FEAR OF RELIGION: Sacrifice, mimesis and compassion

Roughly a month ago, I picked up my youngest daughter at the airport here in Rome. Ahead of us we had a busy time of preparations. Esmeralda had left her studies at Durham University in northern England to attend her older sister's wedding.

In the car, we talked about a conference she had attended. Archaeologists had been discussing the role of water in religious contexts. They had debated the shape and depth of various basins in Petra, how water had moved from container to container within an Asclepian sanctuary in Asia Minor and other similar observations. It had been stimulating and interesting. However, Esmeralda had been surprised by fact that most presenters seemed to deliberately avoid associating their analyses of materials and positions of canals, tanks and reservoirs with those religious beliefs that might have inspired their design.

It seemed like several older archaeologists had looked embarrassed when some of their younger colleagues speculated about religious practices and ideas in connection with their findings. Esmeralda wondered if it could be so that earlier wild guesswork and hasty conclusions had contributed to speculations falling into disrepute and in order to safeguard a strictly scientific approach archaeologists nowadays exclusively dedicated themselves to measuring, weighing, chemically analysing, categorizing and digitalizing their findings, avoiding any association with religious practices.

I understood Esmeralda´s bewilderment. When I in different contexts had been working with "development" I had often been amazed by the fact that colleagues who had been living within communities where people were deeply religious, had practiced interesting rituals and been eager to retell their myths and legends, in spite of all that had not shown any interest whatsoever in “religious issues”. While I for a couple years edited "donor reports" from various development projects I often became bored by their dull conformity. They generally followed the same pattern, the same log frame, i.e. a logical framework presenting planned activities, preparation of various components, number of meetings and consultations, number of participating stakeholders, costs, the build-up of infrastructure, achievements, etc., etc. Probably important information, but abstract, so overwhelmingly abstract.

It was seldom I got any sense of a larger context. There were no individuals, few mistakes. Some difficulties and obstacles were generally mentioned, but rarely associated with any living individuals, or with the specific environment where the projects had been implemented. They might just as well have been realized in Bjärnum, Gorgoroth, or Sylvania. Above all, there was no hint of any religious practices or beliefs that could have impacted the realization of the endeavours. This despite the fact that when I had found myself "in the field", in Latin America, Africa or Asia, I had always come across religious practices and beliefs that had impacted power constellations, health issues and resource utilization.

A few months ago I read in the newspaper that René Girard had died. What had interested Tord Olsson, my professor in History of Religions, in Girard had been the French professor´s speculations about religious rituals, specifically bloody sacrifices, something Tord had studied in depth among Bambara hunters in Mali.

What I found stimulating with Tord was his appetite for direct experience. Tord was interested in theories. His doctoral thesis had focused on the structuralist anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Tord devoured fiction, was no stranger to wild speculations and familiar with various efforts to find a comprehensive explanation of human behaviour and thinking. However, he was not only a theoretician. Tord wanted to participate in the experiences he read about and had thus wandered with the Maasai in Kenya, participated in Sufi dance rituals in Turkey and been initiated into a secret brotherhood in Mali.

Tord did not at all suffer from the fear of religion that Girard often complains about in his writings. According to the French literary scholar, religion has increasingly become removed from western, everyday life. When science has celebrated a triumph, the same process is repeated all over again - some old mystery is brought to light, converted into a question, which almost always receives a scientific explanation and thus becomes demystified. What once had been grand theories and multi-faceted belief systems are disintegrated into separate symbols and actions, which then are isolated from each other and painstakingly dissected, only to be assembled into new structures, which consolidate the researchers in their belief that religion and mysticism are absurdities lacking coverage within a logically structured reality.

My socialist acquaintances sometimes complain about my fascination with postmodernism. They regard me as a scatter brained aficionado with an acquired taste for whimsical opinions. Someone who in the name of general benevolence towards all that is foreign and exotic, believing that everything should be accepted and tolerated. According to them, structuralism and postmodernism are rhetorical delicacies turning everything into a multicultural compote that appeals to people unable to make use of a logical approach to human existence. Unworldly aesthetes ignoring reality, while drowning themselves in art and literature.

