A good way to assess the passion story of Jesus and what it allegedly reveals about the God of Christ, is the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32. Jesus uses the father in this parable to clarify something essential about the God he proclaims. When the son returns, not without opportunistic motives, the father runs towards his son from the moment he sees his son appear on the horizon. The father does not run to his son to punish him, but to forgive him and to welcome him “full of grace.” This “space of grace” gives his son the opportunity to really become aware of the evil he has done. And although grace has no power or control over this potential response (it is not guaranteed that the son will truly regret what he has done), grace is “all-powerful” in the sense that it gives itself independent of its eventual outcomes.
So, in any case, the grace of the father allows the son to no longer be ashamed of himself and to sincerely repent for his mistakes. If he truly accepts the love of his father, he will be able to take responsibility for his wrongdoings without being crushed under guilt. He will imitate the love he experiences by trying to make up for the hurt he has done to others and by trying to do justice. To quote Augustine of Hippo (354-430) (On the Spirit and the Letter Chapter X ): “Grace is bestowed on us, not because we have done good works, but that we may be able to do them.” (Original Latin, DE SPIRITU ET LITTERA LIBER UNUS, X: [gratia] quando quidem ideo datur, non quia bona opera fecimus, sed ut ea facere valeamus […]).
Because grace liberates us from the fear of being crushed under the weight of our mistakes, we will more easily take responsibility for them ourselves, instead of letting an easy scapegoat “pay” for what we did. If we accept the grace that does not crush us, it prevents us from crushing others as well. Grace liberates us from our damaging need to be “perfect” and thus lets us discover “the joy of being wrong.” In other words, grace liberates us from our narcissistic self-images and paradoxically prevents us from doing further harm to ourselves and others. As we experience forgiveness for our trespasses, we are enabled to forgive “those who trespass against us” (see the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13).
Analogous to the attitude of the father in the parable of the prodigal son, the suffering of Jesus should not be interpreted as a sign that there is a God who would punish us for our transgressions (but lets his Son take the blows we actually should receive). On the contrary, the suffering of Jesus is a consequence of a love that is radically independent of violence. It is the consequence of a love that does not answer violence with violence. It is the consequence of a forgiving withdrawal from violence, which makes room for the life of others (even “enemies” become “neighbors”).
Just like the father in the parable of the prodigal son running towards his son is not a sign that he wants to punish his son, the suffering of Jesus is not a sign that there is a God who wants to punish us. Just like the father of the parable running towards his son is a sign that he wants his son to become fully alive by bestowing a forgiving love upon him, the suffering of Jesus is a sign of a love that does not desire our death or suffering, but that wants us to be fully alive.
The cross of Jesus reveals that this love is not even affected by death, but that it is “fully alive” in the fact that neither “friend” nor “foe” died in what could have been a civil war. Jesus’ forgiving withdrawal from violence – his radical refusal to kill – saves others from death. Therefore the first followers of Jesus believe that he is “the Christ” who embodies the love that is not affected by death – the love that is thus revealed as “eternal,” as God. The suffering of Jesus is God, revealed as non-violent love, “running towards us” in the forgiving withdrawal from violence. Hence, whenever we participate in this mutual and imitative forgiving withdrawal from violence, God as love “is in our midst.” As this love is eventually not affected by death, it pierces through the narcissistic self-images we usually develop to hide ourselves from the reality of death. Thus the non-violent love that is not affected by death saves ourselves and others from alienating, destructive relationships between ourselves and others (because of that narcissism). It saves us from what is traditionally called “original sin.”
The grace that is revealed in Jesus in a unique way (but which shows itself in other “places” as well) prevents us from sacrificing others to “pay” for our sins. It allows us to truly take responsibility for our mistakes, without fear. It prevents us from hunting for scapegoats really, which is done in traditional religious systems. The following text points both to the “perversion” of Christianity (when it is understood as merely the ultimate consequence of traditional religious systems) and to an “authentic” Christianity (understood from Jesus’ obedience to a love that desires “mercy, not sacrifice”).
