René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.
If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.
As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?
“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”
For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.
All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?
As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.
And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!