Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #B.5
[Published as “Scapegoating No More: Christian Pacifism and New Testament Understandings of the Death of Jesus” in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking (Telford, PA: Cascadia Publishing House, 2000), 49-69.]
There is a paradox with the human religious experience. On the one hand, religion is a main (perhaps the main) dynamic in death-dealing violence in the world. On the other hand, religious faith also often provides the main basis for the fruitful rejection of death-dealing violence.
We certainly see religion as a main dynamic in death-dealing violence in generation after generation of “holy” wars—the Crusades, the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics in the seventeenth century, the conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in newly liberated India in the 1940s, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and the ongoing hostilities in the Middle East among Muslims and Jews.
Most pre-meditated death-dealing violence requires some sort of fueling ideology which justifies humans taking other humans’ lives. Often this ideology has a clear religious element; what is claimed to be a divinely sanctioned rationale for coercion, even the taking of human life.
At the same time, religious faith is also one of the keys for people finding the way toward somehow breaking this spiral of violence. For many people religious faith affirms that that which is beautiful and worthwhile about the human project comes from God—the merciful and loving creator who desires human flourishing and wellbeing, and who grieves at the costly spiral of violence. The heart of many people’s religious faith moves them at their deepest being to care passionately about finding a way out of this spiral of violence.
For many people, Christianity claims that we have in Jesus a model of a human way of living that breaks free from the spiral of violence. Jesus models—in life and in teaching—a way toward genuine peace. Therefore, despite the bloody hands apparent throughout the history of Christianity, many people believe one of our main sources of hope remains the story of Jesus.
Christian pacifism has always held that the story of Jesus points toward the rejection of all violence. However, the question of how to overcome the problems of violence confronts everyone with renewed urgency. As René Girard asserts, in the light of the modern world’s weapons of mass destruction, human beings are essentially faced with a choice: total destruction or total renunciation of violence.
The Christian response to violence, even among Christian pacifists, has not taken seriously enough the centrality of violence in the Bible. The biblical materials take violence seriously as something central to human reality. At least some of those materials ultimately show that at the very heart of God, the very heart of reality—violence has no place. As Walter Wink puts it: “The violence of Scripture, embarrassing to us, [actually] became the means by which sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetuated against victims in the name of a God who, through violence, was working to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.”
A major aspect of the Bible as a resource for peacemaking is actually that part of the biblical materials which has been seen as most problematic—the Bible’s portrayal of violence. One especially important case of this is the portrayal of Jesus’ death. In the death of Jesus, the two sides of the paradox of religion come into focus. On the one hand, Jesus’ death reveals a great deal about religious ideology as a major dynamic in death-dealing violence. And, on the other hand, Jesus’ death reveals a great deal about religious faith as a source of freedom from giving in to the cycle of violence.
The work of René Girard and several biblical theologians directly influenced by him provides a helpful challenge to consider the importance of these issues. Girard has asserted that the issue of violence is central to human existence. Only by facing this, understanding it, and coming to terms with it can we hope to break free from violence’s dominion.
Girard helps us see that conceptions of the sacred are based on violence which is turned on scapegoats and then attributed to God. This is Sacred violence. For him, the revelation of the true God involves exposing the falsehood of sacred violence. The justification of such violence does not come from the true God. With such a revelation, it becomes increasingly clear that “the actual initiative to kill does not originate in God after all, but in human beings.” Sacred violence is not from God, but simply “human beings attacking one another.”
Girard also points out that mythology is generally told from the point of view of people on the top, who often are killers. Demythification, on the other hand, retells “the story from the point of view of the victim.” The Bible is uniquely characterized by such demythification, by such an emphasis on the point of the view of the victims. So the Bible is a unique resource for exposing mythology which blinds us to the reality that social structures which victimize the many on behalf of people on the top are themselves violent.
Seeing Jesus’ death primarily as a sacrifice offered to a holy God in order to effect salvation actually reflects such mythification, and such a view buttresses structural violence. For Girardians, demythifying Jesus’ death helps us to see that Jesus did not die as such a sacrifice at all. Rather, Jesus’ death reveals God’s love as that which refuses “to participate in the cycle of mimetic desire and vengeance.” Jesus’ death is not an act of violence that God needs.
Girardians associate sacrifice with sacred violence. Sacrificial theology does not help us to overcome the problem of violence. Rather, sacrificial theology pictures ultimate reality (the heart of God itself) as requiring violence—the death of innocent victims. Therefore, ultimately, sacrifice does not provide the means to genuine salvation and shalom, but only adds to the spiral of violence.
The central violent event in the Bible is the death of Jesus. In how it portrays this death, the Bible itself reflects the paradox characteristic of religious faith—where religious faith both adds to the spiral of violence and also provides the best means to break free from it. In the New Testament, Jesus’ death is in places interpreted in sacrificial terms, as some sort of cosmic transaction in which an act of violence is what enables God to effect human salvation.
However, such an interpretation reflects a perspective on God different from that revealed by Jesus himself. Jesus portrayed God not in terms of vengeance and wrath, but in terms of unconditional love and forgiveness, not at all in need of blood sacrifice. The church, though, came to portray God differently. Jesus’ infinitely merciful God came to be seen as one whose wrath required blood atonement. This leads leads to God requiring Jesus to die on behalf of us all. In Wink’s words:
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.
