Sunday, May 24, 2009

Yet Another Way of Thinking "Blood"

I used to say—back in the 1980’s when it was timely and I was convinced that I knew everything—that the quickest way to end the cold war would be to simulate an invasion from Mars. Since that time, several Hollywood movies have expressed the same idea, only the rivalries have changed a bit. Think of all of the movies where brown, turbaned folks—typically representing an enemy of the US—joyfully cheer on the American heroes as they destroy the mothership of an even worse enemy from outer space. It’s the same kind of thing that would stop my brother and me from fighting whenever some kid that we both decided to dislike came on the scene. Oddly enough, both the rivalry and the spontaneous transfer of a rivalry to a third party are elements of the way that Rene Girard invites us to consider the doxology in Revelation that says Christ “freed us from our sins by his blood.”
You’ll need to google Girard to get a fuller (and perhaps fairer) description of his thought, but two of his ideas in general offer us a way of understanding the blood of Jesus differently than either Anselm’s substitutionary atonement (see the 5/20 blog post) or Irenaeus’ incarnational use (see the 5/22 blog post). What Girard describes is “mimetic desire” (mimetic means ‘imitative’) and “scapegoating.” “Mimetic desire” is what put my brother and me- or the US and the USSR, or Christendom and Islamdom- into conflict in the first place. (I just made up the word “Islamdom” as a way of separating the nobler aspects of Islamic faith from the political expressions of Islam that often overshadow the faith itself. That’s how I use the word “Christendom” also, by the way.) In mimetic desire, it is the desire to have what another has (and often not until the other has it) that lies at the root of many conflicts.
“Scapegoating” is the mechanism by which conflicting communities get beyond the impasse of their conflict and avoid totally annihilating one another. For my brother and me, it was a common enemy. For white, black, and brown faces in Hollywood movies, it is the amorphous ‘other’ inside of the enemy spaceship. And, in the absence of a well-timed common enemy, we create one by designating a ‘scapegoat’ or a sacrificial lamb, onto which we transfer all of our enmity and sins. Then, we kill or send away the sin-filled scapegoat and we ourselves emerge clean.
Girard shows that mimetic desire and scapegoating have been the “myths” at work in rivalries and religions for ages. But, he also argues that the death of Christ has exposed the sacrificial system by demonstrating that the ones who put the victim to death do not, in fact, emerge clean and forgiven, but are guilty of killing an innocent. To be “freed by the blood of Christ,” in Girard’s understanding would NOT be “freed because the gods are mollified by sacrifices.” We are “freed” because our whole scapegoating system has been exposed and now we have a choice between the need for scapegoating and the way of Christ which overcomes mimetic desire when we join the prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done.”
Rene Girard offers a way of joining the doxology and praising Christ for “freeing us by his blood,” which accepts that Jesus was the innocent sacrificial victim. But, unlike Anselm’s theory, God is not he one who was mollified by Jesus’ death. It was our tendency to scapegoat that was mollified and Jesus frees us by exposing that tendency and calling us to another way.
Next time, one last way of thinking ‘blood.’

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