The Scapegoat


Sometimes a line leaps from the page to arrest me.

“Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.”

Sitting in the pew the week following the horrors of Charlottesville, this line from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving of the sacrament of holy communion begged for deeper reflection.

Who were the outcasts, sinners, and sick people on the streets of Charlottesville? Who were the outcasts, sinners, and sick watching the news, tweeting, texting, yelling, screaming, retreating, turning off, tuning out? Who were the poor waiting good news?

Surely, I’m not poor. Am I? I love the outcasts, the sinners, the sick, don’t I, Jesus? I am among the counter-demonstrators, the despisers of white supremacy, the champions of racial equality, the scorners of the KKK and their white supremacist and white nationalist cousins. My anger boils over watching these sick people turning back the clock.

Preparing for the bread and cup, I am aware of my poverty, my thirst for good news. Failing, or refusing, to see the faces and listen more carefully to the shouting of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, I have cast them out as hopeless sinners: the outrageously sick representatives of white supremacy, America’s original sin.


“Christ of St. John of the Cross” – 1951, Salvador Dali 

I consider not receiving communion today.

Then I recall René Girard‘s work on the crucified Jesus as the scapegoat whose life, death, and resurrection dismantles the scapegoat mechanism of religion and society.

“Everywhere and always, when human beings either cannot or dare not take their anger out on the thing that has caused it, they unconsciously search for substitutes, and more often than not they find them.”
René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes

I ponder the ways capitalism turns us against each other: privileged and poor, insiders and outcasts, scapegoaters and scapegoats, sheep and goats — the company of sinners in need of the better news that there is, in reality, no division among us.

I remember Salvador Dali’s painting of the cosmic Christ and read again the lines of the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving:

“Living among us, Jesus loved us. He broke bread with outcasts and sinners, healed the sick, and proclaimed good news to the poor.

“He [the Scapegoat] yearned to draw all the world to himself, yet were heedless  of his call to walk in love.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 23, 2017

God as Policeman or Lover

Sebastian Moore, OSB

Sebastian Moore, OSB

In the eyes of Views from the Edge, the  late Dom Sebastian Moore, O.S.B. (12.17.1917 – 02.21-2014) of Downside Abbey, England, is one of our time’s more interesting thinkers.

Steeped in the psychology of Carl Jung, the spiritual discipline of the Benedictine Order, the theology of Bernard Lonergan, S.J., and the mimetic theory of Rene Girard, his eyes were penetrating, his vision both deep and far-reaching. During a long life os spiritual searching, he wrote in his book The Inner Loneliness:

[O]nce you see the self as naturally self-centered, you deny that the self wants God above all things, and you degrade God from being the fulfiller, the lover, into being the policeman. Paul’s conversion, through the stunning vision of Jesus he had on the road to Damascus, was from God the policeman to God the lover.

[The Inner Loneliness, Crossroads Press, 1982, p.49]

We met briefly in 1971 at a meeting of campus ministers in Milwaukee. He was chaplain at Marquette University at the same time I served as campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Gathered at the Episcopal Campus Ministry Center at UW-Milwaukee, I wondered who this strange monk was who seemed to observe everyone very closely without saying more than a word or two. I’m not sure I even knew his name. I just knew he was unusual.

Twenty-six years later, during a period of personal and professional turmoil, a therapist mentioned the name Sebastian Moore. I purchased The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and saw his picture on the jacket. His perspective left me in awe and anchors me still. I’ve been knocked off my horse on the way to way to Damascus. Every real conversion is the turning from God the policeman to God the Lover.

The strange man: Honest to God

Yesterday we published a sermon by Robert Hamerton-Kelly, whose thought had ben influenced by Rene Girard. Today we draw attention to another provocative thinker influenced by Girard. His name is Sebastian Moore.

Years ago I met a strange-looking man at the Episcopal Campus Ministry Center at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. I was a campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and had gone there to a meeting of campus ministers. There was this strange monk who said nothing. He just observed. He was weird, but his eyes were penetrating.

Sebastian Moore OSB

Sebastian Moore OSB

I never gave it much thought until much later when I recognized him from a picture related to the book that had changed my perspective on the cross: The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger. I’ve been reading Sebastian Moore OSB, for fifteen years now. Moore is influenced, to some degree, by Rene Girard, the ground-breaking French anthropological philosopher at Stanford whose theories of mimetic desire and the scapegoat system have impacted the fields of anthropology, social psychology, sociology, philosophy, and theology.

