Monday, July 9, 2018

The Miracle of Dynamis

Today’s scripture readings are about power: who has it, how to get it, and what to do with it.  The Greek word is dynamis – meaning strength, ability, power.  In St. Paul’s usage, it refers to inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth.  In this passage from Mark’s Gospel, it has a more specific connotation of power for performing miracles.  In this sense, dynamis is the inherent power to do things you shouldn’t be able to do!  It is a power that is within us, yet is bigger than we are. 

You know you got your dynamis on when people say to you, “Who do you think you are?”  That is what they said to Jesus!  “You aren’t supposed to be here!  You don’t have a voice!  Who told you that you could do that!”

It is not possible for women to own property.  It is not possible for women to vote.  Girls can’t do math. It is not possible for people of different races to fall in love and get married.  Black people can’t sit at the front of the bus, or vote, or get a loan.  It is not possible for gay people to be out.  Gay people can’t get married.

Dynamis is when all those things happen.  They are miracles.  Miracles are not about doing things that are impossible. Miracles happen when those who are dismissed and discounted realize possibilities previously denied to them, claiming the power which was theirs all along.

Dynamis is shared power.  It belongs to everybody.  We heard last week in Mark’s Gospel about how a hemorrhaging woman, poor, outcast, unclean, with no social standing, having exhausted all other possibilities pushes her way through the crowd around Jesus and engages in a stealth healing.   When she touches the hem of Jesus’ garment, he is immediately aware that dynamis had gone forth from him. 

Was Jesus upset about it?  Did he call her out?  Say, “who do you think you are?”  No, he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”  Jesus knew that she hadn’t taken anything that wasn’t already hers.  She was simply claiming the power previously denied to her, a power to make the wounded whole that was within her, and yet is so much bigger than her.  It is God’s power, freely shared.

For many months, Faith in Action congregations in San Mateo County have been organizing to get the Board of Supervisors there to create a legal defense fund to assist people caught up in the current immigration scare.  When faith leaders first met with members of the Board of Supervisors, they said, “That isn’t possible.  It isn’t a problem here.  Who do you think you are?”
When they brought a petition with thousands of signatures from people across the county to Supervisors’ meetings, they said, “That isn’t possible.  No money for it.  Who did you say you are?’

Two weeks ago, when more than 200 people including 40 clergy dominated the Supervisors Meeting on the county budget, they said, “Will $1 million be enough?”  That is the miracle of dynamis. 
Dynamis is disruptive.  It challenges the consensus about what is possible and for whom it is possible. It defies the authorities who seek to reserve power to some and deny it to others.  It demands that power be shared because some people need to claim power for their healing, while others need to wake up from their moral slumber and share their power for the sake of a larger wholeness. 

Of course, not everybody is interested in sharing dynamis.  Some people want to monopolize power.  They are contemptuous of those who seek to claim it.  They are fearful of losing their privilege.  The leaders in Jesus’ hometown were not interested in sharing dynamis.  They thought Jesus was being uppity, trying to rise above his allotted station in life.  He was just Mary’s son; apparently, nobody even knew who his is father was.  He was doing deeds of power with his hands?  The hands of a handyman, less than a carpenter really; an unskilled laborer; a nobody.  He needed to sit down, shut up, and listen to his betters. 

Here is the thing about dynamis when used as God intends:  it is not coercive.  It can’t make anybody do anything.  It isn’t that kind of power.  Dynamis is exercised through relationships, it requires trust and mutual respect.  It is the power of love.  People, especially those who are privileged, can and will resist dynamis.   There is no guarantee that it will win.  Even Jesus could do no deeds of power in his hometown; except for a little healing here and there.  Jesus was amazed at the level of unbelief – of distrust – that impeded the flow of dynamis.

Dynamis is unleashed when we fall in love with each other.  If flows out of our vulnerability to God and to each other; the vulnerability of love.  It is precisely when we are most weak, when our hearts are breaking open, when we are overwhelmed by the suffering of our sisters and brothers, that we discover a power we didn’t even know we possessed.  We begin to see possibilities we didn’t even know where there.  Love is the energy behind dynamis; a capacious and fierce love. 

Jesus could do no deeds of power in his hometown.  He didn’t win that round, but he didn’t give up.  Dynamis isn’t about winning or losing.  It is about building relationships.  It is about sharing our lives together.  It is about falling in love and in the process becoming a people, a community, a human family. 

