Archive for August 6th, 2009

Part 2: Crossan on the Meaning of Christ’s Sacrifice

The following is excerpted from John Domonic Crossan’s book, “God and Empire”:


Apart from narrativity, let alone historicity, there is the deeper question of the theology within which Jesus’s execution is understood then and now by Christian believers. For The Passion of the Christ and millions of Christians, it was a theology of substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Here is its content:

God was offended by human sin, and because that sin was a human affront to divinity, no adequate satisfaction was possible. Therefore, in his mercy, God sent his only begotten Son to suffer and die in our place. That is why Mel Gibson’s film is two hours of unspeakable suffering as Jesus bears punishment for all the sins against God since the dawn of creation. In that theology, God is imagined as a Divine Judge who can no more forgive everyone than a human judge could walk into the courtroom and forgive all those under indictment.

Notice, however, that the traditional metaphor for God is Father rather than Judge, and that in human courts we expect a father to recuse himself from judging his own child. We do not think one can be Judge and Parent at the same time

My purpose here, however, is not to highlight the transcendental conflict between Divine Parent and Divine Judge, but rather to point out the confusion in that theology between sacrifice, substitution, and suffering, as well as the mistaken presumption that whenever the New Testament mentions the sacrifice of Jesus, those other two aspects must and do accompany it.

Think about how we ordinarily use the term “sacrifice” today. A building is on fire, a child is trapped upstairs, and the firefighter who rushes in to save him manages to drop the child safely to the net below. Then the roof collapses and kills the firefighter. The next day the local paper bears the headline “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” We are not ancients but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving her life up to save the life of another. So far so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that the firefighter had made a sacrifice because she died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution and said that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.

Human beings have always known two basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another— the gift and the meal. Both the proffered gift and the shared meal represent the external manifestation of an internal disposition, and both events have their delicate protocols of what and whom they involve and when and why they take place.

These elements of the gift and the meal came together in animal sacrifice. How was one to create, maintain, or restore good relations between a human person and a divine being? What visible acts could do that with an Invisible Being? If by gift, the animal was totally destroyed, at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and the smell rising upward symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven and from human being to God. If by meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, it was not so much that the offerer invited God to a meal, but that God invited the offerer to a meal.

That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, that is, to make (facere) sacred (sacrum). In a sacrifice, the animal is made sacred and given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal.

Sacrificial offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer or that the greatest sacrifice was one in which the animal suffered lengthily and terribly. Whether for a human meal or a divine meal, an animal had to be slain, but that was done swiftly and efficiently— ancient priests were also excellent butchers. Likewise, sacrificial offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Blood sacrifice should never be confused with or collapsed into either suffering or substitution, let alone substitutionary suffering. We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we should neither caricature it nor libel it.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death— or in fact the death of any martyr— a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.        [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]




Part 1: Robert Wright on the Roots of Religious Sacrifice

In his expansive work, “The Evolution of God”, Robert Wright talks of ‘primitive’ religion, as observed among the Polynesians of the 18th and 19th centuries, and how it compares to modern society:

If you compare modern life with life in a hunter-gatherer society, the differences are big. We have a complexly productive economy, featuring division of labor and capital investment and high technology. We have an elaborate government, its authority resting on laws that guide enforcement and preserve legitimacy. All of this lets people interact peacefully and productively with people they know barely, if at all. And the entire system is rationalized; though it may rest partly on moral intuitions and draw on religious sentiment (“So help me God”), we justify our political, legal, and economic systems in pragmatic terms, revising them in the name of efficacy.

But apparently we didn’t arrive at this rationality in a very rational way. When social structure took its first big step toward the modern world, evolving from hunter-gatherer society to agrarian chiefdom, it leaned heavily on the gods. Not all observed chiefdoms are as pervaded by religion as Polynesian ones, but compared to modern societies, chiefdoms in general are soaked in it. In chiefdoms, gods were guardians of political power, supervisors of economic performance, and supporters of social norms that let unprecedently large numbers of people live together. And this residential density—this high concentration of brains and egos—sponsored a kind of creative synergy, accelerating the rate of technological and social change, propelling society toward modern form. Whatever you think of the world you find yourself in, you have the gods of chiefdoms to thank for it.

But how thankful should the Polynesians have been? Was their social system a just one? Did religion, in upholding it, uphold the public good? Or were gods just a tool of oppression, devoutly sustained by a ruling class that wanted to keep living in the manner to which it had become accustomed?…

…Human sacrifice seems also to have had an upper-class bias. In the Society Islands, one anthropologist noted, candidates for sacrifice fell into several categories, including prisoner of war, blasphemer, and “person obnoxious to the chief or priest”….what could a functionalist possibly say in defense of the claim that religion benefits society as a whole? More than you might think.

Consider human sacrifice, as appraised in the clinical terms of functionalism. Even Captain Cook, who deemed it a “waste of the human race,” noted that many of the adults sacrificed were criminals. And many others were “common low fellows, who stroll about from place to place and from island to island, without having any fixed abode, or any visible way of getting an honest livelihood”.

Now, we might today consider death excessive punishment for many crimes, and certainly for transience and indigence. But well after Cook wrote, his native England would be locking up poor people in debtors’ prison. And, in any event, the removal from society of people who take from it less than they give isn’t, in cold economic terms, a “waste.” It may well have made the chiefdom stronger and more efficient, and thus have been socially “functional,” whatever you think of its morality. (Supernatural belief has other ways of weeding out poor performers. In various societies, including some hunter-gatherer ones, people accused of sorcery or witchcraft and punished by banishment or death tend to be notoriously uncooperative or otherwise antisocial characters.)  More generally, Polynesian religion seems to have kept the machine humming. Under the severe gaze of gods, canoes got made, fish got caught, pigs and yams got raised.              [Robert Wright, The Evolution of God]

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