I’d like to start today by telling you a story from Bible Study last week.
After we read the New Testament passage where Jesus says that you must eat his flesh and drink his blood to have eternal life, there was an awkward pause.
And then Bernie said, “Well, Adam, I look forward to hearing what you have to say about this on Sunday.”
Then Jeff said, “Maybe you should save this passage for the following week when we have our barbecue.”
Indeed, these are pretty weird passages to our modern ears. In our Hebrew Bible readings, King David just died and his son Solomon is now the king. The story tells us that in his early days as king, Solomon did many of the good things that his father did, “only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.” Solomon apparently offered a thousand burnt offerings on the altar at the high places up on mountains. When the story says Solomon did many good things, only he sacrificed at high places, it’s meant to be a criticism. Solomon shouldn’t have sacrificed at these high places.
And then we have the bizarre and frankly squeamish sacrificial saying from Jesus in the Gospel of John, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
Our New Atheists friends like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris claim that these kinds of ancient religious fables are the problem with the modern world and religious people should just grow up and leave the religious worldview behind.
As you can imagine, I beg to differ. But in order to make sense of this religious and sacrificial language, we need to do a bit of history and a bit of anthropology.
Ancient Religion and the Social Function of Sacrifice
One of my favorite anthropologists is a man named René Girard. Girard looks at the historical and archeological evidence of the ancient past and claims that religion and sacrificial violence emerged virtually at the same time, so that violence and the sacred are intermixed.
He postulated that our ancient human ancestors had a major problem – violent conflict. Individuals fought with one another over resources that were either limited or, more likely, that they refused to share. This fight turned into a war of all against all that consumed the group. Many of the ancient groups were destroyed by the chaotic violence that ensued.
But Girard says that over time, something happened that allowed some ancient groups to survive. They still suffered from violent conflict that threatened their survival, but soon one person in the group pointed the finger of accusation against an individual. And other people began pointing their fingers against that same person. Soon, everyone was united in blaming an individual for the problems that threatened the community. The war of all against all turned into a war of all against one.
That person who was blamed became the scapegoat. All of the violence and hostility within the group was channeled against this one individual. Girard states that this individual was sacrificed or banished from the group. This created the distinction between “us and them,” or “we good guys” and “those bad guys.” The act of violence against the scapegoat brought a sense of peace to the group. Where there was once conflict, there was now cooperation. Where there was once the threat of all-consuming violence, this act of sacrifice brought a sense of miraculous peace.
One thing that might help in understanding this theory is how prevalent the basic act of ancient sacrifice remains today. It’s still true that the easiest way to manage conflict is to not actually deal with the conflict, but to unite against a common enemy. Instead of dealing with conflict, it seems that it’s much easier to find a sense of unity by blaming another for our problems.
That’s what the ancient human groups did, too. And when they experienced this miraculous sense of peace, they thought it was a gift from the gods. But these gods can give peace and they can take it away. Whenever the community experienced conflict again, they thought the gods were mad at them. How do you make peace with the gods? The same way you make peace with one another – by uniting against and sacrificing a common enemy.
The angry gods demanded more and more from the people – which often came in the form of child sacrifice. In fact, many cultures, including those in the surrounding Jewish world, practiced child sacrifice. How many of you are first born sons? Those of us with our hands up would be in trouble.
What’s important to know is that in the ancient world, religion wasn’t simply about myth and superstitions. The sacrificial rite had a real social function. It brought a sense of peace and cooperation, but did so through acts of violence against a scapegoat. And our New Atheist friends are right to criticize that religious violence. The problem is that the Jewish and Christian tradition has been criticizing sacrificial violence for nearly three thousand years.
The Bible’s Critique of Sacrifice
This history of religion and sacrifice is important to understand as we read the Bible, and especially our texts today. Our Hebrew Bible passage tells us that Solomon did many good things, but he went to the high places to perform sacrifices. Why is offering sacrifices at the high places a problem? Because that’s where many ancient Hebrews went to sacrifice to the gods, especially to a god named Baal. Baal’s favorite sacrifice was child sacrifice.