Exercising dynamis can be heart-breaking work, but every time our heart breaks it gets bigger.  It encompasses more of reality and embraces more and more people.  Dymanis is about giving ourselves away to each other in love, just as God does gives God’s power away to us in love with each breath, in each moment of our lives. 

When Jesus could do no deeds of power in his hometown, he sent out the twelve disciples, two by two, to share dynamis with people in the neighboring villages.  Jesus was a brilliant community organizer!  He knew that if he tried to grasp power for himself it would wither and die; but if he shared it, it would plant seeds and grow to live another day.  Love is subversive like that.  It goes underground for a season, but them blooms into life, transforming the landscape; just when you thought it had disappeared forever.  

Jesus shares dynamis with his disciples.  He freely shares with them the power to heal and resist evil.  In turn, they must embrace their vulnerability; depending upon the hospitality of those with whom they would serve, so that they, too, could share dynamis with them.  Their strength paradoxically emerged from their weakness.  And it would changed the world.  It is still changing the world.

The Twelve are representative figures, symbolizing the twelve tribes of Israel – the entire people of God.  We are all sent out to claim and share dynamis power.  With this power, we win even when we lose, because our hearts and our relationships just keep expanding.

Two weeks ago, I found myself weeping outside a detention center among a crowd of a 1,000 people, feeling broken and powerless as I listened to the pleas of refugee parents crying for their children.  Last weekend, more than 400,000 people marched in solidarity with those parents around the country, including 35,000 outside of the White House, where Rabbi Jason Kimelmann-Block recited Psalm 146. 

He prefaced the psalm with these words, “It says to the oppressed: This will pass because there is a power much greater.  And it says to the oppressor:  This will pass because there is a power much greater than you.”  

1      Alleluia! Praise God, O my soul! *I will praise God as long as I live;I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.
2      Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, * for there is no help in them.
3      When they breathe their last, they return to earth, * and in that day their thoughts perish.
4      Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, * whose hope is in their God;
5      Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; * whose promise abides for ever; 
6      Who gives justice to those who are oppressed * and food to those who hunger.
7      God sets the prisoners freeand opens the eyes of the blind; * God lifts up those who are bowed down;
8      God loves the righteous and cares for the stranger; *God sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.
9      God shall reign for ever, *your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Alleluia!
That is the miracle of dynamis.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Disrupted by Love

PICO California clergy leaders protest outside Otay Mesa Detention Center

On Saturday, June 23, I participated with nearly 1,000 faith leaders from across California in a march and protest at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, a concentration camp for refugees run by a private company called CoreCivic.  Otay Mesa is a separation center, where parents are left grieving while their children are caged elsewhere. 

I was not planning to go to San Diego.  In fact, I was outside Healdsburg, CA with our parish youth group for our annual service learning trip when I received the call to go there.  I was just returning to San Francisco on Friday afternoon, and would need to fly down to San Diego and back on Saturday so that I could be at my parish on Sunday.   It felt like a huge interruption, but when I called my husband and asked, “Do you think I should go?” he responded, “You have to be there.”  He was right.

On Saturday, as we marched up to the concentration camp, the imprisoned refugees could hear our chants and prayers.  Then, we stopped and observed a moment of silence.  Suddenly, we could hear the voices of the parents inside the camp crying out, “Where are our children?  Can you tell us where they are?”  It is one thing to read about the “immigration issue.”  It is quite another thing to hear the pain in the voices of our sisters and brothers lamenting the loss of their children.  What began as an interruption in my schedule turned out to be a major disruption of my world.  I was undone by their love for their children, and by my love for them.  All I could do was stand there and weep. 

I do not know what the parents inside were experiencing.  I hope they could feel our love and solidarity with them.  I do know that some of them they were doused with pepper spray by the guards when they tried to call clergy they knew, who were participating in the protest outside.  I guess the guards didn’t appreciate the interruption. Even so, I hope the disruption was healing for the terrified parents, reassuring them that they are not alone. 

I do know that the disruption was an awakening for me.  I have heard the voices of our sisters and brothers, refugees crying out for their children.  I can no longer ignore their voices.  I can no longer be tempted by the lies that seek to brandish them as criminals.  I can no longer accept what is being done in my name.

