BOOK REVIEW: Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross. By Robert Hamerton-Kelly. Fortress Press, 1992.

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 1, 1997 - Pages 127-131

Not since the days of Bultmann’s challenge to “demythologize” has there been anything like the commotion over Rene Girard’s attempt to reformulate New Testament theology. Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s book Sacred Violence is the best exposition of the Girardian approach applied to the theology of Paul.[1] Kelly sees Paul’s theology of the cross as a revelation of “sacred violence”; that is, by viewing the death of Christ, Paul’s eyes are opened and the crucifixion reveals to him that all religion is based on violence along with the dissipation of violence by rituals of sacrifice. Paul’s rejection of the Law of Moses is not based on a criticism of “works of the law” per se, but is a rejection of all organized religion because of its implication in murder and scapegoating.

Violence had been an essential part of Paul’s life as a zealous persecutor of Christians. When he awakened to see sacred murder from the point of view of the victim, he then renounced his ancestral religion and joined the community of victims who held that the Cross of Christ is a decoding of the system of religion. To be baptized is to be co-crucified with Christ and means a renunciation of all bogus sacrificial language, including doctrines such as: Christ’s death is a sacrifice for the sins of the world and “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”[2]

For Girardians, Jesus’ death was the murder of an innocent young man in order to promote public safety. The high priest, Caiaphas, says as much, “It is expedient for you that one person die and not the whole people perish.” (John 11:50) Jesus himself knew about Girardianism when he said:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, for you build monuments of the prophets and decorate the tombs of the righteous, while you say, “If we had been there in the days of our forefathers, we would not have been like them, partakers of the blood of the prophets.” In this you testify against yourselves, because you are the sons of them that killed the prophets. So fill up with the measure of your fathers. (Matt 23:29-32)

This passage perfectly illustrates the ”double transference” of Girardian theory: first the victims carry in themselves the violence of the social system and then they are sanctified as holy because of the consequences, peace and safety, which come with their demise.[3] In the case of Jesus both images of the double transference are plain: he bears the sins and brutality of the whole world (1 John 2:2) and in so doing becomes deified as the divine agent who was “sent from God” (John 3:16). This traditional kerygma is also reflected in Paul’s writings: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3) and “God sent his son…” (Gal 4:4).

The Girardians, however, argue that the Cross of Christ is an anti-sacrifice because the victim is sent here, not driven out into the wilderness, and in dying the victim unveils violence at the heart of the social order. Typical of the Girardian standpoint is Kelly’s exegesis of Gal 3:13, “Christ bought us off from the curse of the Law by becoming accursed for your sake, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs upon a tree.’” He interprets the passage to say that Christ enters on our behalf the human (not divine) realm of vengeance:

The mendacity of the double transference which identifies human violence as divine becomes inescapably evident when the “divine” vengeance falls on Jesus, because it punished the one person who had truly fulfilled God’s will of mutual love.[4]

Christ is not seen as a type of Torah sacrifice, but as an example of scapegoating. The proper starting place to understand Pauline theology, then, is that “Christ is the end of Law” (Rom 10:4) and the beginning of a new community of righteousness. Paul’s teaching of the second Adam is also a rejection of systemic greed and vengeance—“mimetic rivalry,” to use the Girardian term, and an opening to a life of “abundance of grace and righteousness” (Rom 5:17).[5]

The cross of Christ, in this new theology, stands for a deconstruction of all religious myth and ritual, at least that of the Western world.[6] It is the negative moment which Paul applies to tradition to open the road to freedom in a society where people have acquired understanding of their origins. Kelly quotes Othello in the last act of the play of that name: “Thou makest me call what I intend to do, a ‘murder,’ which I thought a ‘sacrifice.’” Othello would kill Desdemona over a question of chastity. He thinks the murder will act like a sacrifice and reinforce the divine moral order, but in the play the myth of sacrifice is unveiled before all of us. “Sacrifice” is shown for what it is, a euphemism for murder, because people who sacrifice for the cause only know one way to behave: obedience. This, of course, revives social order, even if war, murder, and poverty are the consequences of sacrifice.

Can the sacrificial language of the New Testament and the theology of the Cross, so prominent in Paul, be decoded and re-understood as a negation of all violence in religious myth and ritual? The Girardian interpretation of Job is that here is a man who said no to scapegoating. His friends gather around and tell him, “Curse God and die.” But Job refuses to die and continues to proclaim his innocence.

In line with Girard’s challenge, I asked my Pauline Seminar, “Did Christ come to die on the Cross?” What of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, were they willing martyrs or did they pay good money for guards? My seminary students were divided on the topic of vicarious suffering and atonement. Most respect theology’s traditional answer that it was in the will of God that Christ should suffer and redeem some favored individuals. This answer, however, is being repudiated today by prominent theologians, both Catholic and Protestant.

