Jesus and Islam: The Perfect Scapegoats


 “Christ is not divinized as a scapegoat.  Those who take him to be God – Christians – are the ones who do not make him their scapegoat,” writes Renee Girard in his text Quand Ces Choses Commenceront.

Girard’s work attempts to reveal the role that violence and victimization play in the organization of human society and his research, particularly in his Violence and the Sacred, contends that humanity needs violence and uses violence to create peace and harmony within communities.  Without violence as an organizing principle,, and therefore without a subject upon whom violence may be directed…a victim, people groups cannot maintain peace or establish tranquility.

Not only does violence organize secular communities, it also unites and organizes religious communities.  Arguably, violence is never absent religious overtones.

Violence acts as the glue of communities because it allows the majority in the group to direct their animosity and hatred toward a “sacred” object upon which they can uniformly direct their aggression.  This object or person is what we call the scapegoat.

The scapegoat is also a person that is believed to have violated the taboos of community, so aggression toward this person is justified.

Yet, the scapegoat is not sacred in and of itself; it is “sacred” precisely because it brings reconciliation.

When the community identifies a scapegoat to fill its need for harmony she becomes the target of a unifying animosity.  The only way to keep peace in the community is to destroy the “presumed” problem, the scapegoat, as a response to the conflict.  The community unites around this cause and directs its aggression upon the violator, sacrificing it for the good of the community. The people who were once threatened by disharmony are now united in cause and purpose through violence.

As Mark Heim notes in atonemental work, Saved from Sacrifice, “In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all.”

This process of uniting around violence, finding peace in the death and annihilation of another, is not limited in its scope.  It also lies at the center of the Christian story: the Crucifixion of Jesus.

I do not presume to be able to descandalize the Cross or Passion event of Jesus the Christ with such brevity.  Such, in my opinion, has already been handily accomplished by Mark Heim, Renee Girard and others in their seminal works.  But it is not too far a stretch to say that however Jesus is understood, mimetic violence is a part of his narrative…and it’s a narrative that does not cease upon the nails entering the hands of Christ.  We continue to employ its mechanizations into the present.

Jesus is not to be the scapegoat of Christians; this, however, is precisely what we often make of Jesus.

The crucifixion is the event in which Jesus is killed by the people for the benefit of the people.  The story of the Gospels shows us characters that kill Jesus in order to establish peace.  Christians, rather than confronting Pilate’s medium of peace as sinful, condone this violence against Jesus and write songs and hymns reveling in the gory details of a victim known as Jesus.   Mark Heim reminisces, “I attended worship services all my life…and sang about the blood shed for me…If I was comfortable with the abstract idea, why did I shrink from the reality?”

Christians deplore the technology of sacrifice, except in the case of Jesus, wherein his sacrifice was necessary to forgive our sins.  Our sin problem becomes the problem of Jesus and we gladly accept him on the cross in order to give us the peace and harmony we need in the Church community.  His death unites us and hides us from our own selves in the process.

Jesus becomes the scapegoat whereby we can not only pacify our ethical guilt, but in so doing alleviate ourselves from the threat of an angry God.  It’s a “win win”: peace with ourselves and peace with the Holy Other.

And if it works with Jesus, why not continue to unconsciously pursue this mimetic verbal and physical violence into the present to make us feel more American, more Christian?  After all, if God destroys Jesus to bring peace, surely we can destroy lesser humans to accomplish the same.

Along with Jesus, we American Christians are now doing the same thing with a major world religion: Islam.

Our present, and decade old phobia of Islam, is the continuation of an unfolding drama that for most Americans began on 9/11/01 in lower Manhattan.  The country had experienced a rupture to their worldview that morning.  The instantaneous refrain that was heard throughout the nation was revenge: to paraphrase President Bush, “I hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people responsible for this event will hear us all.”

At that point in history, polls demonstrated the nation was united in purpose and violent pursuit of the criminals.  This was scapegoating in action: directing hate and violence toward an agreed upon enemy in order to restore order, unity and peace.  We sought salvation in violence.

We sought to kill those who were not guilty to rebuild the worldview that was taken away from us from the actual guilty parties.  Only through violence could we seek peace.  It was the dialectical impossibility of American politics to somehow be the bearers of peace with one hand, while holding an anvil in the other.

The scapegoating that began almost a decade ago has now spread to the religion in general.  Most Americans have very poor ideas about Islam and many have no problem condemning it as religion of hate and death.  The hatred that is brewing against Muslims in our nation is astounding, even while many Americans spewing Islamophobic rhetoric have never read the Koran or spoken with a peace loving Muslim.

