By Martin Accad
If Christmas poses as the central Christian festivity in the consumerist societies we live in, for Christians it is Easter that holds the central place. It is the starting and focal point of all Christian theology. Through the lens of Christ’s death and resurrection, his followers, who have been invited to carry their cross and follow him, are called to interpret the world and understand both their life purpose and mode of living. So perhaps by reflecting on how redemption works through the Easter event, we can gain insight into everything else, from the mindless violence of our world, to the significance of how we live in response to the death and resurrection of Jesus.
A few days ago, as I was reflecting on the meaning of Easter, I came across a short but edifying blog post by Brian Zahnd (which I later realized he had written at Easter last year) entitled: ‘How Does “Dying For Our Sins” Work?’ Though some people reacted strongly to the article when I posted it on Facebook, I still highly recommend Zahnd’s post. The importance of his question, ‘how does “dying for our sins” work?’ is universal. Some people may still be interested in debating whether Jesus died on the cross, a question that still arouses passions in the context of Christian-Muslim conversations in particular, though from a historian’s perspective it is hardly a question at all. But to be sure, most people still get passionate about ‘how it works?’ ‘So what,’ that Jesus died on the cross? Why should the death of that first-century man from Nazareth have anything to do with my salvation 2000 years later? In the interfaith context of the Middle East, these questions are certainly crucial. For most Muslims, God says ‘let it be,’ and it is! This is how he confers judgment. Many a Muslim polemicist in history has argued that the excruciating narrative of the cross is unnecessary in light of Islam’s understanding of God’s absolute sovereignty.
These are the questions about the cross that face us in the multifaith context of the Middle East and elsewhere. I want to affirm from the outset that I have no interest in entering the current – mostly western – debate for or against the so-called PSA (Penal Substitutionary Atonement) view of Christ’s death. On both sides, it seems to me, proponents tend to present the crudest version of the other’s view in order to facilitate its dismantling and the assertion of their own position. My starting position when reflecting over the implications of the cross is to affirm the diverse interpretations as ‘multiple facets’ found in the Biblical witness, rather than to affirm one ‘theory’ against another.
In the more extreme representation of the view associated in particular with the eleventh-century name of Anselm of Canterbury, the death of Jesus is viewed as a sacrifice offered to satisfy the requirements of some ultimate principle of Divine Justice. Justice required that we should die due to our sinfulness, but through the death of the innocent Jesus, the wrath of God was satisfied, offering us the possibility of redemption. The theory was further developed and codified by Thomas Aquinas (13th century), and made to rule over much Protestant thinking about the cross through its endorsement and adaptation by Protestant Reformer John Calvin (16th century). Many of the traditional hymns we sing at church, particularly around the time of Easter, are inspired by this view. I find myself remaining silent over certain stanzas…
Let me just say that it is not the idea of ‘substitution’ that I am questioning. What I am reacting against is the much cruder development that views the death of Jesus as a sacrifice that was meant to placate God’s anger and force his hand into renouncing the drive to annihilate us because of our sins, due to some higher principle of Justice to which God himself is subjected. On the other hand, the affirmation that Jesus died ‘for our sins,’ or ‘in our stead,’ is well attested in the New Testament. Due to the significant distance between our world and the socio-cultural world of the Old Testament, we tend to find it harder to relate to the sacrificial system than did those living in the New Testament world. However, the pervasiveness of the imagery in the Bible requires that we find in it meaning that connects with our own reality.
The Church has affirmed that Jesus died ‘for us’ as the ‘Lamb of God,’ as the ultimate sacrifice for human sin. This interpretation that permeates the writings of the Apostle Paul, however, is far more ‘typological’ in nature than legal. Jesus is a ‘type’ of Adam; he is the ‘second Adam’ (Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22 and 45). He is also a ‘type’ of the Old Testament sacrifice. The Epistle to the Hebrews offers great insight into this second typology, by representing Christ both as the sacrificial lamb and as the High Priest offering the sacrifice. Two central elements emerge from the overall New Testament witness, which are essential to our understanding of the death of Christ. First, in Christ, it was God himself who took the initiative of salvation towards us; his hand was not forced (ex, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19). And secondly, Christ gave up his life willingly for our salvation; it was not taken away from him by force (ex, John 10:17-18).
I disagree with those who read, in some key Pauline passages, an extreme version of the Anselmian theory of atonement. I think it is a wrong interpretation. Following my Facebook post, one of my colleagues reminded me of what French Anthropologist, Philosopher and Theologian, René Girard, had to say about the death of Jesus and its significance. In revisiting Girard’s work, I find that what he referred to as the ‘mimetic’ (imitation) framework offers some important insight into the Apostle Paul’s rich discourse on the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. Again, though I believe that Girard brings some important insight into the question, I don’t believe that his contribution is to be read in exclusion of other historical interpretations of the atonement.
In the fifth chapter of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul affirms that Christ died for all. And the immediate consequence of this, in Paul’s thinking, is that through this death, all have died as well (v. 14). Once we allow that we have died to ourselves, we are able to break away from the violence which, according to Girard, results from ‘mimesis.’ In the Girardian system, all violence is explained through an anthropologically induced desire to imitate (mimesis), to possess what someone else has. A triangulation is thus established between the subject, the object and the model, who possesses the object of desire (subject-model-object), to the point where the object eventually becomes irrelevant and the fixation becomes on the model.
The message of the Gospel is that, once we no longer live for ourselves, we break away from the primordial inclination to violence, for we now live ‘for him who died for (us) and was raised again’ (v. 15). The resurrected Jesus becomes both the mimetic model as well as the object of our desire. In verse 17, Paul makes perhaps the most important statement that we find in all of his letters, for it expresses in Pauline language the central principle of Jesus’ teaching reflected in the Gospel of John; that in order to share in God’s Kingdom, we must be born again, of the Spirit, from above (see John 3). Paul’s equivalent to Jesus’ concept of being ‘born again’ is his notion of being ‘in Christ’:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
Applying the Girardian framework, being in Christ becomes an invitation to break away from that cycle of violence. By dying to self, we become a ‘new creation’ that has no need to pursue the mimetic drive to violence, in search for self-gratification. Through the death of Jesus, God reconciled us to himself ‘and gave us the ministry of reconciliation’ (vv. 18-19). But it is only those who have learnt the possibility of dying to self, and who practice this in ongoing manner, who are able to be true reconcilers. This is why the political way, in its pragmatism (the realpolitik), doesn’t lead to true and lasting reconciliation, because it continues to pursue peace for selfish purposes, to serve certain ‘mimetic interests’: American interests, European interests, or any other nation’s interests in any given situation of conflict.
I find important insight in René Girard’s anthropological framework as I try to make sense of the violence in today’s world, particularly the one currently threatening the annihilation of what remains of Christianity in the Middle East. The challenge that the cross of Christ poses to violence is absolutely unique. I find no satisfactory parallel, in other ideologies and religions, to Christ’s command to his followers that they love their neighbor as themselves, respond to evil with good, and even love their enemies. For the Eastern Church, today is the commemoration of the Last Supper, tomorrow we will remember the crucifixion and death of Jesus, and on Sunday we will celebrate his resurrection. We may debate staunchly about how the death of Jesus works. We may even argue still, with some, about whether Jesus actually died on a cross. But to the transformation that the ‘way of the cross’ does in us, and to the consequence that being born again, in Christ, has on our behavior and attitude towards the promises of the world, there is no substitute that I have found anywhere.