The ‘Winnowed’ and ‘Gathered’ Community: Reading John 11:45-53 in Light of Mimetic Theory

This paper was presented at the College Theology Society Annual Meeting at Iona College on June 4 2011 in the section Spirituality: Contemporary Conversations with Classic Texts.

On my first visit to the Holy Land, I often found myself wanting to linger over sites after the tour guide moved on. One time, after the guide showed us how ancient farmers would winnow grain, I succumbed to my desire and let the guide move on to the next site so that I could try my hand at the ancient practice of winnowing. I picked up a two-pronged shovel, stabbed the pile of wheat, tossed a shovel-full of grain into the air and then caught it again after letting the wind wash away the chaff. Although I knew the image of winnowing was used in Scripture, I had no idea that the image was used to convey the goal of Christ’s death, offering deeper insight into the cross and thereby challenging potentially violent interpretations of the cross and the New Testament as a whole.

My visit to the Holy Land was an attempt to reconcile my commitment to Christ with the Jewish heritage that I inherit from my father. Two major obstacles to this reconciliation for me have been anti-Semitic readings of Scripture (especially in John) and an Anselmian understanding of the cross (in which Christ dies to appease the wrath of God). Both of these readings have been used throughout church history to legitimate and justify litanies of violence, specifically the violent scapegoating of Jews. The historical conflict between Christianity and Judaism reflects a conflict within me and, by offering a reading of John that challenges potentially violent readings, I seek to alleviate the discord and encourage the conversation between the two faith traditions both in the discourse of comparative theology and in my own Christian spirituality.

In this paper, I will present a new insight into the cross by reading John 11:45-53 in light of mimetic theory as articulated by Rene Girard, Michael Kirwan, S. Mark Heim and James Alison. I will show how the death of Christ winnows away the “chaff” that is violent scapegoating and gathers together the dispersed children of God around the forgiving victim, who makes us truly and peacefully one. My initial question was what can John 11:45-53 teach us about atonement theory and Christian anti-Semitism? In mimetic theory, I came to see a way of understanding the cross that challenges these violent readings and can begin to reconcile these two faith traditions. So what is mimetic theory?

Understanding Mimetic Theory: In studying the works of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Proust and Cervantes, the literary theorist René Girard discovered a pattern of behavior, marked by desire and violence. He began to see all desire as mimetic (imitative), rejecting the romantic notion that individuals desire purely of their own accord. “The fact is,” Kirwan explains, “people do not know what they want—therefore they imitate the desire of others.”[1]  The mimetic desire becomes problematic when two people (or two groups of people) desire to acquire something (or someone) which cannot be readily shared (for example, a sexual partner).  Such desire leads to mimetic rivalry, creating conflict and potential violence.

The rivalry can be temporarily placated by redirecting the cause of the problem onto an innocent person or group of people in what Girard calls the ‘scapegoat mechanism.’ Within this mechanism, the scapegoat is violently expelled or destroyed thus restoring peace and harmony between the two rivals. However, this peace and harmony is always temporary and the violent origin of the community festers. In order to prevent future chaos and violent pandemonium, the community must re-enact the violent expulsion of the scapegoat sometimes literally and sometimes metaphorically in the form of ritual in order to restore the harmony. Girard argues that this recurring violent mechanism sits (often secretly) at the root and origin of all communities. According to Girard, all communities survive because of the violent expulsion or murder of the scapegoat. He also sees this mechanism at work in religious communities, most blatantly in systems of animal and human sacrifice. However, in the Christ of the Gospels, Girard sees a divine response to the human scapegoat mechanism that creates space for a new community that is no longer dependent on scapegoats.