Sacrificial theology stands in tension with thoroughgoing pacifism because it posits a violence deep in the heart of God. Such violence ultimately undergirds inter-human violence. Such violence is attributed to God but in actuality is only a projection of human violence.
However, the Bible contains other understandings of the death of Jesus which take us beyond sacrificial thinking. My focus in this paper is not primarily on arguing against sacrifice. More so, I present an alternative way of thinking of Jesus’ death which I believe has more relevance for Christian pacifism and is more in line with how Jesus himself portrayed God. The New Testament does contain a great deal of sacrificial theology. However, I want to focus on selected New Testament materials that provide a basis for an interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ death which is not determined by sacred violence.
Stimulated by Girardian thinking, I want to consider Jesus’ death in relation to several issues—namely, Jesus’ relationship with religious institutionalism as portrayed in Mark’s Gospel, especially in relation to the Jerusalem Temple; Jesus relationship with cultural exclusivism as portrayed in some of Paul’s letters, especially in relation to the law; and Jesus relationship with political authoritarianism as portrayed in the Book of Revelation, especially in relation to the Roman empire.
The significance of Jesus’ cross lays in its historical content, not as a basis for an ideology of sacrifice. This content is the shameful death of a good person through an act of violence on the part of the established order. Jesus’ death does not destroy these social structures. But, though leaving them intact, it reveals their true nature and thus provides a basis for withdrawal of credibility and allegiance. In this way, their effective power is overcome.
When we focus on the historical content of Jesus’ death, and the applications New Testament writers make based on that content, we find two main themes. They are, first, the exposure of the violence of major social structures. This exposure undercuts the authority given to these institutions and in this way makes freedom to break the spiral of violence more of a possibility. Secondly, the life of Jesus, including, especially, the way he faced the violence of these institutions which he brought to surface, points to freedom from violence.
Jesus Exposes Institutionalism (The Gospel of Mark)
The stories in the latter part of Mark’s Gospel leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion highlight Jesus’ conflict with the religious institution of the Temple.
The Temple was absolutely essential to established life in Jerusalem and Judea. It was the economic center of Jerusalem. An estimated eighty percent of Jerusalem’s employment was dependent on the Temple. The Temple was the political center. Since Israel was a religious state, its religious code was also its state and civil code. The leadership organ of the Temple, the Sanhedrin, also carried legislative and executive power. This power was heightened due to the Sanhedrin’s cooperation with Roman rule. However, most of all, the Temple was the religious center. The Temple was where God was present on earth. It was “a religious center and theological symbol of tremendous emotive power.”
As Mark’s drama approaches its climax, he has Jesus entering Jerusalem (11:1). This begins the final stage, the last week of Jesus’ life.
Right away (in 11:11), Jesus visits the Temple. The sense of conflict is established: Jesus versus the religious leaders, the Temple authorities. The conflict escalates when Jesus returns to the Temple a second time and proceeds to “drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the Temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple” (11:15). With these actions, Jesus expresses his hostility toward the Temple ritual.
Mark brackets this confrontation in the Temple with a two-part account of Jesus cursing a fig tree and causing it to wither (11:12-14; 11:20-21). The fig tree symbolizes Israel and its fate reflects the fate of the Temple. Jesus, with his challenge to the Temple, is actually acting out God’s judgment on the Temple. The problem with the Temple is that it has failed to be “a house of prayer for all the nations”. Instead, the Temple had become a center for religious exclusivism and economic exploitation.
Jesus quotes two Old Testament prophets here: Isaiah 56:7 (“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”) and Jeremiah 7:11 (“You have made it a den of robbers”). The context of the Isaiah text is a portrayal of an eschatological hope of foreigners flocking to Jerusalem. The Jeremiah quote is part of Jeremiah’s condemning the people of Judea for presuming that God would continue to sustain the Temple even in the face of their sinful living. Jesus uses Israel’s prophets to challenge Israel’s present Temple practices, which he asserts are corrupt and counter to God’s intentions.
We are told that in response to this so-called cleansing of the Temple, “the chief priests and scribes…kept looking for a way to kill [Jesus]” (11:18). These people, the religious leaders, were, for a time, restrained by the popularity Jesus had with the crowds. But they fully intended to do away with Jesus. He was a major threat to their purity-based system of religious control. He not only has shown himself to be cavalier towards the purity regulations, but he also was widely known and popular. These factors alone were cause for alarm. Added to these was his direct confrontation with the Temple.
The parable of the vineyard that immediately follows (12:1-12) is one of Jesus’ most allegory-like parables. He likens the vineyard to the people of Israel, the watchtower to the Temple, and the tenants to the religious leaders. The Temple was intended by God from of old to be a center for justice among Israel, but instead became a center for injustice. God sent messengers, “slaves,” to restore the vineyard to its intended purposes. But the tenants murdered those messengers—analogous to the fate of prophets throughout the history of Israel. Finally, the master sends his “beloved son,” who is also murdered. This is the last straw for the owner, and he promises to come to “destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others.”
