I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son”. And not just any, run of the mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??
That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think he hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.
Myths Conceal Suffering
Part of why it has been so hard for God to get through to us is our tone deafness to the difference between myth and Scripture. We have been unable to perceive that ancient myths have a basis in reality: they are stories of violence told from the point of view of the perpetrators. Remember the old saw that history is written by the victors? Myths are like that, too. The losers don’t get to tell their story because unfortunately they are dead. So we never get to hear about the losers’ suffering or their claims of having been falsely persecuted and killed for no reason. All we get are incomplete stories in which the victim’s voice is silenced and the violence is glorified. In myths the gods battle and slay one another and out of their combat emerges fire and agriculture and all the good things humans need to flourish. In other words, the myths tell a story of how good and necessary divine violence really is.
As you may be aware, the Bible has often been dismissed as just another myth. Sadly, due to our tone-deafness, we Christians have had trouble refuting that claim. But in the last half century, since the work of René Girard has been part of theological reflection, a coherent explanation of myth and the uniqueness of Scriptures has emerged with amazing clarity. The incredible insight about myths that has been made possible by Girard and his mimetic theory is that underlying myths are actual events of human violence in which a community is formed around the expulsion or murder of a victim. In other words, it’s not the gods who are violent – the violence is ours. But in refusing to take responsibility for what we have done, we blame the gods for it.
Girard calls this scapegoating violence and we can see its echo in our world today. All of us are aware of the phenomenon of scapegoating, so much so that past accusations of guilt against minority groups arouse our suspicion. We no longer believe in the accusations of witchcraft or sorcery that bedeviled (pun intended!) the middle ages because we can sniff out the lie. We can see how a community benefits from having a common enemy to blame all their troubles on.
Scripture Sides With the Victim
That ability to detect the lie is due to the Gospels. Because of what God’s Son did for us we realize that not only is the accused innocent, but the crowd is guilty without knowing it. Girard explains the difference succinctly:
“In biblical texts, victims are innocent and collective violence is to blame. In myths, the victims are to blame and the communities are innocent.” (The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 35)
“Myths are religions of victorious false accusation. The Gospel narrative refutes not only the guilt of Jesus but all lies of the same kind, for example the one that makes Oedipus out to be a parricidal, incestuous plague-spreader.” (When These Things Begin, 92)
It still comes as a shock to us that Oedipus is a type, just like Jesus and the Suffering Servant, of someone who is hated without cause. So under the sway are we still of the mythological worldview that even though we can see the scapegoats of others, our own remain hidden from us. We still believe that Oedipus is guilty and that the chorus – that’s us! – is innocent! We prefer to remain blissfully ignorant of our similarity to the crowd that is deaf and blind to its guilt and the innocence of the one they seek to condemn.
But the God who spoke to the Hebrews through the prophets is acutely tuned in to the voice of the suffering victim. To illustrate this, Girard compares two stories of a brother murdering his brother to found culture, one from Roman mythology and one from the Bible:
“Romulus kills Remus and the city of Rome is founded…Romulus is justified. His status is that of a sacrificer and High Priest; he incarnates Roman power under all its forms… By contrast, even if Cain is invested with basically the same powers… he is nonetheless presented as a vulgar murderer. The fact that the first murder precipitates the first cultural development of the human race does not in any way excuse the murderer in the biblical text… The condemnation of the murder takes precedence over all other considerations. ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 146-147)
Is God’s Message Getting Through?
See the difference? Is God’s message getting through? It’s not something we could figure out on our own because we have no access to the carefully closed reality we have constructed out of faith in our own innocence and the guilt of those we condemn.
“If the Passion were only something human, the voice of Christ would have been smothered, or he would have become a pagan divinity like the rest, a sacralized scapegoat. His real message would never have made it to us.” (When These Things Begin, 91)
The full revelation that our reality depends on being tone deaf not only to God’s messengers but to the cries of our victims awaited its fulfillment on the Cross. We are slow learners. But God understands our resistance to hearing the truth about ourselves. To be Christian, however, is to be a repentant persecutor, fully aware of our sin while rejoicing in God’s willingness to die for us while we were yet sinners. While we struggle to grasp the full impact of the Cross, hatred, bigotry, intolerance, violence and war continue to plague us. But our God is a patient God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. I invite you to pray with me that someday soon we prove worthy of God’s patient hope in us.