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ideaExchange Transcript 3.19.05


Good Friday:
Does God take satisfaction in the killing of an innocent man? - Brian Loewen 3.19.05

Introduction: Thank-You's and Warnings

Hello. First let me thank Jamie and Alana of St. Benedict's Table for giving me the chance to be a part of the Idea Exchange Forum. I'd also like to thank Kelly for his help preparing this lecture. Kelly acted as my editor and agent, so I feel this lecture is not just mine, but Kelly's as well. I'd also like to thank each of you for coming out tonight to be a part of this discussion and giving me the chance to challenge you to think about the meaning of Jesus' death.

When you are flying in an airplane and you are about to enter some turbulence, the captain comes on the intercom and warns everyone to prepare themselves because the ride is soon going to get a little rough. Similarly, I feel I should warn you to prepare yourselves. I will be talking about the meaning of Jesus' death by crucifixion, the event Christians are commemorating on Good Friday. Since this is a very important event for people who claim to follow Jesus, it can lead to some very strong emotions. The things I have to say are different from what many people are used to, and this is often not welcome. Please keep an open mind until I am finished speaking. The first part of my lecture will be uncomfortable, but I believe it is necessary in order to understand the second part. At the end there will be time for discussion, so you will be able to respond then.

My inspiration for this talk comes from the French literary critic, Rene Girard. I first heard Girard on the CBC radio program, Ideas back in the fall of 2002. Soon after that I began trying to reach people with the insight I gained from Girard.

Introduction: Torture and Execution

O.K., many of you may have seen last year's hit movie, The Passion of the Christ. This movie is Mel Gibson's version of what happened on Good Friday. It is the graphically violent portrayal of the torture and execution of a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago. Whatever you thought of this movie, there can be no doubt that in real life; the torture and execution of Jesus were graphically violent: torture and execution always are. So why did Jesus' followers, his disciples, commemorate the horrible death of their beloved leader? What did it mean to them?

Today at least, the most popular way to understand Jesus' death is called the Penal Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement, or just Satisfaction Theory. According to this theory, God could not just freely forgive us, the way you or I might forgive someone in our better moments, but he needed to punish humanity for all the bad things we have done. Someone had to 'pay the price' for sin, someone needed to die, and Jesus' through his death paid this price, making reconciliation with God possible. To put it crudely, God is kind of like the Rolling Stones - he can't get no satisfaction. So Jesus is tortured and executed, and this satisfies God's wrath or satisfies God's need for innocent blood or satisfies God's requirement that someone pays the price for all the bad things humanity has done. People in Winnipeg's churches say these sorts of things and sing them in their songs all the time. According to this way of understanding Jesus' death, God does take satisfaction in the killing of an innocent man. God is unwilling or unable to forgive us without the violent death of Jesus.

Is this really what God is like? Tonight I am going to argue that this is not what God is like and that Jesus' disciples commemorated Good Friday for a different reason. Keep in mind I will not be "proving" this to you with lots of proof-texts. Rather I will be explaining with as much clarity as I can, why I think God is not like that and why the disciples commemorated the day of their master's wrongful and violent death.

God is a forgiving God. He did not need Jesus to die in order to forgive us

So let's talk about what God is like. God is a forgiving God. He does not hold grudges like you or I often do, rather he freely forgives anyone who asks him and is able to receive. He always has. He did not require Jesus' death as a re-payment for our sins against him. God's forgiveness is a free gift.

There are many Bible passages I could use to confirm this characterization of God; the difficult part is choosing which ones to talk about. I could talk about Old Testament passages that describe God this way; I could talk about an incident where Jesus freely extends God's forgiveness to a disabled man, which greatly upsets the religious leaders. I could talk about a woman who pours expensive perfume on Jesus' feet to which Jesus says, 'her many sins are forgiven her because she loved much'. I could talk about John the Baptist whose baptism was for the 'forgiveness of sins'.

But due to our limited time, I will skip over all these passages and others, and talk about a story Jesus told to describe what God is like. It is a story of a Father with two sons; it is often called the parable of the Prodigal Son.

