Violence Ends On the Cross

Violence Ends On the Cross November 30, 2011

René Girard certainly is one of the more interesting, and important, thinkers on violence in contemporary Christian thought. The sacrificial reading of the cross, to him, errs because it helps promote the violence, and indeed, repeat the violence, which is ended on the cross itself. Christ as the scapegoat is to bring us out of the cycle of violence, but Christians have not properly followed Christ and have turned back to pre-Christian, sinful, ways of thought:

The task is to show that the Christian sons have repeated, even aggravated, all the errors of their Judaic fathers. The Christians have condemned the Jews, but they themselves are condemned by Paul’s statement in the Epistle to the Romans: ‘In passing judgement upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things’ (Romans 2,1).

In a remarkable paradox, but one that accords well with the sacrificial course of mankind, the sacrificial reading (that is, the logic of the violent Logos) refashions the mechanism that has been revealed and thus of necessity annihilated – if the revelation were genuinely accepted – into a kind of sacrificial cultural foundation. This is the foundation that both ‘Christianity’ and the modern world have rested upon, right up to our own time.[1]

Christ did not go wrong, but his followers, in trying to understand him, were able to find their thought subverted by the very system which Christ overcame. The world and its black iron prison, the world of violence, the world of sin, was overcome by Christ. The necessity of punishment, the necessity to sacrifice others for the good of the world, is completely overcome by Christ himself. Christ became the universal sacrifice to overcome sacrifice, to overcome the sacrificial system, not to support it. He reveals it for what it is, and in his death, he brings it to its limit and ends it. Violence is overcome, no one needs to be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good. Christ frees us, liberates us, shows us the way is not the way of violence, the way of retribution. That is the path of decay, the path of the dead.

In one remarkable passage in the Exegesis, Philip K Dick shows us this same point — he saw the truth of it and then tried to understand what it is he had learned:

I see in the crucifixion story the message ‘punishment must end.’ In my schema, revealed to me, punishment is one of the key words, tied to the key word ‘sin.’ This whole sin-punishment system is a smokescreen for our enslavement. The solution to the equation sin-punishment (work) is innocence-joy (play). This is what the secret kerygma in Tears reveals, and Scanner goes on to study the issue further. [2]

Sin leads to punishment because sin leads us away from God and we suffer accordingly. Society tries to become like unto God by punishing us when we turn away from it, when we find its ways to be unjust. Society tries to be like God, but misunderstands the connection between suffering and sin, so when it imitates God, it imitates not what God wants but its misappropriated understanding of God. We create our own suffering when we sin, while society as a whole creates suffering through violence when someone goes against its wishes. Society believes in the salvific element of violence and so uses this a justification for its violence. Society is saved because violence destroys the offender – but again, this is exactly what Roman society believed when it killed Jesus who it saw as an offender. Christians should see Christ as the exposure of violence instead of its justification, but so many turn this around and in their words, justify Rome in its deicide. The Empire never ended, but instead, it infected those who followed Christ and turned them away from Christ’s full message:

Then, by my theory, the last thing that we should do is imitate Christ’s passion. It was to liberate us from this that he came: to relieve us from the belief that suffering is natural and somehow proves or is tied to ‘sin.’

As lord of the universe it is his desire and mission to extricate us from – and finally destroy – the Tears world. And a lot of the Tears world is psychological – i.e., a spiritual matter. [3]

Certainly, we must not let society imitate what happened on the cross, that is, we must not act as if we must destroy more people to save society. This is the truth value behind what PKD is aiming at here. Salvation is had by Christ, and the system behind violence has been exposed by him. But we must not mistake this as saying we cannot, in our own way, share with Christ and be united with him and his work. But we must not seek, it, either; if we seek it, if we seek martyrdom, if we seek to place ourselves in the place of Christ, we have denied him and his work. That is why the early Christians could not approve of those who created problems, forcing Rome to kill them. Such martyrs were no true martyrs because they have not understood Christ and what Christ sought to do. They promote the system of the empire when they seek to be martyrs; it is only when one denies the system and denies even the death by the system itself that one can be with Christ. Then Christ comes and comforts the martyr – as the stories of the martyrs show – they rejoice, they are glad, they suffer not because they have gone beyond the sacrificial system itself. Christ has taken their place – even in their death. In this way, the martyrs didn’t imitate Christ, but found Christ took their place, Christ imitated them. They were freed by Christ, and his work on the cross continued to liberate them even when the world believed they were being killed. They knew they were not, since the way of death had already ended. By death, he had conquered death, and by violence, violence had been overcome. Those in the graves and those suffering innocently, without provocation, found Christ there with them and giving them life.

Violence has been overcome by the Lord of life – so why do we glorify it?

[1] René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Trans. Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1987), 224.

[2]  Philip K. Dick, Exegesis. ed. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2011), 348.  When he talks about Tears he is referring to a vision of a brutal world he had and used in Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.   In it, the main character, a pop star, finds himself awaking to a different world, to an America which has become a brutal police state.  Scanner refers to the novel,  A Scanner Darkly, about an undercover drug cop whose superiors, not knowing who he is, send him to investigate a man who is considered to be a major drug dealer, a man who turns out to be himself. The end result is a psychological breakdown, because his work has led him to be addicted to the drug Substance D. He ends up sent  to a drug rehab center which raises the plants which make Substance D..

[3] Ibid., 348.

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