Behold, the Lamb of God

Troy Davis may have been innocent, but that’s not what makes his execution this past Wednesday night morally outrageous. Capital punishment itself is a disgrace in any society that thinks of itself as “civilized,” and even more so for a society that claims Christianity as a dominant influence.

I won’t rehearse here the well-worn arguments as to why capital punishment qualifies as: a) morally suspect if not ethically abhorrent; and b) an ineffectual deterrent to crime. (If you’re unconvinced about either point, I recommend spending some time here.)

Rather than only moral and practical problems, capital punishment should raise profound theological questions for Christians. Those questions begin by remembering that Jesus was unjustly accused of capital crimes and executed by the Roman Empire.

Many Christians, however, tend to skip over that socio-political reality and reflect instead on the doctrine of atonement, or why Jesus “had” to die as the “Lamb of God” for the sins of the world.

Many self-identified liberal or progressive Christians reject entirely that kind of doctrinal overlay on the crucifixion of Jesus. But we might still find some peculiar bits in that doctrinal history worth considering today (and that history is quite diverse) and how it might still speak effectively to our situation today – including the appalling practice of capital punishment in the United States.

Here I’ll mention just two among the many points to ponder for a peculiar faith today:

The first point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

One response to that question, and a profound one, has emerged from the work of Rene Girard, a 20th century French historian and philosopher. And that work has prompted a great deal of insightful theological reflection on the role of violent scapegoating in the formation of any human community. James Alison’s theological work is the best example of this (and it’s rather complex, so go pour yourself some coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and read more about that here).

The shorthand (and thus inadequate) version of Girard/Alison is just this: human societies pour out their inherent violence on representative figures – the “scapegoat” – who bear the brunt of what would otherwise be uncontainable social chaos. Without scapegoats, there would be no “society” at all.

The Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus (the divine scapegoat) thus offers the possibility of finding a way out of this endless cycle of violence. How that is so requires much more space than a blog to describe. But even naming that possibility, it seems to me, can shed some much needed light on the mechanism of scapegoating in the practice of capital punishment.

And the second point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

Yes, that’s the same point as the first one. But it admits more than one response. Another response comes from an intriguing theologian, Robert Neville, who teaches at Boston University; I am also privileged to count him among my friends.

Bob’s theological work is amazingly broad and deep at the same time, yet I keep rereading one of his many books, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement. In that book, Bob devotes a chapter to the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God,” and more particularly as the lamb who was slain.

I can’t possibly describe fairly Bob’s profound insights here (any more than I could Girard’s or Alison’s above), but I will offer this: We will never appreciate the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God” until we acknowledge our collective “blood guilt.”

As Bob acknowledges, modern western people recoil at the idea of “collective” anything let alone something that sounds as barbaric as “blood guilt.” Yet Bob persuaded me. Consider just two among a host of examples.

First, if you have ever taken a train across the U.S., you did so thanks to the indentured servitude and some deaths of Chinese immigrant laborers, who built the railroad.

Second, if you are in any way benefiting from contemporary American industry, technology, and agriculture, you are indebted to the institution of African slavery on the American continent.

No further examples are necessary – if you’re reading this blog, you are drenched in blood-guilt. How can you bear it? What will erase it, if anything? Can you even stand to think about it? Most of us can’t, so we don’t. But the guilt persists.

Bob then suggests ways that the symbol of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God might address our collective blood-guilt, which I can’t summarize adequately here (I’m working on a way to do that!).

All of this matters as for the peculiar faith Christians claim to adopt and especially when we consider and (I hope) mourn the execution of Troy Davis. He is just one among far too many scapegoats in contemporary US society. Troy Davis is just one among far too many instances of our collective blood-guilt as human beings. Questions of innocence, guilt, evidence, and due process are actually irrelevant. What matters is why any society would collectively kill someone.

Christian people should not do so. Period.

So, why are human beings so blood thirsty? The sad answer is this: We are human. The good news in response is this: the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain might yet transform violent human culture into a culture of life. If so, then Christians might actually find a compelling if not a peculiar way to talk about salvation and redemption.

For the sake of all those still on death row in this country, may it be so.