The story starts off with the youngest son requesting his half of the inheritance while his Father is still living. Basically, this son is saying to his Father, 'I wish you were dead and I want nothing more to do with this family.' Surprisingly, the Father grants his son's outrageous request, and the son goes away and spends his money on having a good time. The son enjoys himself for a while, but eventually his money runs out and he falls into poverty. Life for the youngest son becomes miserable and he starts to regret that he ever left his Father's household. In fact, he wants to go back to his Father, but after what he has done, he knows he has no right to go back. He rejected his identity as a son, what right does he have to ask for it back now? He destroyed half of the family's net worth how could he ever make restitution? But he is desperate, so he decides to go back and ask to be made into a servant rather than a son. He reasons that even the servants in his Father's household are better off than he is now. Since he believes it is impossible for him to be made a son again, he hopes he can at least be a servant. So he sets out for home, rehearsing his apology and preparing to be a servant.

Many of you who know this story know that the son is in for a surprise. His Father was looking out for him and sees him while he is still a long ways off. His Father runs out to greet him, hugs him, puts the family ring on him, gives him a new set of clothes and throws a big party celebrating his son's return. The Father does not care about his son's rehearsed apology or his request to be a servant. As far as the Father is concerned, all that is required is that his son returns to him. No restitution is required. No one needs to pay the price for his son's sin. The youngest son didn't believe it was possible he could be reinstated. He though his sin was too big. He didn't understand the forgiving nature of his Father.

When the older brother finds out that his younger brother has returned and that his Father has thrown a party to celebrate, he is upset. The older brother thinks his Father is making a mistake by freely forgiving the younger. After all, the younger son has disgraced the family and destroyed half of its net worth. He can't simply be forgiven, without 'paying the price'. There has to be consequences. If forgiveness is free what incentive is there for good behavior? What extra reward is there for the older brother who has not behaved as badly as the younger? The older brother doesn't want his Father to freely forgive.

God is like the good Father in this story. He freely forgives without requiring anyone to 'pay the price'. At different times, we are like the two sons - sometimes we can't imagine God will freely forgive us and sometimes we don't want God to freely forgive others. But this is what God is like, he freely forgives. The Satisfaction theory, which claims God was unable to freely forgive and required someone to die as a satisfaction, was only developed by Anselm of Canterbury around the year 1100 A.D.; over 1,000 years after the death of Jesus.

Forgiveness was a part of Jesus' mission, no doubt, but this was because we have trouble giving and receiving forgiveness. As you can see from the parable of the Prodigal son, even though the Father had an offer of free forgiveness on the table, it did not do his son any good until he came to his senses and embraced his Father's unconditional love. This is what God wanted people's response to Jesus to be - he wanted people to come to their senses and follow Jesus - not kill him! For those of you familiar with it, the parable of the murderous vineyard tenants confirms this point - God wanted people to respond positively to Jesus, not kill him.

But as you know, God did not get what he desired - the people did kill Jesus. So Jesus' life ended in tragedy and apparent failure. Fortunately, this 'failure' is not the end of the story, otherwise the disciples would not have had any reason to commemorate Jesus' death, and eventually call the day 'Good' Friday.

Does God take satisfaction in the killing of an innocent animal? But before we talk about what Good Friday is really about, I would like to talk about animals. If God doesn't take satisfaction in the killing of an innocent man, what about an innocent animal? Did God want animals killed for his satisfaction?

I am referring of course, to the practice of sacrifice - where a community comes together to slaughter an animal or human being as an offering to a deity. Two thousand years ago sacrifice was practiced by virtually every culture we know about, including the nation of Israel. The ritualistic killing of human and animal victims was a universal human phenomenon.

What did God think about the killing of all these victims? According to some, God was really into this, and required humans to continue satisfying his holy judgment until the ultimate satisfaction was completed in the crucifixion of Jesus. Let me suggest this is the wrong way to read the Bible. In fact, the Bible is a movement away from the practice of sacrifice. Israel becomes less and less dependent on sacrifice, until in Jesus the community of faith resolves to completely let go of the practice of sacrificing victims.