These tenants (the religious leaders) have shown that they are in actuality rivals to the owner (God). The practices of the Temple are hence seen to be not faithful responses to God’s wishes but rather efforts to usurp God’s place as Israel’s object of worship. This is indeed a harsh critique. The parable is patterned after Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard (Isa 5:1-7) which was itself a strong critique of unfaithful eighth-century Israel. The parable ends with a quote from Psalm 118:22-23, a Temple Psalm. Temple imagery thus pervades the parable. That the parable was meant as a critique of current Temple practices and the religious leaders is seen in their response. “When they [the chief priests and scribes of 11:18 and 11:27] realized that [Jesus] had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him” (12:12).
Jesus speaks in Mark 13 of the destruction of the Temple. One of the disciples exclaims regarding the greatness of the Temple: “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” The Temple, constructed by Herod, was famous for its splendor. This exclamation likely reflects just the sense of security about the great Temple as guarantor of God’s ongoing protection for the chosen people which Jeremiah critiqued in the text Jesus earlier quoted. These wonderful buildings were seen to symbolize God’s presence with Israel.
Jesus, however, was not impressed. “Do you see those great buildings?,” he replied. “Not one stone will be left here upon another. All will be thrown down” (13:2). This in part is an allusion to the impending physical destruction of this great edifice. Perhaps, too, it reflects that the spiritual authority of this institution was collapsing. Immediately after the discourse of chapter 13, we are told again that “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him” (14:1).
Finally, they do arrest him and bring him to trial. One of the main charges against Jesus is that he allegedly said he would destroy the Temple (14:58). This charge is false on the surface. Jesus did not say that he would destroy the Temple. Yet, ironically, it is true in the sense that Jesus’ actions and words render the Temple’s functions meaningless.
Mark’s Gospel does not picture Jesus as actually threatening to destroy the Temple. However, the centrality of the accusation that he did (and 15:29 indicates that the accusation stayed with Jesus) reflects the reality that Jesus’ enemies did understand him to be a threat to the Temple.
Mark’s treatment of the Temple concludes in 15:38. When Jesus died, “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” The significance of this final event, in part at least, is connected with what immediately follows, the Roman centurion’s confession that “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39). The torn “curtain of the Temple” juxtaposes Jesus and the Temple as alternative places of divine presence. It provides perspective on what follows, the centurion’s confession. The death of the Servant opens the way to God for all the world by exposing sacred violence and depriving the Temple of its mystique.
For Mark’s Gospel, there is a clear connection between Jesus being put to death and Jesus’ conflict with the Temple, Jerusalem’s center of religious institutionalism. In several cases—the cleansing of the Temple, the parable of the vineyard, the apocalyptic vision, and the accusation before the tribunal—we see a connection between Jesus being perceived as a threat to the institution and the promise that he will be killed for this.
In the end, though, Jesus’ death does not for Mark signal that the religious authorities are victorious over him. Jesus’ death actually signifies the opposite. The Temple curtain is torn. Jesus, even on the cross, fulfills what the Temple was meant to and did not—engendering worship of God by Gentiles as well as Jews. The centurion confesses that “surely this was God’s Son” (15:39).
Jesus, as interpreted by Mark, challenged the dynamics of institutionalism head on. He does so by denying the ultimate legitimacy of his culture’s central religious institutions. He does not answer the religious leaders when they have him on trial (14:61). This refusal to answer, in effect, is a statement that he rejects their legitimacy as representatives of God.
Mark contains several references to Jesus’ mission to the nations in the context of the conflicts in the Temple. The Temple in Jerusalem, in its cold institutionalism, had lost touch with God’s will that the word of mercy be expressed to all peoples. Jesus came to express that word and met only with hostility from the religious leaders. So, in effect, the old Temple must be torn down, and a new, open and inclusive Temple based on Jesus himself must take its place (as Revelation 21:22 states a few decades later: “I saw no Temple in the city, for its Temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb”).
Mark’s Jesus critiqued the Temple system. That system originally had a mission, to help facilitate creative, communally faithful ways of living for all of the people in the society. But, in ultimately placing its priority on survival and supporting a static, unjust status quo, the Temple had left its original mission far behind.
Institutionalism stifles creativity. When the priority is on institutional survival then order, security, peace at all costs take precedence. Few risks can be taken. Few new thoughts can be followed up on. The people who thrive are not visionaries or prophets, but bureaucrats and yes-men. A prophet such as Jesus is not welcomed as a messenger from God. He is not seen as one sent to provide much-needed light into new ways of responding faithfully to the many and great crises faced by first-century Judaism. Rather, he is seen as a threat, an upsetter of the applecart, a voice to be stilled, rather than a voice to be responded to.
Jesus’ conflict with the Temple was costly. Many forces in his world benefited from people being subservient to institutions. Seeking to break free from that subservience provoked resistance. However, Jesus points to the need to seek such freedom, and witnesses that, at least in part, such freedom is attainable.
As Mark tells the story, Jesus’ witness led to his death. However, in facing death as he did—fully committed to the life of the Spirit—free from dominance by spirit-denying hierarchies and religious ideologies—Jesus’ life of freedom amidst the struggle points to an alternative to life lived in obeisance to the sacred violence of religious institutionalism.
Jesus’ Death and the Law of the Spirit (Paul’s Letters)
Paul focuses much of his attention on elements of the implementation of Jewish law by his opponents within the church as aspects of sacred violence, especially in his letters to the Galatians and the Romans. Paul essentially argues that the central issue is one of trust. He contrasts trust in “works of the law” as an approach to salvation with trust simply in God’s mercy apart from rituals, boundary markers, and other forms of cultural exclusivism.