To me was the postmodernist Jean Francois Lyotard's insights about "grand narratives", or meta-narratives, something of a revelation. Already in the early seventies Lyotard had prophesied that a computerized information society was going to replace a learning experience based on books, conversations and face-to-face teaching. He also hinted that we are being trapped by thought patterns promoted by power structures that ought to be questioned to a much higher degree than now, at the same time as our existence is splitting up into different micro stories.

Lyotard was inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein's theories about language-games (Sprachspiele). Wittgenstein probably meant that words obtain their meaning from various forms of lifestyles, which do not always coincide. There exists a separate world of science where words receive their meaning through the way in which they are used. "Truth" is differently defined by a lawyer, a historian, or a physicist. These professionals are all trapped in their language-games and it is not always that someone who is outside these circles may understand what people inside them are talking about. As Wittgenstein famously stated: "If a lion could talk, we could not understand him." Empirically substantiated science is one example of a language-game where religion appears to be superfluous, or as the mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace famously replied Napoleon when he asked how it was that he could have written an extensive scientific thesis without mentioning God: "Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Friedrich Hegel believed that when humans developed their civilization, they created institutions, rules and ideas that eventually would turn out to be a straitjacket they cannot escape from. People may not even understand what they have accomplished. They are projecting qualities they would like to possess onto a God, who they believe to be perfect, omniscient and omnipotent, while they consider themselves to be poor, ignorant and powerless. A thought that was taken up by Karl Marx when he wrote:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Undeniably a more nuanced opinion than the disjointed slogan that later on was frequently used by Communist critics of religion: "Religion is the opium of the people". But such a view can certainly find support in Marx's continuing argument:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

Totalitarian Communism turned Marx's ideas about religion into a meta-narrative, one great truth which meant that religion should be banned and thus eventually disappear. In the same manner had an official variant of Christianity once been benefited by other oppressive power structures, while persecuting opposing ideas. When it is declared to be an illusion, religion loses its legitimacy, particularly if such a view is supported by influential authorities – like policymakers and dominant scientists.

Sigmund Freud, who admittedly is losing some of his former authority, nevertheless remains a major influence on the notion that many people have of religious ​​faith as a damaging illusion. He considered religion to be a “universal obsessional neurosis". An infantile defence against "the crushingly superior force of nature ". According to him, religious beliefs were nothing more than “illusions and insusceptible of proof." Civilization “has little to fear from educated people and brain-workers," though the "the great mass of the uneducated and oppressed" could easily be induced to murdering its opponents if its imaginary God had not ordered them to avoid committing crimes. Accordingly, the "ignorant" had to continue to be oppressed by those in power, unless “the relationship between civilization and religion” underwent “a fundamental revision”.

According to Freud, religious education prevented such a beneficial development and contributed to a continued intellectual impoverishment of all societies. Nevertheless, there was hope that in the long run nothing would be able to withstand reason and experience, “the contradiction which religion offers to both is all too palpable [...] in the future science will go beyond religion, and reason will replace faith in God."

If one attempts to assign to religion its place in man’s evolution, it seems not so much to be a lasting acquisition, as a parallel to the neurosis which the civilized individual must pass through on his way from childhood to maturity.

Freud compared religious individuals with mental patients he had observed and been confronted with, they suffered from a similar obsessive behaviour characterized by constantly repeated rituals, which they considered themselves forced to perform in order to avoid obliteration.

Freud adapted religion to his theories about sexuality and his famous Oedipus Complex, i.e. that a child desired its mother and considered its father as an intimidating rival for her love. In his fascinating book Totem and Taboo, which like so much else Freud made him worthy of a Nobel Prize, though in my opinion not in medicine but in literature, Freud presented us with a fascinating creation myth through which he explained the origin of religion. Like many other advantageous books about people's habits and customs of the time, not least James Frazer's fascinating and highly influential The Golden Bough, the Totem and Taboo was an impressive and resourceful catalogue of a wide variety of  reading material about human behaviour through the ages and across the globe.

As the hurricane's eye in this whirlwind of observations Freud placed his invented myth positioned in a distant past when a humanoid herd, like wild horses or buffaloes, roamed around led by an all-powerful alpha male, who surrounded himself with a harem of attractive females, who he begrudged any other male of his flock. In an act triggered by sexual frustration this tyrannical leader was killed by the suppressed males, who also devoured him. The action brought about severe feelings of guilt among the perpetrators, who after all had respected and feared their murdered and eaten father. According to Freud, this ancient crime was the origin of the Oedipus Complex and modern human society, it was turned into Original Sin, sublimated and ritualized into religious behaviour. The self-denial and obsession with guilt that have come to characterize our civilization have in individuals a counterpart in severe pathological disorders – compulsive behaviour, phobias and delusions resulting from a detrimental suppression of natural urges.

