Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


This is the text of the first conference given by Fr John Hemer MHM at the Douai Retreat for Knights last month.  While this formed part of the Lenten retreat, it is relevant at any season, and provides, within the Easter Octave, a fitting reflection for our thanksgiving for our Salvation through Our Lord's Passion and Resurrection.

The second part, upon Gethsemane, will follow later.

Why did we need the Cross?

I began my priestly life as a missionary in Pakistan. At first I was very impressed by the call to prayer. Five times a day, from every mosque in the land you hear this chant, allah hu akbar, God is great, there is no God but God. As a Christian I can go along with that much and coming from a secular country like this where you don’t mention the name of God in polite society I found it enormously moving to hear his name invoked so publicly so often and for it to be so normal. But I soon realised that it’s true as far as it goes, but it’s nothing like enough to make the human race want to love God, to be with him. It doesn’t have anything to say to people who suffer, to people who question, to people who are oppressed by religious power. I had to go somewhere else to learn about that.

A few years later I was sent to Kenya and in due course became parish priest of a huge rural parish; 25,000 Catholics, 63 churches and chapels and for much of the time just one priest, me, God help them. The biggest problem I had was mud. Most of my chapels were off the tarmac and whenever it rained the poor dirt roads turned into thick sticky mud and I can’t tell you how often the car got stuck. (People often accuse priests of being stuck in the mud; well I was, literally and often.) And there would always be the person who came along, shook his head and said: “you shouldn’t have taken this road, the other one via such and such a place is still passable.” Thankfully most Kenyans aren’t like that. Most people when they saw me stuck would come running, hitch up their skirts or trousers and start pushing. It must have happened at least a dozen times and eventually with a lot of pushing and shoving there would be a roar of the clutch and the car would escape. And I would look in the mirror and there would be all those people waving at me with both hands and big smiling faces, covered from head to toe in Mud.  It struck me that if we want to talk about what God is like this is a far better example than the God who just tells you how great he is five times a day. Our God, when he saw that we were in trouble, did not stand at the side of the road and tells us that we shouldn’t have done this. He gets down into our mud, our mess and in the process gets himself completely messed up, gets killed. As Paul puts it:
Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phi 2:5-8 RSV)
The only God worth worshipping is the one who gets himself involved. The only God who has anything to say about death & suffering is one who has been through it himself. But why the cross, why something so barbaric? If he wanted to share our suffering why couldn’t he die of cancer or a heart attack?
John the Baptist on seeing Jesus says: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29 RSV) Note that here sin is in the singular, sin not sins.  The Ten Commandments tell us what sins are. Ignoring God and stealing and lying etc. Every culture on earth knows that these things are wrong and when they take hold they can do terrible damage. We westerners often have very naïve, I would say stupid ideas about other cultures, especially non-western cultures. (Relate story of Nico and the sodas.) Some westerners like to think of these cultures as pristine, as beautifully harmonious, even sinless. I’ve read well known successful authors who suggest this. We all know how in the most polite and urbane societies rivalry over small things can turn to hatred and even become violent. Even in our parishes sometimes let’s say you get a committee to run the parish fete or the Christmas bazaar. Thankfully in most of our parishes than can run harmoniously but it doesn’t take much to turn them into hotbeds of rivalry and polite ladies can be at daggers drawn with each other because one thinks the tea should be from Waitrose and the other thinks it should be from Marks and Spencer, and before long both thinks the other to be a complete idiot and they despise each other. Now in a society like our own there are all sorts of checks and constraints to stop that turning into something worse, but we know that often rivalry can become something dreadful even dangerous.
         Imagine two toddlers, three years old, nonchalantly playing in their living room. One of them picks up a teddy bear and starts to play with it. Very quickly the other one will also want that teddy bear and try to take it off his sibling. Five minutes ago neither of them had the slightest interest in the bear but now it becomes the object of intense desire and intense rivalry on the part of both of them and it will probably end in tears. As we know such rivalry doesn’t end in the nursery. Very evil, in so many places this kind of rivalry turn into violence, in fact all human violence is the result of rivalry over money, land, power, sex, love. In in all modern societies there are many brakes and safety valves to stop this getting out of hand, the moral law. There are very few cultures where people are taught no moral standards (although modern Britain seems to be getting dangerously close to that) There is criminal Law, the police and the judiciary. In a society where there are no such constraints, how do you stop this rivalry getting out of hand and turning to destructive violence. The answer seems to be scapegoating and Sacrifice. The French Author René Girard says that this is how the human race began to deal with these problems. Imagine a group of say a hundred people, they all desire what the other has and desires, they are consumed by envy and jealousy. Tensions escalate and can easily spill over into violence. So you have a situation of great disunity, of all against all. Suddenly, someone points the finger at someone in the group – it will always be someone who is marginal and say: “he’s to blame; he’s the cause of all our disunity. All against all becomes 99 against one. The group becomes united in their hatred of the one and they expel him, probably kill him. It’s no coincidence that the most primitive religious monument in many diverse cultures is the cairn, a pile of stones which probably points to the original pile of stones covering the dead scapegoat who had just been killed.
