Violence at the Center?

by Berry Friesen (November 5, 2015)

At the center of the story of Jesus is his tortured and violent death.  Jesus was beaten and then killed in an excruciatingly painful way.  Whenever we Christians participate in the Eucharist, we remember that atrocity.

There is something deeply offensive about this, the way people gather and imagine an act of violence. What exactly are we celebrating?  I know people who have abandoned the church because they are offended by this.

Such persons make an important point.  What kind of faith places an act of violence at the center of its story?  If we can’t answer this question, then the entire project should be abandoned.

Through the centuries, a large part of the church has explained that its god required that somebody pay the ultimate price for our sins.  According to this point-of-view, an iron law of retribution is part of this god’s very nature.  This law requires either our punishment or the sacrifice of someone or something so precious that this god’s righteous anger is satisfied and the slate wiped clean.

Revulsion to this account has come from all quarters, but has been led by liberal Christians, who imagine nonviolence and goodness to be available to any of us who have the common sense to want it.  In such a view, Jesus is the paramount example of that common sense and yet another victim of the idiocy of violence.

Into this conversation comes Tony Bartlett, author of Virtually Christian.  He is the writer I mentioned in my previous post, the theologian who insists Jesus changed the way the world works. Or to put it more precisely, the way human society works.

Bartlett is no liberal; he sees humanity as much more than an aggregation of individuals weighing the alternatives and then deciding for this or that.  Certainly he takes seriously our capacity for self-conscious decision-making.  Yet he insists this capacity operates within strong structures of desire we have inherited from the past.  We share those structures of desire with one another and endlessly replicate and reinforce their dynamics.

Though Bartlett says this mechanism operates neurologically, its results are most visibly manifest in culture. Within the forms of society, we share—almost as a single organism—an understanding of how to make life meaningful.

What does this have to do with violence?

The obvious part of the answer has to do with our rivalries with each other.  I desire what you desire and visa-versa; this is hard-wired into our brains and operates all of the time. It plays out between individuals and collectively among groups and nations. Violence often results; it is as common as grass.

But it isn’t just that we desire the same things; we also desire the same social goods, such as peace and tranquility.  Following the seminal work of anthropologist Rene Girard, Bartlett explains that the death of a scapegoat is what first brought peace and tranquility to disorganized humans and ended their violence, at least for a little while.  It is what launched human culture and made language possible.  It was the first meaning-making event, enabling people to stop fighting and cooperate in the complex ways we do.

Thus, an act of violence—the scapegoating of a victim—is the source of human culture. Capturing and monopolizing the power of this culture-creating, life-giving, meaning-making act of violence is what the nations seek and every empire accomplishes. Accounts of their efforts fill our history books.

When Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem,” when he attracted the crowds with his street theater and provoked the authorities with his disruption of temple operations, he was not bumbling his way toward disaster.  No, he was very intentionally preparing to subvert the place violence occupies at the center of humanity’s story and put there instead an act of compassion and absolute self-giving.

Do you wish Jesus could have accomplished this without being killed on a cross?  I do too.  But wishing away the violence at the heart of the human project has never given rise to a new way of running the world, a new way of restoring peace, a new way of making life meaningful. Something different had to be put there at the center of things, something powerful and attractive. Something we would desire even more than the temporary peace that violence brings.

Though Jesus died violently, his self-sacrifice on the cross replaced violence “with the absolute affirmation of love.”

Bartlett goes on to explain (pages 111-116):  “The cross then becomes a symbol in a completely new sense . . . This infinite self-surrender, this self-pouring-out, spells the end of the symbolic cover-up of violence, since it leaves no hidden depths, no sacredness of violence . . . the photon of compassion discloses itself as the astonishingly new yet original event of meaning, the endless ‘Yes’ at the heart of creation.

“This is a revolution of incalculable significance in every sense; really, it is the only true cultural revolution.  It has taken the original ‘fiction’ of human meaning and made it something wonderfully new, able to bring creation to its intended destiny of peace, life, love.”

That is what Jesus did on the cross.  It is how he changed how the world works.  And that change continues to unwind and expand still today, reaching people and places that do not speak his name or have any inkling that they seek a life whose meaning first flashed across our collective imagination via an image of a man hanging on a cross.