The Jesus Mystery: Rene Girard (2008)

The following is a sermon that I delivered on Palm Sunday in 2008 at the First Unitarian Church of Worcester, MA.  It is both my condensation of the very provocative thinking of Rene Girard and my thinking of how that applies to the Passion narrative.

The Jesus Mystery

Today, we celebrate Palm Sunday, which marks the entrance of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem.  Crowds of people came out to lay palms before him, as the rode into town on a donkey.  We all know what happens during the next week; there is the Passover meal, now remembered as the last supper and the first communion service, there are teachings and healings.  Jesus confronts those who sold small animals for sacrifice in the Temple,  and then, he is arrested, tried at some late night meetings with officials, and then he is crucified. 
The great mystery of the story, as it is comes down to us is the crime for which Jesus is being executed.  We have the outline of the story, who did what, and what words were said, but it doesn’t seem to add up.  You can go back and re-read every word on the passion of Jesus in the gospels, you will be struck in how little is explained.  It is a great soft spot in the story, and so Christians and non-Christians of the ancient, medieval and modern eras have all rushed in to firm up the narrative, to offer an explanation to this most central question: why was Jesus executed?  For if Jesus has died for our salvation and redemption, it must matter, wouldn’t you think?

The Church through the most of the ancient period up to the modern era, explained crime of Jesus this way: Jesus was born into the flesh of a Jew, but he was really God incarnate, and because he was God, the Jews rejected him, and killed him, as they had killed the prophets before Jesus, because that is the kind of people they are.  Stripped of the supernatural elements, the story that the church told for centuries was that Jesus was a Jewish dissenter, promoting a radical new religion that threatened the Jewish establishment; they saw the reality of that threat, and killed him, and by killing him, brought about the very thing they were trying to prevent: a new religion, open to all believers. 

This explanation has been undercut within the last century.  We know more about the relationship between Rome and Israel. Rome executed people; this the gospel tells us, but what the gospel did not tell us was how many were crucified:  a staggering number that littered the hills with crosses as a brutal empire put down popular resistance to their rule. Scholars now understand how the church split from the synagogue, something that happened much later.  Once we knew that the gospels were not eyewitness accounts, and that the split occurred later, it became clear that this story of Jesus being killed by the Jews because he threatened Judaism just didn’t make any sense.  We have talked about this before here from this pulpit, and I am committed to continuing exploring how this changes our traditional understandings of Christian history. 

But once the Jews-killed-Christ theory is set aside, then a new explanation of the crime of Jesus, and why he was executed  had to account for the fact that he was killed by the Roman authorities.  
Some people have offered the theory that Jesus was a radical revolutionary.  But this theory doesn’t make sense at all.  It wasn’t what he is remembered as teaching – what with that love your enemies, turn the other cheek business.  The movement that he founded, it appears, did not participate in the Jewish Rebellion that culminated in the destruction of the Temple in 66 CE, and you would think that it would have if Jesus was a rebel. 

Now some other people say that he was executed because he was a rebel, but not a military messiah, as people had expected, that he had a more spiritual message.  This makes sense according to what his teachings were, but it doesn’t explain why he was executed, and certainly doesn’t explain why the Romans would execute him. Politicians, and imperial rulers, don’t worry about people who don’t want power.

All of these explanations of the charges against Jesus share a common assumption: that he must have been guilty of something.  That he did something, taught something, thought something that threatened the powers that ruled his society, and they killed him.  They all assume that Jesus was a martyr, who somehow, in some way not clear to us now,  challenged an unjust authority, and paid the ultimate price.  In fact, he laid down his life for his friends, non-violently.  On the one hand, it was unjust, unfair, and an act of tyranny and oppression. On the other hand, if he was a challenge to authority, he, more or less, asked for it. OK, maybe they should have been more tolerant of Him and not so harsh, but that is where the injustice is.  Rome overreacted, the way that oppressive governments always do.  But Jesus did something to provoke that overreaction; he asked for it.  And His example should inspire us to go and ask for it too, as a way to follow Him.  We, too, must figure out what his crime was and screw up our courage to commit the same crime. 