Some need to be healed.  Some need to wake up.  What is the meaning of the disruption for you?

Pondering this question reminds me of a story in Mark’s Gospel.  Jesus is on his way to heal the daughter of Jairus, when along comes this unnamed woman, hemorrhaging blood, who interrupts his journey to call attention to her own need.  She engages Jesus in a stealth healing.  She doesn’t ask for what she needs, she just slips in and touches the hem of his garment, trusting that Jesus can provide the power she needs – and he does!  For her, this disruption is healing. 

Meanwhile, Jairus’ daughter appears to have died.  It probably doesn’t feel like a healing disruption to Jairus.  Turns out she isn’t dead after all: just sleeping.  Waiting to be awakened.   Jesus, seemingly unperturbed, moves on from the healing to the awakening.  

Healing disruptions can be a personal experience, but there is also a social and political dimension to such disruptions, and this too is a part of the Gospel story.  It is not insignificant that Jairus’ daughter is twelve years old, and that the anonymous woman with the flow of blood has been ill for twelve years.  The number twelve signals the twelve tribes of Israel.  The healing and awakening that these two women experience represents Israel’s healing and awakening. What is at stake here is the need for the whole people of God to experience a healing disruption.

Jairus is a leader of the synagogue, a person of social standing and influence. He is operating from a position of privilege, able to access the resources he needs for the sake of his daughter.  He has power to speak directly to Jesus and bring him to his home.  The unnamed, hemorrhaging woman in the crowd has no social standing or influence.  She is an outcast, rendered unclean by this continual flow of blood. She is operating out of desperation – and unshakable faith.  In her poverty, she has no home and so she takes to the streets to find Jesus.

Her interruption of Jesus and Jairus is a parable about the need for social disruptions – challenges to the way things are – so that the whole people of God can experience healing and reconciliation.  The unnamed woman is forced to take to the street to access power, and Jesus shares his power with her freely.  He declares her interruption justified and commends her initiative as the source of her healing.  She isn’t taking anything that isn’t already hers.  By simply acting on the reality of her human dignity, she claims a healing that would never have been necessary if the people of God had not treated her with such contempt and indifference in the first place.

For people like Jairus, such disruptions are a scandal and a threat to their privilege.  What Jesus tries to convey is that such disruptions are necessary for healing those who are most in need.  Otherwise, they will just continue to be exploited and ignored.  Jairus thinks this disruption can only mean loss for him – the loss of his daughter.   But she is not dead, merely sleeping.  This healing disruption is an opportunity for her – and all who fear the loss of privilege – to wake-up and acknowledge the genuine need of the poor. 

This is a parable about how disruptions of the status quo are necessary for the healing and awakening that reconciles and makes whole the entire people of God.  It profoundly challenges us to wake-up and acknowledge that our wholeness is inextricably bound up with the health and well-being of others. Until power is shared, the people of God cannot be whole.

When people take to the streets to assert their dignity and claim their power, such actions can feel like threatening disruptions, but they offer the gift of awakening to those who are willing to receive it.  The refugees at are border and in our community are disrupting the status quo because of their need for healing.  Those of us marching at Otay Mesa were disrupted by our encounter with the brutality of the status quo and are experiencing an awakening. 

Some need to be healed.  Some need to wake up.  What is the meaning of the disruption for you?


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Courage to Love

The #NoJusticeNoDeal Campaign calls for police reform in San Francisco

For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.   – 2 Timothy 1:7

Last January, the annual meeting of our congregation voted unanimously to become a member congregation of Faith in Action Bay Area (FIA).  FIA is a network of more than 100 congregations and community based organizations working together to promote justice and human dignity in communities across San Francisco and San Mateo Counties.   This decision followed the recommendation of a team of St. James members who have been exploring a partnership with FIA since 2014.

Often, when we talk about faith based community organizing, we talk about what we do (work on particular issues or campaigns) and how we do it (educational forums, voter engagement, meeting with public officials, press conferences, protests), but we rarely talk about why we do it.  We fail to address the heart of the matter.  Different people may explain why they do this work in various ways, but for me it boils down to this:  I want to love more courageously. 

The summer of 2013 was a turning point for me.  In July, a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin.  I had paid attention to the case, because it touched on my own fears for the safety of my son, then 15 years-old, who could easily have been Trayvon: a black kid living in a neighborhood where many people might have thought he didn’t belong. 

