I can well understand that many of us are bewildered by what we see going on around in the chaos of protest and riot, of calls to “cancel” people; the desire to erase history, forget reform and just start anew (a disturbing instinct to inaugurate a year “0” like Cambodia’s murderous Pol Pot). A key element in this witch’s brew of disgruntlement, recrimination and revolutionary sentiment is something that has been referred to as “victim culture.” Search the internet for a definition and you’ll find quite a lot that I will distill down to a phrase we are familiar with–it’s about, “playing the victim.” And in doing so gaining the moral high ground, excusing one’s own sins, and silencing those identified as the oppressor who has done the victimizing. It’s a way of turning the tables, at least from the perspective of the aggrieved. The victim gains power over the oppressor, and in an irony that may or may not be lost on its practitioners, it leads to the former “victim” as the new oppressor, but one who feels justified and legitimized in their new role. What is alarming is that this is no longer a strategy of individuals within a private setting, but is a tactic employed within the politics of identity in the public sphere. One racial group, for example, will claim victimhood, and in the name of justice make demands against those regarded as the oppressor group. So, while any one person might be innocent of any wrongdoing, they cannot escape culpability because they are identified as being part of a larger group that has been judged guilty of some kind of historical crime.
As Christians we reject this kind of thinking about other people both as individuals and as groups. Such is the nature of what we might call the “Christian Revolution” that took root 2000 years ago, and which the powers of the world are always actively trying to suppress. “Victim” comes from the Latin victima, and that is quite specifically the object of a blood sacrifice (so, not in the sense of being a crime “victim”). “Victims” in pagan temples and the Temple at Jerusalem were offerings for sin. Were sacrificial lambs to turn on the priests and effect a massacre of the Levites, they would cease to be victims–the victim is the one who actually pays the price. To be an innocent person and to be sacrificed for someone else’s sins is to be a victim. No matter how heinous the sins, they cannot justify the victimizing of others for such things as their race, sex, circumstances of birth coinciding with those who are actually guilty.
Yet, ironically, the Church is quite emphatically a group that is itself a victim cult. There is then a seeming contradiction in the fact that generation after generation of Christians have looked upon the crucifixion of Jesus, not simply as an historical event of the past, but as a contemporary occurrence in which they are complicit; they’ve also identified themselves with the victim, entering into his death and suffering, and with humility declaring that they have been joined with him through the ritual death of baptism (it’s not just a bathing in the Holy Spirit!). However, the complicity in Christ’s unjust death arises from what the Bible tells us is humanity’s fall, our rejection of God–it’s not the fact of being a Roman, a Jew or a Greek. Indeed, what if often referred to as the “blood guilt” of the Jews for their part in the death of Jesus is just the kind of thing we are not to take away from his death on the cross. Jesus died because of universal human sin just as he is the means for all of humanity’s reconciliation with God by being incorporated into him through the mystery of the Eucharist, the eating of his sacrificed flesh under the species of the host of unleavened bread.
So, we are not a cult of victimhood, but rather we worship the one victim who is the last victim who puts to an end the foolish and evil human instinct toward blood sacrifice, immolation of life as payment to the divine for its grace and favour, and forgiveness. With Jesus’s death the payment is made for absolutely everyone, and through Christ we all may obtain God’s mercy and live by His grace.
Yet the instinct for blood payment persists; the destruction of human life as the necessary cost to wipe the slate clean and make a new start possible. Such was the sincere rationale of Stalin and Mao, but frankly not that unique to them. Sacrifice appears to be a universal human practice for as long as we have had human society. It featured the rather mild practice of offering of first fruits of harvests, portions of the meat from hunts, and so on, but human sacrifice is also a universal aspect of human society. Only through time has it come to be suppressed within religion. We see this with the Hebrews (later Judeans or Jews) who early in their history came to see human sacrifice as anathema (the famous aborted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham being the foundation of their rejection of the practice). Indeed, substitutionary sacrifice wherein animals of value are used instead of precious human life emerges in the higher cultures of the Greeks, Egyptians and the peoples of Mesopotamia; yet it persisted in parts of Asia, the northern reaches of Europe, in the British Isles and in the Americas until, in terms of the greater arc of human development inclusive of the prehistoric, fairly recently.