Islam has become an easy scapegoat.  Americans have figured out a way to make Islam their sacrificial victim and kill it for the good of the many.

It works, it unifies and it gives us a common enemy to hate.  Rather than engender Deuteronmistic hospitality as Moses and Jesus taught, American Christians are ready to put Islam on a cross.  Can we not see what we are doing?  Do we not see that we are using the same sinful violence that killed Jesus to give us excuse to kill an entire religion and culture (physically and verbally)?  Did Jesus not suggest that if we hate someone in our heart, we have already committed murder against them?

A question in the spirit of Girard would be apt to ask, “Does Jesus die in order to affirm the peaceable kingdom that is brought through violence, or does Jesus die as a testimony against violence in order to establish the peaceable Kingdom?”

Is Jesus’ death an affirmation of violence as a unitary principle or is his death the swallowing and ending of violence as a currency whereby we should attempt to establish harmony?>

Some of my fellow brothers and sisters will, and have objected, saying, “Do you see Muslims showing your type of tolerance?  Do you see Muslims wanting to understand your faith and love you?”

My reply is, “Yes”. I have experienced hospitality and love from Muslim strangers.  I have been with them in Syria and walked the streets of Damascus, sipped Turkish coffee with them in Jordan and put my arms around Bedouin wanderers.  I have felt the hospitality of peace loving Muslims that have saved money for years in order to take their family on Hajj to Mecca.  I have seen their smiles and heard their children laugh.  I have been at home in their presence and have eaten dinner at a common table, even talking about things like Jesus and Mohammed in a place called Sinai.

So “yes,” I have been with Muslims who have “tolerated” my Christianity and attempted to “understand” my faith.

But even if I hadn’t, I still serve a Christ that teaches, “You have heard it said You Shall Love Your Neighbor and hate your enemy.  But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you in order that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.”

We’ve already made Jesus a scapegoat…must we make an entire religion and ethnic group one also?

Crucified God: Jesus wasn’t kidding, God really forsook him

My God My God

“My father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” (Matthew 26.39)

“And he took with him Peter, James and John, and began to be very distressed and troubled” (Mark 14.33)

“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…And being in agony he was passionately praying and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground” (Luke 22. 42 & 44)

“My Soul has become troubled, so should I say, ‘Father, save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I came to this hour” (John 12.27)

An often neglected aspect of “Good” Friday and the very tortuous circumstances that enveloped Jesus is a very clear biblical picture: Jesus was human.  Jesus was not a mind reader, he was not a fortune teller and he did not posses X-Men type powers that allowed him to sustain these brief moments of hell leading up to his betrayal, trial and final execution.   Jesus was fully human and we would be remiss to read the story of the passion of the Christ this Easter as a cheap gloss whereby Jesus (who is also God) knew that despite all these horrible things that were about to unfold, in the end it would work out.

The events of Passion in the Gospels are not just nice details to fill our bibles so that God actually has a story of God’s death.  The details are not immaterial, meant to simply tell us the “how” and “why” of Jesus death.  In other words, the details mean something.   When we overly divinize Christ too soon the details become moot because Jesus knew what would happen, Jesus knew he was the supreme lamb and he knew as God that he would be resurrected. Jesus has no reason to be worried; he knows resurrection awaits him.   If this was the case, then how is the sacrifice of Christ really a sacrifice?  If we lay down our lives for our friends, yet we know that our life will again be taken up…is the loss of our life really love?   Are the verses above simply wrong?  Did Christ not really experience despair and did he not mean it when he asks God to “take this cup from me?”  If this is the case, then I struggle to understand why Jesus would pray so hard that something that seems like “blood” would perspire from his forehead.  A man who knows the end does not pray so fervently.

What the gospels present to us is a very dialectical view of Christ.  We often look at Jesus as this one who marched proudly and boldly to his death.  He knew his hour had arrived and he bravely stretched out his back for flogging, he boldly spoke truth to people who had authority to kill him and he unflinchingly stretched out his arms on a cross as he was welcoming the nails that would drive through tendons and bone.  But this is not the only picture of the Gospels; it’s not even a dominant picture.  Christ is not so bold and he is not looking forward to what seems to be developing all around him.

In the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) we get a picture of Christ that prays the unthinkable and is deeply distressed by the events of this week.  The synoptic Christ is NOT looking forward to a potential trial with authorities.  He is not looking forward to potentially facing a death sentence.  Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus even prayed…”if this cup can pass…then please make it so” and Mark tells us that Jesus was greatly disturbed and filled with inner turmoil.  Why would Jesus have these feelings if they were not genuine?   How could his deep distress be justified if this is a man who knows that in 3 days it will be fine?

