The Power of Myth

A really long time ago a group of human beings realized they had a problem. They realized that given enough time, their tiny community fell prey, without fail, to endless conflict and violence. Hatred and jealousy would result in murder which only begat more murder. This cycle of violence and retaliation was unstoppable and it threatened the very existence of their fragile community. Thus, this problem needed to be remedied in order to save the community from self-destruction.

Over time the members of this community realized that if they singled someone out and blamed them for all the problems threatening their community (i.e., natural disasters, disease, their own sins, etc.) then they could unite, if only for a time, in hatred against this chosen other. The amount of hatred and disgust that was directed towards this chosen other would result in their being killed at the hands of their community.

The miracle of it all was that after the community united in hatred towards this one person there would be a time of peace. This peace wouldn’t last forever, however, so after a while another victim would be chosen to kill in order to bring about stability and peace among the people.

Over time this act of singling out a person to kill began to take on a sacred flavor. The community recognized the amazing power behind this act–that is, the power that it had to bring peace to their community–and so they began to make it into a habit. Myths and cultic ritual were constructed in order to capture the sacred power of this violence.

The following is an example of this type of mythology: Oedipus is a stranger, ignorant of his own parentage, who comes to Thebes, marries its widowed queen and becomes its king. Plague and crisis descend on the city. Oedipus embarks on an unrelenting quest to discover the great criminal in the community whose offenses have brought this punishment from the gods, only to realize that he is the offender. All unknowing,  he has killed his father and married his mother. For these violations  of the most fundamental order, he mandates and accepts his own violent expulsion (summary from Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice, pg. 53).

A few things are worth noting here. First, the cultural taboos of the the Greeks are clearly evident. The killing of kin and incestuous relationships were crimes apparently worthy of death and were probably the crimes charged to those who were victimized as a result of this myth. Second, Oedipus’ guilt is arbitrary and impossible to prove. In other words, there is no connection between Oedipus’ apparent crimes and the plague that has descended on Thebes. His expulsion from his community is unfounded. Third, it’s assumed that the killing/expulsion of Oedipus will solve the community’s problem with the plague.

It’s likely that this myth would have been conjured up in order to validate the ritual act of sacrificing an innocent victim in order to resolve the tension in the greater community. When crisis arose (i.e. a plague) and the community was threatened with dissolution, someone needed to be sacrificed to restore peace and stability to the community. The collective hatred towards the chosen victim created an aura of peace that kept the community from falling into disarray as a result of the plague.

There is a cycle that emerges:

Perceived threat to the community –> Innocent victim is chosen and accused of crimes related to the taboos of the community –> Victim is sacrificed –> Myth is told in order to validate the sacred violence –> Peace is restored to the community for a time –> Repeat

The recurrence of this cycle and the myths surrounding it keep those involved from realizing the depravity of their own actions. In other words, behind this myth are countless victims who have been falsely accused, blamed for things that they had nothing to do with on their own, and ultimately excluded from the community or killed. Those taking part in this violence are unaware of this reality. Sacrificing an other is simply how peace is made–it’s “business as usual.”  No questions asked.

This is what myth does: it shrouds violence in sacred language in order to validate the killing of innocent victims. Those participating in the violence are ignorant of their blatant murder because their founding myths have fully captured their imaginations.

In what ways have we been blinded by our myths?

It’s my proposal that Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) serves this function in modern Evangelicalism. The myth of PSA says that a perfect and holy God cannot be in the presence of sinful humanity. Our infinite debt owed to God because of our sinfulness must be paid in full (by the shedding of blood) if we are to have any hope of communion with the divine. Thus, God sends his perfect Son to die a bloody death in our stead so that communion with God (something that only Jesus was worthy of) could be had by all of God’s people. The wrath of God (what we are all worthy of) was poured out onto Jesus so that we didn’t have to endure it. Ultimately, this myth communicates the idea that the violence of God was redemptive.

This myth has glorified the violence of the cross to the point that we have forgotten what lies behind it: our participation in the senseless killing of an innocent man.