Solomon could have offered a human or even child sacrifice when he offered his thousands of sacrifices at the high places. And the Bible says that Solomon’s act of religious sacrifice was wrong.
In fact, the prophets also condemned religious sacrificial violence. The prophet Hosea, for example, said that God desires merciful love, not sacrifice. The true God doesn’t want us to divide the world into us, the good guys, and them, the bad guys that we can sacrifice. God wants us to treat all people with merciful love.
Our New Testament passage now begins to make sense. You see, from the beginning of human history, we have thought the gods were angry at us. So we thought we had to perform some kind of human sacrifice in order to appease the gods. We had to blame some person or group for our problems and sacrifice them in order to appease the gods and give us peace. The sacrifice was a violent offering that people gave to the gods, and it seemed as if the gods loved to taste the blood of the victims.
Jesus reversed this whole dynamic. Jesus provides us with an anti-religious and anti-sacrificial world-view. In Jesus we find that we don’t have to make peace with God, because God has already made peace with us. The true God doesn’t desire sacrificial violence or the death or exclusion of a scapegoat. We do not have to give an offering of sacrificial violence to God. In fact, Jesus reveals that God already gives everything of God’s self to us. That’s what Jesus means when he says, “This is my body and my blood, given for you.” We don’t have to sacrifice or give anything to God because God already gives us everything. In the bread and in the wine, God gives us the divine life. When we consume the bread and the wine, we take into our bodies the fully alive God of Jesus, the one who has nothing to do with sacrificial violence that leads to death. Rather, over time we become more and more like the true God who has every to do with merciful love that leads to eternal life.
Donald Trump, Fox News, and White Supremacy
This history matters because sacrificial violence is deeply rooted in our social DNA. Whether religious or atheist, liberal or conservative, we continue to scapegoat individuals and groups in the name of either God or peace or security. When politicians blame brown immigrants for the economic problems of our day, when they label them as gang members, terrorists, and rapists, we know that they are under the spell of sacrificial violence. When conservative commentators on Fox News show images of migrant farm workers while warning us about the dangerous “changing demographics” of the United States, you know that they have a sacrificial worldview of white nationalism. This even though these brown immigrants have no political or economic power at all.
And many of these politicians and political commentators make these sacrificial claims in the name of Christianity. Well, I’m here to tell you that they are wrong. Their fear and hatred and sacrificial mentality have nothing to do with Jesus.
Here I want to remind us that while these politicians and political commentators are caught in the ancient trap of sacrificial violence, they are not the enemy. As St. Paul put it, the real enemy is not flesh and blood, but the powers and principalities of violence and sacrifice.
What We Can Do
So what can we do? I’m convinced now more than ever that the world needs progressive Christians to speak up and be bold. This November we Oregonians will vote on ballot measure 105. This measure seeks to repeal a 30-year law that protects people from racial profiling. The measure seeks to sacrifice our black and brown brothers and sisters to the god of white nationalism. This law, commonly known as the Oregon Sanctuary Law, has only become controversial during the last two years as the Trump administration seeks to scapegoat immigrants. Like Solomon went to the high places to sacrifice to Baal, Trump goes to his idolatrous high place to sacrifice to the god of white nationalism.
Now, I can’t tell you how to vote in November. But I can tell you that any measure that tries to solve real or perceived problems by blaming anyone, but especially by blaming vulnerable minority groups who have no political or economic power, is rooted in ancient and violent sacrificial logic that will lead our country further into the spirit of exclusion and death. Jesus came to save us from the sacrificial logic of violence and lead us into the divine way of mercy, love, and inclusion. When we follow Jesus in this way, when we consume his life as our own, we as individuals and as a community are given eternal life.
May we participate in that eternal life now and forever. Amen.
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