I was appalled that an unarmed 17 year-old could be stalked and shot dead with impunity.  When the NAACP in San Francisco called for a rally outside of City Hall to protest the verdict, my husband and I attended.  It was a pitiful rally in terms of turnout; less than 100 people.  Few of the participants where white, and I was the only white clergy person I could see.  I knew black folks who had showed up for immigrant rights.  I knew black folks who had showed up for marriage equality.  Who was showing up for them?  That was when I knew that I had to start showing up.

I showed up because I love my son.  All organizing work for justice is rooted in love.  Who or what do you love enough to fight for?  I realized I had to have the courage to stand up against racism if my love for my son was to have any meaning.  I needed folks who could help me to find that courage and express it in ways consistent with the energy of love.  That is how I found my way to Faith in Action Bay Area, organizing for justice and human dignity.  Justice is what love looks like in public.

After Ferguson, Missouri was disrupted by the murder of Michael Brown, I traveled there with other clergy from FIA and heard the stories of people in that community.  I began to make connections.  What began as an impulse of love launched me into a web of relationships I could not have otherwise anticipated or imagined.  Coming home, I began to hear stories of people in San Francisco directly affected by the racism of the criminal justice system. 

As I listen to the stories of people living in contexts different from my own, I begin to see them.  Their stories changed my perception of the world.  The first revolution is internal; a softening of the heart that allows us to absorb more of reality. I was disrupted by their pain and struggle, and by the acknowledgement of my own privilege; together, we began to imagine the possibility of a world without racism. 

This is what faith-based organizing work is fundamentally about: building relationships, building the beloved community across the usual divides of religion, race, class and gender.  My internal conversation about who I love developed into conversations with other concerned parents of children of color; which grew into a team of people building trust to fight against racism in the criminal justice system; which expanded into a base of people, a movement working to change laws and implement police reforms.  Finally, it had to include elected officials who have the power to make change.  We had to talk with them to learn how to leverage our collective power to make the changes we needed to protect our kids. 

This is basically what Jesus did his entire ministry.  He got clear about God’s will for him and the work he was called to do in the world.  He traveled all around the Galilee listening to people’s stories, coming close to the pain in their communities.  He gathered a team to make change, to teach, and to heal; to turn despair, isolation, and fear into a powerful community.  He engaged the religious and political leaders of his day in often difficult and even confrontational conversations.  In solidarity with those he loved, he was executed by the state for resisting evil.  And from his sacrifice, he gave life to a movement that is still setting the world on fire with God’s love.

Faith based community organizing is about finding the courage to love.  It isn’t about this or that issue.  It isn’t even about winning.  It is about building relationships so that we can claim our power as the people of God, who has not given us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power, and of love, and of self-discipline.  We can become the people we need to be, so that we can realize God’s dream for the world; if we have the courage to love.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

An Unexpected Anointing

The baptism of Sarah Fedaie, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The author of the Gospel According to Mark ends with the story of an unexpected anointing.  Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body.  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome – say their names with me – Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome – they are the only women disciples of Jesus who are named in Mark’s Gospel.  This means we need to pay attention to them.

They were part of the group of women who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee.  They supported the movement he was organizing, and followed him along with the crowd who had marched with him triumphantly into Jerusalem just a short week ago.  Jesus had chosen the Passover Festival, the annual celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from oppression in Egypt, as the time to occupy the Temple and shut it down.   It was to be his final confrontation with the authorities to protest the sacrificial violence of the Roman Empire and in support of the alternative to empire:  what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.

Then, it all went wrong.  Jesus was arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and executed by the state with the full-throated support of a mob carefully cultivated by the authorities. Jesus died outside the gates of the city, crucified between two insurrectionists, a punishment reserved for the crime of sedition.  Jesus’ support for the victims of the regime’s greed and violence, his nonviolent advocacy for a new form of community based on justice and dignity, was perceived to be too great a threat to go unaddressed.  Jesus had to die because he resisted empire. 