Human sacrifice was inspired by the most profound of hopes and fears: it was thought of as a cruel necessity and its practitioners understood it as noble and courageous work. In ancient times they were priests appeasing the gods, in the modern era, apparatchiks engaged in the political struggle necessitated by the mysterious forces of history. We see it’s barbarity because we have benefited from the civilizing enterprise that is Christendom, often styled as the child born of the marriage of Athens and Jerusalem, Greek political culture and Judeo-Christian morality. Yet even as we say we have grown beyond the dark superstitions that gave rise to human blood sacrifice, as Christians we can’t help but be aware that from these barbaric origins comes the most sublime development that with any kind of thoughtful reflection is as puzzling today as it was 2000 years ago: Jesus suffered on the cross in order to take upon himself the sins of humanity. He died for all of us and by his voluntary agony on Calvary redeemed the world. In the ritual of communion and in the symbolism of the host we see the sublimation of all humanity’s vain gropings toward, and aspirations to, divinity. We can’t sacrifice our way to either; it is freely given though, by God.
And while I write about the symbolism of the host, I don’t dismiss its reality, because that is likely the most profound of the mysteries within the Paschal mystery. “Host” comes from hostia, another Latin word for “victim” but different in nuance. It can have the rather straightforward meaning of “host” as in one who offers hospitality to guests. It also means “gift.” Within its ambiguities are held the bloody business of sacrifice and suffering, but also that of gracious benefaction, hospitality. What is so amazing for those who think on it, and pray in its presence is how the helpless victim becomes the welcoming host, the doomed sacrifice becomes the gift happily given, how Christ (who we say is both priest and victim), “turns the tables” on a sinful humanity and transforms the ugly business of human sacrifice for sin into the Eucharist of thanksgiving for forgiveness, grace and the peace of God–and does so perpetually.
In a recent essay (link at bottom of page) on the violence that erupted in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Joshua Mitchell expresses concerns over a relapse of humanity into paganism, its default spiritual condition which Christianity has disturbed. In paganism, it is blood that washes away sins, and too often it is the blood of one’s enemies lying dead at one’s feet that effects the absolution and restores one to favour before one’s god. Mitchell wonders,
If by some divine good fortune, Christianity someday fully takes hold, it will be inconceivable for us to think of ourselves in terms of members of blood nations, or to think of justice in terms of blood retribution. We will all be “adopted sons and daughters of God” (Rom. 8:15, 9:26; Galatians 3:26), whose merely genetic markers of peoplehood—exhumed these days by 23andMe and by Ancestry.com—tell us nothing, really, about who we are. In such a world, there will be no nations and peoples, only persons, who know that their transgression, their stain, runs so deep that only Christ can cure it. In such a world, “racism”—the belief that one group, one people, can achieve purity by venting cathartic rage upon another—would be unthinkable.
When we look upon the Eucharistic Host in adoration, this is what we are looking at, this reality made incarnate and available to us. This is why to this, and only this, we bend our knee in obedience, and in homage. To bend the knee to another human being based on differences of race, creed, or whatever, as if to be like Christ making propitiation for the sins of others is a presumption borne of a secular piety that really is arrogant. But, I would hasten to say, Christian claims for Jesus must be seen in much the same light. How must non-Christians, secular or of faith, regard the claim that Jesus died for their sins? That is why only by one’s personal confession that Jesus is Lord does one accept that his sacrifice is valid, no one can accept Christ’s offering on behalf of another.
“Behold what you are! Become what you receive.”
These words are among the most famous of St. Augustine, addressed to the newly baptized on an Easter Sunday more than fifteen centuries ago. Our patron strongly identified the Eucharist with the community that gathered around it: both are the body of Christ in the world. It is very important that we remember that we are part of that body, and that our identity is in the Eucharist and through it to the world, and not any identity the world seeks to impose. We are to be the embodiment, the incarnation of a humanity that transcends the divisions of family, tribe, nation and race. This is not by effacing these differences, or erasing the complexity of history, but rather by recognizing and effecting the needed forgiveness and reconciliation among us.
Jesus says in today’s gospel that his self offering is not only for the sake of the eternal life of his followers, but “for the life of the world.” (John 6.51b) And we know that elsewhere in the gospels we are enjoined to be leaven, to be salt and exhorted to serve as a light, and make of ourselves a bright city on a hill that cannot be hid. But I think most appropriately on this feast of Corpus Christi, we are to be the His Body, active in world, and from that body a source of life; life found in thanksgiving and fellowship, the Eucharist and the Eucharistic feast.