Why we crucify

“The Cross alone exposes for the first time the real condition of mankind… [It] is the supreme revelation of the sin of mankind.” – T.F. Torrance, The Doctrine of Jesus Christ, p. 158.

What does the Cross say about the human race?  That we kind of suck?  Yes, but there’s more… Because what we did to Jesus was not unusual behavior for us. Anthropological evidence suggests that the lynch mob is one of THE constant features of all human societies. Isn’t that interesting?

Homo sapiens is the species that crucifies.

Why do we crucify? Because we must.


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At least we think we do.

I submit for your consideration an approach to anthropology called “Mimetic Theory,” which starts with the observation that humans crucify. For anthropologist Rene Girard, this theory arose from an intuition shared by us at TrinityAndHumanity.com — that Jesus on the Cross is the clue to what really makes humans tick.

Mimetic Theory suggests a universal pattern that all human societies follow –– When their social cohesion is threatened by internal conflict, they will resort to scapegoating. They find someone to hate, and that shared hate unifies the community.

It’s the exact opposite of the Trinity.

The Triune Life consists in the mutual self-giving of Father, Son and Spirit. This is THE inner logic of the Divine Life which the incarnate Christ is earthing in the world, the kind of Communion in which each gives one’s whole self for the good of others.

When you flip that perfectly upside-down, you get Scapegoating –– laying down someone else’s life for the benefit of the rest of us. Ultimately, all of human civilization is held together by the logic of none other than Caiaphas the High Priest—“It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (John 11:50).

Girard seeks an understanding of the human race which starts with the inner logic of the Cross. I think he’s onto something.

What do you think?

8 comments so far

  1. John on

    Thanks John
    Great post! We need to live from an emptying of ourselves of violence and scapegoating so that the true power of God may illuminate true reality, the person and work of Jesus, in us.
    A book I struggled through, but enjoyed, was “The Scapegoat” by Girard. Will have to read it again!

    • John Stonecypher on

      I have found Girard challenging as well, but he always makes me think. I don’t take his theory as my lens through which I see everything (Trinity-and-Incarnation is the lens I believe in), but when I try to look at humanity through my Trinity-and-Incarnation lens, I can’t help but think it *matters* that Christ died the way he did. It matters that he was lynched by a mob. Humanity is somehow uniquely revealed in that event.

  2. Stuart Johnson on

    Personally, I think there are too many ifs and maybes in the theory to give adequate consideration as to whether or not it should be introduced into the theological discussion. There are a chain of events in our so called evolutionary past that have to be assumed to have happened such as “They lost some brain space for instinct and traded it for imitation.” There is no way to prove this to be true as with all evolutionary assumptions.

    In regard to the development of sacrifice, here too we find that a chain of events have to have happened to bring about a sacrificial system. There is also no way we can prove this. I find the method of investigation in this theory is as bizarre as the theory of evolution and creationism.

    This is not to dismiss all that Rene Girard proposes. I too support a non-violent view of God. He has introduced some interesting observations of human behaviour. However, the risk is far too great of imposing an anthropological definition onto God in a scholastic manner. Instead of God mediating things of Himself to us by the Spirit, we now have to have a theory mediated to us by human beings. This is the very same problem we face with evangelical theology. We have to be educated on various doctrines foreign to Trinitarian theology before we even get to Christ. As a result Jesus Christ is pushed so far away from the Father that we can no longer see the Father as He truly is in Him. When this happens, then the risk of abuse and manipulation increases. I have found if I ask too many questions, then people will react violently in the social media forum. This is hardly a witness to the so-called policy of non-violence.

    It takes God to know God and without God, God cannot be known. Therefore it is God who must teach us the very things of Himself. Even the very things of Rene Girard have to submit to what God teaches in the Person and work of Jesus Christ. Even Rene Girard can only see Him through a glass darkly. Therefore what we say must be as free from anthropological inference as possible.

    I cannot in all good faith abandon the christological foundation for a controversial theory. I have found, and many of my colleagues would agree, that what we know and how we behave is more intuitive than imitation of desire. This was especially so when I became aware of Jesus Christ. The encounter was totally contrary to all I believed in regard to my anti-Christian position. I knew nothing of the gospel until my encounter. Something inside me was saying, this is true and I paid a huge price by abandoning one so-called truth for THE truth. Then after a few years in the evangelical movement, I intuitively knew that what I had been led to believe was not quite right. Then I was presented with God as Triune and then I intuitively knew this was a proper explanation and reflection of what really happened when I first believed.

    In the New Testament, Jesus statements, “You will know” are directed towards people in a deeply personal way more along the lines, “You will know for yourselves.” This is supported by the New Covenant, “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Hebrews 8:11). Paul often describes the “inner knowing” as a vital component of what it means to be Christian. We know Christ not because of what anyone tells us, but what He personally tells us deep within our being, even giving us the capacity to resist. He has also given us the freedom and space to weigh up any claims made regarding Him without intimidation.

    • John Stonecypher on

      Hi Stuart,

      I’ve said nothing here about this theory impacting how I know God. You and I have pretty similar theology; we’re really not at odds there. I am talking here about how the Cross sheds light on human behavior patterns. Christ is the key that unlocks the secrets of the cosmos. My theology is perfectly okay with the possibility that the manner of Christ’s death might be relevant to non-theological fields of study.

  3. Natasha Oliver on

    I am thinking Girard onto something. Our Triune God came into human
    flesh to make true human without hate
    But His love !

  4. stuijohnson on

    I am inclined to only agree with you John to a point. If what Girard proposes is the empirical norm for human behaviour, then, yes it should be open to consideration. He offers some interesting ideas but does not answer all the questions regarding humans’ tendency towards violence. It is the mystery of our fallen behaviour. If we try and explain this mystery, then we are in danger of justifying it and that should never happen. I believe what Girard proposes should be taken for what it is: a theory, and a controversial one at that. It has not been as widely received as some have claimed.

    You asked to put forward mimetic theory for consideration. This requires considering all points of view for and against. Anthropology begins with Jesus Christ first as the human being par excellence, a humanity we have very little insight into but the fact his humanity is our future hope. What is equally important is we are only scratching the surface of understanding our own fallen condition. Yet, we are held underneath our fallen condition by His everlasting arms of love.

    Our child is autistic. The main feature of her autism is the problem of imitation. This characteristic is regarded as a disability. She will never have the ability to intuitively understand areas of communication, social cues etc. This is on top of her sensory issues. My theory is Rene Girard may have been somewhere on the autistic spectrum. In turn, he has imposed onto his work his autistic interpretation of the world around him. What he describes has many of the hallmarks of autism.

    • John Stonecypher on

      >>”If we try and explain this mystery, then we are in danger of justifying it and that should never happen.”

      You make an excellent point here, my friend, and I heartily agree!

  5. John on

    Jus a few additional thoughts. Natasha, you are onto something! The Incarnation for me is the centre of human history and therefore all human life. Jesus came to set us free from our own delusions by emptying himself and submitting to our violence so that true heavenly kingdom life may in turn be empowered in and for us as our new man. The old man is dead! Who do we side with ? The illusion or the reality? One is violence and death, the latter is emptying and life!
    A current new book I am reading by Bradley Jersak “A more Christlike God”
    has been mind changing.

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