Let's start by discussing child sacrifice. Child sacrifice is where people place their living children in the fire and burn them alive as an offering to God. It is not pleasant to think that our ancestors actually did this, but it was practiced throughout the world including ancient Israel, apparently with the utmost sincerity. What does God think of child sacrifice?

Listen to what the book of Deuteronomy says to the Israelites (12:31) "You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods."

So child sacrifice is condemned in the strongest language. God hates it.

However, Israel does not attempt to simply stop sacrificing their children 'cold turkey'. Instead of child sacrifice, the Israelites substitute circumcision and redeeming the first born. (Ex 34:19) Redeeming the first born is a ritual where parents take their firstborn child to the Temple to be sacrificed, but at the very last moment an animal is substituted and killed instead. Circumcision as you know is cutting of part of a baby boy's foreskin. There is still blood involved in both rituals, still suffering, but the child survives. This is the first step away from sacrifice, the elimination of human sacrifice.

In the second step, Israelites focus on obeying the law and eating a common meal whereas, the ritualistic killing of animals is made secondary. 1Sammuel (15:22) asks, "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams."

So you can see obeying the 'voice of the Lord' or the Torah has a higher religious priority than sacrificing rams. In addition, the main religious event in the Jewish calendar became the Passover; a common meal celebrating God's faithfulness to Israel. Animal sacrifice was still practiced in the Temple, but it was secondary. In fact, the faith of Israel would survive hundreds of years without animal sacrifice being practiced at all.

The final step away from sacrifice was the elimination of even animal sacrifice. This step was initiated by the prophets of Israel like Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah. Unfortunately, the voice of the prophets was not enough to stop animal sacrifice. At the time of Jesus, the temple sacrificial system in Jerusalem was big business. What was Jesus' response? He entered the temple, set the sacrificial animals free and said the place should be turned into a 'house of prayer, not a den of robbers'. Jesus wanted the Temple turned into a house of prayer instead of a slaughter house. Jesus found the sacrificial system reprehensible because it impoverished the people. People had enough financial difficulties without having to purchase animals for religious rituals. Jesus did not convince the Sanhedrin to put an end to sacrifice either, but the movement Jesus started never practiced sacrifice.

I'm not denying there are many Old Testament passages that tell us God wanted sacrifice. However, these passages are offset by others that tell us God did not want sacrifice. I am suggesting the more consistent Biblical understanding of sacrifice is this: God never wanted it, but started working with humans while they were still dependent on sacrifice and slowly weaned them off of it. This is the big picture. First human sacrifice is condemned, next reading the Torah and celebrating Passover supercede animal sacrifice and finally animal sacrifice is eliminated all together. There is nothing more common to and definitive of ancient Paganism than the practice of sacrifice. Similar to Jesus comments on divorce, sacrifice should be viewed as God's generous provision. He allowed people to do it because their hearts were hard, not because God genuinely wanted it.

So what was Jesus death about? - Passing on the Holy Spirit

So if the crucifixion of Jesus is not about satisfying God's need for an ultimate sacrificial victim what is it about? What else is there? If the disciples did not commemorate Good Friday because an unforgiving God was finally appeased with enough innocent blood, why did they commemorate it? What did it mean to them? One of the main ways the New Testament answers this question, is to say Jesus, through his life and death caused the Holy Spirit to enter into human history. But who or what is this so called 'Holy' Spirit? And what is the significance of the Holy Spirit entering human history?

Our Current Situation: We are killing each other and destroying the environment

Let me start by describing humanity's current situation. I probably don't have to work too hard to convince you that this world is in a mess. I don't deny that there are some good things happening, like how the world rallied to help the Tsunami victims, and I won't deny that many of us have lived in luxury that most people could only dream about. But this doesn't change the fact that the world is a mess. The ongoing destruction of human life and the environment is alarming. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, war in Iraq, building up nuclear weapons in North Korea and Iran, genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan and Rwanda, the AIDS crisis in Africa, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Even in Canada, which might be one of the most peaceful places in the world, there are people living without homes, children without enough food to eat, shootings and gangs in our schools, organized crime rings, and police officers abandoning natives outside the city to freeze to death. This is just a quick list of the terrible things that we are doing to each other. And then there is the environment which is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. It is more than enough to cause despair.

