The escalation of militarized violence has reached bewildering levels in the USA. Kelly Denton-Borhaug gives us an important theological response centered on the theme of sacrifice.
First, Denton-Borhaug surveys the militarization of our society which will be an uncomfortable eye-opener for most of us. Recruitment is taking place in our public schools and has infiltrated our computer games which are being more and more designed to train us for real war that is no game—or shouldn’t be.
One of the most disconcerting elements of our society’s militarization is the large number of Christians who are avidly supporting our wars. Denton-Borhaug zeroes in on the rhetoric of sacrifice which she suggests is the keystone of the presidential speeches since 9/11. The sacrifice being made on our behalf by those serving in the military is noble, sanctified. How dare we oppose those who make these great sacrifices? Well, there is the matter of the countless people “over there” who are being sacrificed without having enlisted with the US military for the job. These deaths are countless because the US military does everything it can to prevent counting their deaths.
Denton-Borhaug analyzes the Christian theologies of sacrifice, especially substitutionary atonement, that makes Jesus’ death a sacrifice required by the Father, or at least the cosmos. What has been happening is that political rhetoric is syphoning off the Christian resonances of sacrifice, corralling the sacrifices required of war as if the god of war were the God of Christ. Much of this works on subliminal levels.
Those of us working with the thought of René Girard and his colleagues see ourselves in a different place regarding sacrifice, but Denton-Borhaug has problems here as well. Girard himself she mentions almost in passing, only to suggest that Girard sees it as human nature to be violent so not much can be done with it. Mark Heim’s fine book Saved from Sacrifice is examined in some depth. Although Denton-Borhaug respects Heim’s attempt to get away from a theology of sacrifice, she thinks he fails. The failure hinges on Heim’s (and Girard’s) notion that only through his sacrificial death could Jesus reveal the truth of sacred violence.
I think Heim and Girard are right about this but Denton-Borhaug has pointed to an important point. If Jesus’ death is considered “necessary” in any way whatever, then it is vulnerable to the military rhetoric that proclaims the sacrifices of war as “necessary.” Girard avoids philosophical and theological terminology and so does not consider the category of contingency. This is where theological analysis is necessary for Girard’s anthropological insights. Granted, the power of mimetic desire analyzed by Girard was highly likely to lead to the violent outcomes of collective violence leading to sacrificial rites. But to retain any sound doctrine of Original Sin, we must insist that this violent outcome at the dawn of humanity was contingent. The same applies to Heim’s analysis of the Atonement. Heim is as clear as it can be that Jesus’ death was not necessary as far as God was concerned. If it was “necessary,” it was “necessary” for humans. Given the weight of history and the situation in Judaea at the time Jesus lived, it seems highly unlikely any other outcome was possible for Jesus’ earthly ministry but we have to insist that the death of Jesus was contingent. That is, the truth of sacred violence could have been (and actually was) revealed through Jesus’ teaching. It was not “necessary” for Jesus to be killed to reveal this truth, but that is what happened. Knowing Mark Heim as I do, I am almost certain this is his position. I have taken the time to go over this section of the book in more detail to show how the challenge from Denton-Borhaug can help those of us who use Girard’s thought to sharpen our thinking in this area.
In a broader sense, Denton-Borhaug has trouble with sacrifice and for good reason, since the militarized rhetoric is such a powerful form of emotional and spiritual blackmail that really has ruined many of the brightest and best of our younger generation. One need only note the traumatized lives, high rate of homelessness and suicides of our veterans to see how thoroughly they have been made sacrificial victims. Denton-Borhaug has trouble understanding the nobility of Christian martyrdom in the early centuries, not realizing the degree to which it was nonviolent resistance to the Empire. In fact, her practical suggestions are along the lines of actively making peace, a “theology of work” she calls it which amount to much sacrifice as well as resistance to violent political structures.
A thought-provoking and important book that helps us grapple with a major ongoing crisis in our time.
For an introduction to René Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God