Western thought on the death of Jesus currently emphasizes the effect of his death on creating atonement with God. Especially prominent in this line of thought is the belief that God’s justice requires that sins be punished by some kind of payment by the sinner to God. Yet, we are told there is nothing we have to offer of our own to fulfill the required payment. So, Jesus who is God and human, made the payment on our behalf. His death being a perfect offering appeased the wrath of God against our sins or at least somehow satisfies God’s necessary justice. In standard church language, we are considered forgiven through our profession of faith in what Jesus did for us that we could not do for ourselves. I have shared with some that this was not the most common explanation of the atoning death of Jesus in the early church, nor is the one favored in other parts of the world. Whereas the tendency in the Western Church is to individualize salvation and focus on what Jesus did for the individual, many in the early church and continuing in the modern Eastern Church emphasize the cosmic battle between good and evil, with Jesus as Christus Victor who defeats evil, frees us the bondage of death, and make the whole creation new. Salvation is for the whole of creation, not just for the particular individual who says the right thing. Many today recoil at the brutality and implications of the Western model, where punishment is inflicted on an innocent person to make payment to an all-loving God. But many are also not aware of the Eastern Church alternative and that there are still more ways of understanding the death of Jesus.
One of the more recent interpretations of Jesus’ death is based on the work of anthropologist and literary scholar Rene Gerard. For Girard, the death of Jesus is an example of universal cultural practices and the way societies everywhere deal with potentially catastrophic violence. But it is one that exposes the violence for what it is, it draws back the curtain, and leads us to an awareness of a new way of life that does not repeat the cycle of violence. I recommend his book The Scapegoat to those who want a fuller account of his thinking. In short, Girard draws upon literature, mythology, and a wide sweep of history and anthropology to show that violence in all societies is produced by competition over items believed to be scarce. He called this “mimetic violence” because it comes from imitation of what others have. Violent competition for these items tends to escalate to a point where the whole social system may be destroyed. The common relief mechanism is the identification and killing of a scapegoat. The bitterness between rivals, their hatred and unhappiness, and the situation of scarcity is blamed on the scapegoat who is killed and whose death allows those who were once enemies to find a new bond of cooperation. You may recall that in the Gospels, Caiaphas reminds the council that it is better for one man to die than the whole nation to perish and that on the day Jesus dies, Herod and Pilate became friends. Throughout history, it has been primarily children and women, old people, those with physical abnormalities, racial and ethnic minorities, the poor, and those with exceptional beauty, wealth or talent who have been scapegoated. In the Gospels, what is shown is that the scapegoat (Jesus) is clearly an innocent man killed in a highly volatile situation, who has warned the people that their violence will lead to their destruction, and who has taught that the way out of the cycle of violence is to end our desire of imitate and acquire. “Sell what you have and give to the poor and follow me.” “Do not store up what will rust, but seek treasure in heaven.” “Do not worry about what you will eat or drink.” His way is the way of generosity and trust in God’s providence. Being like Jesus is for us to love freely and share freely as his Father loves freely and provides freely. Doing so is to be one with God.