The “intelligence of the victim”

In the second chapter of his book Knowing Jesus (see previous post), James Alison introduces his concept of “the intelligence of the victim”.

As he admits, this is not an easy concept to express – like Luther’s theology of the cross, which in many respects it resembles. And for much the same reason, since each involves a fundamental shift in how we naturally view the world.

This article summarises Dr Alison’s concept of the intelligence of the victim, which it links to Rene Girard’s theory that:

…all human mythology is from the perspective of the victimizers, namely, the story of human culture generated at the expense of victims – though the collective violence of culture is veiled behind the violence of the gods. The Gospel is the inbreaking into human mythology of God’s story of salvation as told from the perspective of the Lamb of God, God’s Son offered to our cultural mechanisms of victimage.

Luther expressed his theology of the cross in his words crux sola est nostra theologia: the cross alone is our theology. God is to can truly be known only as he is found hidden in suffering and the cross. The intelligence of the victim, similarly, has implications across the whole of our theology: on our understanding of Jesus, God, human society and what it means to follow Jesus.

1. Jesus

Dr Alison starts with the resurrection of Jesus, and points out that this did more than provide a new understanding of the afterlife. Instead, “something radically new became known”, and it is this that Alison describes as “the intelligence of the victim” – the “profound shift in … understanding” which Jesus’ followers underwent:

[T]he disciples started being able to tell the story of Jesus’ execution not from the point of view of the muddled, frightened, half-hearted semi-traitors that they all were, but from the point of view of the victim.

They realised that “Jesus himself had understood all this from the beginning”, and that the “intelligence of the victim” had been a central aspect of his life and teaching all along:

It is not as though he lived his life, and then by mistake got involved in an imbroglio in Jerusalem and so got killed. From the vantage point of the resurrection, the presence of the forgiving victim, the disciples could see that the whole drift of Jesus’ life had been towards the passion.

2. God

This revelation about Jesus was also a revelation about God himself. Old Testament texts such as Psalm 118:x enabled the disciples to grasp how:

…the making of this man a victim, apparently in ignorance, and done to please God (Jesus had been judged a blasphemer) was in fact the condition for God to be revealed for what he really is: the forgiving victim.

As Alison writes towards the end of the book, Jesus’ aim in living out and revealing the intelligence of the victim is to reveal the Father:

The whole process of Jesus’ life, leading up to and including his death, is what defines who the Father is. This is because the life is lived in obedient response to the Father’s love, and is an exact imitation of the Father’s love lived out in the human race. The imitation reveals the one imitated.

3. Human society

Dr Alison argues that, in Matthew’s gospel, the intelligence of the victim was “not seen as something only related to the person of Jesus”, but as a universal principle:

Jesus is revealing something that has always been true about human society, from the time of Abel the just, to that of Zechariah the son of Berachiah (Matthew 23:35). … Human society is a violent place, which makes victims, and the revelation of God is to be found in the midst of that violence, on the side of the victims.

4. Following Jesus

Finally, the intelligence of the victim is not only present where Jesus speaks explicitly of his death and resurrection, but in Jesus’ moral teaching and his call to discipleship.

So, for example, in the Beatitudes “the people chosen as proximity to God are all marginal, dependent people”: the poor, the meek, the merciful and so on. Similarly in the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:

It is the crucified and risen victim who is judge of the world, and the world is judged in the light of its relationship to the crucified and risen victim.

Above all, the intelligence of the victim implies a freedom in giving oneself to others, in not being moved by the violence of others, even when we realise that the result of this free self-giving is likely to be the same as it was for Jesus: a lynching. Jesus’ followers are freed to:

start to side with the victims and those who can easily be victimised, even though, as an inevitable consequence of this breaking out of the violent determinism of the world, they would be liable to become victims themselves.

In my next post, we’ll look at how this intelligence of the victim is lived out in the “new Israel” of the church, in particular in the Lord’s Supper.

