- The Sacrament of Nonlethal Love
sacrament, blood of the covenant, nonlethal, atonement, Tshuvah, scape-goating
Violence of one kind or another dominates the news every day. Violence in homes, schools, communities and nations destroys the well-being of life for countless people all over the world. With the possible spread of nuclear weapons, the capacity for violence even threatens the very existence of human life on the planet. Yet, the belief persists that either lethal violence or the threat of lethal violence is the only possible remedy, the only direction hope can pursue. A French anthropologist, René Girard, in the late twentieth century challenged this belief. He said, "The definitive renunciation of violence . . . will become for us the condition . . . for the survival of humanity itself and for each one of us." 1 Girard insisted that Jesus' nonviolence, based on a theme from the Hebrew Scriptures, was a breakthrough in human history that could now determine the survival of human civilization. Why have the Christian churches, the followers of Jesus, not proclaimed this hope more effectively?
This claim of Girard's leaves Christians asking, "How should we change our ways to make the promise of Jesus' nonviolent love more central to our worship and living?" The answer might be to rethink our central sacrament of eucharist or holy communion. If the central sacrament of the Christian churches were a celebration of nonlethal love for neighbors and enemies, it would be a significant force for peace and compassion in the world. This change would depend on recovering the original meaning of Jesus' words to [End Page 459] his disciples at the Last Supper. It would be a valid response to Jesus' last request of his disciples: "Do this in remembrance of me" (Lk. 22:19). 2
During the Last Supper Jesus referred to his death as the pouring out of the blood of the covenant (Mk. 14:24). Those words have been interpreted as referring to his death as a scapegoating event, a substitute sacrifice of Jesus to satisfy God's need for retributive justice. Matthew and other New Testament authors add to Jesus' words and expand on the scapegoating theme. Matthew adds the phrase, "for the forgiveness of sins" (Mt. 26:28), but this explanation is missing from the words of institution in both Mark and Luke. As far as we can see, scapegoating atonement was not central to Jesus' teachings about the covenant. It is possible, and even likely, that the classic words of institution of the sacrament referred to Jesus' belief in the nonlethal love that was central to his understanding of the covenant. All three Synoptic Gospels add a reference by Jesus to the coming of the Reign of God after his death. The Reign was a condition of human life lived in covenant with God, not limited to a state of private forgiveness for believers. For Jesus, the blood of the covenant very likely referred to the blood that he would shed in keeping the law of the covenant. The same meaning applies to his reference to his body broken for us. If this was what Jesus meant in his words at the Last Supper, the sacrament of eucharist or holy communion should be a sacrament of nonlethal love. (Note that the term "nonlethal love" clearly excludes killing, whereas "nonviolence" appears to exclude legitimate force that does not intend killing. The sacrament might be called "the sacrament of mercy" if the nonlethal connotation were clearly understood.)
In order to help church members recover an understanding of the sacrament, the meaning of Jesus' death and the meaning of the sacrament should be interpreted in light of the biblical theology of covenant and its central gospel of atonement. Jesus, after all, was explicitly speaking about the covenant, and atonement has always been a central issue in the understanding of the sacrament.
According to the scriptures, God makes covenants with people and with the whole creation (in the Noachic covenant), and in these covenants God promises to be faithful in loving the earth and its people—providing that [End Page 460] people, in turn, live as God intends them to live by keeping the law of...