Applying Mimetic Theory: “You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (John 11:50). From the historical-critical perspective, Caiaphas and the other authorities appear concerned that Jesus will unite too many Jews in a resistance movement. From the perspective of mimetic theory, another angle is offered for interpretation, which reveals the high priest temporarily placating rivals by scapegoating an innocent victim. In this scenario, the “rivals” are legion: the Jewish authorities, the Roman authorities, the Jewish followers of Jesus, and the Jews who reject Jesus. All these groups mimetically desire power. And the only way they know how to attain power is through violence.[2]. So when Jesus refuses to participate in the rivalry for power through violence and incarnates a new way to be in the world, he makes himself a perfect target for Caiaphas to scapegoat. Caiaphas sees Jesus as the key to turning the “All against all” situation into an “All against one” situation. The rival groups can unite against Jesus, thus maintaining peace and preventing an all-against-all war. Thanks to Caiaphas, the rival groups do unite against Jesus and the nation is saved from Roman destruction, at least temporarily. Here, we can see why Michael Kirwan claims, “Girard’s fundamental anthropology is a reflection upon [this] single biblical citation.”[3] Caiaphas applies the scapegoat mechanism effectively to mimetic rivalry in order to postpone pandemonium. However, the anthropological reflection on the pericope continues, inviting the reader into theological reflection.

The Winnowed and Gathered Community (dieskorpismena): He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God [4] (John 11:51-52). Caiaphas can only postpone what he seeks to prevent altogether: the destruction of the Jewish temple. “As a normal, sacrificial scapegoat,” Heim explains, “Jesus died for all those in the tense community of Roman-occupied Jerusalem whose peace might be at least temporarily maintained by charging him with responsibility for their divisions.”[5] In this sense, as “a normal, sacrificial scapegoat,” Jesus dies for the nation. If this were the end of the story, then the death of Jesus would merely serve as a temporary hindrance to the Roman attack on the Jewish temple and people. The Romans will destroy the temple in some forty years.

The Gospel author highlights that Jesus died not for the nation only. Fortunately, the death of Jesus proves to be much more than just another sad scapegoat sacrifice at the violent hands of mimetic rivals. According to the Gospel, Jesus dies to gather into one the dispersed children of God. The Greek word for “dispersed” is διεσκορπισμένα (dieskorpismena) from the verb διασκορπίζω (dieskorpitso), which means “to scatter abroad” or “to winnow [grain].”[6] Winnowing grain, as I learned and practiced outside of Jerusalem, involves throwing a portion of grain over a considerable distance or up into the air so that it separates from the chaff. Part of winnowing also involves gathering the “winnowed,” chaff-free grain together. The fourth Evangelist is using the imagery and language of “winnowing” to describe this new kind of community.

Jesus knowingly and willingly steps into the violent mechanism of scapegoating that Caiaphas was utilizing in order show us the mechanism and free us from it and its violence. By stepping into our sick mechanism, Christ shows us the “chaff” that contaminates our community. And the “chaff” is not the scapegoat. Rather, the “chaff” is the violent scapegoating that forms the community. If the community depends on violent scapegoating in order to survive and supposedly thrive, then the community is no community at all. The community is “dispersed” and “up in the air.” Christ shows us our “chaff,” which Heim calls “our ancient machinery of unity,” and then invites us to get rid of it.[7] In Heim’s words, Jesus uses “a kind of divine judo move,” defeating the violent mechanism by re-directing its force and weight.[8] The community is not formed by the suffering of an innocent scapegoat, instead the community is formed and we are reconciled “because, at the cost of suffering, God offered us an alternative to our ancient machinery of unity.”[9]

The winnowing fork that Christ wields is the miraculous act of the resurrection. In the act of the resurrection, Christ “reaches us in the midst of our captivity to [our violent mechanism], and provides us the means for a new and different life—community without scapegoats.”[10] In the act of the resurrection, Christ separates the wheat from the chaff so that we can see the chaff in all its horror, and at the same time, begin to see the life-giving grain, the community that is no longer dependent upon violent scapegoating.

In this new community, reconciliation takes place without scapegoating. In fact, reconciliation now takes on a whole new revolutionary meaning: “To be reconciled with God is to recognize victims when we see them, to convert them from the crowd that gathers around them, and to be reconciled with each other without them.”[11] The dispersed children of God are gathered into one, not by scapegoating but by accepting God’s forgiveness for our scapegoating and recognizing God in the victim of the old violent mechanism. By using the imagery of “winnowing,” the Evangelist invites us to see the chaff-free grain as a symbol of a new violent-free community, a community that is no longer dependent on violence. The grain that is free from chaff, therefore, represents the community that can now be free from scapegoating.