The traditional religious and mythical “deified” hero saves others by killing – which eventually results in the self-sacrifice of the hero. Jesus saves others because he refuses to kill – which reveals Jesus as embodying a love that gives itself and “lives” even unto death.
1. The Basic Religious Story
Humans commit transgressions of god given laws. The gods get angry. Disasters happen as divine punishment. Humans bring sacrifices which reconcile them with the gods. Peace is restored.
We all know the drill. Myriad variations of this story exist in religions old and new.
Some Christians are convinced, however, that the Christian variation of the basic religious story is quite unique. They believe that the Christian story therefore reveals “the true God” as opposed to “the bleak imitations of the divine in other religions.”
Yes, those Christians say, God is aware of us humans committing transgressions. However, according to their scenario, we should have the humility to recognize that the cost of our transgressions is too big to pay off our debt by merely human means. That’s why God sent us his only begotten Son Jesus, who loved us so much that He obediently sacrificed Himself and thus reconciled us with God, his Father.
Grace in this context is understood as God’s willingness to sacrifice his Son Jesus for our transgressions. This “final” sacrifice allegedly saves us from the desperate attempts to pay off our debts by sacrificing ourselves and our neighbors. Jesus thus is the “Savior” or the “Christ.” Instead of punishing us with disasters, God gave us the means to buy his peace through Christ’s death and resurrection (the so-called proof of the divine nature of the whole process). Well, at least until apocalyptic “end times” that is, and those who still do not repent and accept God’s laws and his Son – the means to buy his peace – are wiped off the face of the earth with Christ’s vengeful return.
The first time I heard this interpretation of the Christian faith, I remember thinking: “If that’s what Christianity is all about, count me out.” Nowadays I would still refuse to call myself a Christian if it implied playing to this so-called “divine” absurdity. However, literary critic and anthropologist René Girard (1923-2015), theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Raymund Schwager SJ (1935-2004), Anthony Bartlett (°1946), Wolfgang Palaver (°1958), James Alison (°1959) and Michael Hardin (°1968), as well as atheist thinkers like Slavoj Zizek (°1949) helped me discover that the Gospel actually paints a radically different picture of God.
2. Christianity as the Ultimate Religious Story (= The Perversion of Christianity)
If the God of Christ is what some Christians make of Him, then He is the pinnacle of narcissistic sadomasochism. He is narcissistic because He receives all kinds of presents of reconciliation, but lets you know that no present is ever good enough to satisfy Him. Instead, He provides you with the present that you should offer Him, namely the sacrifice of his Son. As far as father-son relationships are concerned in this picture of Christianity, God is the ultimate sadist who is only appeased by the terrible suffering and death of his obedient Son. Finally, from this perspective God is also the ultimate masochist. After all, He desires the experience of pain in his very Being by “becoming flesh” in a crucified Son who is actually “one” with Him. To this masochist, the pain of the crucifixion is proof that He receives his desired gift and that He has total control over the relationship between Himself and humans.
It is not just the narcissism of a so-called God that is established by this interpretation of Christianity. Perhaps this story, above all, protects the narcissistic self-image of humans. The so-called “humility” in confessing the unworthiness and inability of your efforts to make up for wrongdoings is an easy way out of the burden of responsibility. Referring to so-called uncontrollable flaws gets you off the hook from truly making mistakes altogether. If you can’t help it, then you are actually without “real” faults. Narcissists believe that any mistake they make is eventually always the responsibility of something or someone else. They actually fear the freedom of not being perfect. The narcissistic impulse even exonerates the ones who are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. In the end they are perceived as contributing to God’s plan.
