Giles Fraser massacres Scripture yet again

Giles Fraser massacres Scripture yet again

Whilst listening to Radio 4 this morning I heard an unbelievable slaughtering of God’s word by our favourite Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. In an attack on scape-goating he manages to quote Scripture to make one point when the very chapter he lifts his verse from argues the exact thing Fraser is rejecting. Here is my transcript of the key parts of Fraser’s Thought for the Day today (click here to listen from 1 hr 46 mins and 50 secs) (emphasis added).

My own understanding of what’s going on here owes much to the writings of the Roman Catholic thinker, Rene Girard. Working originally on Ancient Greek religion, Girard spent his academic career exploring the deep and disturbing connection between religion and violence. His big idea is that the sociological function of much religion is to provide a way of chanelling the violence that can build up within a community by refocussing aggression upon some innocent victim or scapegoat … Scapegoating unites a community by targetting some innocent victim, often someone a but different and on the fringes of society, and then discharging the community’s pent up violence against them.

This is the horrendous logic of sacrifice. Through violence the lynchmob generates a terrible sort of togetherness and then bad religion calls it salvation … Jesus follows the prohets of the old testament by exposing the true nature of religious scapegoating and by delaring his solidarity with the outsider, the innocent victim. Thus like the prophets he comes into conflict with the religious authorities and eventually becomes a victim of theologically inspired mob violence himself. “He was despised and rejected” and his death on the cross became a reflection of all those falsely accused, burnt by kerosene or drowned on the ducking stool. The message of the cross thus offers a disturbing analysis of human behaviour, from the communal bullying of the effeminate boy in the playground, to the use of foreign war as a way of achieving domestic togetherness, the cross exposes all the false unity we construct by means of scapegoating.

Where do we start?

Fraser’s polemic rejects the idea of scape-goating and accuses religious (conservative) institutions of using such practice to produce a false kind of cohesion. He quotes Isaiah 53:3 to describe the action of the religious authorities of first century Judea towards Jesus, but then presents the cross as the place that rejects unity through scape-goating.

If only he’d read a bit further because the rest of chapter 53 makes a mockery of his argument. The term scape-goat derives from the practice described in Leviticus 16 where a goat has the sins of the community laid upon it. Lev 16:8-10 describes how one of two goats is chosen by lot to make atonement (Heb KiPR – make propitiation) and ceremonially the high priest invests it with all the sins of the people. The goat was then led out of the city by another and kicked off into the wilderness. (Interestingly, during the time of Jesus, the last sight seen of the scapegoat was as it disappered over the hill of Golgotha). The person who led the scapegoat out had to clean his clothes and body before re-entering the camp.

Let’s read a bit further in Isaiah 53 from where Fraser quoted. Verses 4 to 6 read:

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

Not convinced? Paul in Romans 3:25 argues the exact same thing,

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith

Far from scapegoating being an ungodly practice and part of false religion, Scripture itself tells us that Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat for our sins. And lest anybody deny that the cross was anything but the explicit desire of the Father for Jesus, verse 10 tells us very clearly,

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.

And as for the notion that scapegoating is used by religious groups to create a false community based on aggression, not love – what nonsense! The scapegoating of Jesus creates a new community around the Father and the Son. Hebrews 9:12-14 says,

He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption.  The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean.  How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

and Ephesians 2:14-18 declares how Jesus’ death as a scapegoat creates a new people of peace.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,  by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace,  and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Finally we have the picture in Revelation 5 of the worshipping church in heaven who literally revel in the gore of the cross as the elders sing,

You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.

You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.

Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!

By all means lets condemn those who seek to victimise those on the margins of society, but let’s not twist the words of Scripture to make them say something so utterly contrary to that which they actually declare. When Fraser says about scapegoating that “bad religion calls it salvation” we should respond that good religion, true religion understands it very clearly to be exactly that – the means and assurance of our eternal destiny.

In declaring that which the Bible glorifies and honours, the scapegoating of Jesus, “bad religion” Fraser walks a very dangerous path indeed.

13 Comments on “Giles Fraser massacres Scripture yet again

  1. I often feel more sorry for Giles than interested in what he has to say because what he says is so frequently stereotypical nonsense. So how does he sort it out? He find a group weaker than himself, or only moderately weaker, he thinks, and in venting his spleen makes a, er, scapegoat of them. Thanks for this Mr OUld but I'm not wasting my time responding. But while he continues to distort and parody he will make few friends. Or is that just a symptom of how illiberal liberals are feeling at the moment?