Yes, Jesus does end his prayer with “not my will, but yours be done,” but this is simply an affirmation that Christ has surrendered himself to the mission of the God he serves.  Ever since the scene of his baptism the life of Jesus has not been animated by his own words; it has been a mirror image of God to the world via his ministry.  Jesus has been busy proclaiming the Kingdom of God and performing visible manifestations of this Kingdom.  If God chose to end his Kingdom proclamation then so be it; Jesus cannot resist what God is doing.  But, to this God that Christ earlier in the Synoptics calls his “father,” this God with whom Christ has a much more intimate relationship than is normal, he asks, “if this cup can pass from ME…make it so.”

The Synoptic Jesus is not bold and he is not excited…and the cliché statement that he was thinking about YOU and YOUR sin…and that this somehow made this horrible trial easier is simply a romantic way to sanitize the crucible of violence and anguish experienced by the human Jesus.  Jesus was tortured, mutilated and turned into a human poster…YOUR sin does not make this easy.

So the Synoptics give us a very hesitant Jesus, a human Jesus, with deep feelings and emotions that stir him to his very being.  They give us a picture of one who is not convinced that there is any “Good” in this Friday.

The Gospel of John on the other hand gives us a bold Christ.  This is the only Gospel that does so.  The Johannine Jesus is not timid and he is not deterred from his coming “hour.”  In the Gospel of John one finds the very famous “lifting up” sayings in which Christ proclaims that he is moving toward this event in which he will be “lifted up” in order to bring all people unto himself.  This is John’s way of pointing his readers to the passion and the “lifting up” of Christ on the cross.

There is also the theme of “my hour” that is recurrent across John’s narrative and this theme enters the Gospel fairly early.  After the introductory portions of the text, chapter 2 presents to us the first miracle of Jesus at the wedding at Cana.  This is the event in which the wedding runs out of wine for its celebrants and Mary asks her son Jesus to intervene.  Jesus replies abruptly, “Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My HOUR has not yet come.”

Another example is when Jesus goes down to the feast at the encouragement of his family in John 7.  The text implies that his family is trying to get him in trouble with the authorities and they slyly say, “well no one does anything in secret when he seeks to be known by others…so if what you do is real, show yourself to the world.”  His family is not supportive here; they are trying to get Jesus jailed or even worse, killed.  The text tells us that his historical family did not believe upon Jesus or his works…and into this context Jesus replies to them, “My time has not yet here…but your hour is always here…you go up to the feast because my time has not yet come.”

Jesus is fully aware that he is a polarizing figure and he knows that if he goes up to the feast at their request that violence could easily ensue.  Jesus does eventually go to the Feast of Booths in John 7, but he does so in secret…he doesn’t want to make a scene because his HOUR is not yet here.   The Johannine Jesus is committed to this theme throughout the Gospel and Jesus does nothing that is inconsistent with him moving toward this enigmatic hour; an hour of which Jesus seems to be aware, but of which the characters in the story fail to understand.

The Johannine Christ boldly steps into his mission in John 18.11 as the Roman cohort comes for him.  Peter tries to defend Jesus through violence and he swings his sword at a nearby soldier striking his ear; it’s a wonder Jesus and his disciples were not all killed then and there.  Jesus tells Peter to stand down and then he asks him, “Shall I not drink of the cup the father has given me?  It is for this hour I have come.”

So in John we have a Jesus who is focused on his mission, boldly moving toward it and in the synoptic we have a dithering Jesus who is fully human and filled with anguish…a very human Jesus who is not so confident.

Yet, even though John sanitizes the human grief of Christ and Luke portrays a Christ who on the cross dies a good death, a death in which he calmly whispers to God, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.”   Matthew and Mark preserve a very early tradition that testified to Christ crying to God in words of honest despair and nothingness.  Jesus does not die peacefully giving up his spirit in Matthew and Mark.  Here, he dies a horrible death of wailing and crying…hurling contempt toward God for what is happening.

This would be an early tradition and is most likely very historical since it would make sense for the community of Jesus to not retain statements made by Christ that would seem to create enmity between Jesus and God.  If you’re trying to spread the good news of Jesus, it’s much easier to do so without Jesus getting mad at the Father from which he was sent and even declaring a firm separation.  Jesus was so adamant in John about his hour and purpose and this cup of which me must partake…yet as he is nailed to the Roman Cross, his body convulsing and consciousness fading in and out…he musters up the ability to scream, wail and cry out to his “Father,” in Matthew and Mark:  “MY GOD MY GOD WHY HAVE YOUR FORSAKEN ME!?”