When a scapegoat is expelled, something amazing happens. Peace descends on the group so they assume that God has brought about peace by killing the scapegoat. This is precisely the peace which the world gives and Jesus offers another peace at the last supper he says:
Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace which the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. (Joh 14:27 NJB)
The trouble with that peace is it is only short lived and soon enough the tensions build up again and you have to find another scapegoat. This is the origin of human sacrifice, and if you look far back enough most societies practiced it and some still do, although secretly now. In time, probably millennia people realised that you can achieve the same effects by killing a domestic animal rather than a human being. It is exactly this that the author of Genesis points to when he tells us how Abraham sacrificed a ram rather than his son Isaac. That passage is telling us lots of things but one of them is that God most definitely does NOT want human sacrifice, and indeed although the OT if full of sacrifice there are voices which keep popping up – the true voice of God, which say he doesn’t want sacrifice at all.
Scapegoating is still the way many groups bring about peace – politicians threatened by unpopularity start a war to unite people against a common enemy. Tensions in the workplace are solved like this, tensions in families sometimes. Whenever this happens bear in Mind three things.
A) People always unconscious of what’s going on.
B) People always assume that God is on the side of the mob or the many and bringing about peace by killing or ostracising the victim. The old Latin saying “vox populi vox Dei” is an ancient lie. The opinion of God is not necessarily the opinion of the majority.
C) People always assume that the victim is guilty and that God is therefore against the victim. The opinion of God and the opinion of the crowd are therefore identical. So When Jesus says Father forgive them for they know not what they do, this is not just piety or Jesus being kind. None of them have any idea that they are caught up in a process of scapegoating frenzy. They have no idea that the unity of purpose between the Jewish and Roman authorities is the result of this frenzy. It seems the only sensible thing to do. The Jews explicitly believe that they are doing the work of God. The Romans believe this killing is necessary to keep public order, so it amounts to the same thing.
Girard claims that this process is at the basis of all human culture. The Bible comes to birth in a society where this scapegoating mechanism is fully operational, but it is the genius of Biblical revelation that it slowly unmasks this process and shows it up for what it is and offers an alternative. The Bible makes it clear that whenever someone is being victimised or scapegoated, God is on that person’s side and never on the side of the crowd who are doing the victimising. The woman caught in adultery in John Ch. 8 is a perfect example. She is guilty, nevertheless Jesus takes her side. So the Biblical truth is “vox victimorum vox Dei” the voice of the victims is the voice of God.
Scapegoating is if you like the world’s way of dealing with sins, but in itself it becomes a greater sin, it is the sin of the world and it’s that which Jesus comes to take away by becoming the victim of it and thereby showing us what is really taking place.
So when we look at the cross it’s essential to realise what’s happening. The central event in world history is the Son of God becoming the victim of this process, a scapegoat and then rising. In the passion story Caiaphas says: It is better that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish. (Jn:11:50)
If it is just that Jesus wants to show solidarity with us in our suffering surely it would have made more sense for him to die of cancer or a heart attack. Those things affect people far more than crucifixion surely? Why did he have to die at the hands of a righteous indignant mob?
In the Book of Revelation, at the centre of Heaven we meet the Lamb who of course represents Jesus. He is identified as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. (Rev 13:8 KJV)
It suggests that in some ways Jesus is there with every victim since the beginning of human society. Jesus dies like this because sacrificing people has been the foundation of the world since the beginning of human society. Whether it was literally, a human sacrifice, or the millions who died as a result of the Nazi and communist experiments, people whose lives were expendable. It may have been the people who were considered less than human because of the Indian caste system. It may have been someone bullied in the playground, someone fired from their job because they took the rap for a whole group of corrupt people. The cynical statement of Caiaphas says it all. it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish." 
That idea has constantly been played out in different ways through the history of the world. Sometimes one man, very often one woman, sometimes a group or a whole race of people have been put to death, or marginalised, or dehumanised or exploited in order that the people who did it would benefit in some way. This has been the history of the world and Jesus died to show that up for what it was and bring it to an end, to deny it legitimacy.