Why is there all this violence and destruction? Why are there so many victims?

The Problem: the World is based on Competition

Again, I probably don't have to work too hard to convince you that the world is based on competition. Some societies, like our capitalist society celebrate competition, while others like communist societies try to eliminate it with enough government regulations. But regardless of the form of government, people all over the world still relate to each other based on competition. We compete as one country against the next, one business versus the next, one school against the others, one religious group against the other, one family against the other, and we even compete within our family and friendship circles against each other.

The Problem: Competition creates a desire for victims

The problem with competition is it is very frustrating. Many of you can probably relate to experiencing this intense emotional state. Instead of relating to each other in a spirit of love and cooperation, we are always trying to defeat each other. This leads to an enormous amount of frustration, especially when we are losing or stalemated. This frustration needs an outlet and the natural outlet for frustration is victims. The frustration we feel, leads to a powerful desire for victims. Competition itself is a form of victimization, because your whole goal is to put yourself in a position of power over your rival, who is your potential victim. Often however, the victims are relatively innocent third parties.

I am trying to convince you that you have a strong desire for victims. It is not just Serial Killers, Mafia King Pins, suicide bombers and totalitarian governments who desire victims, it is all humans. If you happen to be an alien visiting from another planet here tonight, maybe you don't desire victims, but for the rest of you who belong to the human family, you have a powerful desire for victims. I would argue that our desire for victims is even stronger than our sexual desire, but we are not usually aware of it in an honest way.

Our desire for victims is powerful enough that uniting against a common enemy is the normal way human communities are held together. We have difficulty sharing things, but one thing we can share is a common hatred against a common enemy. The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus (Ease-chul-us) in his play Eumenides says, "May we hate with a common hatred, for this is man's great remedy." This is what I am talking about, the remedy for the frustration that permeates society, is uniting in hatred against others, other victims.

All this might be a bit hard to believe, but let me give you a few examples of how our need for victims plays out in society so you can get a feel for what I am talking about. Let's start by talking about the political arena. Al Queda is held together by their common hatred of America. Al Queda and their supporters felt a great deal of excitement on September 11, 2001 watching the World Trade Center Towers fall to the ground. It felt good to see America get what it deserved - or so the thinking goes. Whatever political goals Al Queda may have, they are secondary to their desire for American victims.

These terrorist committed a senseless act of murder on 9/11 and what was the response in America? Did they simply attempt to prosecute those responsible and beef up security to prevent it from happening again? No, September 11 created a new identity for what it means to be American. Now to be American, means to be the enemy of terrorists. How many times have we heard the world changed on September 11? The only thing that really changed is a re-organization of political alliances around the new common enemy - Al Queda. This re-organization of political alliances is a reorganization of who the victims will be. And many more people have been killed since September 11, because of the response to it, than were killed in the tragic event in the first place.

And what about Canada? There is a fairly strong anti-American sentiment in Canada and Europe. We don't know exactly who we are, but we know we are not American. We are not like George W. who goes around bullying the rest of the world, or so we believe. The irony is that by defining ourselves in this self-righteous manner versus our neighbors, we are replicating the same self-righteous mindset George W. uses to bully the rest of the world.

Racism and Sexism are common because the desire for victims can be directed at the other race or other sex. The popularity of many forms of religion can be explained by the need for victims. Because members of the same religion take part in the same rituals or revere the same heroes, they believe they are God's favorites and everyone else will be justly punished someday soon. This self-righteousness versus others creates a common bond, and although no direct violence may be done to others in a relatively peaceful country like Canada, simply by defining others as infidels, the psychological violence has already been done. When a time of crisis comes, this psychological violence is quickly converted into real physical violence.

The entertainment industry is organized around satisfying our need for victims. In action movies or crime shows there are always the victims. They are virtual victims yes - but that doesn't stop it from feeling good. Most comedy is at the expense of someone, at the expense of victims. Reality T.V. - we are always tuning in to see who will be voted off the island, to see who the victims will be. Competitive sports are all about crowning the person who triumphed over all his or her opponents, who are the victims.

