By Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His upcoming book, Beheading Hydra: A Radical Plan for Christians in an Atheistic Age, will be published by Sophia Institute Press in the Spring. Read more at www.dwightlongenecker.com.
When faced with Christian slogans like “Jesus died to save you from your sins” or liturgical commonplaces like “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” the 21st century twenty-something with virtually no understanding of Christianity might well ask, “What does the execution of a criminal two thousand years ago have to do with me?…Just how, exactly, does the gruesome death of an insurrectionist on a Friday afternoon so long ago and so far away wipe out the naughty things I’ve done?”
I sympathize. Just what does the crucifix mean to the modern man with smartphones and jet planes? How does the concept of ritual sacrifice connect? How does one make sense of a Stone Age religion in the space age?
It is this very conundrum that prompted me to write Immortal Combat—Confronting the Heart of Darkness. To attempt an answer to “What does it mean that ‘Jesus died to take away the sin of the world’?” I first asked, “What is ‘the sin of the world’?” To explore that question, I turned to the philosophy of Nietzsche, Max Scheler, and René Girard.
Nietzsche pioneered the idea of the “slave revolt of morality”—that the Hebrews flipped the whole concept of good and evil. Instead of the “good” people being the strong, noble ruling class, they were viewed as oppressors. The truly “good” people were the slaves—the long-suffering victims of oppression. The supreme example of this reversal, Nietzsche thought, was the prophet from Galilee. The first Christians regarded Him as the ultimate victim-victor.
Max Scheler’s book Ressentiment fleshes out the dynamic of victimhood. Rooted in an inner turmoil of resentment, the victim focuses on the oppressor as the enemy—the cause of his problems. In a group or tribal context, if the oppressor is too strong to be confronted openly, the blame will shift toward a troublesome member of the tribe.
Girard explains how the scapegoat mechanism begins to function within the group. Drawing on examples from literature and medieval culture, he outlines how primal envy (mimetic desire) evolves into corporate blame which, when focused on the culpable individual, culminates in isolation, exclusion, demonization, persecution, and finally public execution.
The execution of the scapegoated has to be public because it is the action of the tribe. Even the method of murder is corporate and anonymous. In stoning, no one knows who threw the stone that knocks the victim out. The switch on the electric chair is thrown by several warders, and most of the rifles in the firing squad fire blanks. The axeman and master of the guillotine wear hoods and masks. No one knows who holds the lethal weapon. The tribe kills. The individual is exonerated.
This demonic dynamic of fratricide begins with Cain, echoes in the Hebrew tradition of the Passover lamb and the scapegoat, and climaxes at Calvary. This is what I have termed “the sin of the world.” It operates within the darkness of the individual, circulates into the dysfunctional family, and works its way like noxious cancer into every nook and cranny of human society.
The culture blame, isolation, exclusion, senseless persecution, and mindless corporate violence simmers in contemporary society. And the sign that it is erupting is that the cycle of blame spirals outward to ensnare not only the innocent victims, but the second- and third-degree victims: those who would dare to defend the innocent victim and those who would defend the defenders.
So, in our present “cancel culture” not only are innocent victims of the witch hunt “cancelled” (i.e., isolated, exiled, banned, and banished) but those who criticize the “woke brigade” and those who dare to challenge the new culture vultures will be vilified, subjected to a media hate campaign—their books banned and they banished.
The annual rehearsal of the passion of Christ in Holy Week is a reminder to the whole world that this demonic dynamic lies at the heart of darkness, and that after books are banned, they (and their authors) will inevitably be burnt. The sin of the world is revealed as the Lord Jesus Christ is caught up in the web of lies, blame, isolation, exclusion, demonization, and death.
Had he simply been crucified, Jesus of Nazareth would have been just another martyr to a lost cause—devoured by a greater power. Because of His resurrection, He proves to be the ultimate victim-victor, destroying the dark cycle from the inside out.