Making God our Victim

Recently, I was introduced to the theology of James Alison, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian whose theological work builds on the thought of philosopher Rene Girard.  I can’t possibly do justice to Alison’s work in this short blog post, and, indeed, I am still in the process of understanding his thought myself.  But I would like to raise up one aspect of his thought that I am finding resonates with me quite deeply.

It begins with the idea that human consciousness is fundamentally structured by violence.  This shows itself in the way in which we define ourselves over against other human beings.  This leads us to create victims, for in defining ourselves over against others we necessarily come to see those others as less than ourselves in some important way.  In perhaps its least destructive form, we victimize others by looking down on them, by belittling them in some way, by saying to at least ourselves (and probably to others, as well) that they are somehow less than we are.  In its most destructive form, we assign blame to others as a way of strengthening our own identities.  Or, as a way of bringing peace or unity to our community.  So, for example, when our society is being pressured by economic, social and political problems, we might seek to create unity and release that pressure by blaming immigrants or Muslims or liberals or conservatives; in other words, by designating a victim. This victimization might even result in a violent acting out against the victim(s).

What is particularly interesting to me in Alison’s work is that he suggests that our consciousness is so profoundly formed in violence – that our need and tendency to victimize others (as I’ve tried to describe above) is so deeply rooted – that we tend to view God from this same perspective, and so we talk about God as also defining God’s self over against others, and we image God as One who (like us) makes victims of others.  This way of seeing God is found often in the Hebrew Bible and, to a lesser degree, in parts of the New Testament, as well.   As I understand him, Alison suggests that this is a misunderstanding of God; for in truth, God is not the One who makes victims, as we do; rather, God is really to be identified with the victim.

And this is a truth that is revealed in Jesus, who comes into the world as God within a human life and who becomes a victim of Roman imperial power with involvement from the Jewish religious leadership of the time.  The crucifixion is an icon of the way in which human beings victimize and is also an icon of God as victim rather than God as the One who makes others into victims.  The startling thing is that, in the wake of Jesus’ death as a victim, comes the Resurrection, in which the victim-Christ is encountered not as the one who wants to exact vengeance from those who made him a victim (which is what our human consciousness, formed by violence, would expect) but rather as the forgiving victim.  And this is a revelation of who God truly is.

When we turn to the Bible from this perspective, we realize that all of those stories of God smiting others and exacting revenge on the enemies of God and God’s people are there not to show us who God is but rather to show us what God appears to be through the lens of our humanity distorted by violence.  Jesus embodies a shifting of the lens, allowing us to see God as the victim rather than the bully or the tyrant.  This insight has the power to lead us into a new consciousness formed in the love of the forgiving victim.

I won’t presume to have presented James Alison’s theology flawlessly.  I have simplified it quite a bit, and I don’t pretend to have yet understood it fully.  But already I see in it a frame that opens onto a deeper and more profound appreciation of the Christian faith.  His book, The Joy of Being Wrong is based on his doctoral thesis and presents the foundation of this thought.  It’s not easy reading but well worth the effort.  He is truly shedding anew light on who we are, on who God is and on what the Christian life and journey are really about.  In 2012, he will have a new resource, including both text and DVD, called The Forgiving Victim, which seeks to present the Christian faith to adults in a new way.

8 thoughts on “Making God our Victim

  1. Thank you for introducing us to James Alison and his work. The bit that I’ve understood so far seems to give a framework not only for why Jesus is the interpretive center of the Bible, but also (importantly) how to make better sense of the rest of it, and why the Bible contains so much that seems contrary to Jesus. I like it! I’ll look for this book and start slogging (Stanford has a copy). Please keep us posted with further insights.

  2. Just a few more comments:  I’m now reading this book (The Joy of Being Wrong), and also kicking myself for missing the James Alison event at Trinity. A few years ago while reading John Howard Yoder’s Politics of Jesus, I began to realize how a renunciation of violence is right at the heart of the gospel and meaning of the cross. It was much like a spiritual conversion experience, in which I could see things in an entirely new light and have never been the same since. I think Alison and Girard may give a deeper accounting of this, essentially including a “history of human culture”, anthropology and psychology. As Alison says, it’s at once a simple and very difficult idea (and very powerful).  I look forward to more conversations at Trinity about this (maybe even a study series after his DVD comes out?).

    • Thanks, Casey. I concur with your observations. You can be sure that there will indeed be further discussion of this at Trinity in the future!

    • I’ll be interested in how you find his book, Casey. It’s a fascinating book to me — I find the first part to be slow going, but the second part seems to me more readable.

  3. Just FYI, I discovered that Girard’s book “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning” is an excellent introduction and summary of these ideas – very lucid and readable. This was written after Alison’s “Joy of Being Wrong” and cites it. Girard is a great interpreter of the Bible and there are lots of examples in this book. These ideas are really important and I look forward to learning more.

  4. Sorry to belabor this topic, but I’ve been reading Girard for the past week since you made this post, and I have to say I’m completely blown away by his ideas.  On the basis of their explanatory power and importance, I think Girard is easily one of the intellectual (and prophetic) giants of the last 2000+ years. And he’s living somewhere across the Stanford campus! I think his ideas need to be broadly applied, communicated, elaborated, disseminated, in any way possible, and this work has only just begun. Merry Christmas and happy 88th birthday to Professor Girard (born on Dec 25)!

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