I'm going through these examples fairly quickly, so let's stop and look at competitive sports a little closer. You might say to me, "Isn't it a bit far fetched to say professional hockey is about satisfying our desire for victims? Isn't our national sport more about the beauty of the game, excellent skills and strategy?" Well, first I could point to the body checking and fighting. There is a certain thrill that goes through us each time someone gets hit. This thrill is our desire for victims. We like seeing others get hit. This is part of what I am talking about, but the main thing I am referring to is the Stanley Cup. How interesting would hockey be if they didn't keep track of wins or award the Cup at the end of the season? I doubt the beauty of the game and superior skills would be enough to make professional hockey a viable business, never mind the province of millionaires. Hockey is primarily interesting to us because someone is crowned a champion, and a champion is by definition at the expense of others, other victims. If it wasn't for the victims, would hockey become figure skating? No. Figure skating has the same victimary elements. There is the nervous excitement about the possibility of the skater falling, the moral outrage at the biased judging and of course, the champion at the end. We can only begin to imagine what Canada would be like if you and I didn't desire victims.

This occurs in our families and business places too. Your family function a little better because you all agree Uncle so and so is a little crazy, and aren't we glad we are not like that. Or aren't we glad we are not greedy like those Lawyers, or aren't we glad we are not closed-minded like those religious conservatives, and so on.

Sexual perversion

If our sexual desire is perverted what has it been corrupted by? - You may have guessed what I am going to say, sexual desire has been corrupted by our much stronger desire for victims. Rape, child pornography and sadomasochism are all about victimization. I am only stating the obvious here - bringing the instruments of torture or defenseless children into sex is primarily about our need for victims, not sex. Even a so-called normal heterosexual male looking lustfully at a beautiful woman is perverse in this same way. What is really going on is he wants to subject the woman to himself, to possess her, to victimize her. We can only begin to imagine what healthy life affirming sexual desire might look like.

Getting back to the issue of ritual killing that was practiced in ancient times by all cultures - this is why they did it. They were satisfying their appetite for violence, their need for victims. When the entire community came together to kill they were able to satisfy this desire with minimal loss of life and therefore, it helped them survive. The sense of satisfaction or catharsis the spectators felt when a victim was killed is the same catharsis we feel when the bad guy is killed at the end of the movie. This is not a new observation. The Greek philosopher Aristotle said the pacifying effect Greek Tragedy had on the community was the same as the pacifying effect of sacrificing victims to the gods. (Poetics see Girard's analysis in Violence and the Sacred page 290) Aristotle doesn't say why these ceremonies were cathartic, but I would like to argue it was because the community's desire for victims was satisfied.

Self-giving Love is the alternative to Competition

So, is there any alternative to living by competition and victimizing others? Or are we doomed to go on living by killing each other? The alternative to competition is self-giving love. In competition, you try to manipulate and out maneuver others to ensure your own survival needs are met, which intrinsically involves victimizing others in small and big ways. In self-giving love you do your best to help others, no exceptions. You never try to put yourself at an advantage versus others; as you consistently give to all others. Your own survival needs may or may not be met of course. If they are, you receive with gratefulness; if they are not you faithfully serve others right to the end.

Jesus lived a life of self-giving love

What would a life of self-giving love look like? According to his disciples, Jesus lived a life of self-giving love and he taught others to do the same. You might think a life of self-giving love would be passive and unremarkable, but you'd be wrong. Self-giving love includes actively confronting injustice. So Jesus sought out and loved people whom society deemed worthless, that is, people whom society thought it was OK to victimize. This list included children, women, Gentiles, tax collectors, Roman soldiers, the physically disabled and the sexually impure. The way Jesus treated these people blew his disciples away, because they were not the people Jesus was supposed to be concerned with if he wanted to become a popular leader. Holding babies might be a good move for a politician today, but back then it just made you look weak, it was women's work and no one wanted a nanny for the Messiah. But this didn't stop Jesus from holding the little children in his lap. Others like women, tax collectors, and Gentiles tarnished his image as a righteous person. But the whole point here is Jesus was freely giving to them out of love, not relating to them in terms of giving himself an advantage in the social hierarchy. The correct competitive move would have been to avoid these people; the correct loving move was to engage these people.

