|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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What makes this Friday good is the celebration of the end of religion, and its replacement with the deeper magic of deathless love.
 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.
 Genesis 4:1-24.
 Genesis 6:11.
 Heim, p. 20.
 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).
 Heim, p. 22.
 Heim, p. 22.
 Heim, p. 23.