    • I see what you mean.. I@m not sure whether to laugh or cry when baldilocks comes on.. of all the people I hear on the radio, no-one tests my love and patience further.. sometimes I wnder how he dare put his dog collar on.. how bad do you have to get before you get the sack?

  2. I don't think you could deny, Peter, that much popular evangementalism does make a division between the 'Old' law and the new one that might as well be summarised with 'old=bad and outmoded', 'new=good, kindler, gentler'. So it's not only dodgy liberals who would take issue with the idea that literal scapegoating was self-evidently moral and applicable. The word 'scapegoating' hardly has positive connotations, even when used in Britain's more culturally Christian days. And Fraser does give actual factual examples of the dangers of the logic of scapegoating *per se*; someone could believe in Penal Substitution and still think Fraser has a point. 'Religious scapegoating' is a general phenomena, not a slur on the foundations of Christianity per se (unless people want to argue that the mob violence of the e.g. pharisees etc either wasn't contemptible, or didn't create a 'community' of sorts) .
    The 'Christ analogy bingo' approach to the OT is inane at best; such readings might be 'traditional' or 'orthodox', but they are entirely consistent with and interrelated to the moronic antisemitism that was a feature of the Christian church for centuries (if not Millenia). As Fraser could point out, they are, at best, simply evidence of the dangers of fundamentalism (whatever the 'religion').

    • If all Fraser was doing was condemning ungodly scapegoating then you might have a point, but he goes much further doesn't he? His piece is stringing together of things that should be rightfully condemned and clear Biblical teaching on Jesus as the scapegoat. This is the "bad religion" he condemns – not ducking stools but Biblical teaching.

      • Fraser cites Jesus' persecution as the prime example of the dangers of scape-goating; ultimately the Jews (and Romans, but the Church has tended to downplay that part) might have been fufilling the Divine Plan, but citing the pharisees as emblematic of False Religion sounds pretty non-heretical to me. The parts you bold are presumably most objectionable because they use terms 'sacrifice' and 'salvation', but Fraser is speaking more generally. If he wanted to renounce Penal Substition why not just come out and say it? Saying that sacrifice *generally* (see the scope of examples Fraser cites) has a "horrendous logic" makes more sense than assuming that sacrifice per se must have an intrinsically moral logic because it was the mechanism of salvation. Isn't the Cross supposed to be a paradox of sorts? I remember, in Sunday School, being told that protestants have (idolatry issues aside) crosses instead of Crucifixes because the Jesus was Resurrected by the Father and then Ascended into Heaven. Someone saying that "Jesus died for my sins" could be accused of 'bad religion' *by not including all the other key elements of the Christian creed* (Saviour *and* Lord etc) – not 'bad religion' as in 'saying something untrue'. Creating unity through scapegoating – manifestly a dynamic of much false religion/fundamentalist – is indeed bad religion.

      • I agree with John that Fraser over-simplifies Girard (so far as I understand Girard) and I also agree that Girard’s reading of the cross isn’t without its flaws. Just out of interest, though, Peter: have you read Girard first-hand? If so, what do you make of Girard’s understanding of single-victim mechanism (rather than Fraser’s reading of him)?

        • I think the thesis as a whole is very interesting and certainly applicable to a lot of human political activity. My concern with it as a theological device for understanding the atonement is that it can lead to one disregarding the Biblical evidence as to what God thought HE was doing in dying on a cross.

          Does that make sense?

          • Thanks Peter, I’m inclined to agree that Girard causes as many problems as he solves in how we deal with the actual New Testament “data”. I think my view of what we do with scripture, how we understand it as revelation may differ from yours. However, to disregard or explain away some significant parts of the Pauline epistles because they don’t fit a thesis (which I suspect Girard tends to do) is not really a great position to take.

  3. I'm not going to defend Giles Fraser's comments here. I find the account he gives of the cross far too reductive – making it little more than an object lesson in innocent suffering.