My understanding of Paul and the law is greatly influenced by the work of James D. G. Dunn. In Dunn’s view, “‘Works of the law’ are not understood, either by his Jewish interlocutors or by Paul himself, as works which earn God’s favor, as merit-amassing observances.” “Works of the law”, rather, play the role of indicators that show that the Jews are God’s people. They are done in order to demonstrate covenant status. “They are the proper response to God’s covenant grace, the minimal commitment for members of God’s people.” Paul, though, sees adherence to “works of the law” as too exclusive. He denies that God’s justification extends only to those who wear the badge of the covenant.
Throughout its history, Israel had placed a high priority on the law as a key element distinguishing her from the nations. Two centuries before Paul’s time, the Maccabean crisis had pushed a few key elements of law-observance to the forefront as key boundary-markers crucial for Jewish self-identity. Two of the most important were circumcision and food laws, and they remained central in Paul’s time for the same reason. Hence, when Paul speaks of “works of the law” he in particular has circumcision and food laws in mind. “Not because they are the only ‘works’ which the law requires, but because they had become the crucial test cases for covenant loyalty.” They were crucial for maintaining Jewish identity as God’s special chosen people. They marked the boundary between who was in and who was out.
For Paul, such an emphasis on “works of the law” as required for Christian faith was unacceptable. Because they put so much emphasis on cultural exclusivity, these “works of the law” are no different than “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19). “These works of the law in effect imprison God’s righteousness within a [cultural, a] racial and national, that is, [a] fleshly, framework.”
For Paul, placing one’s trust in “works of the law” leads to a misunderstanding of God’s mercy. It distorts the meaning of salvation by tying it to cultural exclusivity. And this can lead to violence. This trust in “works of the law” focused on particular boundary markers—circumcision, food purity regulations, and Sabbath observance. Such a focus inevitably led to an emphasis on clearly demarking who is in and who is out. Resistance to such demarking, which was a hallmark of Jesus and, to some degree at least, of the early church, met with great hostility from those zealous for “works of the law”.
Paul identifies himself as having been one such zealot. In his zeal, he was “violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it” (Gal 1:13). In fact, he was one of the most zealous of the zealous, and, as he wrote, “advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age” (Gal 1:14).
Paul’s zeal was to defend Israel’s covenant distinctiveness by the sword. His intent was to enforce his conviction that salvation is only for Israel—and no one else. Together with other Pharisees, he wanted to draw a tighter, stricter line round the “righteous,” to mark them off even more clearly from the Gentile “sinner.” This was why he was so violent to the early Hellenist Christians. They were opening the door to Gentiles. Paul persecuted Christians out of his “zeal for the law as a boundary marking off righteousness with God as a special privilege to be promoted and defended.” The Hellenist Christians likely threatened Paul’s own identity as a covenant member with their inclusiveness. For Paul, this was a threat to the covenant itself.
Paul constructed his whole system of life around works of the law and exclusivism. He did so out a heartfelt desire to do good, to serve God, to remain faithful to “the traditions of [his] ancestors” (Gal 1:14). However, while on his way to Damascus, he had his system turned upside down. Paul was so shattered by this confrontation with the risen Jesus that he could not see nor speak for days (Acts 9:1-9).
A major aspect of Paul’s shattering experience was to realize that in the name of service to God’s law, he was actually a murderer. The way to faithfulness to God was not via trust in “works of the law” but simply through unadorned trust in God’s unconditional mercy—especially as expressed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
Paul came to see that trusting in “works of the law”, even when done in the name of purity and out of zeal for living faithfully to God actually led one into slavery to sin. Even while delighting with one’s heart in the law of God, when one is focusing on “works of the law” more than all-inclusive mercy, one’s practices actually reflect one’s captivity to the law of sin (Rom 7:21-25). Such captivity in actuality is captivity to sacred violence, where in the name of purity and holiness, one excludes, boasts, and even literally persecutes and kills.
Paul believes that the law is indeed of God but has always been meant to be secondary to the promise. The point of the law was (and is) to order life in the community of those who have received God’s promise and trusted in God’s mercy. Appropriation of the law becomes problematic when it becomes a basis for restricting God’s mercy only to people who follow certain rituals and observances. Such an appropriation is contrary to the God-given purpose of the law. It reflects trusting in “works of the law” for one’s standing before God—not trusting in God’s unconditional mercy. Such an appropriation of the law leads to cultural exclusivism based on boundary markers that have become rigid, absolute, weapons to be used against outsiders, and means to buttress boasting and pride.
Paul affirms that Jesus Christ points to a different way—trust in God’s mercy, not works of law. Life in the Spirit replaces life focused on the flesh. And, in fact, such a life leads to fulfillment of the genuine purpose of the law—living in love (Rom 8:4).
The law itself could not affect freedom from the way of sin and violence. When people live as if it could—trusting in “works of the law” and adherence to a way of life placing priority on boundary markers as the basis of identity—then the law becomes another of the “elemental spirits” which binds people and actually separates them from God’s mercy (Gal 4:3).
The law itself is of God. The law is good and useful to human wellbeing when understood properly. However, it all too often is appropriated as “works of law” which are trusted in as the foundation of people’s identity as God’s chosen people. When it is thus appropriated, it becomes “weakened by the flesh” (Rom 8:3). As such, the law not only cannot set people free from bondage to sin and violence, it actually only tightens those chains, itself becoming cause of more sin and violence. Paul knew this from bitter personal experience, both as a chief persecutor himself and, later on, as the recipient of such sacred violence by those defending the Truth (violently).
