Scot McKnight had a very interesting post last week concerning a recently popular“scapegoat” atonement theory about Jesus’ cross based on the cultural theory of French philosopher Rene Girard. The scapegoat theory’s basic idea is that God the Father doesn’t demand Jesus’ blood as the price for humanity’s sin, but that we humans needed Jesus to be our scapegoat so that we could be liberated from our sin. McKnight contends that the Girardian view doesn’t count as an atonement theory because in his interpretation of the scapegoat theory, “we side with Christ and God and not those who put him to death.” McKnight says that for an interpretation of the cross to be atonement as such, it must implicate us in the death of Jesus, “the cross [must be] in some way against us.” Interestingly, McKnight’s terms for a valid atonement theory don’t delegitimize Girard’s scapegoat theory nearly as much as they invalidate the default evangelical understanding of the cross as the satisfaction of God’s wrath. I heartily agree with McKnight’s understanding. Humanity crucified Jesus, not God; it is our needs which the cross satisfies, not God’s.
The place we should begin in understanding the importance of Jesus’ cross is with the first sermon that was ever preached about it: Peter’s sermon in the Jerusalem Temple in Acts 2. After sharing several prophetic testimonies about Jesus, Peter concludes by saying: “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). The next verse says that the people were “cut to the heart” and asked Peter what to do. And that was the way that 3000 of them were baptized.
We are supposed to be “cut to the heart” by our implication in the death of the world’s savior. That’s what is supposed to happen to us in response to Jesus’ cross. It’s a critical part of what saves us: the conviction of realizing, as McKnight puts it, that “I am guilty of that death.” The reason this doesn’t happen in much of the evangelical church today is because the cross has been explained as a solution to an invented problem that makes God out to be the universe’s tight-short wearing middle school gym teacher like the infamous Mr. Woodcock portrayed by Bill Bob Thornton in one of the most awful movies I’ve ever seen.
According to this widely disseminated story, sometimes referred to as the “Four Spiritual Laws,” we owe God infinite pushups even for committing the slightest of infractions in His gym class called life because He’s God and He’s infinitely strict, so He gives us the choice of either giving Him pushups for all of eternity in hell or “accepting” His “gift” of brutally murdering His own Son to pay Himself back for our sin. It’s pure nonsense and it’s completely un-Biblical, even though you can certainly read it into the Bible if you want to, which many evangelicals have done.
If God crucified His own Son to pay Himself back for my sin, then I am robbed of the convicting realization that I would have been in the crowd screaming “Crucify him!” (Matthew 27:23) if I had been alive at the time. If it’s all just a moral bank transaction negotiated between Jesus and His Dad, if the entire crowd of hateful people and the deranged Sanhedrin and the vicious Roman soldiers who drove nails into Jesus’ hands were all just puppets of an angry Father dead-set on shooting His hot white wrath all over His Son, then there is no atoning salvation for me in that equation.
The fact is I have been part of that crowd yelling “Crucify him!” many times because Jesus says in Matthew 25:40 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Every time I take out my anxiety and frustration on my wife or sons by yelling at them or mistreating them, I am crucifying Jesus. Every time I blow off someone who is hurting and needs my help, I am crucifying Jesus. Every time I take part in crushing the poor in the Global South through my participation in global capitalism, I am crucifying Jesus. Every time I indulge the lusts and appetites of my flesh that make me all the more selfish and apathetic about the mercy to which God has called me in the lives of others, I am crucifying Jesus. And every time I grasp the small metallic body of Jesus on my rosary crucifix, I’m convicted again and called more deeply into repentance.
Yes, Jesus’ death is a payment for my sin, but God doesn’t need to see the blood to be okay with me; I need to see the blood to be okay with God. I not only need to see Jesus’ blood; I need to eat His flesh and drink His blood every week so that I can be crucified to my past and born anew into His body, which I can only imagine doing because His body was broken to let me enter inside of it. Without the safety of His body, I would have no spiritual anchor; I would be tossed back and forth like a “child of wrath” among the chaotic waves created by “the passions of [my] flesh” (Ephesians 2:3). I would live in the hell of being the lonely god of my own personal universe.
Jesus died on the cross to give me a place to put my sin and to show me what needs to happen to my sinful nature so that I can join Him in the real eternal life that He offers me. If I did not have an eternal place to put my sin, then I would never be set free from it. Despite whatever subconscious psychological transference or projections or rationalizations I use to cope with my guilt, my sin will always cling to me until I trust that Jesus really has put my sin to death and that He really said about me no differently than the other people crucifying Him, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
I read Rene Girard about 12 years ago when I was just out of college. I’m not sure if I understood or appropriated him correctly, but the tremendously liberating thing he did for me was to free me forever from seeing the cross as some sick, strange anger management device of a Mr. Woodcock kind of God. It was humanity who needed to crucify Jesus so that we could be convicted by seeing our wickedness made plain and naked before us, so that the pure life in Jesus’ blood could wash away the poisonous wrath (Romans 5:9-10) that we cover ourselves in every time that we do evil and discover like Lady Macbeth that we can’t wash it from our hands.
Now the other critical side of the cross that may not be atonement per se is Jesus’ witness of solidarity with the world’s crucified. Because affluent white guys like Scot McKnight and me have historically predominated the theological conversation about Jesus’ cross, we’ve been quite oblivious to the healing power of solidarity in the cross that people of color like Gustavo Gutierrez, Elsa Tamez, James Cone, and Andrew Sung Park have written about. (Incidentally, I don’t see the solidarity dimension anywhere in Girard’s scapegoat theory.) Jesus’ death not only convicts us as bullies; it also vindicates us as victims.
Everyone is both a bully and a victim, though people with privilege like me are a lot more the former than the latter. We need to know that Jesus has paid the price for the nails we have driven into other peoples’ flesh and also that Jesus has felt every nail that has been driven into our flesh. Without a recognition of the solidarity that Jesus’ cross shows to the victims of our sin, it’s easy to see how atonement becomes an abstraction, a divine credit card swipe or a sick sadomasochistic role-play between God the Father and His Son. In fact, I would wager that the perversion of the cross’s interpretation in white evangelical culture is directly tied to the deliberate repression of its message of solidarity by slave-masters, segregationists, and other oppressors of the past who wanted a cross that served only their needs.
In any case, God’s not guilty of killing His Son; I am. And somehow strangely, the victim who has always been my victim every time I have mistreated another person has forgiven me and become my savior and the source of a beautiful everlasting life that He has won for me.