The disciples – the twelve men in Jesus’ inner circle – betrayed, denied, or abandoned him.  The previously supportive crowd turned against him and became a lynch mob.  Perhaps Jesus had failed to meet their expectations of a violent revolution.  At any rate, it was only the women who persisted, witnessing his crucifixion, death, and now burial.  Their coming to the tomb was in its own way an act of resistance.  It was forbidden to provide victims of crucifixion the normal burial rites to honor and remember the dead.  Unjust regimes are in the business of making bodies disappear and obliterating memory.  But the women refused to forget, despite the pain and the risk.  They defied the authorities one last time and brought spices to the tomb to anoint his body. 

In this very act, we see the seeds of an alternative memory of Jesus that contradicts the official record.  The minority report that would become the Gospel According to Mark was born in this refusal to accept business as usual.  But in that moment, I suspect that Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were just trying to find some closure, some relief from the trauma they had suffered.  They came to anoint Jesus. 

Imagine their shock upon discovering that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty.  There was no body to anoint.  Even the dignity of burial, the usual rituals of grieving, was denied them.  This was when the crack in their world really came apart.  There was nothing left to hold on to.  They had finally hit the wall.  And in that moment, rather than anointing Jesus, it was they who received an anointing. 

It was an unexpected anointing, and not particularly welcome.  It would have been so much easier if the body had been there.  Then they could have grieved, and raged, and lamented – let all out and let it all go.  They could have moved on, holding their pain and their resentment inside like a tight little ball, said, “Well, at least we tried,” admitted defeat and called it a day.  Sometimes, it seems so much easier to just give up.

But instead of leaving behind a body, Jesus left behind a messenger who said, “Don’t be afraid.  Jesus has been raised; he is not here.  He has gone ahead of you back to Galilee; just as he told you.  Tell the other disciples to meet him there.”  When someone tells you not to be afraid, you probably have good reason to be afraid!  Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were terrified – and amazed – scared into silence. 

They came for a funeral and received an anointing; commissioned to share the good news that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us.  He isn’t an inspiring memory, a painful loss in the past, but rather the one who opens a way to the future.  But to get there, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome must go back to Galilee, to the place where it all started.   They must go back to the beginning, pick up the pieces, and renew the movement for justice and dignity that Jesus continues to empower through his Resurrection life.  The thought of starting over terrified these women – at first.  They got over it, else we wouldn’t be telling this story.  Scared silent at first, just as the empire hoped, they eventually found their voices.

The Gospel According to Mark refuses to make Resurrection easy.  It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns or Easter bunnies.  It isn’t about skipping down streets of gold hand in hand with Jesus after we die.  It is about being willing to choose life when it would be easier to give up.  Resurrection is about being vulnerable enough to allow who and what we love, and the love of Jesus for us and for all, to empower us to keep on keeping on. 

Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome came close to the pain in their community, the pain in their own hearts, and it brought them to their knees.  But they got up again because the tomb is empty.  There is no future there.  Jesus has gone ahead of us and is calling us to catch up. The Risen Jesus is the triumph of sacrificial love over sacrificial violence, but we aren’t done yet.  There is so much more life and so much more love left to share. 

You would do well to be a little afraid to discover the tomb is empty.  Meeting the risen Jesus is not a get out of jail free card.  It is an anointing to continue the work of love and justice that Jesus was just getting started.  It is more likely to be a go directly to jail card.  I imagine Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome could identify with a story that Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells.

Nadia is the founding pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, a new expression of church in Denver.  She is not your usual pastor – unafraid to sport really cool tattoos and speak, shall we say, in the vernacular.  Content warning for the next part of this sermon!  Anyway, she recalls Andi, a radical young queer woman, raised Unitarian, who started hanging out at All Sinners and Saints.  

One morning Andi called up Nadia and said, “Hey Rev, I need some pastoral care.”  “Sure,” said Nadia, “what’s up?” “I think I’m having a crisis of faith.”  Nadia thought to herself, “Huh, I wonder what a crisis of faith looks like for a Unitarian,” but set a date to meet for coffee.  When they sat down together, Andi said, “I think I’m starting to believe in Jesus.”  Nadia just shook her head, “I am so sorry.  You’re, like, really screwed now.  Sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there is nothing you can do about it.”

That is what encountering the Risen Jesus is like.  It can turn your world upside down.  Just when you thought you were comfortable, or at least willing to accommodate your discomfort; just when you thought you’d arrived, or decided to give up; Jesus hunts your ass down and you have to go back to Galilee and start all over again.  The difference is that held in the loving gaze of the Risen One we know we have everything we need.  No matter how challenging it may be, God’s anointing is sufficient.  God isn’t done with you – or us – yet.  The movement Jesus inaugurated is still in need of recruits.  The work for justice, human dignity, and now care for the planet still goes on.   That is the church’s work, the work of the movement Jesus continues to empower. 