When I first came across this strange theory I found it completely crazy and could not fathom how it could have been accepted by so many sensible people. How could a single crime in a remote past be embodied in virtually every human being? Nonetheless, for many it has remained a proven fact and the phenomenon even has a scientific name, phylogenesis, from old Greek phylon - tribe/ clan/race and genetikós - origin /rise/birth. In any case, I cannot fail to consider Freud's theory as yet another example of a "grand narrative", a myth almost as "true" and influential as the Bible's creation myth, which under the surface hides a multitude of truths and insights about the culture that it spawned.

In a postmodern world full of contradictions and different assumptions, an existence which nevertheless still is ruled by different power structures trying to control, manipulate and determine our thinking, people continue to search for a centre - a belief that they may cling to in their craving for meaning and order. They may rejoice from the fact that they belong to a group of "decent people"; that they are Swedes, Christians, labourers, heterosexual, healthy and sound in body and mind. They may have come to the conclusion that they as in Archimedes´ fantasy have found the fixed point from which they might move the world. Like Hamlet, whose fate it was to correct the time that has come out of joint, they want to clear out “their” society from all harmful influences, such as outsiders, criminals and perverts, and thus be able to restore their grand narrative in the form of a Christian Community, a Welfare State, or a Socialist Utopia.

In this maelstrom of diverse influences, I sometimes get the notion that any crazy idea might be mobilized to establish our place on earth and create harmony between ourselves and our surrounding environment - a proper diet ideally adapted to our physical and psychological constitution, a correct positioning in relation to  the stellar constellation at our birth, proper breathing, correct posture, a realization that the injuries we received in our childhood - by our teachers, by the place where we were born - can be corrected so we might be able to will live happily for the rest of our lives. Everything is good enough to explain why we became what we are. Astrology, biodynamics, yoga, Marxism, veganism, healing crystals, foot massage, religious salvation, martial arts or psychotherapy can get us back on track. It may help each and every one of us to create her/his own grand narrative. Maybe Lyotard, through his denial of other grand narratives created a new grand narrative that we may adapt ourselves to, or reject?

In any event, René Girard was not ashamed of admitting that he was obsessed by his own theory about mimesis and collective atonement as the secret behind religion and mystery. Obviously Girard perceived Marx´s and Freud´s as intending to convince us all that they had come up with all-encompassing, all-explaining grand narratives, but they were nevertheless children of their own time and thus their notions were of limited scope - Marx's theories were born out of and could be applied to industrial England, while Freud's theories emerged from and was applied to bourgeoisie fin-de-siècle Vienna, where the patriarch controlled nuclear family seemed to reign supreme.

According to Girard, both Marx´s and Freud´s theories could be subsumed into a larger notion, namely mimesis, a concept Plato had used to describe storytelling as a mimicry of individual thoughts and behaviour. For Plato, art and mimesis were identical and actually useless since they were nothing more than a clumsy mockery of the phenomena that were really true, namely ideas. An artist, or writer, are similar to a monkey in the sense that they are only able to ape what they see or hear, without any authentic understanding of its inner meaning and structure. A perception that several Renaissance artists were aware of and some of them consciously portray themselves as monkeys. Like when Giovanni Bellini in his painting of the Madonna and an instructing Baby Jesus, now in the Brera Gallery in Milan, in the background´s lower left corner has painted a pedestal inscribed with his name and put a monkey on top of it.

Girard was an historian of literature and had like many others studied literature´s ability to capture and comment the reality, most famous is maybe Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: Reality Reproduction in Western literature, which I had problems with and was unable to finish. In his book Violence and the Sacred Girard depicts human's uniqueness as mimesis, a tendency among flock animals to mimic each other, both consciously and unconsciously, a quest that leads to development and cooperation, but also to negative emotions such as jealousy, frustration and violence. Unfortunately, it is common for most of us to compare ourselves with "everyone else", even though such a group of people does not exist. Additionally, we are deep in our inner self harbouring envy against fortunate people - the beautiful, the successful and the wealthy - whose presence and glamorous lifestyle we are constantly reminded of and more or less secretly aspire to achieve. René Girard wrote:

People learn to desire from other people and turn want into ideals, trying to emulate them. Aware of our own shortcomings we want others to teach us what we should appreciate and what we should try to be. At first, when we imitate our role models´ thoughts, this quest is harmless, but when we begin to actively pursue their ideals and ideas we are transformed into a threat to our own paragons of virtue, we turn into their rivals, this leads first to competition and then to violence.