For Paul, when the law is appropriated in ways which become forms of nationalism, bases for cultural exclusivism, driving forces in setting up and enforcing rigid boundary markers, then its appropriation has actually entered the world of idolatry. Paul’s claims are drastic—that law observance actually can become idolatry. But he himself knew only too well that drastic measures were required to uncover the powerful hold that this idolatry had on religious people.
When Jesus asserted that the Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath (Mk 2:27), he exposed this idolatry. An institution that justifies violence against human beings in the name of principles, rules, and regulations is worshiping those rules and regulations more than the merciful God, who desires works of mercy much more than rituals and sacrifices.
The alternative to trusting in works of the law is simple trust in God’s mercy, in God’s promise. Paul develops this contrast in Romans 4 by discussing Abraham, who he asserts was “reckoned righteous” before the beginning of the rite of circumcision. It was not Abraham’s obedience to this regulation which justified him, but his simple trust in God’s unconditional mercy. Circumcision was secondary, temporal, relative.
Now, in Paul’s day, through the work of Jesus and the outpouring of the Spirit, uncircumcised Gentiles were making apparent the truthfulness of God’s order of salvation with Abraham. Trust first. Trust as the basis for salvation. Then the law follows, to guide and direct life in the Spirit.
The Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus’ life reflected these same dynamics. Jesus healed on the Sabbath, emphasizing the relativity of Sabbath regulations in relation to human well-being—the former is meant to serve the latter, not vice versa, as he accused the scribes and Pharisees of advocating. Jesus welcomed unclean people, people on the margins (lepers, tax collectors, women, children, various other “sinners”), unconditionally. He announced that the Kingdom of God was at hand, available, requiring only trust in God’s mercy as a basis for entrance.
Jesus argued that genuine fulfillment of the law had to do with loving God and other people. He asserted that he did not mean to abolish the law at all. However, he did mean to call people to a different approach to the law—seeing it as a means to encourage love and forgiveness, even towards enemies and outsiders. He rejected the law as a basis for setting boundaries, for facilitating exclusiveness and pride. As a result, he was seen by Pharisees as breaking, even abandoning Israel’s covenant with God—a covenant witnessed to by faithful adherence to works of the law.
Paul knew from his own life that such an approach to the law would bring about a violent response. The perspective which Jesus opposed, which turns “works of the law” into cultural exclusivism, as Paul himself had done, is based on deep-seated, often hidden, violence.
Paul refers to Deuteronomy 21:23: “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree” (Gal 3:13). By applying this verse to Jesus’ crucifixion, Paul implies that Jesus was regarded as a covenant breaker. Jesus was seen to violate the boundaries set by the law, and he suffered justifiably violent consequences. What Paul came to believe, though, after his Damascus road experience, was that, in fact, God affirms the one the so-called law cursed. What Jesus brought to the surface was sacred violence, thereby revealing that the law as Paul had understood it was not God’s actual law. Paul had focused on “works of the law”, and this led him to commit acts of violence. He had failed to see the law as serving God’s mercy, making it serve cultural exclusivism instead.
Paul himself had joined with the forces who had put Jesus to death. By challenging exclusiveness and boasting, Jesus had laid bare the reality that a system so characterized was based on violence. And when such a system is challenged, the underlying violence becomes explicit and overt. In Jesus’ case, this violence contributed to his death.
The sacred violence inherent in the law understood primarily in terms of cultural exclusivism is revealed in the murder of Jesus, the one who Paul came to see as actually a genuine upholder of God’s true law—the law of love. After Paul came to know Jesus and his way as, in fact, the revelation of the true God, he came to see that the death of Jesus uncovers the violence of the way of trusting in works of the law, the violence of cultural exclusivism. For Paul, Jesus’ death also points toward life. Jesus’ death, followed by his resurrection, ultimately effects salvation by making God’s mercy more apparent and the Spirit more accessible.
In light of the life Jesus witnesses to, Paul asserts that the genuine law is the love of love, living freely in light of God’s mercy and showing that mercy toward others (Rom 13:8-10). This love is modeled after the very heart of God. For Paul, then, Jesus’ death both reveals the sacred violence of trust in “works of the law” and cultural exclusivism, and it points the way to life free from that violence in which the God-given blessings of appropriate law-observance may be experienced.
Jesus’ Death and the Powers That Be (Revelation)
Jesus’ way as a critique of the Empire is one of the central themes in the Book of Revelation. Revelation, especially in chapter thirteen, presents an image of the Roman empire as a demonic Beast. The most direct reason John, the author of Revelation, would have expressed such antipathy was the Roman demand that people render to Caesar and to the state that which belongs to God alone. Such demands compelled the early church to resist the empire, even to the point of death.
Another image John uses of Rome is “Babylon.” John’s Babylon also represents empire, political authoritarianism. For first-century Jews and Christians, Babylon is a prophetic name for Rome. Both Babylon and Rome shared in the dubious distinction of having destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
John’s central emphasis is to encourage Christians to faithfulness in the face of political authoritarianism. At the core of John’s argument is that the Lamb that was slain is the one who genuinely is powerful and reveals God’s ways with the world. Jesus’ death is crucial for John’s case, crucial for John’s critique of the empire, crucial for John’s words of encouragement, in several ways.
