspires human heart so that they are empowered to follow the same example of agape love. This, in turn, results in reconciliation with God and with one another. It is the psychological or subjective influence worked on the mind of sinner through demonstration of God’s love in the death of Jesus Christ that reconciles sinner to God and to one another.
However, Moral Influence theory also promotes divinely sanctioned violence. The display of God’s agape love is in the form of God giving up God’s son to die. This interpretation of the death of Jesus Christ ignores its cause, the violence of the “lynching mob” – religious and political authorities, and people. It makes God the cause of Jesus’ death with the purpose of showing God’s agape love to sinful human beings. This demonstrates the intrinsic divine sanctioned violence in the theory. Like the Christus Victor theory and the Satisfaction theory, the Moral Influence theory implies that the “lynching mob” is aiding God’s will to fulfill.
Brown and Parker rightly observe that the Moral Influence theory is another image of divinely sanctioned abuse. By suggesting that the cross represents the highest form of love, the theory leads to further victimization of oppressed people. As Brown and Parker note, on the basis of the image of the cross as representing the highest form of love “races, classes, and women have been victimized…(and) their victimization has been heralded as a persuasive reason for inherently sinful men to become more righteous.” Victims become means “for someone else’s edification”.
Thus, the dominant atonement theories contain elements of divinely sanctioned violence. They are intrinsically violent, in that they make God the ultimate source of violence, and portray the “lynching mob” as aiding God’s will to fulfill. The traditional interpretations of the death of Jesus Christ use transactional analogies such as satisfaction, substitution and ransom, where death of an innocent person is required either by a just God or a divine law or Satan in order to save the sinful humankind. Such interpretations of the death of Christ trade in the language of sacrifice. If Jesus’ death is regarded not as a revelation but as only a violent event brought about by God in order to either satisfy a just God or a divine law or Satan or to inspire human heart, it is misunderstood and turned into an idol. Not only does this not make sense, but it is scandalous in a variety of ways. Mark Heim says that this kind of understanding of God and the death of Jesus Christ leads “to a fatally skewed faith, revolving around a central narrative based on sacred violence and the glorification of innocent suffering.”
Therefore, a nonviolent perspective that exposes and rejects violence in Jesus’ death is required. This perspective provides a basis to subvert the dominant theories of atonement, which formed a framework for the interpretation of Jesus’ death in Paul’s letters. Nonviolent perspective also offers a new interpretation of Christ’s event. This perspective is shaped by the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating. According to this interpretation, violence that fulfils God’s agenda is not a factor in the death of Jesus Christ. Rather Jesus’ death reveals victimage and thus, exposes the violence of scapegoating. The revelatory aspect of Jesus’ death posits violence and its correlates (substitution, satisfaction, ransom) as an anthropological datum, not a divine one. It exposes the lie about the divinely sanctioned violence. The death of Jesus Christ, in one sense, is like all other events of victimization “since the foundation of the world.” But it is different in that it reveals the meaning of these events going back to the beginnings of humanity: victimization occurs because of mimetic violence, victim is innocent, and God stands with the victim and vindicates him or her. In other words, the violent death of Jesus Christ reveals that it was mimetic violence that is the generative power behind the sacrificial structures, which are responsible for Jesus’ death or any victimization, which Girard calls “scapegoat mechanism”.
B. Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating
For the theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating mimesis is the starting point. According to Girard, human culture has been founded on two principles, which he calls “mimetic rivalry” and “scapegoat mechanism”. The anthropological characteristic that Girard sees as most fundamental to human behavior is mimesis. Without mimesis, there is no human culture. From his study of mimetic desire in the modern novels written by novelists such as Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky and Proust, Girard conjectures that human desire is mimetic. He delineates, “Mimesis is the basic human drive to copy what the other person finds valuable; it is the ambition to acquire as one’s own what is deemed desirable by the other.” Girard argues that no object has any value in and of itself, rather objects derive value “insofar as they are charged with desirability on the basis of another’s attachments to the same.” In other words, “the value of the article consumed is based solely on how it is regarded by the Other. Only Another’s desire can produce desire.” That means, desire is always mediated by the other’s (whom Girard calls “mediator”) desire.