  1. Jay – I appreciate the concept and phrase “collective blood guilt.” I say this because for me, being human and pondering the plight of humanity has always felt “heavy,” as in carrying a burden. This is not because I feel bad or personally shameful or really that any one of us is shameful, but there seems to be this way in human society that we (as a group) cannot help but do the wrong thing, mistreat others and even cross over many times to barbarism. And we do not seem to be able to learn from the past. I also find it sadly ironic and not an accident that the Transcontinental Railroad was indeed built upon the backs of Chinese immigrants and that we needed their labor because at that time, the rest of the country (and most especially young African American men) were in the midst of fighting and dying in the Civil War. But back to theology – I do think we as humans carry or perceive a burden of guilt whether it is conscious or not. And when one person or a group feels guilty or ashamed (again not conscious), it is easier to project all of those bad feelings on an undeserving scapegoat. The myth is that once the scapegoat has suffered or died, then we all “get to” feel better about the supposed crimes, to gain “closure,” to move beyond interpersonal strife or whatever other ills we are carrying. There is a collective erroneous belief that suffering is supposed to allow people to move on, past unpleasantness. Of course this is a big fat lie, and like my kids’ hands that are sticky with candy that they were not supposed to have before dinner, sticky hands just pick up more and more dirt. This may be an inept metaphor, but it is my lame way to say that one mistake, one error in judgement or one wrong will just keep leading to more and more of a mess until we finally ‘fess up and admit to sneaking the candy. I am sickened and saddened by capitol punishment and I am constantly saddened by our human propensity to hurt and kill one another. As a Christian, there is something about the Lamb of God imagery that is for me, not about blood so much, but it about cleansing, healing and life. I do not think the hurting and dying will ever end until we as individuals or as a society can find a way to name the wrongs and acknowledge the guilt for whatever is ailing us (and the ailments are legion). We have to call out the ailments or mistakes and injustices. Say their names out loud. Not let the shame take us underground with unspoken pain. I think laying down those burdens (like the words in so many old hymns) is good for us and lightens the human load. A lighter communal load may bring us more collective life and take away the drive to seek out blood and the next scapegoat. I pray so.

    • Laura, thanks. And see my reply to Anthony. Neville is so refreshing to me because he offers a way to think about the multiple symbols of Jesus responding to a variety of questions/problems, so we don’t always focus on just one symbol. And in fact, some of those symbols may not “speak” to us a given point in our lives but it will at another, and so on. And I LOVE the sticky hands image with your kids. That’s exactly on target….

  2. I confess that I really don’t “get” the concept of the “Lamb of God” (sacrifical lamb). If, as Jay asserts, we all carry “collective blood guilt” for things that our ancestors did (an assertion with which I disagree, taking the definition of “guilt” perhaps more narrowly than many psychoanalysts or theologians might), I still don’t understand how believing in “Jesus as the slain Lamb of God” can serve to mitigate any of that guilt. How can someone else’s sacrifice/death do anything to lessen my own guilt if I do something wrong? (And please, don’t fall back on the “it’s a mystery” argument used so often by Roman Catholic priests and nuns to explain something they don’t understand.) If we have to make use of someone else’s death in order to atone for things we’ve done wrong, we’re just avoiding our own personal responsibility to make things right. In my opinion. Thanks.

    • Anthony, I still find the Lamb of God/sacrifice imagery difficult. That’s why I keep re-reading Neville (and others). And actually, I do believe all theological statements are ultimately a “mystery,” but that shouldn’t be an escape hatch from grappling with difficult questions. Neville’s response to your question has to do with the subtitle of his book: a christology of symbolic engagement, which is not just a “mystery” but it’s not crudely mechanistic, either. Trying to outline what he means here, in a blog, would be difficult. But I do find him persuasive about the importance of dealing with collective and not just individual responsibility and guilt (much of the Levitical material on atonement, for example, has very little to do with individual wrong-doing and instead focuses on the whole people of Israel.) I find it a bit easier to wrap my head around the Girard/Alison approach: the death and resurrection of Jesus exposes the scapegoat mechanism for what it is and invites a different way to create communal cohesion. That said, one of things I really like about Neville is that the many different symbols of Jesus (Lamb of God is just one of those that he deals with) all depend on the particular question one is asking. If we want to ask how each of us takes personal responsibility for making the world a better place, the symbol of the Lamb of God is not the appropriate answer. But Jesus as Cosmic Christ might be, for example.

  3. Thank you, Jay, for addressing this issue that has long been a point of pain for me. The embarrassment of living in a country that is capable of so much good yet insists on killing its own citizens is difficult to comprehend. (And don’t even get me started on the fact that we allow capital punishment but we won’t let people who are dying from painfully long, drawn out diseases make their own decision about when to end their lives with dignity.) I have long advocated for the abolishment of the death penalty, and can’t wait to “casually” drop in the line about Jesus being a victim of the same kind of thinking. Let me tell you, here in the South that could be enough to make folks look rather queerly at me (nudge, nudge, wink, wink)!

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