(1) Jesus’ death brings to the surface the actual nature of the Beast. John’s revelation strips off the mask of benevolence and reveals, beneath it, the true spirit of Rome. He sees a grotesque and monstrous deformity bent on supplanting God (Rev 13). He sees a harlot seated on Rome’s seven hills who seduces kings of the earth (17:1-18).
The empire, ultimately, is violent. The empire is the force that nailed Jesus to the Cross (16:4-7; 18:24). John presents evil, not as the threat of anarchy, but as the system of order. This system of order institutionalizes violence as the foundation of its way of being. Jesus was a threat to order, so he was eliminated. The new insight here is that order is not the opposite of chaos. Instead, the empire’s order is actually the means by which a system of chaos among the nations is maintained. Empire is not, then, the bulwark against disorder. Empire actually is disorder epitomized.
(2) Jesus’ death also serves John’s purposes by pointing to a way to break free from the spiral of violence. In response to the violence of the Beast in chapter 13, John calls upon the “relentless persistence and fidelity of the saints” (13:10). The only way to opt out of the dynamic of an eye taking an eye taking an eye is simply to refuse to retaliate, simply to refuse to add fuel to the fire. What this relentless persistence means in John’s day—and, supremely, with Jesus was non-retaliation, even in the face of death. Retaliation inevitably adds to the spiral of violence and ultimately adds to the power of the demonic.
The point is to be convinced that one’s essential identity as a child of God has to do with living with relentless persistence in the ways of love. For Jesus, and his followers, living consistently with this identity provides power to accept even the utmost suffering. Such living breaks the spiral of violence.
(3) Jesus’ death also engenders encouragement because, with it, God’s loving involvement with human beings was not destroyed. In Revelation, John uses various images to symbolize that the Lamb who was slain lives. God in Christ conquered death through resurrection. Death lost its sting and the relentless persistence of Jesus in the ways of peaceableness was vindicated.
To support this understanding of John’s argument, I want to look at two texts: 5:1-12 and 19:11-20.
Chapter five is the key to the entire book. We are shown a scroll, perhaps a legal document relating to the destiny of humankind. The content of the scroll reveals God’s redemptive intentions for the creation. However, at first, the scroll cannot be opened. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” (5:2). No one. So John “wept much” (5:4). Presumably, without the scroll being broken, the promised healing will remain ineffectual. The spiral of violence will remain intact.
One of the elders present, however, tells John not to weep. Someone has been found. “The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered” (5:5). What John hears—the traditional Old Testament expectation of military deliverance—is reinterpreted in 5:6 by what he sees—the historical fact of Jesus’ death. He sees a “Lamb” who bears the marks of slaughter, which are explained by the heavenly choir later: With his lifeblood he has set free “for God people from every tribe.” The “Lamb” is the symbol of suffering and redemptive love. And the Lamb is “standing,” an image of resurrection.
The lamb’s death is not weakness and defeat, but power and victory. God’s power and victory lay in suffering love (in contrast with Satan’s power, Satan, whose Beast looks like a lamb but speaks like a dragon 13:11).
The Lamb, through his death, is called “conqueror.” The Lamb conquers (3:21; 5:5; 17:14), as do faithful Christians (2:7,11,17,26; 3:5,12,21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7). He does this through relentless persistence, even to the point of death. “Conquering” happens through suffering love, not destructive judgments on enemies. John sees Jesus’ death as powerful even over against the empire.
Many of the visions of Revelation picture the fall of the great Powers, of the Beast, of Babylon the great, in large part due to the effects of the death of Jesus. One such vision is found in 19:11-20. The vision begins with Jesus riding a white horse (19:11), which symbolizes victory. He comes to this apparent battle scene as the one who has already conquered sin, death, and evil through his death and resurrection. As the following verses make clear, he comes to this apparent battle with the forces of the Beast already the victor.
The rider is called “Faithful and True”; that is, “the faithful and true witness” of earlier in the book (1:5; 3:14). He remained faithful and true even when it meant death. That is how he gained the white horse. Verse 13 contains a key image. The rider approaches this battle “clad in a robe dipped in blood.” The blood has been shed before the battle begins. This alludes to Jesus’ blood in his death, and is the reason why no actual battle takes place here. Jesus can already ride the white horse. The actual battle is over. Jesus won it through his death. He faced the violence of political authoritarianism and refused to retaliate, remaining faithful to the God who loves enemies.
The Beast and the kings and armies are all ready for battle (19:19). They genuinely are deceived to think that one will occur. However, the battle is past. Jesus simply captures the Beast and false prophet and throws them into the fiery lake (19:20). There is no battle.
The judgment of the Beast, of Babylon, has a great deal to do simply with the revelation of their true nature as violent. They are not servants of God, worthy of reverence and blind obedience. In his portrayal of this judgment, John is particularly intending to help his Christian readers to see political authoritarianism for what it is.
John provides a picture that reveals that the “order” of our seemingly all-powerful political structures may well have about it a strong element of the demonic. That is, the order of Babylon is actually chaos. It is the power of chaos, not authentic peace, which puts to death one such as Jesus. This revelation can help those with eyes to see to discern that Caesar does not have the sovereignty he claims. John points out the Beast’s role in Jesus’ death. He pictures this type of violent response to God’s messengers of peace as endemic in the ways of the Beast. This stands as a reminder to remain wary of all claims that the Beast might be changing its spots.