Do we really take these words seriously?  Amidst the varying portrayals of Jesus and his attitude toward the events of these next 3 days, do we take this witness of Jesus in Matthew and Mark seriously or do we think Jesus was just making a hyperbolic statement on the cross that would provide the gospels with drama that would captivate the readers?

Why would Jesus utter such words?    How does this make sense in a Christian tradition that has so sanitized and neglected to see meaning in these his very last words?  What was Jesus expressing in the scene that theologian Jurgen Moltmann describes as the “Crucified God.”

Jesus has spent his entire ministry proclaiming the closeness of God to humanity.  He has redefined what it means to be in relationship to God.  He has seen people healed in his ministry.  This is a testimony that God is near.  He has been preaching a non-judgmental message of grace that extends to all who will believe.  He has been baptizing people and getting them ready for the coming of God into the world.  He has raised dead people and experienced a closeness with God that heretofore had been unheard of…yet, at this moment when he most needs this God that is so close…this God is in fact so FAR away.  All that he has preached, taught and performed were testimonials to who God is, yet this God does not spare Christ this fate!  Jesus, the one who prayed to this God as his “Father,” is realizing that the closeness and the grace that he has proclaimed…are in his final moments not available to him.

Moltmann says it like this, “When we look at his non-miraculous and helpless suffering and dying in the context of his preaching and his life, we understand how this misery cried out to heaven; it is the experience of abandonment by God in the knowledge that God is not distant but close…In full consciousness that God is close at hand in his grace, to be abandoned and delivered up to death as one rejected, is the torment of hell.”

In other words, the God that animated the very preaching and life of Christ is letting his preaching and life end.  The vision that Christ has for the world is contingent upon his living to continue to incarnate this reality and the God who he feels has called him to this prophetic role is letting it all end in such a horrible way.  The God that Jesus knows so well has turned his back on him and his prophetic mission.  Christ has been left to die by the one he called “Father.”

To make the situation more stark, when Christ asks the question, “My God my God why have your FORSAKEN me?” he is not only anguishing over his own betrayal by God and the tortuous end to which his life has come…but he is connecting his life to the life of God as inseparable realities.

Jesus has fostered a unique symbiotic relationship between himself and the father.  He has understood his life to be the incarnation (though this language is not used in the Gospels) of God to the world.  God is visible in his ministry and his ministry is the visibility of God.  Jesus associates his very life with the very mission of God.  Thus,  for Jesus to end up on a Roman Cross is not just an indictment on a God that has not held up to his end of the bargain, but it is a cry that reflects the most bitter betrayal any of us will ever experience: Betrayal by our closest companions, betrayal by family.

Thus for Jesus the cry of forsakenness must mean not only that he feels forsaken by God, but in the very utterance of forsakenness Jesus is basically asking, “Why is God forsaking Godself!?”  By forsaking Jesus God is not simply forsaking the sage of Galilee; God is turning his back against God.  Jesus is not the only one crucified on this hill; God is crucified.  The narrative of God is so connected with the narrative of Jesus that for Christ to be forsaken and die is for God to forsake God and kill God’s self!  This is an event that is taking place between Jesus and his Father, one to whom he prayed, wept and beseeched would let these events pass.  The Gospels of Matthew and Mark preserve a story that displays an interaction within the life of God…between one that makes God visible to the world and the one that is now invisibly visible to Jesus in his absent presence.  To Jesus, God has become an absent derelict Father!

If Jesus was the Truth of God born into creation, then what happens in this cry is nothing less than God turning against God.

While we are often quick to give explanations in Christian theology as to the “why” of Jesus’ forsakenness, we must refrain from doing so on Good Friday. We may early not want to take Jesus’ words seriously; we may not want to hear his cry of forsakenness for what it really is: the death of God and the grief of one who so believed his life was animated as the prophets of old that he looks to the heavens in utter disbelief that his Words are coming to an end in this penal deed.  We must not, then, say on Good Friday that Jesus died for this reason or that reason…but we must pause and enter the story of Jesus as a man betrayed by his Father and left to die.  Racing to Resurrection Sunday is a cheap way of romanticizing his cry of dereliction and retards our ability to appreciate theologically the meaning of resurrection within the context of utter abandonment.

As we move through the next 3 days, let us not dismiss these Gospel stories and the differing portrayals of Christ…and let us not harmonize their details to the point of making the details meaningless…but let us acknowledge as those who stand around the cross that the beginning of faith is NOT in the events that we will call Easter a few days from now, but faith only begins after God is crucified.  While many religions testify to prophets and disciples dying for the faith, only in Christianity does God die for Gods self and does God declare to God’s self such forsakenness.