Rene Girard
Rene Girard, the anthropologist, literary critic and religious writer, has another theory.  He argues that Jesus was, in fact, innocent, innocent of all crimes.  Yes, he was a teacher and had a following of men and women who were deeply devout Jews.  Yes, he was unorthodox in some ways.  But that what not what mattered.  Now, Girard is a faithful and surprisingly Orthodox Christian, and so he believes that Jesus was the Christ, the Second Person of the Triune God, Incarnate in Human flesh.  And he has a kind of two layer explanation of the arrest, trial and death of  Christ works on both a natural and supernatural level. 

On the natural level, he explains it like this: Jesus was simply the innocent victim of single victim, scapegoating mechanism that works the world over.  In a culture that is full of stress and strains, filled with conflict and competition and disorder, at a moment of great anxiety, the crowd turns all of its wrath on a single person who becomes their scapegoat. Somewhere in the heat of the moment, one person is accused, and the crowd instantly concurs in that accusation. And where before everyone was fighting against everyone else, all of sudden, there is unity and peace.  Because everyone now agrees that so and so is the cause of all the problems, and that person is killed. 

Rene Girard, the anthropologist, has developed a theory that says that this mechanism, which he calls the single victim mechanism, has been at work all along in the development of human community.  Rene Girard, the religious writer, says this is what happened to Jesus.  He and his followers were caught up in a contagion of accusation and violence; he was accused (perhaps even betrayed by Judas), and essentially railroaded to a death only slightly covered by a cloak of legality.  It had happened to countless thousands, nay millions, before him as humanity created its culture. It happens still. 

The single victim mechanism, though, always creates a myth, and that myth is that the victim deserved it; he was guilty of something.  In primitive times, people saw the activity of the Gods, or that even new Gods were revealed at this moment of scapegoating.  The crowd would turn on the accused one, and later say that it was God who did the deed.

So what was unique about Jesus, if his fate was that of the scapegoat, like millions before him?  Just this.  Jesus’ followers were Jews and had absorbed the Jewish Scriptures.  And in the Jewish scriptures, right there for anyone to see who has eyes to see it, is a developing appreciation of the fact that the scapegoats were actually innocent victims. 

It starts right from the story of Cain and Abel, where the murdered brother is clearly the innocent victim.  Joseph, you know the one of the coat of many colors, who was turned on by his brothers.  They threw him in a pit and left him to die.  Many of the Psalms present the voice of someone who complains that he is surrounded by wicked enemies and is asking how God could let such things happen.  Girard argues that Job is really the victim of his community which has turned against him, and which is saying that God is behind his troubles. In Isaiah, there is the song of the Suffering Servant.  Over and over again,  the Jewish scripture shows people who seem to be scapegoats, and it raises the question: hey what a minute, what are we doing here, perhaps people whom we are seeing as the guilty scapegoats, are actually innocent.
Girard argues that the Jews of 1st century Israel, living under Roman occupation, were undergoing great cultural stress and economic dislocation.  So they were as capable as any human community of releasing their collective anxiety by scapegoating an innocent man.  

But, Girard also argues, that Jewish community of 1st century Israel, was uniquely capable of realizing the truth of what they were doing, and becoming morally self-aware about it.  In short, every culture scapegoats people, but it was the Jews who first saw through were the first to realize that it was wrong.  
But when Jesus was arrested, the disciples were caught up in the contagion of violence and accusation against Jesus.  We are told that Peter, perhaps the closest disciple, denies him three times. 
But somehow, someway, in an event that comes down to us the Resurrection, the disciples detached themselves from the mob, and began to protest and remember.  Instead of continuing with the myth-making, they proclaimed that innocence, an innocent man, had been hung upon the cross and had died.  They insisted on the truth.