The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not the end of the story, all tied up in a nice bow.  It is just the beginning.  Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome persisted to the end – and beyond – to a new beginning.  They persisted and so must we.  That is what it means to share in the Resurrection life of Jesus.  Amen.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Deeper Magic: A Good Friday Sermon

The sacrifice of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia

The death of Jesus marks the end of religion. 

C.S. Lewis, who was very familiar with the history of religions and their mythologies, seemed to understand this intuitively in his Christian allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia.  In Lewis’ popular fantasy novel, the lion Aslan, the Christ figure, allows himself to be killed in exchange for creation’s release from bondage to the evil powers of this world.  This exchange is proposed by the evil powers based on the ancient law that an innocent victim may die on behalf of others to free them.  This sacrifice is referred to as “deep magic from the dawn of time.” 

The evil powers exploit this arrangement and have no intention of honoring the bargain.  When Aslan is resurrected, this comes as a totally unexpected development.  The evil powers of this world are adept at making victims disappear and hiding the injustice of their deaths.  Aslan’s death and resurrection exposes this “deep magic” or “religion,” if you will, as a lie told to maintain an unjust social order. 

When Aslan rises from the dead, the ancient stone altar on which the sacrifice was offered cracks and crumbles to pieces.  It is destroyed and will never be used again.  This is a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time,” says Aslan.  The Gospel, in Lewis’ view, announces the end of religion: replacing the practice of sacrificial violence with the practice of sacrificial love.  The Gospel is not about the substitution of victims, but rather about their vindication as God’s beloved.  God does not require sacrifice, but rather mercy for the victims of history.[1]
It is hard to see clearly and without illusions the victims of sacrificial violence, the “collateral damage” or “unintended harms” justified as necessary to preserve our social and economic structures.  We hide them behind ritual sacrifices and theological mystifications – “deep magic” such as theories of “market efficiency” or of “just war” that legitimate the death of innocent victims.

How does this deep magic of sacrificial violence work?  It goes back at least to the foundation of human culture.   In his studies of comparative religion and anthropology, René Girard argued that social life in its origins is marked by rivalry and violence:  think of the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel’s rivalry ending with Cain murdering Abel.[2]  This leads to escalating cycles of violence:  the original sin of human culture.  “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence,” we are told at the beginning of the story of Noah.[3] 

Girard notes that such violence almost undoes human culture before it can even get started, and the ability to break this vicious cycle is considered miraculous.  When the cycle of violence threatens to destroy a community, spontaneous and irrational mob violence directed against a particular individual or group erupts.  The identified victim serves to unite the community.  They are scapegoated, accused of terrible crimes, and lynched; restoring peace as the sacrifice “clears the air.”  Paradoxically, the scapegoat comes to be regarded as the source of unity, and becomes a god.  This is the root of religious myths and rituals of sacrifice, which obscure the violence at the origin and center of human culture. 

The prescription for treating unchecked cycles of rivalry and violence is the reduction of divisions within the community to just one division between a common victim or minority group and everyone else.  Those who are weak and marginal, isolated or foreign, become good candidates for sacrifice.   The innocence of the victims is forgotten in the quest for unity and order.  It is obscured through myth and ritual, even though the cure is only temporary and the need for new victims is insatiable.[4] 

If you think this description of human culture is an exaggeration, consider the dynamic of the class “fairy,” the child identified as the victim of group teasing and harassment who haunts our school hallways and playgrounds.  The specter of the class fairy forces us to sort out the social pecking order and conform to the demands of social acceptance that we crave to feel secure.   This dynamic gets replicated in different ways and in different social structures up to and including national security policy.  How do we know who we are without an enemy against whom we can define ourselves?   