In a recent search for Moore’s latest works, of culture, I ran across a radio interview with Sebastian Moore. Here’s a link that includes another link to Moore’s radio interview.

It appears that Moore’s The Body of Christ is the latest published book of this strange monk, published when he was of the ripe old age of 94. Here’s the link.

The Pearl of Great Price for a Video Game

Preparing to preach last Sunday, I stumbled across this sermon by New Testament scholar Robert Hamerton-Kelly, former Dean of Chapel at Stanford. I came to know him during his stay as Associate Professor of New Testament at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, where I had returned to work on a New Testament passage that consumed my interest. No matter that he didn’t know me; he made himself available to two days.

Robert preached the sermon on Christ the King Sunday in 2007 to a meeting of the Saint John Society. Having read the sermon, I looked further only to discover his obituary from last July. His sermon and the obituary spoke powerfully to me, not only in and of themselves, but because his interest in the memetic theory of Rene Girard, one of Robert’s colleagues at Stanford, is one I have come to share. Robert, it turns out, was a leader in the Girardian theological interpretation.

Rene Girard, Robert Hammerton-Kelly, et. al. at conference on Girardian theory.

Rene Girard, Robert Hammerton-Kelly, et. al. at conference on Girardian theory.

Having felt as though I had discovered a pearl of great price, I shared the entire sermon with the congregation last Sunday, Christ the King Sunday, 2013. RIP, Robert, your influence survives your passing.

Christ the King and the Ethics of the Kingdom
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Col 1: 11-20; Luke 23: 33-43

“There was also an inscription over him. ‘This is the King of the Jews’.” — Luke 23:38

Today, on the festival of Christ the King and the last day of the Christian year AD 2006-2007, I want to approach the Kingship of Christ through the ethics of the Kingdom. I want to ask, ” Given that our King expects us to live in a certain way in his Kingdom, what may we deduce from this life about His nature, what do the ethics of the Kingdom tell us about the nature of its King? The short answer: He is a Generous King; the ethics of generosity reveal a generous king and a kingdom of expansive kindness.

I love to preach in the summers when the lessons set are the parables in the central portion of Luke’s gospel: the prodigal son (the generous father), the good shepherd (the caring king – shepherd was one of the prime symbols of the king in the ancient near east, e.g. the Pharaohs were always portrayed with a shepherd’s crook in hand), the unjust steward (the generous boss), the lost sheep (the shepherd of impetuous love). These parables and others (e.g. the man who pays all the workers the same despite some having worked longer than others, showing that our reward depends not on our deserts but on God’s generosity, and who says to the complainers ” Can I not do what I please with my own money? Or is your eye evil because I am good?” And Jesus adds, “Thus the last shall be first and the first last” Matthew 20:15-16) all attest that our God is a God of expansive generosity, rather than retributive justice.

It is a truism in liberal theology that the historical Jesus was so to speak “on the side of” the poor and against the rich. So far do these theologians, like Marcus Borg for instance, go in identifying him with the poor that they empty him of divinity. Jesus is not, as we believe, “…the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation,” but rather a social prophet, concerned to clean up corruption among politicians, exploitation by businesses, and cruelty in kings. He is a partisan of democracy and an enemy of aristocracy. As far as he is concerned, “Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” These theologians must be the last Marxists in the world out side the jungles of Nepal.

His theological identity aside for the moment, such a claim clashes with the title Jesus was given, namely, King, and the name he gave to the nature of his community, Kingdom. For me, Borg’s Jesus is a complete mystery; a social worker who became in the eyes of his followers the image of the invisible God and the first-born of all creation. For Borg such claims are not statements of fact but metaphors of feeling, to which I say that such distinctions are impermissible because metaphors are statements of fact too. When someone says Jesus is the image of God he does not mean only that he personally believes this but that it is not “objectively” true. This kind of logic is way out of date, especially in view of progress in the neurosciences and in what used to be called epistemology but is now known as “cognitive science.” Metaphors are ways of stating “facts,” (another term that has lost its firmness of meaning).

I picked up Borg recently and found myself appalled at the sloppy reasoning and careless historiography by which he erases the King of life and death, the conqueror of sin and despair, and replaces him with a poet of social justice, like the folk singers of the sixties of last century. (I once reviewed Borg and said that his Jesus was like the Hippy remnants of Boulder Creek where we then had a house, and Santa Cruz). Now that is very bad news indeed; Jesus the community organizer and the Kingdom a great commune of love, flowers, and free sex.