Since the origins and mechanisms of desire are controlled by the other, the subject of desire is no longer in control of his/her own destiny, but becomes a slave of the other’s desires and preferences. As Mark Wallace explains,
Because the self formed by the other’s desires can neither understand nor control the direction of its own appetites and infatuations, the mediated self is fated to an existence within a nightmare-world of culturally constructed needs and desires that it cannot comprehend. Everything that generates the culture of a particular social group – from tastes in food and fashion to codes of behavior and division of labor – operates within the same gravitational space of mimetic desire. Generally, however, this gravitational activity exists just beneath the threshold of conscious choices and activities. Thus, mediated desire is the source of all acquisitive and addictive cravings, the foundation upon which the hierarchy of cultural values is established, and the criterion by which most interpersonal decisions are made in social groups.
In imitating the other (model), the subject may come to approach the power and threaten the position of the model. Thus, mimesis leads to competition at the most intimate level of existence. The model tells the subject not to imitate him/her, and becomes an obstacle and rival to the subject in acquiring the object of desire. Mimesis, thus, inexorably leads to rivalry and rivalry sooner or later to violence. Violence (called mimetic violence) that results from mimesis poses a fundamental threat to the community. Escalating violence renders humans more and more like each other, leveling distinctions and sweeping people up into ever greater paroxysms of violence. Since human societies maintain their order through a system of differences, erosion of differences threaten the order and peace in society. Mimetic rivalry and violence threaten to overflow into society. This results in “mimetic crisis”.
Thus, the configuration of desire is triangular. Subject’s desire of an object is mediated by the model (or mediator) of the object of desire. When the angle between the plane of the subject and that of the model is large, the distance between two planes will be proportionately large and the relationship between the subject and the model is a good imitation without rivalry. However, when the angle between the two planes is small, the distance between them will be proportionately small. As the distance between the two planes becomes smaller, mimetic rivalry begins to grow proportionately. When the planes of the subject and the model draw very closer, model becomes an obstacle, in the sense of a rival, to the fulfillment of the object of desire. At this point desire shifts its aim from the object to the model-turned-obstacle and acquisitive desire becomes mimetic rivalry, which contests for recognition and status, rather than possession of the object of desire. It renders the subject to be more like the model. This, in turn, begins to erode the differences between the subject and the model-turned-obstacle and they eventually become the doubles. This stage is called the “mimetic crisis”. At this stage violence erupts, where they want to destroy each other.
Mimetic crisis threatens the social structure, that is, society’s order of differences and values. In this mimetic crisis society’s order is normalized by diverting the violence of the community onto an “unprotected other” (a scapegoat) accusing it as the cause of the violence and social disorder. According to Girard, each society is engaged in some form of sacrifice to control this violence and to establish a social order. Through a controlled act of violence, that is, killing of a scapegoat, flood of overwhelming violence and its effects are controlled. As Girard notes, “If left unappeased, violence will accumulate until it overflows its confines and floods the surrounding area. The role of sacrifice is to stem this rising tide of indiscriminate substitutions and redirect violence into proper channels.” Thus, the purpose of sacrifice is to restore communal harmony and to reinforce social fabric.
During the course of evolution, Girard believes, repeated primal murders taught early humans that the death of one or more members of the group would bring a mysterious peace and discharge of communal violence. Societies had learned to contain mimetic violence from overflowing into society by channeling the tensions of mimetic rivalry and violence onto a scapegoat. That means, the opposition of “everyone against everyone else” was replaced by the opposition of “all against one”. Scapegoating channels and expels violence so that communal life and existing social order may continue. This pattern is the foundation of “scapegoat mechanism”. Since human socialization itself originates from scapegoat mechanism, it can be said that “human culture (is) an effacement of bloody tracks, and an expulsion of the expulsion itself.” It becomes evident, then, that scapegoating is the basis of society, and mimesis leading to violence is central energy of the social system.
