OK, so the title of this post doesn’t roll off of the tongue very well. And you may be asking: Why should I read about atonement? How does it relate to scapegoating? Or even “What is atonement?
From a Christian theological perspective, atonement refers to how Jesus’ life, death and resurrection reconciled our sins. The “bumper sticker” version of this is “Jesus saves.” Many, if not nearly all, Christians, when thinking about how Jesus saves, adopt a transactional or legalistic view of this process.
Substitutionary Atonement is a general term for this view. The logic supporting it can be summarized:
+ Human sin, both Original Sin and the myriad individual sin flowing from it, offends God’s sense of justice.
+ This justice demands payment or punishment commensurate with the offense committed against God.
+ Since human sin is so massive, there is no amount punishment or ransom humans can endure or offer which can appease God’s justice.
+ Only God’s son – both human and divine – can take upon himself human sin. When he endures the violence of brutal punishment and sacrificially sheds his blood as a stand-in for humans (a substitute) God’s justice is served. And through this sacrifice, God and humanity are reconciled.
A very popular narrative representation of this view of atonement is in C.S. Lewis’ beloved and allegorical “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” Edmond betrays his siblings to the evil character. Even though he is forgiven for this by the Christ-like Aslan, the satanic witch cites the foundational justice of the land which requires traitors to become subject to destruction at her hands.Instead, Aslan takes the witch’s violence himself, thus saving Edmond. And in doing so, an even “deeper magic” come into effect to restore him to life and energize all to defeat evil.
Another bumper sticker sized statement flows from this view of the mechanics of atonement – “Jesus Died For Your Sins.” Adherents of this perspective often emphasize how much Jesus suffered before and on the cross. A correlation is drawn between the magnitude of sin committed by humanity and the amount of pain Jesus endured as a direct consequence. The not infrequently stated: “Your sins drove a nail in to Jesus” is the harsh conclusion of this belief.
The question at the heart of this view of atonement is: “Did God the Father need (or want) Jesus to die in order to save humanity from sin and death?” Certainly Jesus died a violent death at the hands of the Romans. But, did God want/need this? If the answer is “yes,” then violence and the resulting salvation proclaimed by Christianity is sanctified and glorified. The implications cut right to the heart of Christian ethics. Although Jesus lived a life proclaiming peace, if God the Father needs/wants the blood of his son for appeasement, then violence trumps peace as the core characteristic of God’s nature. And consequently, Christians may be justified in similarly using “righteous” violence.
A growing number of theologians are showing how the exact opposite is true – Jesus died as a result of sin, specifically the foundational human sin of scapegoating. God didn’t need/desire this violence, but allowed it, in order to turn it inside out through the resurrection of the innocent, scapegoated victim.
Perhaps the most prominent American Catholic theologian, Bishop Robert Barron, has been speaking more and more about the theology of non-violent atonement. Read or watch below Bishop Barron’s high praise for recently deceased sociologist and theologian Rene Girard who wrote extensively about mimetic theory and scapegoating.
Bishop Barron concludes about Girard:
There are some thinkers that offer intriguing ideas and proposals, and there is a tiny handful of thinkers that manage to shake your world. Girard was in this second camp. In a series of books and articles, written across several decades, he proposed a social theory of extraordinary explanatory power.
Girard also informs the excellent work of The Raven Foundation who offer this video mission statement:
I appreciate the dedicated work of the Raven team who frequently post commentary pointing out the many ways scapegoating happens all around us. Two thought-provoking, recent posts to check out are:
A bonus third post, my favorite one, also referencing a movie:
So, why did I spend time with this long post today? First of all, a week from now, on Good Friday, I hope this post and Girard’s powerful way of re-understanding how atonement happens allow you to experience the cross in a deeper, more profound way. Next, as the violence, especially religiously justified acts, increases in the world, Christians must look at the root of our theology to critique how it may support God-ordained violence. Finally, a deeper understanding of mimetic dynamics, the subsequent scapegoating and its ancient social power should lead all people of faith to prophetically expose this mechanism in order to defuse its seductive power.