Jesus and Other Victims

In my last post I discussed the role myth plays in covering up the violent scapegoating of innocent victims. The myth of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) serves this purpose in modern Evangelicalism. In this myth we are told a grand story about the satisfaction of the wrath of an angry god by means of Christ’s death on the cross. Underneath this grand story, however, lies Jesus the victim, falsely accused and unjustly murdered. PSA does what all myth does, namely, it causes us to forget what is really going on in sacrifice. It covers up the injustice and violence of sacrifice.

The Oedipus myth that I summarized in my last post is a great example: Oedipus represents the innocent scapegoat who is killed because he is to blame for the community’s misfortune or sin. The way the myth is told, however, covers up the fact that the crimes Oedipus is supposedly guilty of are in no way correlated to the plight of Thebes. His exile is unwarranted but the myth, again, covers this fact up and instead justifies it. In the story world that the myth creates there is no victim and there are no murderers. Oedipus “deserved” what he got.

Rather than myth, what we find in the gospel accounts is what Mark Heim calls anti-myth. The death of Christianity’s central figure is not mythologized in order to cover up the innocence of the victim or to legitimate the killing of the scapegoat. Instead, the readers are reminded throughout that Jesus was indeed falsely accused, that his “crimes” were fabricated by the religious elite in order to legitimate their desire to kill him.

Here’s the rub: Myth silences the voice of the victim. In contrast, the passion narratives at the end of the four gospels tell a story from the perspective of the victim.

The crucifixion of Christ and the passion narratives that describe that event serve as an emphatic rejection of the mythologizing of violence. In these stories we find Jesus, the truly innocent victim, who entered into our violent sacrificial machine in order to rob it of its power. We unjustly murdered the one who could not be rightfully accused of anything. What’s more, when he was brought back from the grave he chose to forgive rather than mete out retribution. Instead of laying the smack down on his disciples for deserting him during his hour of need, the risen Christ invites them to a table for fish and bread. Thus, the cycle of violence is broken.

In response, the Christian community finds unity not in the sacrificing of an innocent victim but rather in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine around the table of the Lord.

In addition, part of the Christian vocation is to give voice to the victim–to stand in solidarity with the one who is being unjustly sacrificed for it is in the cross that Christ identifies with all innocent scapegoats.

This means that we must identify the myths in our society that attempt to do what PSA has done to Jesus.

A few examples:

  • Behind the myth of American imperialism lies the countless individuals who have been displaced, robbed, and killed in the name of Manifest Destiny. Christ stands in solidarity with these victims.
  • Behind the myth of Zionism lies the victims of Israel’s recent bombardment of Gaza. Christ stands with the Palestinians.
  • Behind the myth of neo-liberal Friedmanite economics lies those who are mistreated and abused by corporations all over the globe. Christ stands with the slaves and the socialists and the poor who have been killed and marginalized in the name of the free market.
  • Behind the myth of technological progress lies our non-human neighbors who continue to be destroyed by our inability to say “enough.” Christ stands with these victims.

What other myths need to be unmasked?

Other thoughts, questions, concerns or comments?


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.

Holy Week: Thoughts on Penal Substitution

Holy Week is upon us. 

Holy Week is an invitation to reflect on the cross. It is more than this, no doubt, but it is not less than this.

Within the Western Evangelical tradition we cannot talk about the cross without talking about Penal Substitutionary atonement. This, of course, is the belief that all of humanity stands condemned because of Adam’s sin and is therefore worthy of nothing less than God’s wrath. Jesus offers himself as a sacrifice in our stead in order to appease the wrath of God so that we can be let off scotch free and enjoy life with God eternally.

It seems that this theory of atonement has become, for many, synonymous with the gospel itself. The gospel is that Jesus “died in our place and for our sins.”

But what does it mean that Jesus “died for our sins”?

If we appeal to Penal Substitution then the answer is clear: to say that Jesus died for our sins is to say that he took the punishment that we deserved upon himself. In this sense our sins are paid for.

An important question must be asked, though: who decided that Jesus had to die in order to appease the wrath of an angry God?

Is God bound by some sort of system of justice that requires blood for sin? If so, it would seem that this system of justice is more ultimate than God is for even he, the Creator of all, must bow to its requirements. This is problematic.

I’ve also found it interesting to explore the various theories of atonement from a narrative perspective. Every narrative has a protagonist and an antagonist. Take the Christus Victor theory for example. In this narrative, humanity is enslaved to the Devil (the antagonist) and in response God (the protagonist) sends his son Jesus (a co-protagonist) in order to rescue us from the dominion of Satan. This is an oversimplification but you get the point.

Compare that with the Penal Substitutionary view:

Jesus, of course, remains the protagonist in the story. The interesting thing, however, is that he rescues us from…

Any takers?


Jesus rescues us from God and his wrath.

Any narrative that casts God as the main antagonist should, in my humble opinion, be thoroughly rejected for reasons that are too obvious to state.

It must be made clear that there are other options when it comes to understanding the atonement. If you’re interested I’ll appeal to emergent blogger/author Tony Jones who has been offering up bite sized summaries of alternative atonement theories every Wednesday during Lent on his blog.