The Greek work διεσκορπισμένα (dieskorpismena) could also be translated as “separated” or even “isolated.” The death of Jesus invites all those who are isolated, separated, and caught up in the viciousness of mimetic rivalry to enter into a new kind of community that requires no violent scapegoating and calls members to stand on God’s side which is the side of the victim.

Gathering around the Forgiving Victim in the Eucharist (sunagogay): New Testament scholar James Alison describes this community as uniquely “one,” because it is not founded by violent scapegoating.[12] Alison’s description resonates with that of the Fourth Evangelist, who emphasizes the true unity of the community: to gather into one (John 11:52). Furthermore, Alison elaborates on the fourth Evangelist’s imagery of gathering. “The principal way,” Alison asserts, “by which all this is kept alive in our midst is: the [E]ucharist.”[13] In his commentary on the fourth Gospel, Raymond Brown sees the Evangelist’s imagery in 11:52 echoing “the terminology of the eucharistically oriented multiplication of the loaves (6:13) where the fragments are gathered together.[14] Brown also points out similar language in Chapter 9 of the Didache, concerning the Eucharistic prayer: “Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom.”[15] So according to Alison and perhaps the Evangelist as well, this new community is founded upon the Eucharist. “The real presence of Jesus in the eucharist,” Alison explains, “is the real presence of the crucified and risen Lord, giving himself…making possible the conversion of those who participate.”[16]

In the Eucharist, we have a life-changing encounter with the forgiving victim who is Christ.[17] Our encounter with the forgiving victim transforms us by “undoing” us, by winnowing away our “chaff,” by dismantling our “ancient machinery of unity.” In the Eucharist, the children of God gather together to encounter the forgiving victim, and in doing so, become “one” in a way that all other so-called “communities” cannot. All other so-called “communities” survive over against others, at the expense of scapegoats. Such communities are contaminated with chaff. The Eucharist-centered community becomes truly one by being winnowed of violence through life-changing encounters with the forgiving victim in the Eucharist. Alison sees this encounter as the only way for an individual and community to break free from the violent mechanism. The Eucharist gives us the self-giving victim who does not accuse us but forgives us and invites us into the scapegoat-free community. Our encounter with the forgiving victim starts to undo our violence so that we can be a truly unified community.

In light of this understanding, Anselm’s theory of substitutionary atonement appears detrimental to the formation of the scapegoat-free community. With its emphasis on violence, Anselm’s theory ought to be seen as part of the “chaff” that the death/resurrection of Christ winnows away. By interpreting John 11:45-53 in light of mimetic theory, we see a powerful new perspective of the cross emerge.

Returning to the meaning-packed phrase “gathered into one,” let us note that the Greek word for “gather” is συναγάγῃ (sunagogay), the same word used today and historically for Jewish houses of prayer: “synagogues.” As the Gospel reveals a new way of being community (when seen through the lens of mimetic theory), the word “gather” (synagogue) convicts the contemporary Christian reader with the church’s participation in the violent scapegoating of the Jewish people, revealing the church’s tragic failure to live up to and into the scapegoat-free community. Adopting this new way of seeing the cross helps the church to begin the hard work of eliminating anti-Semitism in New Testament interpretation. Anti-Semitism is now seen as a falling back into the ancient machinery of scapegoating violence, thus missing the point of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. Furthermore, Heim points out that Christian anti-Semitism “is not just wrong, but perfectly and diabolically wrong. It makes the very best into the very worst. It makes the revelation against scapegoating the excuse for scapegoating. It does to Jews what was done to Jesus.”[18] We can see that “chaff” still contaminates the Christian community in the form of anti-Semitism.