Fearful that unrestrained violence would return, early humans sought ritual ways to re-enact and resolve mimetic crisis in order to channel and contain violence. “Good violence” was invoked to drive out “bad violence.” That is why rituals from around the world call for sacrifice of humans and animals. At a later stage of social development, animal sacrifice is instituted. In principle there is no difference between human and animal sacrifice. The important thing is that the sacrificial victim should resemble members of the community, but not be identical. Girard says that the crucial element is choosing a sacrificial victim. Distinguishing between suitable and unsuitable sacrificial victims is essential for an effective sacrifice. As Girard notes, “Between these (suitable) victims and the community a crucial social link is missing, so that they can be exposed to violence without fear of reprisal. Their death does not automatically entail an act of vengeance.” Usually people, who belong to minority communities or have different marks such as color, disease, religious affiliation and class status, become potential sacrificial victims. Domestic animals that have close association with the community such as cattle and goats are sacrificed.
Therefore, mimetic crisis generates scapegoating mechanism, where it rediscovers an object, not to possess but to destroy. The rivals get united in attributing the cause of the social disorder to a victim. Thus, they transfer their violence on to the victim. Thus, violence and lie become twins in scapegoating mechanism. Killing of the scapegoat victim restores communal unity and social order. In that process not only the guilt of “mob” as the cause of social disorder, but also its violence against the innocent victim is obscured. In other words, the lynching of victim must not be seen for what it is. The violent basis of transformation of social disorder into social order, however, is concealed from those involved. Both the cause of social disorder and the restoration of social order are attributed to the scapegoat, who is seen as having power not only to cause social disorder but also to restore social order. This makes the scapegoat victim “the supremely active and all powerful victim”, because of its power to cause and to cure violence. The victim is apotheosized as a god. Hamerton-Kelly says that “god is the transformed victim…(and) the mob makes the victim a god…the mob’s stupefaction turns to awe.” Thus, scapegoating is the foundation of religion. Girard says that at the origin of any religious society stands the murder of a person selected as a scapegoat. For him, the “Sacred” first appears as violence directed at a sacrificial victim, a scapegoat. As Girard writes, “Now the victim/god is the processor of bad violence into good violence, the violence of disorder into the violence of order. Thus the victim/god is the personification and reification of the mob’s violence through the victim.” In a mimetic crisis, the distinction between the Sacred and violence is lost. The victim is transformed into the Sacred, the mighty one who can cause disorder and bring order in the society. Thus, “the double transference” transforms the victim into the Sacred with its powers of threat and promise, corresponding to mimetic rivalry and surrogate victimage respectively. Both threat and promise represent two forms of violence: bad violence disrupts social order and good violence restores order. Thus, “Violence is the heart and secret soul of the Sacred”.
The conception of the Sacred is based on violence turned on scapegoat, then attributed to God. This is sacred violence. The system of sacred violence is based on self-deception that the energy of the system is not our violence but the violence of God. It pretends that God demands victims in order to maintain communal peace and unity. Thus, the order of existing culture is an order of sacred violence centered on the place of sacrifice and sustained by threat (prohibition), promise (ritual) and lie (myth).
In Girard’s view, myths from around the world recount the primordial crisis and its resolution in ways that systematically disguise violent origins of culture. Girard attempts to explain the origin of myth in terms of a historical event in which each community commits a mob murder of a scapegoat in order to establish social order. According to him, mythical language presumes that human violence “is always interpreted as an act of divine vengeance, as God’s punitive intervention.” Human beings get so caught up in these stories that they lose sight of the basic truth that scapegoats are innocent. Even though societies no longer practice sacrifice directly, they still continue to target certain individuals or groups as scapegoats. These societies blame them for all problems, resulting in marginalization and even extermination of these individuals or groups, so that violence will not overflow into and threaten the society. Thus, the lynching mob is at the foundation of social order. According to Girard, every culture arises from the incessantly repeated patterns of mimetic violence and scapegoating.