Mark Heim puts it this way:

Is this God’s plan, to become a human being and die, so that God won’t have to destroy us instead? Is it God’s prescription to have Jesus suffer for sins he did not commit so God can forgive the sins we do commit? That’s the wrong side of the razor. Jesus was already preaching the forgiveness of sins and forgiving sins before he died. He did not have to wait until after the resurrection to do that. Blood is not acceptable to God as a means of uniting human community or a price for God’s favor. Christ  sheds his own blood to end that way of trying to mend our divisions. Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us (Saved From Sacrifice, pg. xi).

Sacrificing an innocent other has been humanity’s way of trying to remedy our violent tendencies. PSA affirms this sick tendency instead of subverting it. Far from ending the cycle of violence, the god of PSA is very much a part of it: He is so angry that he requires a sacrifice in order to make peace with his former enemies. As a myth, PSA projects our violence onto God and thus validates violence as a legitimate means to bring peace. This is not what the cross is about. God didn’t kill Jesus…we did. PSA is an attempt to cover this difficult reality up.

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7 responses to “The Power of Myth

  1. Well-written. You have touched on a very important point here. Have you read Rene Girard? I think this would fill out some background behind the ideas of mimetic desire, the scapegoat mechanism, and violence and the sacred. His anthropological insights [some of which you have articulated] help us to see the biblical literature in a way that is probably truer to the ancient context than our western penal perspective.

    • Thanks Gareth. The Heim book that I reference in my post is heavily influenced by Girard so I’m definitely becoming more familiar with his ideas. I haven’t read any of his original work, however. Based on Heim I would say that Girard’s scapegoat theory of atonement is the best alternative I’ve found to the typical three that are discussed (Christus Victor, PSA, and Moral Influence). What’s especially appealing is that, at its core, it is nonviolent.

  2. Hey Garret,

    I have a question about how you see PSA relating to Christian orthodoxy.

    (1) Do you view PSA as outside of Christian orthodoxy? It seems to me in your post that you view PSA as outside of Christian orthodoxy. If that’s false, I’m happy to be corrected, however I came to the conclusion based on your use of the lower case “g” in “..the god of PSA…” whereas otherwise you wrote God with a capital “G”. It could have been incidental, though it seemed intentional.

    (2) If you do view PSA as outside of Christian orthodoxy, do you have a version of substitutionary atonement within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy? And if so, how does the atonement function in a substitutionary way?

    I understand your greater desire of a lived orthopraxy over-and-against a believed orthodoxy. However, because this post deals in the realm of belief, and a right and wrong (or helpful/unhelpful) way to think of the atonement, I thought the question relevant.

    If you’d rather have this conversation over coffee, I’d love to buy you a cup!

    All the best!

    • Greg,

      (1) I don’t claim to be the arbiter of what is Christian orthodoxy and what is not. My use of the lower case ‘g’ when talking about the god of PSA was intended to communicate my desire to distance myself from that particular theory of atonement and the god affiliated with it. It’s nothing more than a personal statement.

      (2) Again, I’m uncomfortable talking about the vague and nebulous notion of “Christian orthodoxy.” I think it’s too often used as a means to exclude people who are different than us. I’m not willing to engage the conversation within that framework.

      That being said, I think there are ways to talk about the atonement using substitution language. I think I’m going to write a full post on that but in short I’ll say this: If on the cross we see God’s disapproval of the sacrificial scapegoating mechanism that we (humanity) have invented as a means of dealing with our own violence then we could say that Jesus became a victim in order to save us from becoming victims who get nailed to crosses (or even from becoming the one’s who build crosses and nail victims to them). In that sense Jesus substituted himself for us. He became a victim so that we didn’t have to. He’s not saving us from God’s wrath, however (this is how PSA frames it). He’s saving us from our own sinful violence.

      Finally, I think this post is about more than simply a belief. Because of my commitment to have my own beliefs function well I am compelled to critique commonly held beliefs (like PSA) that I think lead to ways of life that function poorly. I think that PSA too easily legitimates violence and lets us off the hook for Jesus’ death both of which, I would argue, have pretty negative implications in terms of how we are to live in our day to day lives. In short, I think PSA generally functions poorly as a belief.

  3. Pingback: Jesus and Other Victims | garret menges blog

  4. Pingback: Identity Politics and the Cross: Peter Rollins on the Scapegoat Mechanism | garret menges blog

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