In short, according to this interpretation of Christianity, the God of Christ is superior to the so-called “false” gods of other religions because apart from being the most powerful killer, He allegedly also is the most merciful one. Instead of punishing us for our transgressions right away, He sends his Son to die in our place. Moreover, between the resurrection of that Savior – the Christ –, the outpouring of his Spirit and the end of times with the return of Christ, we are told that we can be saved one last time if we recognize our transgressions and accept that Christ died for them. If not, we will be sacrificed anyway during Christ’s Second Coming, which fulfils God’s Last Judgment.
If we are to believe this account, then the God of Christ is a hero of unmatched mythical proportions. He saves others from the deadly disasters He Himself would be responsible for by provisionally killing Himself as the potential presence of wrathful violence in the sacrifice of his Son. In other words, from this perspective the God of Christ is a force of violence that controls itself and others by violent sacrificial means. The peace of Christ is the violent peace of sterile uniformity, established by sacrifice.
3. Christianity as the End of the Traditional Religious Story (= Authentic Christianity)
The belief that sacrifices can be effective to end deadly catastrophes depends on the belief that sacrifices have something to do with violent sacred forces. The deities of religions old and new are depicted as causing all kinds of violent crises, like natural disasters, pandemics and the outbreak of violence within and between communities. It is believed, time and again, that those violent deities demand sacrifices to be appeased.
“God,” in a traditional religious sense, is perceived as being responsible both for violence of epidemic proportions that potentially destroys human communities and for the vaccine of sacrificial violence that preserves or restores them. When traditional religious people make a sacrifice, they believe that they are not accountable for what they are doing, but that God is the true author of the ritual. Sacrifices are perceived as not belonging to the human world. They are seen as belonging to the world of the sacred, and ritual sacrifice is simply the fulfilment of a sacred commandment. It is the so-called inevitable, fatal process of “making something or someone sacred” (Latin “sacer facere”; hence the Latin noun “sacrificium”). In short, sacrifices are part of the world of the sacred, which is traditionally understood as the world of violence.
Myths sustain the belief in the sacred nature of violence. As such, they are justifications of sacrifice. Myths are stories of so-called “redemptive” violence. In the Gospel the leaders of the Jewish people try to establish a myth concerning their fellow Jew Jesus of Nazareth. The Pharisees and chief priests describe Jesus as an increasingly popular rebel leader who could lead an uprising against the Roman occupier of Judea. A war with the Romans would mean the end of the Jewish nation and culture. Therefore the Jewish leaders see no other solution than to get rid of Jesus. It is their way of justifying his elimination (John 11:45-50):
Many of the Jews who had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of John leaves no doubt that these allegations are false. The Evangelist lets Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect, unwittingly declare the truth about the arrested Jesus, namely that Jesus is innocent. Jesus does not wish to establish a “kingdom” or “peace” in competition with “the kings of this world” (whose peace is based on sacrifices – like the “Pax Romana”). In other words, the Gospel of John reveals the plot against Jesus by the Pharisees and the chief priests as a scapegoat mechanism: Jesus is wrongfully accused. Indeed, Jesus refuses to start a civil war wherein friends and enemies would get killed (John 18:33-38):
Pilate summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
The Gospel clarifies that the sacrifice of Jesus makes no sense whatsoever, as Jesus has nothing to do with the world of violence. Moreover, since the Gospel recognizes who God truly is in the non-violent love of Jesus, it also reveals that the violent God of traditional religion is actually non-existent. In the latter sense, the Christian faith contains a radical atheism and intrinsically finishes off every religious story. There is neither a God who is responsible for violent chaos to punish us for our transgressions, nor a God who demands sacrifices to restore order. Natural disasters have natural causes. Violence is not a sacred, but a human reality. There is no God as some kind of “Master of Puppets” who is in total control and who can be manipulated with sacrifices to gain control ourselves. As this God is blamed for things He cannot possibly be responsible for – since He does not exist –, He is the ultimate scapegoat.