Perhaps a striking example is the life, death and memorialization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  King was the exemplary innocent victim, representative of a demonized minority group blamed during his lifetime for disrupting social order and sewing division in our country.  Only after his murder was he idealized as the miraculous source of unity created through his sacrifice as a scapegoat for white racism.  His apotheosis was finally realized in the national holiday and monument which honor him as a kind of god; a mythology of King that obscures the threat he posed to an unjust order and downplays the racism that maintains that order through ever renewed acts of sacrificial violence, right up to the murder of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man shot dead by police in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento last week.[5]

The whole trajectory of the biblical narrative is an attempt to help us see through the mythology of sacrificial violence and the mechanism of scapegoating innocent victims that underlies it.  Such scapegoating is perhaps the deepest structure of human sin, foundational to human culture, the “deep magic from the dawn of time.”  As Mark Heim points out,

The revelatory quality of the New Testament on this point is thoroughly continuous with Hebrew scripture, in which an awareness and rejection of the sacrificial mechanism is already set forth.  The averted sacrifice of Isaac; the prophet’s condemnation of scapegoating the widow, the weak or the foreigner; the story of Job; the Psalm’s obsession with the innocent victim of collective violence; the passion narrative’s transparent account of Jesus’ death; the confessions of a new community that grew up in solidarity around the risen crucified victim:  all these follow a constant thread.  They reveal the “victimage” mechanisms at the joint root of religion and society – and they reject those mechanisms.  Jesus is the victim who will not stay sacrificed, whose memory is not erased and who forces us to confront the reality of scapegoating.[6]

In the Passion Narratives we see a profound demythologization of sacrificial violence.  The story is now told from the perspective of the victim, whose innocence is understood clearly.  We know that his execution by the state, cleverly orchestrated through the manipulation of mob violence, was unjust.  The resurrection of Jesus makes his death a kind of failed sacrifice.  When a mythical sacrifice succeeds, it brings peace, obscures the innocence of the victim and the violence of the perpetrator, and prepares the way for the next scapegoat.  When it fails, either because the community is not unanimous in its collective violence or the victim is not sufficiently demonized, it just becomes another killing in the tit-for-tat of retaliatory violence, and the cycle escalates. 

With Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have an entirely new and unexpected development.  People do not unanimously close ranks over Jesus’ grave in celebration of a faux peace, nor is there a spree of revenge killings escalating the violence another notch in response.   Instead, a novel community arises dedicated both to the innocent victim vindicated by God in the resurrection, and to a new life inspired by Jesus’ sacrificial love that puts an end to sacrificial violence.  The identity of this new community is not formed in solidarity against victims, but rather in solidarity with the crucified one.[7] 

Against the deep magic of sacrificial violence, our only hope is the deeper magic of sacrificial love.  In his death and resurrection, Jesus enacted and his disciples commemorated the death of religion.  The making of new sacrificial victims can no longer be justified.  Jesus died in our place because it is literally true that any of us could, in the right circumstances, be the scapegoat.  In so doing, he became the victim of sacrificial violence to subvert it from within.  Through him, the power of God is at work to unmask the lie that only violence brings peace, and to free us from our bondage to this lie.  This is what it means to be set free from sin and death:  to no longer receive our identity from the system of sacrificial violence in any of it manifestations.  The Risen Jesus is now the source of our identity and security, the innocent victim who comes to us, not to avenge himself, but to say, “Peace be with you.”  Through him we are set free to create genuine, lasting community rooted in forgiveness, repentance, creativity and joyful service. 

Whenever we gather at the table for Holy Communion, we are reminded of Jesus’ bloody death.  We recall a real sacrifice and celebrate a substitutionary atonement.  But unlike the mythic victims who became sacred models of an ever-repeating pattern of creating unity through sacrificial violence, Jesus offered his very real body and blood as a new pattern of living in which bread and wine are substituted continually for victims – substituted for any, and all, of us – so that we may find our unity in that which gives life rather than death.[8] 

What makes this Friday good is the celebration of the end of religion, and its replacement with the deeper magic of deathless love.

[1] S. Mark Heim, “Visible victim:  Christ’s death to end sacrifice,” The Christian Century (March 14, 2001), p. 21.  I’m indebted to Heim for what follows as well.
[2] Genesis 4:1-24.
[3] Genesis 6:11.
[4] Heim, p. 20.
[5] Paige St. John and Nicole Santa Cruz, “As outrage over Stephon Clark's killing grows, his grandmother asks: 'Why? Why?'” Los Angeles Times (March 27, 2018).
[6] Heim, p. 22.
[7] Heim, p. 22.
[8] Heim, p. 23.