Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 134: Parables
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 134: Parables

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

One of Christianity's distinctive features is that Jesus relied heavily on parables. Matthew's gospel relates, "All this Jesus said to the crowds in parables; indeed he said nothing to them without a parable. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet: 'I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter what has been hidden since the foundation of the world'" (Matthew 13:34-35). However, parables lend themselves to diverse interpretations, which is one reason that Christians hold such a wide range of theologies despite sharing a common text. Why, then, did Jesus rely so heavily on parables?

I suggest that reading the Bible through the lens of the scapegoating process yields an explanation. According to Girard, the scapegoating process is the foundation of human culture. People raised in a culture founded on scapegoating cannot appreciate how the myths, rituals, and taboos associated with scapegoating pervade all knowledge, including language  itself. If Jesus had spoken directly and had tried to explain how everyone participates in scapegoating, he would have been ridiculed at best or, more likely, he would have been accused of demonic possession and killed.

Indeed, this is why prophets have so commonly been killed - one of their principle prophetic insights has been to identify when people are scapegoating, and exposing scapegoating threatens social order and peace.

When prophets have claimed that their culture's "sacred" violence has been instigated by human desires and not ordained by the divine, the prophets have threatened the very fabric of society. They have raised doubts about the myths that have previously provided answers to critical questions, including the culture's origins, everyone's current purpose in life, and everyone's post-mortem destiny. Further, when prophets have revealed sacrificial, scapegoating violence as meaningless, they have undermined rituals that have helped generate camaraderie and maintained communal cohesiveness. In addition, these rituals have given people a sense of control over the powerful forces of nature that can dominate their lives, including disease, drought, locust infestations, terrible storms, and earthquakes. Finally, prophets have exposed as groundless the taboos (e.g., caste systems) that have seemed to provide peace and order. Losing confidence in their myths, rituals, and taboos would make people feel extremely vulnerable.

So, those prophets who have proclaimed that God loves Creation and does not want violence and destructiveness have often been dismissed as fools, shunned as insane, or killed as heretics.

False prophets who talk about the gods demanding sacrifices do not need to talk in parables, because the language of "sacred" violence is a language people have always understood. The only way to communicate the truth that God does not want scapegoating violence is elliptically. Jesus provided a wide range of stories with surprising endings and obtuse sayings. This would encourage people to think in new ways, without directly challenging their myths, rituals, and taboos. The passion accounts more clearly demonstrated the scandal of scapegoating violence, which has helped Christians recognize the parables as revealing "what has been hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).

This understanding of parables seems to accord with a parallel passage in Mark: "With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything" (4:33-34). While Mark describes the disciples as notoriously slow to understand Jesus' ministry, the disciples trusted and believed in Jesus.

Consequently, unlike the rest of the community, the disciples were ready to hear straightforward explanations of Jesus' teachings. In contrast, regarding his public teaching, Jesus explained, "This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah [6:9-10] which says: 'You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn to me to heal them'" (Matthew 13:13-16). Those outside Jesus' circle were so unprepared for his message that they could only start to grasp Jesus' teachings when he used parables.

Go on to: Part 135: Questions Raised by Parabolic Teaching
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