Religion conceals the violent origins of society. In order to stop violence in community it has to conceal violence against victims. That means, it has to conceal the truth of innocent victimage. Charles Mabee says, “Thus, truth becomes second victim, after the innocent victim.” This victimage of truth is perpetuated by myths and rituals. As Girard argues, “This concealing aspect of religion and the culture that it generates results in its idolatrous nature, that is, its propensity for creating fake gods out of society’s victims.”
However, unlike myths of every other culture, God’s revelation of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence, unmasks the mechanism of sacrificial violence found in myths, cultural systems, social practices, political ideologies and interpersonal relationships. Jesus’ death is not a sacrifice. Viewing Jesus’ death in terms of sacrifice, as presented by the dominant atonement theories, to effect human salvation reflects mythification. Such a view of the death of Jesus Christ reinforces divine sanctioned violence. Wink comments:
The nonviolent God of Jesus comes to be depicted as a God of unequaled violence, since God not only allegedly demands the blood of the victim who is closest and most precious to him, but also holds the whole of humanity accountable for a death that God both anticipated and required.
Thus, viewing Jesus’ death as a sacrifice posits violence as divine sanctioned one, whereas it is human violence that is projected as God’s violence. God’s revelation of Jesus Christ, the victim of sacred violence, reveals the falsehood of sacred violence and God’s rejection of it. It makes clear that sacred violence is not from God, but from human beings. Jesus’ death is not God’s act of scapegoat violence; it is human violence. Jesus was swept up into a process of sacred violence whereby the existing social order could be maintained. Thus, the death of Jesus Christ reveals the sacred violence that humans use to maintain social order.
Therefore, Jesus’ death is “significant more for its historical content than as a basis for an ideology of sacrifice.” The cross of Jesus Christ points to the shameful death of an innocent person through an act of human violence. Jesus’ death does not destroy the sacrificial structures, but it discloses and demythifies “the victimage process, which is detrimental to the liberation of victims and the human community intended by God of love and justice.”
Therefore, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the opposite of myth, because it tells the truth about scapegoating mechanism. It offers the new creation/kingdom of God as an alternative. Girard says:
Once the basic mechanism is revealed, the scapegoat mechanism, that expulsion of violence by violence, is rendered useless by the revelation. . . The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the truth of God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
However, the gospel affects but not changes the structures of sacred violence in this world. The structures of the Sacred and the customs of scapegoating will continue. But through the disclosure of sacrificial structures by the gospel of Jesus Christ, God establishes a nonviolent society. The cross of Jesus Christ is salvific because it discloses sacred violence, not because it displays God’s love as regarded by the theory of Moral Influence. The cross saves when human beings recognize scapegoat mechanism operating in the death of Jesus Christ and become aware of the violent legacy of the mimetic process. The members of the nonviolent society of the new creation relate to the system of sacred violence differently. Faith in Christ leads believers away from the system of sacred violence into a community of the new creation characterized by agape love.
B. History of Interpretation of the Death of Jesus Christ in Galatians
In Gal. 3.13 Paul affirms the significance of the death of Jesus Christ in human redemption from the curse of the law. However, he does not describe the specifics of the connection between Christ’s death and human redemption. Therefore, Christian theologians have used one or the other theories of atonement to explain Paul’s words. The church fathers, who employed the Christus Victor theory of atonement, understood Paul’s words in terms of Christ’s victory over the powers, including the law with its curse that kept human beings under bondage. Jesus, by undergoing law’s curse on the cross and raising from the grave, liberated humankind from the curse of the law. The proponents of the theory of Penal Substitution or Satisfaction have interpreted the death of Jesus Christ as Jesus taking upon himself the curse of the law that was threatening all sinful humanity and thus redeeming human beings from the curse. Jesus, through his death, satisfied the righteous judgment of God that was looming on the entire human race. Martin Luther’s comment on Gal. 3.13 in his commentary on Galatians gives an indication of the influence of both the Penal Substitution theory and the Christus Victor theory. He wrote that Christ became a curse for us by taking upon himself all our sins. Otherwise the law had no right over Christ, for the law condemns only sinners and holds them under the curse. For Luther, the curse of the law is the wrath or punishment of God. When Jesus Christ became a curse for us, he came under the wrath of God as sinner on our behalf. Luther comments, “He (Jesus) thus bearing the sin of the whole world in our person, was taken, suffered, was crucified and put to death, and became a curse for us.” He further says, “But because He was a person divine and everlasting, it was impossible that death should hold Him.” Thus, Luther sees in the death of Jesus Christ victory over the powers of sin, death and the curse.