On the other hand, Jesus was harsh and critical when people like his own disciples or the religious leaders were victimizing others. He did not passively allow racist, sexist or other victimizing attitudes go unchallenged but persistently confronted them. As you might imagine, this was not going to help his position in the social hierarchy, this was not the correct competitive move. It alienated many of his followers and made him many enemies. Jesus was not trying to "take these people down a notch", which would be just another form of victimization; rather he was trying to teach them to live without victimizing others. He was giving them an opportunity to turn to a life of love.

The Holy Spirit is the spirit of self-giving Love (the spirit of Jesus)

Earlier I mentioned the Holy Spirit. I would like to get back to him now. The most important thing that can be said about the Holy Spirit is it is the spirit of Jesus. Jesus received the Holy Spirit at his baptism, so everything he did after that shows us what a person 'filled' with the Holy Spirit is like. Since Jesus' life was characterized by self-giving love we can conclude the Holy Spirit is the spirit of self-giving love.

Crucifixion and Resurrection enabled the disciples to receive the Holy Spirit

While Jesus was with the disciples, he tried to pass the spirit of self giving love to them, but they just couldn't get it. Jesus kept pointing out how they were victimizing others and they kept expecting him to use military force to set up a new 'Godly' government in which they would all play key roles. Therefore, Jesus' death was a total shock to them. With Jesus' death all their hopes and false ambitions collapsed. It was in this state of shattered illusions that Jesus reappeared to his disciples and they were finally able to understand what Jesus had been trying to do all along. They were finally able to receive the Holy Spirit.

Good Friday: The act of Self-Giving Love that sent the Spirit of Self-Giving Love

So what is the meaning of Good Friday? Good Friday is the day Jesus allowed himself to be killed. Jesus knew his enemies were coming for him. He could have run away or tried to defend himself, but killing others would have been unfaithful to the spirit of self-giving love and the time for running had come to an end. The time had come to face the normal and inevitable cost of standing up to hatred - and turn it into a teaching moment. Allowing himself to be killed was Jesus' final act of self giving love and it was this act that finally enabled the disciples to receive the spirit of self-giving love. For the disciples, Good Friday was the celebration of the act of self-giving love that sent the Spirit of self-giving love first of all into themselves, and through their witness into human history. Let me repeat this, because this is the answer to the meaning of Good Friday. Good Friday is the celebration of the act of self giving love (Jesus giving his life over to the men who wanted to kill him) that caused the spirit of self-giving love (the Holy Spirit) to enter human history.

I hope you can see now why it is important not to think God takes satisfaction in the death of an innocent man like Jesus, or even an innocent animal. Through Jesus, God was setting us free from our need to victimize others, not the other way around.

Right after the resurrection, just a few of Jesus' disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit, but one day all humanity will be. One day all humanity will relate by free self-giving love rather than competition. Today the Holy Spirit is at work throughout the world slowly and quietly making all of us aware of our tendency to victimize others. But you might not hear about the work of the Holy Spirit in the news. The people who are winning the competitions will continue to get all the headlines because that is where humanity is at right now. But the real moving force of history is the Holy Spirit and in the end, he will prevail.

Your Chance

So the opportunity is before you. If you are a human, then to some extent, you relate by competition and victimizing others. Unfortunately, you can't just stop victimizing others 'cold turkey'. You have learned this behavior over your entire life and as a species we have been doing it since our beginning and we have a great ability to hide our victimization of others from ourselves. But you can start to change, and maybe many of you already have. It is something you can't do by yourself, as it intrinsically involves a new way of relating to others. The way to do it is kind of like Alcoholics Anonymous. Get involved in a community that admits it has a tendency to victimize others and then actively seeks out their victims or potential victims and loves them instead. In this way you re-live what the disciples went through when they followed Jesus - someone always pointing out their tendency to victimize others and yet always with love and forgiveness. If you are serious about wanting to do something to stop the violence in the world and protect the environment, this is the way to do it. Other approaches just change who the victims are, and while that may feel real good it leaves us no further ahead. Open yourself to the spirit of self-giving love and let her teach you to live by loving others instead of victimizing them. Thank-you.

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