Jesus is a king, which is not such a bad thing to be when you compare it to presidents. Currently we have a president who would be king and whose best pals are the rancid royals of Saudi. On this evidence there is no a priori reason to be anti-monarchy and pro-presidency; on the whole kings have not been more corrupt and rapacious than presidents. In the case in point look what democracy achieved: twice it produced catastrophe.

To be sure it was Jesus’ executioners who give us the title we cite today; it is the title on the Cross. However, it was not simply a slander, it must have had basis in fact; people did call him “King of the Jews,” and for good reason; there was something royal about him, something that reminded them of the great king David.

There was also something in his ethical teaching that was royal or at least aristocratic, namely, generosity. In this alone Jesus was not a social prophet of the OT kind. Those wooly rubes were far from generous; on the contrary they were hypercritical and flamingly partisan. If you listen to those OT prophets you hear mostly ferocious condemnation, self-righteous accusation, and venomous jingoism. You hear them excoriating the kings for being friendly with foreigners and at the bottom of the well you hear them demand that true Jews divorce and drive out all non-Jewish wives, and one of their exemplars, Phineas the priest once took a spear and killed an Israelite man and a Moabite woman in the act of love, for the sake of his god (Numbers 25:6-9). (Just like the Taliban religious police). Their vision of social justice would bring about a community like Stalin’s USSR or Warren Jeffs’ fundamentalist Mormons, or Saudi Arabia, or Taliban land.

Against the low class ressentiment and venomous indignation of these OT prophets, Jesus sets the ethic of generosity. He behaved like an aristocrat of the best kind; he was merciful, he was humane and he was generous. This is the overwhelming evidence of the parables of the Gospels.

Recently I have been reading Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University, 2007), a very good book, sane and reliable, which I recommend to those who are willing and able to read a demanding text. I learned from Taylor the history of the word “generosity” from its arrival in Western European discourse in 16th century French. Here is the description: Taylor is asking where we might have found the resources for a universal beneficence absent the divine commands. He writes, “Now one obvious place they might have found these resources was in pride. Not the negatively judged pride of Christian preaching but the positive force which was central to the warrior- aristocratic ethic, whereby one is moved by the sense of ones own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate. This motive in 17th century French was called ‘generosite.’ Corneille’s characters incessantly evoked it. Here is Cleopatra’s speech from Pompe:

‘Les Princes ont cela de leur haute naissance…
Leur generosite soumet tout a leur gloire.’

(This to their high extraction Princes owe…
Their magnanimity subjects all to their glory.)

Generosite is translated “magnanimity,” a marvelous word! The opposite of pusillanimity and the narrow, nationalist meanness of the prophets. And the phrase, “…whereby one is moved by the sense of one’s own dignity to live up to the demands of ones estate,” translates the biblical phrase, “for Thy name’s sake.” We pray God to act generously not for our sake nor for our merit but for his own name, that is, the sense of his own dignity which makes him live up to the demands of his estate.

Think again of Christ the King in this light: his high birth is without peer, (“He is the image of God, the first-born of all creation…in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…” Colossians1: 15&19). Out of this peerless dignity Jesus would of course show magnanimity and not pronounce condemnation. My friend Ed P Sanders of Duke University, whom I regard as the best historian of Jesus of our generation, points out that Jesus did not call first for repentance and then for entrance to the Kingdom, but rather for sinners to enter the Kingdom as they were, unrepentant or whatever, and subject themselves to its magnanimous influences. This, Sanders says was one of the reasons they crucified him, that is, for undermining the prophetic demands that people measure up to the prophets’ standards before they approach God. Jesus reversed this, and that is how he became the King who ruled from the Cross, the highest born among us in the place of slaves and traitors; he offered unconditional acceptance in a world of competition and conditions.

But through it all he never once ceased to be the King, your sovereign and mine. From that Cross he forgave us because we did not know what we were doing (Luke 23:34); and out of his magnanimity he still forgives us when we pander to current culture and its incapacity for truth, and thus crucify him again on a cross of pusillanimity and obsequiousness. Be assured, when we have Judas-like given over to them our magnanimous king, the prize givers of our culture, whom our renegades regard with such awe, will not reward us; they will despise us more, because we will have exchanged the pearl of great price for a video game, and even in their ignorance they can smell the rot of self-destruction.