John’s visions also encourage his readers not to accept the Beast’s definition of reality. Revelation thirteen talks about a second Beast, The first Beast’s false prophet, an ancient allusion to what we today call propaganda.
The basic idea is that the legitimacy of the Beast depends upon the masses believing in it. If we see what happened to Jesus as typical of the ways of Beast, we will grow a great deal in our skepticism toward the propaganda we are fed. As Walter Wink writes: “When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that person enables everyone else to peer behind the curtain too. That person has shown everyone that it is possible to live within the truth, despite the repercussions. Living within the lie can constitute the system only if it is universal. Anyone who steps out of line therefore denies it in principle and threatens it in its entirety.”
John’s visions challenge his readers to be aware of where they are getting the material which shapes their view of reality, and to open their imaginations to the way of the Lamb—and to let the Lamb’s way help them find freedom from accepting too easily and non-critically the ways of the powers-that-be.
The death of Jesus, as understood by John, engenders resistance to the Beast by bringing to the surface the Beast’s violence. Hence, this violence becomes visible for those with eyes to see. Such sight undercuts the Beast’s claim to be the people’s “benefactor.” Jesus’ way of facing death also provides encouragement by pointing to the power of relentless persistence. Trust in that kind of power is the key to breaking the spiral of violence.
All three areas of concern that I have discussed—the Temple, the law, and the empire—point to two different aspects of understanding Jesus’ death which have relevance to our questions regarding the spiral of violence in the world.
The first is that Jesus’ death exposes the tendencies of these three powers (religious institutions, cultural ordering systems, and political structures) toward fueling the spiral of violence. The Temple (or church or mosque or synagogue) asks at times for loyalty that values the survival of the institution above the well-being of human beings. The law (or churchly mores or the middle-class American way) asks at times for loyalty that excludes outsiders; even blames or scapegoats outsiders as the cause of the culture’s problems and as legitimate recipients of “sacred violence.” The empire (or all other states, including democratic ones) asks at times for loyalty that buttresses power politics and treats with violence any who threaten the status quo’s peace and tranquility.
Jesus bumped up against all three areas of social life. He brought to the surface their wrath, their intolerance of people who resist their demand for highest loyalty. In other words, Jesus—by acting deeply in harmony with God’s will for peace and compassion for all people—brought out deep-seated violence in the major structures of his society.
Jesus’ fate helps those with eyes to see perceive how these structures work. His fate reveals that the emperor has no clothes. So much of the power of these structures is primarily the power of belief, of trust. If people believe in, trust in, the supremacy of religious institutions, of cultural systems, or of empires, they provide the basis of much of the power these structures have. But Jesus’ fate—for those who do see him as embodying God’s will for human beings—reveals these structures to be unworthy of such trust. These structures did violence to Jesus, the Son of God. When people no longer give supreme trust to these structures, one of the main elements of the spiral of violence will be broken.
The thinking might go like this: The Roman state nailed Jesus to the cross. I realize now that most states do that kind of thing, so maybe I’ll no longer let my state tell me to kill for its sake. Or: The strictest defenders of the religious institutions sought for ways to kill Jesus because he was, to them, a heretic—I realize now that most religious institutions are capable of focusing on ideology and survival at all costs, and willing to scapegoat and sacrifice so-called heretics. So maybe I’ll no longer let a religious institution define my enemies, or assert heresy.
As well as exposing violence, Jesus’ death also points toward life. Jesus modeled a life lived in the power of the Spirit right up to the bitter end. The powers of death did not conquer him because he chose not to respond with an eye for an eye, he chose to live (and die) free from the spiral of violence.
In Matthew’s account, when Peter fought back and cut off a soldier’s ear in Gethsemane, Jesus ordered him to sheathe his sword. “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Mt 26:52-53).
In effect, this was the temptation Satan gave Jesus in the wilderness back at the beginning. Exert your force and make things work out right. But that would only add more violence to the spiral. Jesus’ life in the Spirit throughout, witnesses to the possibilities of not adding to the spiral. That life was vindicated when God raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus shows that the power of the Spirit of life remains vital despite the all-out assault of the powers of death.
For a recent statement, see Douglas Gwyn, George Hunsinger, Eugene F. Roop, and John Howard Yoder, A Declaration on Peace: In God’s People the World’s Renewal Has Begun (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1991).
René Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 240.
Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 147.
Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats? Violence and Redemption in the Bible (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 66-67.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 38.
James G. Williams, “The Innocent Victim: René Girard on Violence, Sacrifice, and the Sacred” Religious Studies Review 14.4 (October 1988), 325.
Wink, Engaging the Powers, 149.
Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, 66-67.
Williams, “The Innocent Victim,” 325; Wink, Engaging the Powers, 153; James G. Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991), 188.
Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, 60.
Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 15; James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways: Between Christianity and Judaism and Their Significance for the Character of Christianity (Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991), 32.
Dunn, The Partings of the Ways, 33.
Willard M. Swartley, Israel’s Scripture Traditions and the Synoptic Gospels: Story Shaping Story (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), 159-160; Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, 17-18.
