Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The End of Sacrifice.

Peter Leithart has recently written a book in defense of Constantine.  What Leithart thinks is significant about Constantine is that he ushered in an political order that did not have sacrifice.  In fact he banned sacrifice all together.  All civilizations were sacrificing civilizations up to that point.  The myth of origins of most civilizations was an act of cosmic sacrifice.  The gods of order usually killed a cosmic monster and his or her body became the universe.  Similarly, the city or nation itself was often built on an act of primal violence.  Cain killed Abel and then founded the first city (something that Augustine notes).  So too, Romulus killed Remus and founded Rome.  The point is that order only happens when there's violence.  Violence means subduing the other so they'll behave and do what you want.  On a political level, this means beating people into submission or killing them so that they won't revolt against you.  The social practice of sacrifice in political settings embodies this reality.  It's interesting that as Leithart notes the Christian in many cases were killed in ways that resembled the Roman act of sacrifice.  So, in other words, the Christian were sacrificed to keep the political order going.

Religiously, sacrifice usually means forcing the gods to do what you want them to do by subduing them through a pleasing offering.  The irony here is that the gods in many civilization (particularly ancient Sumer) were thought to get sleepy from eating the oblations.  Hence, the logical extension of the pacification of the gods is to make them literally sleep- or perhaps even die.  To my mind this seems to express the essence of Original sin.  Humans wish to be God, so they try to pacify the God.  The ultimate act of pacifying God would be to kill him- hence the crucifixion! 

Christianity is different for two reasons.  First, Christianity says that the world is not rooted in violence, but in God's peaceful act of giving (creation ex nihilo).  Secondly, sacrifice does happen, but at the end of history and not that the beginning.  In other words, in a sense the pagan myths are right.  Human community after the Fall does have to be rooted in some group of orderly people forcing disorderly people to be orderly.  Moreover, evil really does need to be punished.  Hence the curse and condemnation of the law.  In the punishment of sin in the cross, the point is to restore the primal peace between God and humans.  Sacrifice is an interim measure to deal with evil, it is not the very basis of reality.  Of course the sacrifice of cross does found a community, but one based on the end of sacrifice and therefore the end of the project of human self-justification.

1 comment:

  1. Leithart's book is an important contribution to studies on Constantine. Among other things, he sets out to prove that Constantine was not a "Constantinian," at least as commonly described. Leithart is one of the few people in this field who insists that we look at Constantine in his context: the aftermath of the Diocletian persecution of Christianity.

    Leithart's main opponents are John Howard Yoder and other Christian theologians of the same ilk, who have naively argued that Constantine corrupted Christianity, and Edward Gibbons and his modern heirs, who have argued that Constantine was an intolerant, bloody anti-Semite who forced his orthodoxy on an unwilling church (unwilling, that is, except for those sell-outs known as bishops). Leithart points out how ridiculous those charges are when the evidence is examined, especially when one pays attention to the context in which Constantine lived, which wasn't 18th century Enlightenment America, where Rousseau and Locke guided the range of political discourse.

    Gibbons cannot accept the Diocletian persecution as real. After all, how could a civilized emperor do something so naughty? He comes dangerously close to saying that the persecution was a Christian tale invented out of whole cloth. He begrudgingly admits that there may have been a few isolated deaths, but everything else he claims is Christian propoganda. Leithart, however, points out how Christian piety was disrupting the Roman sacrifices--the sacrifices on which Rome was built--and thus the persecution made sense. The only thing I wish that Leithart had done is to point out how the "blessed" Antonines, under whom mankind was allegedly the happiest (according to Gibbons), had been the nastiest persecutors of the Jews. Hadrian forbade Jews to circumcise; Constantine never did. Clearly, the Antonines were far more anti-Semitic than Constantine in his wildest imagination.

    I'm glad to see that someone else has read this important book. Dear readers of Jack's column, please go out and beg, borrow, or steal the book, if you have even a slight interest in Christian history. It is the perfect antidote to such recent books as "Constantine's Sword."

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