Girard criticized Freud's Totem and Taboo as being simplistic and overly based on its author´s obsession with sexuality, but he agreed with Freud that religious notions were largely based on competition and associated with shame and self-loathing. Religion promises a healing of the wounds that human existence accords us and unites people around a utopian hope of salvation and communion. Yet the history of religions is filled with blood, sacrifice and condemnation. Brutal actions perpetrated in the name of religion compel us to wonder why violence and religion are so easily confused and repeatedly able induce "decent" people to commit monstrous crimes and atrocities in accordance with their religious beliefs. 

Girard, sought an answer in literature, anthropology, psychology and not least in the Bible. In book after book and numerous articles Girard has deepened what he himself called his "fix idea" namely the creation and sacrifice of scapegoats as the foundation and preservation of human culture.

Real or symbolic violence inflicted on a common enemy, either a member of the community or a stranger, tend to convert frustrations and latent violence into a socially strengthening force. Social structures are reinforced when frustration and violence are sublimated into sacred rituals and myths, which transform the innocence of a selected scapegoat into a symbol of common guilt and thus hide the real function and meaning of the act of persecuting or even killing her/him.

Common rituals supported by both written and oral traditions repeat sacred violence in such a way that it becomes a routine action, or a celebratory event. Chaos and divisive violence become transformed into a key ingredient for social cohesion and identification. The simple and often unpleasant origin of the ritual is kept secret and instead confirmed by opaque legends and myths. The ancient Greek word muthos comes from the verb mu which meant "closing" or "keeping secret".

The sacrifice of a scapegoat may be entirely symbolic, or inflicted on an animal that thus incarnates a human being. In some societies, the scapegoat may have been a real person and in such cases the victim often represented the entire society and might occasionally even become an object of respect and worship, like the Aztec sacrifice of Quetzalcoatl when a young, exceptionally handsome man was chosen to incarnate the Aztecs´ most important deity and culture hero. In fact Quetzalcoatl (Kukulcan among the Mayas) had initially been a human Messiah opposed to human sacrifice. For a year, the Chosen One lived in a palace, surrounded by all kind of luxuries; delicious food, drink, entertainment beautiful women and moreover enjoyed boundless admiration and worship until he finally was publicly sacrificed  in front of the same people who had earlier  bestowed so much respect upon him. Through his sacrificial death the chosen youngster was believed to have been united with the deity he had incarnated on earth.

All this appears to have been a sacred act staged to bequeath purification, catharsis, to a wounded, suffering social body. Something that also has been considered as the origin of the Greek dramas and even the Catholic Mass. Voodoo ceremonies I have attended and which included bloody animal sacrifices, made an impression on me as if they were some kind of dramatic spectacle following fixed rules and formats, although they also gave some room for improvisation and individual, emotional outbursts.

Girard presents in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning a hideous example of the selection of a scapegoat. It is an extract from a novel by the Ancient Roman writer Philostratus about the miracle-worker and philosopher Apollonius, written in 220 BC.:

He summoned the Ephesians together, and said: ‘Don´t worry, I will end plague today.’ So saying he led them all, young and old, towards the theatre, where the statue of Apotropaios [the Averting God, Herakles] stands. There they found what appeared to be an old beggar, pretending to have his eyes closed. He carried a big bag and a lump of bread in it, and had ragged clothing and a wrinkled face. Apollonius made the Ephesians stand around the man, and said, ´Collect as many stones as possible and throw them at this outcast.´ The Ephesians were puzzled by this meaning and shocked at the thought of killing someone who was a visitor and so destitute, and the man also pleaded with them saying everything to gain their pity. But Apollonius urged the Ephesians relentlessly to crush the man and not let him escape. 