Professor William Thompson, a highly respected Jesuit scholar in Chicago, in his recent work, The Struggle for Theology’s Soul argues that the doctrine of substitutionary redemption favored by Luther is not “necessary for the Christian faith, since it is neither strictly biblical nor credal.”[7] Bradley McLean, a Protestant at the University of Toronto, claims that there is not one instance in Paul’s writings of the doctrine of Christ’s death modeled on Jewish ideas of sacrifice.[8] McLean concludes that Paul did not view Christ’s death in terms drawn from Judaism but rather was influenced by Near Eastern ideas of scapegoating. For this model he coins the word “scapeman.”[9]

The evidence from Paul, however, is not unanimous. He writes, “Our Passover is sacrificed for us, that is, Christ.” (1 Cor 5:7) Also, he understands Christ’s death to be necessary, “according to the scriptures” in 1 Cor 15:3, and in accord with obedience to the divine will: “he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, the death of the Cross.” (Phil 2:8) However, apart from 1 Cor 5:7 noted above, the Greek word for “sacrifice,” qusia, with reference to Christ only occurs in Paul’s letters at Ephesians 5:2, a disputed letter.[10]

But careful consideration of the matter seems to show the Pauline doctrine of atonement to be a perfect example of a new religion inventing its own myth and ritual out of typical staples of violence. Baptism is “dying with Christ”; “are you ignorant that all we who were baptized unto Christ Jesus were baptized unto his death?” (Rom 6:3) The Holy Communion ritual commends the sacred violence visited upon the obedient servant of Isaiah 53,[11] “On the night in which he was betrayed… he took the cup saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’” (1 Cor 11:23-25) Certainly traditional Catholic doctrine, with its promotion of the mass as a daily sacrifice offered up to God, carries the marks of sacred violence. It should be noted, however, that Paul’s interpretation of Holy Communion is primarily commemorative: “This do in remembrance of me,” and then eschatological, “for as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death, til he come again.” (1 Cor 11:25-26) The idea of this ritual as death-dealing is present in 1 Cor 10:16-22, “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” and 1 Cor 11:30, “for this reason many among you are sick, and not a few have died.”

It has been noted by many that Paul after his conversion seems not to have renounced much of his feelings toward sacred violence.[12] He seems to have looked forward with satisfaction to the wrath of God coming down upon Judea.

You, brethren, became imitators of the churches of God which are in Judea in Christ Jesus, for you also suffered the same things of your own countrymen that they suffered of the Jews, who both killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets. And drove us out, and are contrary to all men… but the wrath of God is come upon them to the uttermost. (1 Thess 2:14-16)

Hamerton-Kelly admits that Paul did not carry through with his project of decoding sacred violence. Unable to suppose that “God could cast off his people” (Rom 11:1), Paul answers by inventing the myth that Israel has become an instrument of God to provoke the Gentiles to jealousy: “I say then, ‘Did they (Israel) stumble so they should fall?’ God forbid! But by this fall, salvation came to the Gentiles to provoke them (Israel) to jealousy.” (Rom 11:11) What does this do but turn Israel into a scapegoat for the convenience of the new religion? Unable to see Israel as one of many exponents of sacred violence, because of “nostalgia,”[13] Paul finds their destiny to be victims of divine election. They are to become like Esau and Pharaoh: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated (Mal 1:2). … for the scripture says to Pharaoh, ‘for this very purpose I raised you up, that I might show in thee my power…’” (Rom 9:13, 17)

Can Unification theology adapt itself to Girardianism? A revised Girardianism might be the better product. To see Christianity itself as a vehicle of violence with Jesus as both martyr and deified victim is absolutely consistent Girardianism, with none of the excuses for Paul’s nostalgia or the anti-Semitism of the New Testament writers. Instead of arguing for rehabilitation of the Pauline theology and that of the Johannine school, in which Jesus’ sacrifice at Passover is a blessed event, Unificationism should be true to its origins as devotees of the historical Jesus, the unwilling martyr who asked for swords and a guard to keep him safe in the garden of Gethsemane.



[1] See also Dialog 32 (Fall 1993); the whole issue is a review and critique of Girard with a reply by himself.

[2] Horace: “Sweet and proper it is to die for one’s country”; quoted in Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 84.

[3] See “double transference” in Kelly, pp. 24-29.

[4] Kelly, p. 79.

[5] Reading with Vaticanus and the Sahidic, omitting “the gift of” before “righteousness.”

[6] Eastern religions seem to be immune to the Girardian critique.

[7] W. Thompson, The Struggle for Theology’s Soul (Crossroad, 1995), reviewed by Gerard Sloyan in Horizons 23 (Fall 1996), p. 314.

[8] B. McLean, “The Absence of an Atoning Sacrifice in Paul’s Soteriology”, New Testament Studies 38 (1992), pp. 531-53. McLean means sacrifice according to Old Testament ideas and practices.

[9] Ibid., p. 553.

[10] Paul uses “sacrifice” as a metaphor for Christian living in Rom 12:1, Phil 2:17 and 4:18. Paul also uses the Greek words for “redeem”, agorazw and exagorazw, which can denote a price to buy back a slave, in 1 Cor 6:20 and 7:23, “you were bought with a price,” and in Gal 3:13 and 4:5, where the context is redemption (freedom) from the law, possibly understood as a commercial transaction.

[11] The suffering and obedient servant of Isaiah 53 is not mentioned in Paul’s letters.

[12] See Krister Stendahl, “On Sacred Violence: How to Unmask It and How Not to,” Dialog 32 (Fall 1993), pp. 261-64.

[13] Kelly’s word for Paul’s failure to proceed with deconstruction, p. 138.