    But I think you are too dismissive of Girard's basic concept, perhaps through conflating two meanings of "scapegoating". Girard's preferred term is "the single-victim mechanism", and it seems to me undoubtedly true that this is a mechanism that we find acted out throughout human history: a divided community identifying a single individual against whom it can unite in a violent expulsion. What's more, it is equally true that bad religion can describe this murderous process as being salvific.

    The single-victim mechanism can be described as "scapegoating" in the everyday sense of the word, but that doesn't mean that saying "the single-victim mechanism is a bad thing" is the same as saying "the scapegoat ceremony in Leviticus was a bad thing, as is any theology derived from it".

    How I'd see it is this: on a human level, the crucifixion of Jesus was indeed a textbook example of the single-victim mechanism in action. However, the mistake which Fraser (and I think Girard, and maybe – but to a much lesser extent – James Alison in his role as Girard's vicar on earth ;-) ) makes is to think that this exhausts the meaning of the event. I'd say that God was /using/ the single-victim mechanism to accomplish his salvific purposes in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – and I think that's right there in Isaiah 53, where the whole argument is "we /thought/ the Servant was suffering what he deserved" – which is the essence of the single-victim mechanism – "but actually it turns out something else was going on that overthrows that understanding of the event".

    My own attempt last year to try to reconcile the Girardian/Alisonian understanding with the understanding of Jesus' death as an atoning sacrifice is here:

    • Sorry, just to add one further observation: I'd say the whole point of the scapegoat ceremony is precisely /not/ to say that "scapegoating" in the wider sense is OK, but simultaneously to /redirect/ the single-victim mechanism in a less harmful direction and to /expose/ the mechanism's emptiness: because it's /just a goat/; clearly a truly innocent victim.

      • Hello John (and all),

        thanks for these comments John – mostly saying what I wanted to say (and more!) only more tactful and lucid :) I think a key point is the bit about "conflating two meanings of "scapegoating"" – to understand Giles Fraser's point some grasp of Girard is all but essential. As James says below maybe GF should have made clear the precise sense in which he was using the word 'scapegoat', though (a) he likes to be provocative and (b) as others have said, he is on a tightly time-limited radio slot. Peter I can't help thinking that your habitual reacting against almost anything GF says (sometimes with good reason) has coloured your judgment here. In this instance I would defend him. And thinking of Scripture, what about "I want mercy, and not sacrifice", quoted twice by Jesus, and the opening of John 16 – "Indeed, an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God. And they will do this because they have not known the Father or me".

        in friendship, Blair

  4. I haven't had time to read thoroughly / think this through – it would be appropriate though in any case to link René Girard's seminal article "Are the Gospels Mythical"? I still remember when I received my copy of First Things in 1992 and was surprised that it contained an article by René Girard, and then I read the article. It was like a bombshell. Girard had never done anything like this before in his career; the academic community also responded in a manner that was somewhat shocked, some later going to great lengths to attempt discredit Girard. That original article is now paywalled, though someone has blogged it here:

  5. I'd like to offer a few thoughts about what can be said about this piece – what one frequently hears from TEC sources, for example, is frequently far worse.

    – Mr. Fraser says "The message of the cross thus offers a disturbing analysis of human behaviour." Note: offers. He does not say that it is reduced to this message; this is one piece of wisdom which can be had from analyzing the scene of the crucifixion. I would have preferred if he had made more explicitly clear that this is simply one extra thing, which, e.g. pales in comparison to the atonement … this would have made it less likely for listeners to be of the impression that this is "the message" of the cross in toto.

    – Though Scripture tends to be the primary reference point for Christians when discussing words which are derived from Scripture, for words like "scapegoat," this may not always the case, since the word has taken on quite a meaning of its own independent of Scripture. Fraser here may be primarily referring to the secular concept of scapegoat (and he is really referring to the Girardian notion of "scapegoat" as a quasi-technical term for a general phenomenon, not the specific Old Testament practice). That said, it would have been helpful if he had cast some light on the Old Testament practice and its link to our notion of the atonement; or at least said a few words to make clear that there is also an Old Testament practice with this name by which we have the word "scapegoat," but that it is not this to which he's referring.

    It also must be remembered that he's on radio, and thus operating with limited time. Nonetheless, it is confusing when we highlight ancillary meanings of Scriptural events without stressing the central importance of such things when speaking to the public. We can't assume that they appreciate the true context, and must presuppose that many will be left with the impression that these are the central Christian teachings regarding such things.

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