And so, the gospel writers insist on Jesus’ innocence.  You see this in the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate at his so-called trial.  Pilate asks him if he is the King of the Jews.  Jesus answers only that is what others are calling him.  In other words, it is a projection. And ultimately, Pilate says that he is innocent, and then asks the immortal question:  What is truth?  It is a cynical question, that reminds us that the mythmaking of the scapegoating does not depend on truth, but on lies and false accusation.  
The reason why the crime of Jesus is such a mystery to us, is that there was no crime at all.  And the gospel writers keep telling us that – in fact, Luke has the Roman soldier at the base of the cross, say:  “Surely, this man was innocent.”  But we keep looking for the crime.

Can I say that the whole history of Christianity has been shaky on this point, and has built theory after theory explaining why Jesus dying on the cross was somehow a good and necessary thing.  Jesus had to have done something, otherwise, how could his death be a part of God’s saving plan for humanity. This is myth-making.

And yet, I believe that humanity was saved in this period that we celebrate now, in this period of 60 some days, between the day that Jesus rides into Jerusalem and the day of Pentecost, when “tongues of fire” came down and rested on the shoulders of the early worshippers. 

For two things happened when the disciples detached themselves from the mythmaking that usually went with scapegoating and victimization.  Two things that echo down to today, and shape our consciousness.

The first was that disciples walked away from collective mythmaking  and insisted on the truth. They had been almost seduced by the mythmaking power of scapegoating.  This is the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus, even pretending to servant girls that he did not know him, as though he was ashamed of him.  But the disciples pulled themselves together and reclaimed the truth – that Jesus was innocent.  Of course, later on, the church succumbs to mythmaking, but by then it has to work with the truth as first remembered.  Wouldn’t it have been so much easier to build a story out of some heroic and dramatic act of defiance on Jesus’ part, but no, what we have this anti-heroic story of humiliation and defeat. 

The story of Jesus’ passion reveals a cold-eyed and unflinching assessment on humanity and human culture. It is about truth; the truth that the same crowds that cheer Jesus on Sunday will call for his crucifixion on Thursday night.  The truth that we build our common solidarity by turning on a victim, through scapegoating and violence.  It  ain’t pretty, but we know that it part of the truth about us.

When we begin our covenant with the phrase, “in the love of truth”, we echo these early disciples, and refute Pilate’s cynical assertion that truth is unknowable and does not matter. 

The second thing that happened then, and it follows from the first.   Those Jewish disciples of Jesus, drawing on their scriptural tradition, brought the innocent victim fully into the consciousness of the world.  This was a genuine turning point in world history.  The gospel story of Jesus echoes through history, and the effect has been to compel humanity to look at every situation from the point of view of the potential victim.  

This is the meaning of the poem by James Wright – that even Judas, on his way to hang himself, had been changed.  He saw an innocent man being victimized by the authorities, and remembering Jesus, he had to go and try to help him.  Wright builds this little Midrash of a story to show how concern for the victim has become second nature to us.  How do we evaluate whether we should go to war with Saddam Hussien – by wondering whether the innocent victims of a war are more or less than the innocent victims of leaving such a government in place.  Or whether the number of potential victims if he had weapons of mass destruction is more or less than the number of victims of a war to disarm them.  

We approach every question from the perspective of who is going to get hurt?  It is this concern that drives us to seek a greater justice and where does this relentless concern come from?  Girard says, and I agree, that it is ultimately rooted in this insistence that Jesus was innocent, and that if you believe it, that God incarnated himself on this earth as an innocent man scapegoated, humiliated, crucified.

So there you have the solution to the Jesus mystery.  There was an accusation, an arrest, a trial, a conviction, a sentencing, and an execution, but there was no crime.  An innocent man had been put to death, had been lynched more or less. It had happened innumerable times before in human history, but this time, this time, praise be to God, someone said “wait a minute.”  Don’t tell us any stories now, don’t make up any myths, stop and look and tell the truth, for that truth will make us free.  


  1. Stephen Cook11:32 PM

    Excellent, Tom; thank you very much. I particularly appreciated you drawing out the ways in which the Jesus community responded differently from the usual and easy road back to comfort--called back from the road to Emmaus perhaps?

    I was always sorry we couldn't convince Berkshire Group, at least while I was with them, to take up Girard one year.


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