“Why, by the way, did it take Arabs to do what people here should have done a long time ago?” Ward Churchill, August 10, 2003 in Seattle, Washington in reference to 9 / 11
The first world is now "sacrifice free". The result is that sacrifice is overtaken by repressed sacrifice. Open sacrifice is replaced by psychic masochism and sadism. It is summed up in Nietzsche’s notion of "ressentiment."
It is no mistake that for more than a 1000 years, the center of the Christian worship service was the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper.
Christianity was born into an environment of decaying civilization that was progressively attacked by tribal peoples from every direction. In the year 410, Alaric the Goth, sacked Rome, and civilization’s collapse into a “dark ages” began in earnest. St. Augustine died in 430 during the sacking of his own city, Hippo, by the Vandals. From that time forward, tribal and barbarian peoples increasingly overwhelmed the tattered remnants of the Roman Empire, and civilization in certain measurable ways did not recover to ancient standards until as late as the 18th and even 19th centuries. Gradually, the Church converted the tribes. Monks moved northward, and incrementally took into the Church’s bosom the Celts, the Picts, the Franks, the Saxons, the Vikings and many others. Any of us who are of European descent all have ancestors that are as tribal and as fierce as any North American Indian tribe. Our ancestors are as tribal as the Navajos, the Sioux, or the Apache.
While there are exceptions, the warpath is the pivotal reality for almost all tribes. Fierce and even total warfare is the vital principal, with federations and peace treaties being the exception. Warfare for tribal peoples is a form of victim and human sacrifice. It functions in the same way that blood sacrifice has functioned universally for the human race. The shedding of blood is necessary as atonement, and as the required vengeance price for past crimes committed against one's people. Victim sacrifice, in both warfare and in torture of those captured, temporarily satiates the blood thirst of those who practice it.
As Christianity triumphed in what became Europe, animal and human sacrifice gradually disappeared. All one has to do is travel to still unchristianized parts of the world in Asia or Africa, and one will discover that the practice of animal sacrifice, and even human sacrifice, are still ritually practiced in an astonishing number of places. Child sacrifice is still practiced in the villages of India, even though it is illegal, and there is agitation for the restoration of the suttee (the burning of widows) on the part of factions of radical Hindus in that same nation. All over Asia and Africa, animals are regularly sacrificed to the local animistic gods. We tend to think that the practice of sacrifice disappeared in the first world because we became enlightened. But in fact, the Enlightenment itself, and the exaltation of reason could never have happened had Christianity not cleared the way. The ground work for the disappearance of religious blood sacrifice was that Christianity taught that a final and adequate sacrifice had been offered that was “once for all” in the crucifixion of Christ (Hebrews 9:28, 1 Peter 3:18).
The church had to deal with and reconcile tribes that had from time immemorable hated one another and fought one another to the death in internecine warfare. Each tribe considered itself “the people” and regarded anyone outside of it to be subhuman. There was no common ground for any of them with any other. The monks taught that behind each of the tribal gods was the One Creator God. This was the first common ground for any tribe to live with any other. There was only one God, and he created all of the tribes. Then, this God in the second person of the Trinity, entered history Himself, and became the one final sacrifice for all of the tribes. This was the second ground of peace and of possible forward human progress.
We are accustomed to thinking of the veridical dimension of the Atonement, and this is certainly not wrong. Jesus died that we might have peace with God. He paid the price for our sins, and reconciled us to the Father. But now, it is necessary to re-emphasize the horizontal dimension of the Atonement. The death of Christ satisfied our mutual blood lust and has given us final grounds to stop seeking scapegoats and to give us grounds for peace and reconciliation with one another. The radical thought that must re-enter our minds is that peace cannot just happen as a result of wishing for it, or of being nice, or of being reasonable. Peace can only happen if blood thirst is satisfied.
If the 20th Century proved anything, it is that the human race has not ceased to be blood thirsty. A higher percentage of people died in the 20th century in warfare and political murder than any century that we know of in the last 2000 years. It is now abundantly clear that it is an illusion that we have become “reasonable” and “enlightened.” What we saw in the last century was the re-emergence of tribalism. Hitlerism was a self-conscious attempt to revive Teutonic tribalism. The terminology of “blood and soil” was a purposeful tribal allusion. All over post-colonial Africa, we have seen the tribes erupt in terrible and bloody ways. The recent film Hotel Rwanda chronicled quite accurately the tribal genocide of the Tutsi peoples by the Hutu tribe. In the Balkans after the collapse of Communism, murderous tribalism re-emerged. In all of these cases, the necessity of the shedding of the blood of other tribes as atonement for real and imagined crimes, sometimes from hundreds of years ago, began to happen. Ward Churchill is just one more tribalist calling for renewed genocide and mass murder to slake human blood thirst. He is an evil man. But it will not do just to wag our finger at him and condemn him. We must offer an alternative and an answer. I do not think anyone but those in the Church of Jesus Christ can offer one.