Those who have opposed the Satisfaction or Penal Substitution framework have used the Moral Influence theory to understand Gal. 3.13. Mostly it was the liberal theologians of the nineteenth and early twentieth century who followed this framework. According to these theologians, Jesus’ death redeemed human beings from the curse of the law by providing them with an example of obedience and agape love. This example has inspired human beings to follow an alternate way of life where they are no more under the curse.
The biblical scholars have also used one or the other theories of atonement as a framework to interpret the death of Jesus Christ in Paul’s letters. Some have found support for the satisfaction or penal substitution mainly in Paul’s contemporary Jewish literature. On the basis of the support in Jewish literature, scholars have argued that Paul got the idea of vicarious satisfaction or penal substitution from Jewish sacrificial practice, ‘cultic juristic’ thinking, or martyr-theology. Rudolf Bultmann understands the death of Jesus Christ in terms of cultic-juridical terms. Jesus’ death is not only a sacrifice that takes away the guilt of sin, but also becomes a means by which one is liberated from the powers of this age, the law, sin and death. That is why Bultmann translates huper hēmōn as “in our stead”. He supposes that Paul was influenced by Hellenistic mystery religions (in which the initiated also participated in the death and resurrection of the deity) and the Gnostic myth. According to the Gnostic myth, there existed a cosmic unity between the redeemer and the believers redeemed by him, a soma, so that what happened to the redeemer also happened to those who belonged to his soma. By using this, Bultmann contends that Paul characterized the redemptive significance of Christ’s death and resurrection not only as a sacrifice offered once and for all on our behalf or as a punishment suffered in our place, but also as a redemptive event that could be interpreted as an event that indeed happened to human beings.
Lenski understands the imagery in Gal. 3.13 as a substitution of blood sacrifice. He also renders huper hēmōn “in our stead”, which represents substitution. Lenski argues that Jesus Christ assumed our curse. So he explains:
Christ bought us ‘out from under’ the curse of the law by becoming a curse ‘over’ us…In a word, we were under the curse; Christ took the curse upon himself and thus over us (between the suspended curse and us), and thus rescued us out from under the curse.
The curse of human beings, which Jesus took over him, “crushed Christ in death” and thus “his death satisfied the law and…ended the curse.” For Lenski, this curse is the curse of God. N.A. Dahl and G. Vermes believe that the substitution theme of Gal. 3.13 relates to Gen. 22, that is, the binding of Isaac. However, they are relatively tentative. No one argues explicitly that Gal. 3.13 reflects a vicarious, sacrificial death of Isaac. Dahl admits that this typology equates Jesus and the ram, rather than Jesus and Isaac.
Herman Ridderbos contends that the basic thought behind Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ death is found in the cultic-juridical aspect. Jesus’ death should be understood in sacrificial terms. It is an atoning sacrifice. In Gal. 3.13 and 4.5 Paul speaks of Jesus’ death as ransom. It is a costly price paid for those under the curse. As Ridderbos notes, “As the one sent of God, he takes the curse upon himself and he dies, burdened with it, in place of men on the cross.” Christ “becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3.13) expresses the thought of substitutionary (atoning) sacrifice. The thought of substitution “constitutes the fixed content of the ransom concept. For this reason the expression “became a curse for us” not only means “in our behalf” but “in our place” as well.” In Paul’s letters, Ridderbos argues, the idea of atoning sacrifice is closely related to a concept of forensic justification, where God as a righteous judge condemns sin in Christ’s death and justifies those who have faith in Christ. Although Paul does not say that Christ has redeemed his own from God, yet God is the one whose holy curse was executed on Christ in their place. Thus justice is satisfied. Even though the substitutionary satisfaction terminology is absent, “the idea of substitutionary satisfaction is materially present here.” Thus, “substitution and justification are closely related so that it can be said that Christ has delivered us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse (i.e. one cursed by God) for us (Gal. 3.13).” Ridderbos further maintains that “no matter how much people have been responsible for Christ’s death” it was God who delivered Jesus Christ to death. It was our sins, he says, that moved God to hand over Jesus in order to make atonement for human sins. Thus, Christ substituted himself for humankind in order to atone for their sins.
