Some Thoughts on Good Friday

A family member, when he very small child, developed a series of ear infections which were not properly diagnosed and treated.  As a result, he spent the first couple of years of his life with so much fluid in his ears that it was as if he was listening to the world underwater.  He heard just fine in a mechanical sense, but what he was hearing was distorted by the fluid.  Consequently, his speech was distorted as well--he was reproducing faithfully what he was hearing, but that speech was, in a sense, also passing through the fluid in his ears.  Eventually, this was fixed--tiny tubes were inserted in his ears to drain the fluid, and speech therapy rapidly addressed any legacy of the clogged ears.  In fact, he is a trial lawyer, so he literally talks for a living.

I've often wondered what must have been like for him the first time the tubes were inserted in his ears and the fluid was drained away.  He was probably too young to remember, but it must have been a revelation for him.  And it was a revelation in a different way than, for example, the people who first get cochlear implants.  For the cochlear implant folks, the experience of hearing is either entirely new (if they never heard before) or a 100% return of the experience they had previously (if they lost their hearing).  It's a black-and-white experience.  Draining away the fluid is different because everything is both exactly the same and subtlety (but importantly) different.  Before, you hear sounds that you can make out, but those sounds don't completely make sense, and when you try to reproduce them other people react strangely.  Now, all of the sudden that inexplicable gap disappears, and everything fits together.  There was a piece of the puzzle missing, one that made the whole thing work together, and now you have that piece.

People who went to Holy Thursday services last night and/or will go to Good Friday services today are very likely, as I did, to hear some variation of the notion that "Jesus paid the price for our sins on the cross."  We hear that, and we don't think much about it--it is almost a truism.  I certainly didn't think about it much one way or the other until very recently.

It was only through being exposed to the thought of Rene Girard and others working with his ideas that I really thought about this truism.  And, once I did, I realized that it was nonsense.
Here's a pithy description by James Alison from his book On Being Liked:

The old default account, common to both Catholic and Protestant "orthodoxy" was some variation on the "substitionary theory of the atonement." That is, some version of a tale in which Jesus died for us, instead of us who really deserved it, so as to pay a bill for sin that we could not pay, but for whose settlement God himself immutably demanded payment. Not only does this not make sense, but it is scandalous in a variety of ways. 

Once you say it that way, the problems become immediately obvious.  Why does a loving God demand from us a penalty he knows we can't pay?  Why does God demand a payment at all?  And how exactly does Jesus's death pay that penalty, anyway?  And why is the slow, horrible form of torturous death necessary?  Is it simply God's bloodlust that must be satisfied?  But why?

It really doesn't make any sense.  It's also not all that different from the Aztec gods demanding human sacrifice, which puts it right into the category of Tutu's Wager.  

But, if Good Friday is not about God's need for sacrifice, what is it about?  Is Jesus's death purposeless?  Here's where Girard's ideas are so powerful and game-changing.  It's not God that needs sacrifice; we demand the sacrifice.  We need victims to manage our memetic rivalry, to keep our society together at the expense of the marginalized few.  This is our way.

Jesus is just like all of the other scapegoated victims throughout history, with one critical difference--we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is innocent.  Jesus cuts through all of our justifications and explanations that we use to convince ourselves that our behaviors are justified and that the victims had it coming to them.  With Jesus we can no longer hide behind those shields; we must confront the reality that the scapegoat is always innocent, that the reasons we give for why this person must be sacrificed are always at the end of the day pre-textual.

Or, as Tony Jones puts it in his new book Did God Kill Jesus, when we look at the cross, we see a mirror that reflects back on us our own hatred, our own rivalry, our own tendencies to victimize others.  Jesus shows us what we are actually like, stripped of the self-serving justifications that we cloak ourselves with.  And it is only by removing that cloak, it is only by "Getting Real" in this most radical way, that we can begin to be better, that we can begin to step out from this prison of rivalry and victimization.

So, Jesus did die, in a real sense, because of our sin.  And it is true that his death is the vehicle that allows us to step out from that sin.  But not in that senseless transactional sense that makes God into a divine loan shark, or according to the oppressive, terrifying premise that God is lurking around the corner waiting to revel in our destruction and demand that his rage be satisfied.  Instead, Jesus went willingly to the cross to liberate us from the dead-end cycle of violence and persecution, to free us to live in a new and better way.

It is not hyperbole to say that exposure to Rene Girard and his thought has utterly and fundamentally changed the way I look at, and experience, Christianity.  It is just like how I imagine the draining of the ears to be like--everything is the same, but everything is also entirely different.  And that difference puts the pieces together in a way that makes far, far more sense than before.  I stumbled upon this quote, in an excellent summary of Girard's thought, which sums up my experience exactly:

When I first read Girard, and then Alison and others, I wasn’t just taking in theory and developing belief based on it. What I was reading and hearing corroborated and articulated so well my experience internally of myself, my motivations, my actions, and my observations of others’ actions. It still does, as I continue daily, hourly, to test the theory (or hypothesis) against my experience and my observations. 

It's not that Christianity is saying a new thing.  It is that I am hearing clearly for the first time.

Comments

jim said…
Correction: I do justice for a living.

jim said…
And bet on the ponies.
Michael Boyle said…
Fair enough. I stand corrected.

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