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6 Responses to The “intelligence of the victim”

  1. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » The new Israel and the eucharist

  2. Phil Walker says:

    I can see where this is coming from, and the link to a theology of the cross is clear. However, I’m slightly uneasy about talking about the cross as God offering himself to our ‘cultural mechanisms of victimage’, for a few reasons. Firstly, because the cross only happened once, but our cultures happen time and again in different ways. The cross is a universal phenomenon, not a culturally-bound one.

    Secondly, and more substantially, it does tend to suggest that propitiation was not, in any real sense, God’s idea. It was as if we came up with it, and God kind of said, ‘Oh, well, if you’re going to think about things that way, then I guess I’d better play the role of the victim.’ But to go back to Genesis (as so much theology does, eventually), it was God who told us we would surely die, and God who killed the animal to provide the covering. In other words, Alison is saying that sacrifice was our idea and God ‘fulfilled’ it: I would say sacrifice was God’s ‘idea’ (not quite the right word, but it’ll do), we corrupted it, but God ‘fulfilled’ it.

    Thirdly, these ways of thinking about the cross always seem to me to end up saying that the cross was basically God acting manward, rather than God acting Godward in behalf of and for the benefit of man. The latter sounds more biblical to me than the former.

  3. Phil Walker says:

    (I should add, the slightness is because I can see the rhetorical force of the point that Alison is making, and I think that there are passages which tend to back up its validity as a concept. In that sense, it’s like Christus Victor: true and useful, but if this were everything we said about the cross, we would be missing the key point.)

  4. John H says:

    Phil: I found myself wondering, as I read Alison, whether he accepted/recognised the concept of propitiation at all. So I share some of your concerns here.

    That said, I don’t think we should panic when someone gives an account of the cross in terms other than substitutionary atonement. The cross is a multi-faceted event, and can be looked at from more than one point of view. Rather than rejecting Alison’s viewpoint, I think it is more fruitful to ask whether it can be seen as compatible with substitutionary atonement. (Probably outside the scope of this comment box!)

    the cross only happened once, but our cultures happen time and again in different ways. The cross is a universal phenomenon, not a culturally-bound one.

    James Alison is following Rene Girard, who insisted that the pattern of the rejected and excluded victim was itself a universal phenomenon. (See this post.) Alison sees this as a fundamental aspect of original sin.

    This may also address your point about God taking the initiative rather than reacting to human behaviour. For Alison (following Girard), the victim mechanism is an intrinsic consequence of sin. God’s institution of sacrifice is, from the start, the means by which this victim mechanism will be exposed and ultimately overthrown – by means of its own dynamic turned on itself.

    these ways of thinking about the cross always seem to me to end up saying that the cross was basically God acting manward, rather than God acting Godward in behalf of and for the benefit of man

    And the conventional evangelical presentation – a la John Stott in The Cross of Christ (a wonderful book I would not be without) – can end up making the human aspects of Jesus’ death almost incidental to the intra-trinitarian transaction: just a means to an end.

    The cross was not only God acting Godward, but God acting manward and man acting Godward (by crucifying him!), and each aspect is illuminated by considering the others more deeply. It seems to me there are rich possibilities in considering how Girard’s “scapegoat mechanism” can inform our understanding of the atonement. Is the need for a victim which Girard identifies in every society a corrupted echo of the genuine need for atonement and propitiation? In that case it is entirely appropriate that Jesus’ death should both provide the true fulfilment of what the scapegoat mechanism points to, and subvert/overthrow it.

  5. Phil Walker says:

    That said, I don’t think we should panic when someone gives an account of the cross in terms other than substitutionary atonement.

    No indeed, and I hope it’s clear I wasn’t. When I said I was concerned about a presentation which ends up asserting that ‘the cross was basically about God acting manward’, I really meant ‘basically’. There’s a richness in what’s going on at the cross, but the cross is basically God acting Godward, and the other things (even man acting manward, when it comes to it) are true, and certainly true, but they are true secondarily. I’ve been asked to preach in a few weeks’ time, and I’ll be partly talking about Christus Victor (not in those terms), so I’m definitely not an adherent to the Johnny-one-note school of thought!

    On the other points, your clarifications have mollified to a degree my uneasiness. Thanks. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Immorality, unanimity and victimisation

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