James Dunn also supports the understanding of Jesus’ death in terms of cultic sacrifice. However, he confesses that there is no clear rationale in Judaism concerning sacrifice. M. Barth admits, “It seems necessary to admit that we do not know or understand what the Old Testament and ‘Judaism’ really believed and taught about the mystery of expiating sacrifice.” However, Dunn supposes that Paul had an understanding of sacrifice, in terms of which he understood Jesus’ death. He argues that Jesus’ death is both sacrificial and representative in the sense that it is a “sin offering in someway representing the sinner in his sin.” According to Dunn’s understanding of redemption through the death of Jesus Christ, Christ redeemed human beings by uniting his divinity with the fallen humanity and destroying the power of sin and death in that “sinful flesh”. He bases his proposal on a particular understanding of Jewish sacrifice and argues that for Paul the “malignant, poisonous organism of sin” was destroyed in our fallen flesh when Jesus died and rose. He explains, “Jesus’ death was the death of the old humanity, in order that his resurrection might be the beginning of a new humanity, no longer contaminated by sin and no longer subject to death.” Jesus died as a representative of fallen human beings and “to say that Jesus died as sacrifice for the sins of men is for Paul to say the same thing.”
However, Ernst Kasemann contends that Paul’s letters give no support to the idea of substitution with regards to the death of Jesus Christ. He criticizes that the idea of the sacrificial death has often been unduly emphasized. Kasemann says that even though Paul was aware of the concept of substitution, he did not understand Jesus’ death in the sense that Christ offered sacrifice in our stead or carried the punishment for our sin. Kasemann contends, “Paul never definitely called Jesus’ death a sacrifice, particularly since it was in general accounted as God’s action and God can not very well sacrifice to himself.” He downplayed the idea of sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. He says, “The idea of the sacrificial death is, if anything, pushed into the background….” Rather, he argued, Paul’s thought was determined by the effect of Jesus’ death on human beings.
J.C. Beker has used the Christus Victor theory to interpret the significance of Jesus’ death in Gal. 3.13. He claims that Paul, basing on the Jewish apocalyptic idea, understood that Christ has inaugurated a new age by submitting to the curse of the law and then raising. Christ died “to break the power of the law itself, because the law had cursed him, whom God had vindicated.” This resulted in “the end of the dominion of the law and our transfer to a new lordship that saves us from the law’s condemnation and grants us new life in Christ.” Beker says that Paul rarely blames Jesus’ death on human authorities or rulers, because, for the apostle, spiritual powers of evil operate behind them (I Cor. 2.8).
David Seeley uses the theory of Moral Influence as a framework to understand Gal. 3.13. For him, Gal. 3.13 expresses Jesus’ innocence and his obedience. Jesus fully participated in the human condition, but lived obediently. The curse was attributed to Christ because he hung upon a tree, not because he broke the law. The emphasis is on Jesus’ obedience as the most important aspect of his death, and “it is the obedience which enables Jesus’ death to become salvific.” Seeley argues that Jesus’ death is vicarious in the sense that by imitating his example of obedience unto death, believers in Christ are redeemed from sin and the curse of the law.
