This is a concluding reflection for the class “Responding to Human Violence” (John 2:13-22), part of the Lenten series “Beholding the Lamb, Being Held by the Shepherd: Exploring the Question of Suffering in the Gospel of John” taught at St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on Sunday March 11, 2012.
According to Girard, violence emerges from mimetic rivalry (when two people or two groups of people desire something that cannot readily be shared); however, the violence can be placated if two parties agree on a common scapegoat upon whom they can heap all of their anger and vitriol. Girard sees this scapegoat mechanism as the origin of sacred violence, which is practiced in the sacrificial rites of various civilizations, including the ancient Israelites. Girard also sees mimetic rivalry as the root of war and the scapegoat mechanism as the source of temporary peace (at the expense of the lives of innocent victims). The New Testament, according to Girard, exposes and revokes the violent scapegoat mechanism by highlighting the victim of the mechanism as Jesus, who is divine. Jesus’ victimhood to the scapegoat mechanism reveals the truth that God is always on the side of the victim of the universal scapegoat mechanism.
The Jewish Temple sanctioned and embodied this violent scapegoat mechanism. Like other Hebrew prophets before him, Jesus challenged the scapegoat mechanism, which the Temple perpetuated and mandated and made sacred. He did so by enacting and embodying his message with an attention-grabbing act that had potentially political consequences (also in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets). In a sense, his “cleansing” was the embodiment of a message that Isaiah preached 700 years earlier: “‘The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bring meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me’” (Isaiah 1:11-12).
Jesus tries to expose the violent scapegoat mechanism by cleansing the Temple. When asked, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus describes how he will dismantle the scapegoat mechanism by his death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” In other words, Jesus says, “The destructive mechanism at work in this temple will be the same destructive mechanism at work in my death. Just as you contaminate this temple with violent bloodshed so will you contaminate the temple of my body. I will be the temple that you contaminate as well as the victim and scapegoat that you sacrifice. However, I will return from death to forgive you and love you and show you that I am on the side of the victims. I deliberately step into your destructive mechanism in order to dismantle it by love and forgiveness, which I will embody in my resurrection.”
This is how Jesus responds to human violence: by exposing it through his forgiveness. This is the same principle at work in Jesus’ teachings to his disciples on nonviolent resistance in Matthew 5:39-40: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well.” The right cheek presumes a back-handed slap and so turning the other cheek means responding with neither violence nor abjection, thus exposing the violence through forgiveness. And since most people only owned two garments, giving up one’s cloak would mean stripping naked thus uncovering the judiciary injustice. Again, exposing violence through forgiveness.