Both anti-Semitism and Anselm’s atonement theory have historically dominated interpretations of the cross, helping to intensify and even sanctify violence throughout history. After analyzing the significant pericope in John’s Gospel, a path has been lit, penetrating these two dark shadows of Christian interpretation. Mimetic theory has provided a lens by which to read the text, thus providing a new way of understanding the cross, inviting the reader to enter into a scapegoat-free community. The movement from the ancient machinery of unity into the winnowed and “gathered” community will prove challenging and sometimes slow. A great deal of work has to be undone, just as we need to be undone in our encounters with the forgiving victim in the sacrament of the Eucharist. The history of anti-Semitism in the church must be confronted in order to move forward. With this new understanding, the reader sees that God is on the side of the victim and the great victim in church history has been the Jews. If our encounter with the forgiving victim in the Eucharist is to mean anything in our lives it will mean siding with the victim and working to dismantle mechanisms that create victims, especially Christian anti-Semitism. In our encounter with the forgiving victim, Christ breaks our heart for all victims of the violent scapegoating mechanism. And when we side with the victims we side with God.

My visit to the Holy Land several years ago was an attempt to reconcile my commitment to Christ with the Jewish heritage that I inherit from my father. Although I did not know it at the time, when I winnowed grain just outside of Jerusalem I was enacting an image that the Fourth Gospel uses to convey how Christ’s death and resurrection gathers together the dispersed children of God into one, creating a community “winnowed” of violent scapegoating. With this understanding of the cross, I see not only the imperative to dismantle anti-Semitic readings of the New Testament and to challenge a violent theory of atonement but I also see the foundation for a reconciliation of differences between Judaism and Christianity both within the field of comparative theology and within my own Christian Spirituality. I see an interpretation that takes the parts of me that feel dispersed and “up in the air” and gathers them together peacefully as one.

 


[1] Michael Kirwan S.J. Discovering Girard (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2005), 19.

[2] The Jews who reject Jesus do so because Jesus fails to meet their messianic expectations: he does not overthrow Rome through violence. The Jewish followers of Jesus also seek to attain power through violence and are at a loss when Jesus refuses to do so. The Roman authorities have achieved power through violence, but are constantly working to maintain the power, especially when it comes to the Jews. Although the rivalry is intense among these groups, they all agree on attaining power through violence.

[3] Ibid, 72.

[4] Now Girard holds that communities, cultures, religions and civilizations are founded and built upon the scapegoat mechanism. The anthropological significance of the pericope deepens when one considers how the scapegoating of Jesus formed the foundation of the Christian religion, the faith communities of the Church, the cultures and the civilization of the West. The death of Jesus did more than just postpone the destruction of the Jewish temple and nation. Perhaps Jesus died “not for the nation only” but to form a foundation upon which millions of people “gather into one” as “children of God.” However, instead of serving as a mammoth scapegoat for Western civilization, the death of Jesus, according to Girard and neo-Girardians, did much more.

[5] Heim, S. Mark. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 306.

[7] Heim, 320.

[8] Ibid, 314.

[9] Ibid, 320. “This act,” Heim continues, “reaches us in the midst of our captivity to sin, and provides us the means for a new and different life—community without scapegoats.”[9] Yet how does the death of Jesus do all this undermining and dismantling of the scapegoat mechanism? Why could not other previous scapegoats do the same thing?  The answer is the resurrection. According to Heim, “Resurrection vindicates the victim, and makes him a living witness against the process that sacrificed him…A new community seeks peace by remembering what hitherto communities generally united by forgetting. The powers of sacrifice from now on must contend with a permanently visible victim, a fact that will steadily but irrevocably have its effect.”[9]

[10] Heim, 321.

[11] Heim, 329.

[12] The community is “one because it has the unique foundation of the unique self-giving victim.” James Alison O.P. Knowing Jesus (Springfield, Illinois: Templegate Publishers, 1994), 85.

[13] Ibid, 85.

[14] Brown continues, “The passage of the Didache (9:4) joins echoes of John 6:13 and 11:52, and thus implicitly shows that the related themes of Johannine ecclesiology and sacramentalism are no figments of the modern imagination.” Raymond Brown S.S. The Gospel According to John (i-xii). The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), 443.

[16] Alison, 85

[17] Ibid.

[18] Heim, 210.

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