The Sacrifice of Christ.
The whole of the NT bears witness that Christ’s death is sacrificial, but few theological ideas have been more misunderstood. For many the idea is that God was infinitely offended by human sin, no sacrifice could equal that offence, so the son of God is offered to an angry father as the only thing that can satisfy him. Two problems. One is the concept of a God who demands the blood of the innocent which is dangerously close to pagan ideas of bloodthirsty gods. If God is really like this, then he’s not Christian God, but the Aztec one. The other is that in Romans 3:24-25 we read how people are saved: they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness. Paul’s saying here that God provides the sacrifice. In pagan thought humans appeased the god with the sacrifice. The OT is already several steps ahead and in Jewish Temple worship (from which Paul’s imagery comes) it is never God who is appeased. Even in Judaism, the point of an atoning sacrifice is to wipe away human sin, not to calm down an agitated grumpy God! It is true that human beings can’t ever do anything grand enough to appease God – but that’s not because he’s grumpy but because he’s God – therefore He takes the initiative and makes peace with us through Jesus. The image is not of God as an angry opponent having to be entreated or cajoled, but of God, the injured partner, actively seeking reconciliation with the offender(s).
The great difference between the sacrifice of Jesus and all others is this: All ‘normal’ sacrifices, including Jewish ones, involve making peace by someone doing violence to some other living thing – human or animal. Christ offers his sacrifice not by doing violence but by allowing violence to be done to him. If the NT was just business as usual then at the Last Supper Jesus would have said: You know the chief priests want me dead, but I’m your leader so obviously I can’t be the one to die so one of you will have to die in my place, who’s it going to be?” In the film “The Flintstones” there is a scene where Elizabeth Taylor who plays Wilma Flintstone’s mother is berating Wilma for having married a big lump like Fred Flintstone. She could have done much better for herself and her parents had tried so hard for her. She says: “Think of all the sacrifices your Father made for you: sheep, goats, your brother Gerald!” We still use the language of sacrifice but we never talk about sacrificing others, only ourselves. That shows the huge difference the death of Christ has made to our thinking.

In all ancient cultures it was assumed that God ‘approved’ of the sacrifice, was ‘on the side’ of the sacrificing group and against the victim. The opinion of the group who kill the victim and the opinion of God were the same. One of the Bible’s greatest insights is that God in fact takes the opposite position, he on the side of the victim not the victimisers. This truth is articulated most clearly in the OT in the suffering servant song (please read it – Isa. 52:13-53:12) The Cross makes this crystal clear. The Cross of Christ is God’s declaration of where he stands. Traditionally the idea has been that we humans have to offer a victim to an angry God in order to appease him. In Christ it is reversed, a loving God offers a victim to an angry humanity to show them what they were doing and in doing that the whole mechanism is revealed and robbed of its power.