The above brief survey demonstrates the influence of the dominant theories of atonement on the interpretation of the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ. However, Ernest Burton brings a fresh understanding of the meaning and significance of the death of Jesus Christ as he interprets it as a revelatory event. Commenting on Gal. 3.13 Burton argues that the curse Paul spoke of is not the curse of God, but the curse of the law. The curse of the law, according to Burton, expresses the verdict of legalism, which falls on those who fail in their legalistic obedience to the statutes of the law. The verdict of legalism reflects not “God’s attitude now or at any time or under any circumstances,” but that “which the legalist must, to his own undoing, recognize as (that) of the law interpreted as he interprets it, and which on the basis of his legalism he must impute to God.” Therefore, curse is not an expression of God’s attitude towards people, but a false human conception of God’s attitude that God deals with human beings on a legalistic basis. Those who are of “works of the law” are under the curse of the law, which falls on all who do not fully satisfy its requirements. Legalism understands Jesus’ death as accursed. Deliverance from the system of legalism through the death of Jesus Christ is not “a judicial act in the sense of release from penalty, but a release from a false conception of God’s attitude, viz., from the belief that God actually deals with men on a legalistic basis.” The death of Christ is “a demonstration of the divine character and attitude toward men.” Burton insists that the deliverance from the system of legalism through the death of Jesus Christ is an epochal event. God through this epochal event “announced the end of that system of legalism which in the time of Moses came in to achieve a temporary purpose,…(and) revealed his own attitude toward men, and so gave evidence that legalism never was the basis of his judgment of men.” Thus, the death of Jesus Christ reveals not only the falsity of the system of legalism, but also the divine character and attitude towards human beings. It reveals that the system that perpetuated a misconstrued perception of God as a God of violence is based on a lie.
The significance of Jesus’ death for human beings is also understood in terms of “participation” and “representation”. Christ’s death is significant for the human beings in the sense that they “participate” in it. As Karl Barth notes, “For then and there, in the person of Christ taking our place, we were present, being crucified and dying with him.” Christ died as our representative. Many scholars have emphasized “participation in Christ” as a key theme in Paul’s soteriology. However, there is diversity of views about the nature of “participation”. Bultmann claims that Paul took the idea of participation from mystery religions and is partly behind Galatians 3.13. He describes, “Participation in the fate of the mystery-divinity through baptism and sacramental communion grants the mystes (initiate) participation in both the dying and the reviving of the divinity; such participation, that is, by leading the mystes into death delivers him from death.” Thus, Christ’s death provides believers with “the means of release from the powers of this age: Law, Sin, and Death” because they are granted “a share in Christ’s death.” E.P. Sanders remarks that for Paul the notion of participation in Christ or in his death is “the heart of his soteriology and Christology.” For Sanders, “participation” in Christ’s event is a reality for members of the community of Christ. However, he confesses his inability to delineate the nature of this “participation”. Sanders admits:
It seems to me best to understand Paul as saying what he meant and meaning what he said: Christians really are one body and Spirit with Christ…. But what does this mean? How are we to understand it? We seem to lack a category of “reality” – real participation in Christ, real possession of the Spirit – which lies between naïve cosmological speculation and belief in magical transference on the one hand and a revised self-understanding on the other.
Richard Hays, T.L. Donaldson and N.T. Wright have tried to explain the death of Jesus Christ in Galatians with the imagery of representation. Hays emphasizes that in Gal. 3.13 Paul understood Christ as a representative figure. Jesus, by taking the curse upon himself and then being vindicated by God at the resurrection, has at the same time redeemed from the curse all those who participated “in his same story or identify with it.” Donaldson argues that “Christ himself makes the passage from ‘this age’ to the ‘age to come’” functioning “not as an individual but as a representative figure.” Those who participate with Christ in death and resurrection are delivered from the curse and receive the blessing of justification and the life of the age to come. Building on these ideas, Wright interprets Galatians 3.13 on the basis of “Paul’s corporate Christology”. He delineates:
Because the Messiah represents Israel, he is able to take on himself Israel’s curse and exhaust it…The Messiah has come where Israel is, under the Torah’s curse (see 4.4), in order to be not only Israel’s representative but Israel’s redeeming representative. That which, in the scheme of Deuteronomy, Israel needed if she incurred the curse of the law, is provided in Christ: the pattern of exile and restoration is acted out in his death and resurrection. He is Israel, going down to death under the curse of the law, and going through that curse to the new covenant life beyond.