The Gospel reveals that we, humans, tend to be guided by the scapegoat mechanism. Instead of acknowledging our freedom and creative strength as human beings to deal responsibly with disasters, we tend to look for the so-called “masterminds” behind the crisis situations we encounter. Conspiracy theories are the secularized version of traditional religious and mythical thinking. They provide us with a false sense of security and the delusional entitlement to sacrifice so-called “evil” others, who are believed to be responsible for the crisis at hand in the first place. In the case of a pandemic like COVID-19, some keep believing there is a God who punishes us for allowing evildoers in our midst, while others believe powerful people developed a plot that involves deliberately spreading a virus on their path to world dominion.
In the Gospel, the scapegoat mechanism that is used by humans to falsely justify sacrifices, time and again, is personified as Satan or the devil. Jesus reveals that it is this deceitful and lying “devil” who demands sacrificial murders, while God is a God of radically non-violent love who “desires mercy, not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13). Contrary to the above mentioned depiction of the Christian faith, the Gospel clearly reveals that humans, inspired by the devilish scapegoat mechanism, demand the sacrifice of Jesus, and not God (John 8:39-44):
“If you, Pharisees, were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.”
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
Those who desire the sacrifice of Jesus try everything to involve him in the world of violence, in order to still provide their act of violence with some foundation. After all, their myth of self-defense against the man who is supposed to be a violent threat only holds water if Jesus eventually does take part in the game of violence to gain controlling power. As Jesus continuously refuses to answer violence with violence, they grow increasingly desperate. This translates into the growing vehemence of the violence used against Jesus. Despite these efforts to tempt him to use violence, Jesus continues to obey “the will of his Father,” which means that he walks the path of a radically non-violent love. The powers that need the lie of an outside threat to justify their myths of self-defense cannot stand this truth about the scapegoat in their midst. That’s why Jesus is crucified.
To his opponents, the crucified Jesus seems to have lost. “He saved others, he cannot save himself” (Matthew 27:42), they exclaim mockingly. However, when Jesus dies, further attempts to draw him into the world of violence become impossible. Hence, the violent logic that needs, at least, its victim’s involvement in violence to justify itself, utterly fails. What dies on the cross is the foundation of violence. That’s why Jesus proclaims, right before dying: “It is finished” (John 19:30). The universal lie of the scapegoat mechanism behind the ever-recurring myths of redemptive violence is revealed. In that sense, Jesus is: “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). René Girard writes – in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2001), 142-143:
“By nailing Christ to the Cross, the powers believed they were doing what they ordinarily did in unleashing the single victim mechanism. They thought they were avoiding the danger of disclosure. They did not suspect that in the end they would be doing just the opposite: they would be contributing to their own annihilation, nailing themselves to the Cross, so to speak. They did not and could not suspect the revelatory power of the Cross. […] The powers are not put on display because they are defeated, but they are defeated because they are put on display.”
Again, what dies on the cross is the foundation of the violent logic. What lives on the cross, on the other hand, is the self-giving love that saves lives by refusing to kill. No Jew, no Roman, neither friend nor foe died. The love revealed in Jesus, which withdraws from rivalry over power altogether, is all-powerful, not in the sense that it has total control over others, but in the sense that it is not even destroyed by death and thus remains completely independent of the world of violence. The death of Jesus is the ultimate withdrawal from violence and the ultimate gift of life-giving grace.
On Easter Sunday, the crucified Jesus is revealed to his followers as the living presence and embodiment of the non-violent God, of non-violent love. Therefore, the Eucharistic commemoration of Jesus’ death is not the repetition of deadly violence to establish peace. It is the sacramental presence of Jesus as Risen Christ and true Messiah, who does not feed on violence to become a so-called savior, but who invites us to imagine ever new ways of sharing in the Spirit of his forgiving withdrawal from violence. The more we thus mutually and mimetically give room to each other’s life and each other’s differences, the more we are inhabited by and reconciled with divine love. The peace of Christ is a peace of creative, non-violent conflict. It is a life of exciting, “electrifying” fruitful tensions.