Sunday, January 20, 2013

The End of Religion

This morning I’ve chosen to reflect on our second reading, the text from Paul’s letter to the churches in Corinth.  This text, as theologian James Alison has remarked, tells “a tale of two spirits.”[1] The first is the spirit of religion.  The second is the Spirit of God.  Allow me to explain.

In the opening verses of First Corinthians chapter twelve, Paul is distinguishing between two forms of spirituality.  The first, which I am calling the spirit of religion, leads people to worship idols and to create a sense of community by defining themselves against some other, who is “cursed.”  This is the dynamic at the root of religion, the basis of all human culture.   In the course of human evolution, tensions and conflicts reach a point of crisis that spills out into violence, or at least its threat, and are resolved by the unification of the community over and against some person or group, set apart as a scapegoat. 

The expulsion or murder of the scapegoat produces a renewed stability and peace.   So powerful is this experience of relief and reunion that an aura of sacredness gathers around the one sacrificed for the sake of this unity.  The one cursed paradoxically attains a divine status.  The dynamic is repeated whenever conflict remerges, which it inevitably does, and gives rise to increasingly complex sets of prohibitions and rituals associated with the sacrifice.   The sacrifice itself moves from humans, to animals, and then to an increasingly abstract ideal.  The elaboration of myths and rituals covers over the founding murder and obscures the violence that creates and sustains cultural order. 

Religion, then, becomes the cornerstone and justification of the continuing dynamic of sacrificial violence, the scapegoating mechanism that preserves order through the identification and expulsion of victims.  When Caiaphas, the high priest, says with reference to Jesus, “better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,”[2] he was basically giving voice to the spirit of religion.   

This is why Jesus will say of the religious leaders, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”[3]   Satan here is the personification of the whole system of sacrifice upon which civilization is based.  Religion lies about the murder at the foundation of culture, serving to mystify and justify sacrificial violence as something that God requires, rather than admit the innocence of the victims whom we curse.[4]

Karl Barth, perhaps the greatest Protestant theologian of the 20th Century, intuitively understood this dynamic when he wrote that “Religion is not the sure ground upon which human culture safely rests; it is the place where civilization and its partner barbarism are rendered fundamentally questionable . . . Conflict and distress, sin and death, the devil and hell, make up the reality of religion.”[5]  Barth, to his credit, following St. Paul, subjected Christianity to this same critique. 

As we see in our reading from Corinthians, Paul is alert to those who would say, “Jesus is cursed” and thus fashion from his death yet another religion based on sacrificial violence.   Already Jesus’ death and resurrection is being interpreted on the model of the sacrificial victim, one who dies because God requires it, and because we need such a murder to restore our sense of unity and goodness.  

Paul will have none of this.  It smacks of religion to him.  The spirit of God does not lead one to say, “Jesus is cursed” but rather “Jesus is Lord.”  He is “Lord” precisely because he has revealed that the sacrificial victim is innocent, and that such murder is a purely human attempt at creating order.  It has nothing to do with God, who is the source of endless creativity and life. 

The spirit of religion creates a false sense of community on the basis of division and expulsion.   It is only concerned with the welfare of “our people.”  It projects violence on to God to absolve us from taking responsibility for our own violence.  It leads to death. 

Notice how different the true spirit of God is.  It does not feed on human death by demanding sacrifices, but rather generates the giftedness of every human being that sustains life.  These gifts are not given to favor one group or person over another, but rather for the sake of the common good.  God is not the source of order based on sacrificial violence.  God is the source of community based on the sharing of gifts.  Unity is not secured through pitting us against them (much less all against one), but rather through the recognition of mutual interdependence.   It is the energy of love, not of violence, that expresses the Holy Spirit.

In his death, Jesus reveals the truth of human culture: that it is based on sacrificial violence.  In his resurrection, he reveals that the sacrificial victim is innocent.  God is identified with giving life to victims, and not with requiring or justifying their perpetuation.  In his renunciation of violence and in his practice of forgiveness of enemies, Jesus opens up for us a way of being human that is truly creative of community because it is not defined over and against anyone.

It is important for us to affirm this, perhaps especially as we prepare for the national commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.   In doing so, we must place his renunciation of violence at the center of his witness.  Like Jesus, Martin identified with the victims of sacrificial violence and proclaimed their innocence.  He invited us to realize the Beloved Community, a community rooted in the recognition of our common humanity and the common good manifest when the giftedness of each and all is acknowledged and expressed. 

Martin revealed the murder, the violent lie, at the very foundation of American culture as only the son of slaves could do.  But he didn’t stop there.  He also said, “I identify with those people you call gooks and enemies and Viet Congs and those who must be burned to death.  I identify with them; they are my sisters and brothers.  Those are my children running aflame.”[6]  It would have been tempting for Martin to resort to religion, to sacrifice the Vietnamese enemy as a means to create a new unity between blacks and whites in America.  This same temptation arises in the form of making Martin himself a sacrificial victim, around whose death we forge a unified, post-racial America.  That would amount to yet another religious mystification, covering over our responsibility for the murder that created such pseudo-unity.  It was not Martin’s death that should inspire us.  It is his life.

Legend has it that Martin carried around a copy of Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited wherever he went.  “Thurman was saying, if you are living the spirit of Jesus, then you cannot live in the spirit of fear, you cannot live in the spirit of deception, even for good causes; you cannot live in the spirit of hatred.  None of those is the way of Jesus.” [7] This was the spirituality, the spirit of God, which Martin tried to embody.

It was a spirituality that Martin learned from Thurman, among others.  There is a passage from Thurman’s book, The Luminous Darkness, that illuminates the meaning of Martin’s life and the nature of the Spirit of God with great poignancy:

The burden of being black and the burden of being white is so heavy that it is rare in our society to experience oneself as a human being. It may be, I don't know, that to experience oneself as a human being is one with experiencing one's fellows as human beings. It means that the individual must have a sense of kinship to life that transcends and goes beyond the immediate kinship of family or the organic kinship that binds him [or her] ethnically or "racially" or nationally. He has a sense of being an essential part of the structural relationship that exists between him and all other men [and women], and between him, all other men [and women], and the total external environment. As a human being, then, he belongs to life and the whole kingdom of life that includes all that lives and perhaps, also, all that has ever lived. In other words, he sees himself as a part of a continuing, breathing, living existence. To be a human being, then, is to be essentially alive in a living world.[8]

Thurman is well ahead of his time in realizing that the community to which we belong, and whose good is commonly held and collectively realized, extends beyond even the human species.  His is a truly prophetic word in a time when the very “kingdom of life” could become our next, and final, sacrificial victim.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  When we recognize this, we can no longer make victims with a clear conscience; no matter how well they may or may not conform to our notions of good and evil.   To know this is the end of religion.  It is the beginning of Resurrection life.

[1] James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 147-149.
[2] John 11:50.
[3] John 8:44
[4] Rene Girard has exhaustively analyzed the anthropological and biblical witness to the dynamic of sacrificial violence.  See his Things Hidden from the Foundation of the World.
[5] See Kart Barth, Commentary on Romans, pp. 258-259, 266, 268, 270.
[6] Vincent Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality,” Sojourners, accessed at
[7] Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality”
[8] Quoted in Harding, “Dangerous Spirituality”

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