Wright understands Jesus’ death in terms of not only participation, but also the Penal Substitution theory: Jesus took the curse of Israel. According to him, Jesus took the curse of Israel as her representative and exhausted it. Both Wright and Dunn argue for some type of “Adam-theology” in Jewish tradition that led Paul to interpret the death of Christ in representative or participatory terms. John Ziesler criticizes the idea of “corporate personality” in Jewish tradition:
While the Old Testament and later Judaism easily conceived of representative figures, it is not clear that they ever envisaged corporate figures, whether kings, patriarchs, Adam, or anyone else. It is now very doubtful whether there ever was a Hebrew idea of corporate personality which could explain Paul’s language.
J.C. Beker tried to explain the significance of the death of Jesus Christ by “transfer” imagery. Beker supposes that the preposition huper denotes the image of “transfer”. By becoming a “curse for us”, Jesus Christ broke the power of the law. Thus, Christ put an end to the dominion of the law, and enabled “our transfer to a new lordship that saves us from the law’s condemnation and grants us new life in Christ.” Beker is influenced by the Christus Victor theory in his explanation of transfer of believer from one lordship to another and thus, of discontinuity between the old age and the new. The influence of the Penal Substitution theory may also be seen in his delineation of Christ’s death “for us” in terms of Jesus “(taking) upon himself the curse of the law and (expiating) its punishment because of our transgression.” For Beker, “this expiation is primarily a sacrificial expiation.” He further says that Christ’s death eradicated not only the curse of the law but also the law itself. However, this does not find support in Galatians, where Paul talks about fulfilling the law or the law of Christ. E.P. Sanders uses the term “transfer” to denote believer’s shift from one community to another. In the case of Paul, according to Sanders, this “transfer” from his Jewish community to the community of Christ was due to his basic conviction, which Sanders summarizes as follows:
God revealed his son to Paul and called him to be apostle to the Gentiles. Christ is not only the Jewish Messiah, he is savior and Lord of the universe. If salvation is by Christ and is intended for Gentile as well as Jew, it is not by the Jewish law.
That means, Paul’s critique of the law religion is Christological and soteriological. It is derivative of his fundamental conviction. According to Sanders, Paul does not see any “problem” with Judaism, except that it is not “Christianity”. However, the problem with this conclusion is that it does not take into consideration the fact that Paul’s way of life in Judaism perceived the message of Christ scandalous in some significant way, which resulted in his active persecution of believers in Christ and his determination to destroy “the church of God”. And also his experience of God’s revelation of God’s son resulted in a striking transformation of his convictions about Jesus Christ and his way of life in Judaism. Since Paul’s persecution of those who proclaimed the message of Jesus Christ, the “cursed of the law”, and his determination to destroy the “church of God” was linked to his zeal for the law, his “transfer” from the Jewish community to the community of Christ would not have occurred without his rejection of Judaism, or the way of life in Judaism represented by “works of law”.
Using the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating, it can be shown that Paul’s experience of God’s revelation of God’s son exposed that Judaism was a sacrificial structure of sacred violence, which was expressed in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, persecution of those considered to be apostates, and exclusion of Gentiles. It also revealed that Paul’s way of life in Judaism was not a life for God, as was evident in God raising Jesus Christ, the victim of the “curse of the law”. This conviction effected his “transfer” from Judaism to the community of Christ, the victim of the sacred violence. As Hamerton-Kelly describes, “The transfer from one community to another signals a change in the function of desire, because those who have entered the realm of Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5.24).” The transfer of a believer in Christ from the system of sacred violence to the community of Jesus Christ, the victim of the sacred violence, means “to refuse the unanimity of conflictual mimesis” and participation in the nonacquisitive and nonconflictual desire of Christ, that is, the agape love. Thus, believer in Jesus Christ breaks free from the system of sacred violence, and becomes a member of the community of the new creation, which is governed by the nonacquisitive and nonconflictual agape love. Thus, the Theory of Mimetic Violence and Scapegoating explains believer’s participation in Christ event better than Bultmann’s “mysticism” or Wright’s “corporate personality”, and believer’s transfer from one social order to another better than that of Beker and Sanders.