Arizona has been in the news because of an attempt to get a law on the books that would give Christian business owners the right to refuse products or services on religious grounds. Many commentators feared it would create a right to discriminate against the LGBTQ community. A robust debate has ensued around the question of whether it is Christian to refuse service for any reason or more Christian to serve everyone without qualification. It’s a good debate and it has revolved around the interpretation of certain Biblical texts – the so-called “clobber texts” and whether they condemn homosexual behavior; the call to be neighborly and love our enemies and whether that includes a bit of tough love now and then. My view was well explained by Benjamin Corey – I’m on the love everyone, no exceptions side of this debate with Ben. To my way of thinking, the law was very un-Christian and I’m glad that Gov. Jan Brewer refused to sign it .
But despite Ben Corey’s eloquence and my agreement with him, we didn’t really settle anything. These verbal jousting matches about whose interpretation of Christianity is more true, important as they are, don’t go deep enough. I’d like to introduce a historical element by looking closely at what religion is and how it has functioned in human history. The question I want to ask is not whether it’s Christian to exclude someone but whether it is religious. I’d like to make the case that the answer is yes, it is religious, and propose that Christianity, and any religion that emphasizes the unity of humanity over our differences, is therefore not a religion like other religions. Christianity is therefore more radical than most of its adherents realize (Benjamin Corey, to his credit, realizes it quite well and has written about it often).
Religion has always been about protecting the community through the establishment and enforcement of differences. In the world of mimetic theory, where we deal with René Girard’s evolutionary theory of religion, we call them false differences. At the origin of human culture, no matter where we look geographically, we find sacrificial religions. The first religions involved ritualized sacrifice of victims on an altar; often and most effectively they were human victims. The ancient world was a place of human sacrifice, and our sacred texts bear witness to that reality. Biblical references to the “high places” denote places of human, often child sacrifice, and they were a constant temptation to Israel. 2 Kings 17: 7-18 is a good example of God reprimanding Israel for “setting up pillars and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree” to worship Baal and make “their sons and their daughters pass through the fire.”
The goal of the ancient sacrifices was to appease the gods and keep their violence far away from the community. Two critical but false differences were necessary to keep the sacrificial system functioning: 1) the difference between sacrificial victims and the sacrificers; 2) and the difference between the bad violence of the gods and the good violence of sacrifice. This grossly oversimplifies Girard’s theory of ancient religion, but I hope it will suffice to demonstrate that the differences this system depended on were arbitrary. Sacrificial victims were as human as their sacrificers, but because they were captured in battle or bore a physical imperfection such as blindness or a limp, that difference was enough to qualify them for the altar. And we can see clearly what the ancient people could not – that it required a unique blindness to participation in bloody rituals and not recognize themselves as violent people, as perpetrators of violence against innocent victims just like the gods they were so anxious to appease.
But this system of differences established by sacrifice provided an excellent way to establish identity and community. We see it clearly in the “religious” objections to LGBTQ people coming from within Christianity.
It has always been the role of religion to establish the boundaries of our communities by determining who is in and who is excluded, who can be sacrificed and who benefits from the sacrifice. At its most basic level, a system of false differences reassures us of our own goodness by keeping a ready supply of bad, wicked others on hand (what Jesus called our enemies) who can be sacrificed and excluded without remorse. When Jesus called on us to love our enemies, he was not issuing a call to be nice to bad people. He was challenging our categorization of others as enemies . The difference we cling to between our goodness and the wickedness of others is a false difference that does not interest Jesus or God in the least. The rain falls on the just and unjust alike, there are no longer male or female, slave or free, what God has called clean let no one call unclean, and so on. It should not escape our notice that the New Testament writers, often to our confusion, insist on calling Jesus’ death a sacrifice even though it looked nothing like a ritual sacrifice in a temple. What it did look like was the way humans justify hatred without recognizing their own violence as wrong. “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” makes more sense when we recognize that Jesus was attempting to disrupt the ancient sacrificial system that depended on us not knowing what we were doing.
The sacrificial rituals of the ancient religions and our own systems of false differences are one and the same thing. That we find in the Arizona example some Christians clinging to sacrificial practices of exclusion is not a condemnation of them or a sign of Christ’s failure. The reason some of us can call out our fellow Christians on what they are doing is that LGBTQ folks are their scapegoats, not ours. If we can clearly see their blindness, we must not lose sight of the truth that the difference between us and them is a false one. We all scapegoat and none of us know we are doing it. Which is why we are called to radical, universal love across the false differences we habitually create, differences that don’t matter to God. The historical movement of humanity has been slow and painful, but it has been in the direction away from these sacrificial practices and toward inclusion. Because Christianity emphasizes the unity of all humanity instead of differences, the Christian revelation is not only part of this historical movement, but in large part a cause of it.
Christianity is therefore not a “religion” in the historical sense. It is better thought of as a movement that is anti-religion resulting in more and more scapegoats are being folded into the human community, more boundaries falling, and differences being erased. But we are resourceful and the ancient ways work too well for us to let go of them quickly or easily. We must not only be on the lookout for new scapegoats, but be ever mindful that the next scapegoat may be our creation.
Image: Arizona highway sign, Janece Flippo / Shutterstock.com