When some of them hit him from the distance and the man, who had appeared to have his eyes closed, suddenly opened them and showed them to be full of fire, the Ephesians realized that it was a spirit and threw so many stones that a pile was built up over him. After a while Apollonius told them to remove the stones and to discover the beast they had killed. When they uncovered the man they thought they had stoned, he had vanished; instead they saw a dog resembling a Molossian hound but the size of the largest lion, crushed by the stones and spewing foam like a dog with rabies. The statue of the Averter, in the shape of Hercules, stands near the spot where the apparition was stoned.

I called Philostratus´ book about Apollonius of Tyana a novel, not a biography, even if it exclusively deals with an itinerant philosopher who was born a few years after Christ and died around the year 96. Research has shown that many details in Philostratus´ portrayal is consistent with what we know about Apollonius´ contemporaries, tough at the same time, several parts of the book are written in a style reminiscent of popular adventure novels that were common in the ancient Roman Empire, of which some fragments are preserved.

For example, during his travels to Ethiopia and India Apollonius confronted strange animals; fish spreading their fins likes peacocks and which could only be caught by kings, parti-coloured people who were white at the top of their bodies and black below, wild donkeys with horns on their forehead, as well as large herds of white deer foraged by shepherds. Some of these animals could of course have been rhinoceros and reindeer, though their appearance indicate that they were borrowed from other fantastic tales, where they were a common feature.  Apollonius also visited enormous waterfalls, which roaring was so powerful that it blew the eardrums of his companions and in India he met Brahmins who floated freely in the air.

The great wisdom that Apollonius was said to possess seems mostly to be constituted by his ability to predict the future and that he was a clairvoyant. Likewise, the wisdom of the Brahmins he met in India fail to impress the reader, as does the one of the "naked philosophers" in Egypt. Apollonius did not fail to point out to everyone he met how unusually wise he was and he was received with great respect by all the Roman emperors who reigned during his ninety years long life and they were all impressed by Apollonius´ sound advice and great candour.

Obviously did the biography that Philostratus wrote in the early 200's become very popular and early on Apollonius was compared with Jesus. It was said that he was divinely conceived, though in the book it is actually his birth that is somewhat strange. Unlike Jesus Apollonius came from a wealthy family, though he gave away his inheritance to his brothers. Like Jesus, Apollonius walked around with a group of disciples, but over a much larger area. He visited metropoles like Rome, Alexandria, Babylon, Antioch and Ephesus and everywhere he was favourably received by wealthy and influential people. He distinguished himself by not sacrificing live animals, only sleep in temples, being a strict vegetarian, wearing his hair long, being dressed in strange clothes and wearing sandals of his own making. All this suggests that Apollonius was not a hippie-like personality, but rather the follower of a Pythagorean sect. Like Jesus, who preferred to call himself "Son of Man" and often was mentioned in connection with his home village of Nazareth, Apollonius always wanted to be addressed as "the man of Tyana." Although Philostratus wrote his book while the Christian presence was growing within the Roman Empire, he does not mention the Christian sect and it does not seem as if he knew of any similarities between Jesus and Apollonius. Philostratus wrote his book at the request of Julia Domna, wife of the emperor Septimus Severus and Apollonius of Tyana seems even then (about a hundred years after his death) to have been worshiped as a god in many parts of the Roman Empire, mainly in Asia Minor.

Apollonius did perform several miracles, but as Philostratus retells most of them it appears as if he regarded Apollonius more as a knowledgeable and attentive doctor than a miracle worker. For example, while in Rome Apollonius stopped a funeral procession that carried a dead woman on a stretcher. He asked the mourners to put down the stretcher and intently observed the deceased before he bowed down and whispered something in her ear. Philostratus commented: "He may have seen a spark of life in her which her doctors had not noticed, since apparently it was drizzling and steam was coming from her face." Similarly it seems like Apollonius behaved like Pasteur when he encountered a rabid boy. Apollonius sent off one of his disciples in search of the dog that had bitten the boy and when the rabid beast had been captured he forced it to lick the boy's wounds and he was thus cured of the deadly disease. Like in the case of Jesus it was alleged that Apollonius resurrected. After he had been presumed dead Apollonius suddenly appeared among his disciples, though Philostratus states that no one knew where Apollonius had gone after he had disappeared after being acquitted in a trial preceded by the emperor Domitian and it was generally assumed that he had died.