Swartley, Israel’s, 161; Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, 19.
Raymund Schwager, “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice,” Semeia 33 (1985): 114.
Swartley, Israel’s, 162.
Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to St. Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 304.
Swartley, Israel’s, 165.
Hamerton-Kelly, Gospel, 52.
Hamerton-Kelly, Gospel, 57; Swartley, Israel’s, 168.
I am not arguing that Jesus himself was necessarily hostile toward the Temple. Some scholars in fact see him as essentially positive [Bruce Chilton, The Temple of Jesus: His Sacrificial Program Within a Cultural History of Sacrifice (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Press, 1992)]. The Gospel of Luke pictures Jesus as much more positive toward the Temple than does Mark [Swartley, Israel’s, 185-192]. My point is that Mark pictures a major conflict. Certainly all the synoptics picture Jesus as concerned with abuses in the Temple. I find Mark’s picture of Jesus being put to death because he was perceived as a direct threat by religious institutionalism eminently believable—a similar dynamic to the response of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor to Jesus.
James D. G. Dunn, “The New Perspective on Paul,” in Jesus, Paul and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 194.
Dunn, “New Perspective,” 210.
Dunn, “New Perspective,” 199-200.
Dunn, Partings, 121-122.
It is probable that the term “sinners” often is used in a kind of technical sense in the Gospels. It likely reflects the Pharisees’ characterization of those with whom they disagreed and who they considered unclean. Jesus welcoming “sinners”, then, is not simply a blanket acceptance of everyone no matter what kind of bad things they had done. It was a matter of him purposely denying the cultural exclusiveness of the Pharisaic emphasis on “works of the law”. Jesus is emphasizing that God’s mercy welcomes all who genuinely trust in it, regardless of their ritual purity [Dunn, Jesus, 79-80; Michael J. Wilkins, “Sinner,” in J. B. Green and S. McKnight, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 759-760].
Dunn, Partings, 110-111.
Dunn, Partings, 123.
Paul’s harsh criticism of trust in “works of the law” and the violence which he sees likely to follow from such trust must not be interpreted as a blanket rejection of the law or of Judaism. One of the greatest tragedies of human history is how Paul’s words were interpreted in ways which supported the exact evils which he was trying to counter—sacred violence in the name of cultural exclusivity (in this case, Christians doing violence to Jews—the mirror of what he had done as a “zealot”). A legitimate Christian appropriation of Paul’s critique of trust in “works of the law” would lead to a critique of Christian versions of such idolatrous trust, not to a Christian critique of Judaism and certainly not to sacred violence against Jews.
Krister Stendahl [Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)] and E. P. Sanders [Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977) and Paul, the Law and the Jewish People (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984)], followed now by many others, have persuasively made the case that Paul was not a “Lutheran” posing a mutually exclusive contrast between law and grace. I have tried in the above discussion to be precise in focusing on “works of the law” as Paul’s concern and not Judaism as a religion. Paul always saw himself as a Jew, and he affirmed his Jewish tradition. So, I agree with Jewish scholars such as Daniel Boyarin [“Was Paul an ‘Anti-Semite’? A Reading of Galatians 3–4” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 47 (1993): 47-80] and Alan Segal [Paul, The Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990] who argue that Paul was not anti-Judaism, even if a few times in his frustration he makes intemperate remarks which could be so construed.
Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation: Vision of a Just World (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 83-87; M. Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 155-157; G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 160-177.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Revelation, 89.
Wink, Engaging, 89-90.
Wink, Engaging the Powers, 90-91.
Wink, Engaging the Powers, 92.
For a fuller discussion see, on 5:1-12: Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987), 49-59; on 19:11-20: Grimsrud, Triumph, 149-150 and “Peace Theology and the Justice of God in the Book of Revelation,” in Willard M. Swartley, ed. Essays on Peace Theology and Witness (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1988), 144-146.
Caird, Revelation, 72.
Gerhard A. Krodel, Revelation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1989), 162-163.
Caird, Revelation, 74.
Caird, Revelation, 240.
Boring, Revelation, 196.
Wink, Engaging, 93.
Wink, Engaging, 98.
Tina Pippin, Death and Desire: The Rhetoric of Gender in the Apocalypse (Louisville: Westminster/ John Knox Press, 1992), utilizing Girardian categories, recognizes Revelation’s critique of Roman power politics. However, she argues, Revelation retains a scapegoat mechanism, transferring if “from the Lamb to the symbols of oppression (beasts and the dragon) and to the women who have seductive power (Jezebel, the Woman Clothed with the Sun, and the Whore—and the unnamed women who are excluded from the New Jerusalem” (84). While I am sympathetic with her political commitments, I do not agree with her interpretation of Revelation. I believe that John’s enemies in the text are not literal people so much as the spiritual forces of evil. John is opposed to the ways these powers enslave even the kings of the earth. The war he envisions does not result in the obliteration of the kings of the earth, but results in their conversion (Rev 21:24). Pippin dismisses Revelation as hopelessly misogynist (91-92). On the other hand, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza recognizes in a helpful way that it is possible to interpret Revelation in a way which, while recognizing its embeddedness in a first-century patriarchal worldview, also allows the modern-day interpreter to benefit from Revelation’s underlying liberationist perspective (Revelation, 12-15). I am grateful to Loren Johns for alerting me to Pippin’s work and for his analysis of it.