Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Halloween Atonement Test

Marshall St., every Friday afternoon, in the Syracuse University student quarter, there's a man parading dressed in scripture-quote billboards and threatening hell to all those who don't take Jesus as their savior. His booming voice bounces off bar fronts and food joints, declaring doom to come. Everyone blocks him out, but that doesn't bother him. It simply confirms the structure of his universe. Each time his voice is ignored the ground opens up in front of the person who ignored him.

Hearing this man it's easy to feel the hard edge of violence in the inherited Christian message. It's something difficult to square with a Teacher who began his teaching with "Blessed are the peacemakers..." but quite easy to believe once you understand the story that has gone on between. The Teacher died a violent death, as part of his mission, and what simpler way to understand a violent episode than via the accepted mechanics of violence?

Once Christian thinkers looked around for ways to explain Jesus' death to the masses, they swiftly hit on notions of payment and punishment. You offend me, I'll take a chunk of you! Simple as that. All that was required was to put Jesus in the place of the rest of us who should be paying, and bingo, what have you got? You have the displaced payment of dues to a most unforgiving, grim and terrible god, by a passive, submissive victim who happens to be his son. This is the classic Christian doctrine of atonement.

Not hard then to imagine the second-order consequence of refusing to accept the ferocious pay-off made available through Jesus! Hell, yes!

My friend on Marshall St. is a typical child of two millennia of Christian misconstruction of Jesus' death.

The violence in his voice and soul was put there by Christian history. How much more difficult and challenging it would have been--given intellectual and institutional frameworks-- for Christian thinkers to explain Jesus' death as overcoming the mechanics of violence itself? If Jesus did pay anything it was of such an extravagant, limitless kind that it blew up the system of payment. It was as if he kept printing dollars on the cross, and no one could stop him, so all the dollars became completely worthless, and the only economy left was the one he had modeled, one of limitless giving.

As for violence, it is always itself a system of payment ("I'll get you back!") and Jesus of course exploded that too. By the excess of giving on the cross he shed light on our ancient structure of violent human reciprocity, one that works itself out in our bones and minds in an instant, before we even realize it, and in a flash there is blood on the ground. This revelation by the cross has become articulated in contemporary thought in the notions of "mimetic desire," "mirror neurons" and "the surrogate victim" powerfully laid out in the work of Rene Girard.

Institutional Christianity seems more or less stuck with the default meaning of Christ's death inherited from the centuries. Certainly there are numerous theologians and teachers working in this new direction, but the comfort of violence as a generative principle and its hold on human logic are so great that it adds up to an enormous ideological and religious obstacle. The man on Marshall St. is perhaps an extreme example, but his condition to one degree or another is endemic in all of Christianity.

However, that is not the whole story, by any means. The gospel revelation of violence is not in fact happening essentially in the churches, but broadly in culture, and that is Girard's amazing insight. He found the evidence first in novels and plays, and to some degree in philosophy, and in my own work I have shown it in evidence in movies (and again in philosophy). What this means is that the crucial shift in Christianity is being prompted largely from outside its institutional forms. It's almost as if the Crucified struggles on his own with violence, bringing it to the surface, exposing it and slowly making possible the alternative. This leads me directly to Halloween and what I'd like to propose as the "Halloween Atonement Test." If popular culture can pass the Halloween Test it means that, one way or other, the mechanism and message of Christianity have been changed radically, from one of violence to one of peace and nonviolence.  

The ghosts, zombies, skeletons, witches, hanged men, chopped up limbs, crumbling graveyards, rats, bats, scorpions, spiders, cobwebs, and oh yes the pumpkins, those gaudy gourds with a color and shape uncannily reminiscent of a severed human head, what is all this, if not a revelation of generative violence? It is taking place chaotically and ambiguously but without a doubt it shows an enormous consciousness of violence. Why not then include a large crucifix in the front yard alongside the skulls and hanged men? Would it not perfectly belong there? 

The reaction at once is "No, this would be a kind of blasphemy! The cross is a sacred form of violence, all that other stuff is regular profane violence." But, really, the point of the cross is exactly that: it is regular human violence, to which Jesus replied with transcendent forgiveness and peace. Putting it among the ghouls and the gore would declare this definitively as its role. It would show a true recognition of the death of Jesus as a laying bare of generative violence, and with that the communication of generative peace.

The prehistory of Halloween is pretty clearly a pre-Christian cyclical feast, the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sawin) celebrated Oct. 31st/Nov. 1st. It was especially concerned with the dead and enemies lurking among them (very possibly the victims of murder). The victim gets his day in the sun so to speak and then is stuffed back in the ground. The church's attempt in the 9th century to upstage the "summer's end" ritual by placing a Feast of All Saints on November 1st (and All Souls the day after) proved unable to suppress it. Perhaps because "saints" go to some heavenly otherworld and leave this one still roiled in violence. Perhaps because the fact of the victim was already dimly sensed, despite the pagan trappings, as a Christian truth. But the North American Halloween, and its growing popularity throughout the world, are something else again. It is an intense semiotic display which looks and feels more and more like visual and dramatic "disclosure" of violence. It seems as if deep down the broad cultural effect of the Crucified has been added to the ancient ritualized event pushing all this cruelty into the open, implicitly asking us, begging us, to let go of it.

So why not then place a crucifix in the front yard, next to the skeletons and hanged men? Would that not state unarguably that the cross is an event of human violence, and at the same time and for that reason, communicate a transforming peace to the human scene?

If I ever get to see something like that I'll know Christianity has finally passed its Halloween Atonement Test!

Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian

1 comment:

  1. Your post here helps me understand my gut feeling that there is something healthy underneath the sometimes ghoulish dressing up on Halloween, objections of some Christians not withstanding. It has to do with facing our deepest fears, even joking about them. It is interesting to reflect on how gift-giving has been integrated into this secular celebration with a focus on giving to the young. (Unfortunately, the young have to be guarded all the more closely these days when they go out.) Perhaps the gift-giving is at least a baby step to reaching out to those who embody all that we fear.