After reading Philostratus, by all means a quite amusing book, I cannot understand how it could be taken so seriously that it was even spread to counter the increasingly popular Christian Gospels. The enlightened and tolerant Emperor Julian, called the Apostate because he in 362 abolished Christianity as state religion and declared full religious freedom in the entire Empire, privately proclaimed that Philostratus´ biography of Apollonius was superior to the Gospels. Something that is hard to agree with, though several church fathers devoted themselves thereafter to violent attacks on both Julian and Apollonius.

Girard makes to the latter's advantage an interesting comparison between Apollonius and Jesus, something which it may be interesting to elaborate on now when Pope Francis has declared that during this year we especially should contemplate Misericordia, compassion. Girard emphasizes that the idea of ​​scapegoating and violence are just as vivid now as before, and that we must constantly be on our guard against their disruptive impact:

…  it is now evident that the transfer of the goodness is in our days is becoming ever weaker, more sporadic and fleeting, moreover it is scorned by the intellectuals, while transfer of the evil has a tremendous strength and is seldom condemned, other than in exceptional cases. There is a continuous vicious transfer and no question of criticizing it, it would even be immoral to do so: it is the ideological opponent, it is the class enemy, it is their parents' generation, it is our incompetent politicians, the ethnic minorities, the rioters, etc.

It is in this context that Girard pays homage to Jesus, comparing him with Apollonius of Tyana. According to Girard, Apollonius acted as a skilled demagogue. It was the leading community members of Ephesus who sought him out and ask him to speak to the people in, who found themselves in a state of exalted panic while facing an approaching plague. It was important to reassure the citizens that they had to calm down, to induce them to act in common and in a focused manner. Apollonius achieved this by finding a scapegoat, a beggar outside the community. Through a joint act of murder everyone got involved and united in something that could be either a crime or a redemptive act, regardless of what Apollonius ingenious action welded people together and lightened up their panicky mood. The ultimate responsibility rested with Apollonius, a person who had been asked to act on the community´s behalf and by its members been provided with the power and authority to advise them. In Philostratus´ narrative Apollonius conduct appeared as laudable. He succeeded in his attempt to unite and help the Ephesians and deliver themselves from their crippling anxiety and inefficiency. What was missing was compassion.

By introducing compassion as a beacon of human actions Jesus turns around the entire idea about atonement and scapegoats by introducing compassion as an essential human trait:

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you visited me.´ Then the righteous will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave thee drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? 'The King will answer them, 'Truly, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. "(Matthew 25: 34- 40)

In the Gospels Jesus never defined his own death as a sacrifice, instead he considered his suffering and death to be mankind's salvation. According to Girard, in the Gospel of God human collective violence is countered by a forgiving love. Proclaiming that God is on the side of the victims, is Christianity's central message. The official Church has too long been preaching a misinterpreted view of Jesus' death - as if it had been a sacrifice to a God who requested blood sacrifices. Jesus saw himself as a human scapegoat, not as the sacrifice to a touchy God. He did not die for a merciless father who demanded the sacrifice of his own son, he died for the sake of all humans. Like the beggar in Ephesus, Jesus was sacrificed for the people and by the people.

The surest way to miss the link between the cure (the crucifixion and its consequences) and the disease (the violent form of sacrifice that humankind hitherto had indulged in) is to read the Passion as a detective story, a search for the culprit and then accuse him, or them - Judas, God, Pilate, the entire Jewish people, the high priests or the Romans. The debt is thus moved away from the entire humankind and attached to a certain group, or a few individuals, and the search for scapegoats can start all over again, as if nothing had happened, as if the act of Jesus had not changed anything.

In his excellent book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ Reza Aslan depicts Jesus as a militant opponent to the temple priests´ power and wealth, based on the fact that they on behalf of the people executed, controlled and enriched themselves through the bloody animal sacrifices, which took place in the temple of Jerusalem, under the auspices of a foreign occupying power. Through his "cleansing" of the temple, Jesus made a direct attack on this power monopoly.

Girard depicts Jesus as a man firmly on the victims' side, as an advocate for compassion. Those who in one of Jesus' parables indifferently passes by a severely injured and robbed victim, laying pleading in the dust of the roadside, are a temple priest and a Levite, both people who thrived through the temple´s monopoly on animal sacrifices and all the profit it generated. The injured man was eventually saved by a Samaritan, a marginalized individual who belonged to a group which accepted and adhered to the Jewish scriptures, following their rules, but was nevertheless by the religious establishment considered to be impure and reprehensible since its members did not accept the temple priests´ power and the sacrifices conducted within the realm of Jerusalem´s temple.

