In my years BG (Before Girard) I understood scandal in a strictly moral way, i.e.a destruction of the spiritual good through public sin. Rene' Girard showed just how impoverished this idea is. The evolutionary anthropologist unpacked scandal not as a badge of shame, or just a paparazzi source of titillation. Rather it is a powerful structural relationship: a mutuality poisoned by violence. Most astonishing, Girard traces the structural concept to Jesus, who was the first clearly to articulate it.
Girard explains how Jesus conceived scandal as the "model-obstacle," a situation where someone shows another what to desire by means of a violent opposition. The case of Peter is the classic instance. He tries to stop Jesus going to Jerusalem to suffer and die: Jesus calls him a "skandalon," because Peter is trying to infect him with his violent desire in relation to Jerusalem and doing so through his own urgent opposition to Jesus' plan. Jesus says this is a temptation from Satan which can trip him (Jesus) up, for it seeks to turn his way of nonviolence back to the traditional anthropology of violence.
Jesus' ministry represented a concrete historical movement and so it was too easy for people around him, like Peter, to take it up with the standard anthropology of power and violence (see e.g. Mk. 10:37). Jesus had to insist again and again on the profoundly new structure of humanity that went with his breakthrough. He preached against the character of scandal itself, a relationship which insinuates violence into the heart of "little ones" causing them to stumble back into the violent world order. "Woe to the world because of scandals. For it is necessary that scandals come: but woe to that man by whom the scandal comes." (Matthew 18:6-7). This teaching is extraordinarily relevant to Christians in North America in these first decades of the 21st century.
We are scandalized by everything and everyone: Tea Partyers by Government, Liberals by Tea Partyers, Gays by Homophobes, Homophobes by Gays, Christians by Christians, Non-Christians by Christians, Spirituals by Religious, Religious by Spirituals, Secessionists by Obama, Progressives by Bush. The whole recent election was an exercise in acute scandal provoked by one side on the other, together with the constant zombie-like attempt to infuse everyone with the same outrage. Romney's 47% became a mantra of offense, and Obama was, of course, a closet Muslim Socialist. I recently came on a post-election political commentary imagining at length what it would be like if Romney had in fact won: almost as if were impossible to leave behind that endless satisfaction of scandal.
The gospel continues to lay bare the violence of culture. Because of it we are just like Peter. We are keen to take up the causes of Jesus but with the old anthropological structure intact inside us, and perhaps more virulent than ever. Because there has been a disclosure of violence but not a deep conversion to Jesus' new humanity of forgiveness and love we are susceptible to a tsunami of mediated hostility. And we shouldn't feel condemned in admitting this. The New Tesatament is keen to underline that the "greatest" figures are affected. John the Baptist is someone else who risked seeing Jesus in terms of violent opposition (probably because Jesus was not following through in the expected path of revolution, and was felt as opposing John's deeply religious desire). Jesus commented that John would be "blessed" if he could come to the point of not being "scandalized."
Scandal is now a normal structure of consciousness in the West, a seesawing back and forth of violent desire. Worse, it has become the self-justifying mind-set of those who take certain Christian values seriously, but do not go the whole yard in the new nonviolent humanity of Christ. In which case the Christian religion is caught as a self-tightening noose. It is falling tighter and tighter into a trap of its own making and which Jesus warned about a long time ago.
Jesus of course wasn't afraid to speak in opposition to the groups and institutions around him. But his opposition was not violent. He spoke from within a radical human newness, one that did not dwell in the dark caves of resentment and envy. He was prepared to give himself completely for the sake of forgiveness and love, and because he did he released this quality of relationship into the world for his followers.
The Holy Spirit is the peace he gives, "not as the world gives,'" but it is very much in the world, something that changes everything. Without a living sense of this new world we will only recycle the structures of violence when we speak.
The vital thing is to discover this space of the Spirit rising up in the world and its history, as an act of grace hand in hand with the increase of scandal. Eventually it must outstrip scandal. It has to be this way. because, paradoxically, it is the peace of Christ which helps provoke the scandal (as it did with John the Baptist), and every time there is an upsurge of scandal there is, deep in its undertow, the peace of a new creation. Our work is every time to find that true space behind the scandal.
For if a new humanity cannot be discovered existentially in the here, it would seem existentially impossible to find it in the hereafter.
Tony Bartlett, Contributing Theologian