It is no mistake that for more than a 1000 years, the center of the Christian worship service was the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper. The sermon became more central only after the Reformation, and then became completely dominant only in some Protestant groups. The Reformation was a city movement and almost all of its leaders were university professors. The world had been substantially civilized by that time, and open blood thirst was being suppressed and recognized as a sin against not just God and man, but also against civilization. But the centrality of the Lord's Supper was the only fitting, and only effective pivotal center for barbarian tribalists up to that time. To eat and drink the body and blood of Christ was the only solution for blood lust.
Once again, tribalism is returning. There are good reasons for this. Tribalism is an anodyne and an antonym to a global economy. A more standardized global economy is going to happen, and continue to happen whether we like it or not. And there are many good things about it. There is little to complain about with the availability of cheap and abundant consumer goods on a global scale. But we also cannot find our identity in Wal-Mart. As a result, there is a growing desire for a rediscovery of "roots," of ethnic origins, of small and intense communities that are tightly bound together. There is a growing desire to find oneself in tribal and neo-tribal groupings. But the tribes have to be Christianized as they were a thousand years ago. It must be tribalism minus the warpath. If it is not, we will continue to see global genocides of just the sort with which the 20th Century was filled. Every tribe must have the same God, and every tribe must drink of the same blood. They must all drink of the same blood of Christ. If they do not, then Mr. Ward Churchill's nightmares are all going to come true. There will be more Rwandas, there will be more "ethnic cleansings," there will be more Hitlers and more Mau Maus as there were in Kenya fifty years ago. There will be more 9 / 11s as Arab tribalism seethes. The church must enter again into the great reality of the sacraments, and we must once again understand that it is no fiction that it is through the sacrament of the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist, that we "plug into" the great reality of the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
Apart from Jesus, there is no sufficient sacrifice. Sacrifice apart from him suffices for only a little while. Any blood, animal or human, is only adequate for a short time. And then, like an addiction, there must be more. And following that, there must be even more. Each dosage is less adequate. Finally, a dosage of blood is required that exactly equals the dosage that will bring complete destruction. This is why the ancient world was always tempted by total war, and complete annihilation of the enemy. And that is why Europe as it was de-christianized finally required WW1 as a war of complete destruction, followed by WW2 with the Holocaust and genocide. A Holocaust was required by the German "tribal" leadership to give enough blood, and then even that wasn't enough. Europe approached the lethal dosage of violence for all involved. That was the price paid for forgetting the Cross of Christ.
Even when we don't see complete tribalism and all of its blood thirst, we do see the shadows of this in dysfunctionality all around us. At the heart of disfunctionality, is the search for a scapegoat. When things go amiss, and we are filled with anxiety, the drug of choice is blame. And while blame often functions at a less lethal level than full-blown tribalism, it is the shadow and seed of it. We deal with this all the time as pastors, and often feel the brunt of it.
The result of both tribalism and dysfunctionality is that everything goes in circles. No sacrifice, no blood, other than Jesus' blood, is sufficient or final. As a result, all of life outside of Christ involves an endless cycle of blame, attack, and blood letting. And it just goes around and around, and the circle gets tighter and tighter with ever increasing need for larger and larger dosages of blood and blame to satisfy. The end for any system involved in this is at the least stagnation, and at the worst death. Only the blood of Christ suffices, and at the Eucharist, we are renewed in its effectiveness as often as we partake in it. And there is no need for more blood. The Eucharist is "bloodless." It is a "plugging into" that which was once for all.
Baptism initiates us into the death and resurrection of Christ. The Lord's Supper repeatedly initiates us into His sufferings. We need both in our re-tribalizing world that worships death. The only answer to the worship of death, violence, and bloodshed, is the death, violence, and bloodshed experienced by the Son of God. Here it comes to an end. And here in the sacraments, we are brought into union with Him. Our sufferings become His sufferings, and His sufferings become our sufferings. It means that our sorrows become cosmically significant. It means that our hurts actually become His, and far from contributing to endless vicious circles, they contribute to renewed and endless life, to forward progress, to surprising new ways forward that were never thought of before. Instead of being involved in petty or large quarrels that never resolve anything, we participate in Christ's redemption of the world.
We must renew our commitment to the sacraments, and self-consciously understand what they mean and how they contribute in our time to the renewal of history.