Jesus was the complete opposite of Apollonius of Tyana. Instead of arranging and incite a lynch mob, he did everything to prevent the lynching of a woman taken in adultery. When an angry mob headed by a group of scribes brought a woman to Jesus and asked: "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" he did not answer them, but instead bent down and began to make drawings on the ground in front of him, this while the excited crowd surrounded him, impatiently waiting for what he had to say. Contrary to the Ephesians in Philostratus´ history, who in the beginning kept a peaceful stance, opposing the lynching recommended by Apollonius, it is in Jesus' case an aggressive mob who has dragged the accused woman to him.

The literary scholar René Girard states that the detail of Jesus' making drawings in the dust enhances the scene´s realism, increasing its credibility. By not directly responding to and becoming antagonized by its hostility Jesus´ aloof behaviour serves to calm down the aggressive crowd, while people expectantly await his response. Only after the blood-thirsty fanatics have persisted with their question, Jesus looks up from the ground and says: "Whoever is without sin cast the first stone at her." Then he stooped down again and resumed his drawing. Note that in Philostratus´ history it was the victim´s "sudden penetrating gaze" which aroused the wrath of the mob, while Jesus consciously avoided meeting the bystanders’ irate glances. He remained calm, he did not provoke them and instead of addressing them as a group he becomes personal - without singling out an individual through looks and gestures he nevertheless succeeds in awakening the conscience of each person by indicating her/his personal responsibility - compassion, Misericordia.

After the crowd had dispersed Jesus was left alone with the woman before him. Jesus looked up and said to her: "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’" She replied: "No one, sir." Jesus stated: “Neither do I condemn you. Now go and sin no more.”

A powerful and poignant scene that the official Church on several occasions tried to discredit and stamp as false. But, thankfully, it has not succeeded in its intent. Early on it was discovered that the story, found only in the Gospel of John, was different from the surrounding text. Of the 1 476 Greek manuscripts including the Gospel of John, which have survived to our time, the text is missing in 267 of them. However, already in the early third century the text was quoted by several Christian writers and some of them even suggested that it had been censored out from the other gospels as well as it had been excluded from several copies of the Gospel of John. In 420, Augustine of Hippo was upset by the fact that scribes had fiddled with the Bible texts, a fate that had especially befallen the section about the "adulteress":

Certain persons of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, fearing, I suppose, lest their wives should be given impunity in sinning, removed from their manuscripts the Lord's act of forgiveness toward the adulteress, as if he who had said, Sin no more, had granted permission to sin.

Despite all its shortcomings, Christian written tradition succeeded in preserving this key text, and I cannot avoid paying tribute to the, as yet, amazingly gifted and good pope because he has had the courage to, in these troubled times, to highlight what I assume is the core of Christianity's message - Compassion.

 

Azlan, Reza (2013) Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus Christ. London: The Westbourne Press. Barry, Peter (1995) Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester: Manchester University Press. Esposito, Roberto (2015) ”Addio René Girard l’ultimo degli umanisti” in La Repubblica, 6 november. Freud, Sigmund (2011) Totem and Taboo. New York: Dover Publications. Freud, Sigmund (2010) Moses and Monotheism. Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books. Freud, Sigmund (1962) Civilization and its Discontents. New York: Norton. Girard, René (1987) Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World: Research undertaken in collaboration with J.-M. M Ougbourlian and G. Lefort. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Girard, René (2001) I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll: Orbis Books. Knust, Jennifer Wright (2007) "Early Christian Re-Writing and the History of the Pericope Adulterae", in International Review of Biblical StudiesVolume 53 2006-2007. Lyotard, Jean Francois (1979) The Postmodern Condition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Marx, Karl (1992) “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law. Introduction” in Karl Marx, Early Writings. London: Penguin Classics. Piña Chan Román (1978) Quetzalcóatl: Serpiente plumada. México D.F.: Fondo Cultura Economica. Philostratus (1970) Life of Apollonius. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. Vidal, Gore (1992) Julian: A Novel. New York; Vintage Books. Wittgenstein, Ludwig (2001) Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. 

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