I DESIRE MERCY AND NOT SACRIFICE <br> - An Ecumenical Interpretation
- An Ecumenical Interpretation

Dr. Kosuke Koyama
John D. Rockefeller Jr. Emeritus Professor of Ecumenical Studies
Union Tbeological Seminary, New York City
Delivered in Halifax, Nova Scotia
November 4, 1996
Franciscan Friars of the Atonement

     I desire mercy and not sacrifice - is taken from the Book of Hosea (6:6) of the Hebrew Scripture. "God desires mercy and not sacrifice". Religion imagines sacrifice. Sacrifice is another name for religion, and vice versa. Our theme, then, implies a strong Critique of religion. I agree with Micah, Isaiah, Niebuhr and Tillich and others that the Biblical faith contains the sharp critique of religion. Marx's famous dictum; "religion is the opium of the people" is old hat for the Biblical tradition. Allow me, however, to use this somewhat ambiguous word in a different way. What, then, do I mean by "religion"? Religion is our awareness of the power of the beyond over which we have no control. This awareness is then accompanied by a sense of crisis. The religious person is able to engage in critical self-examination. Religion is a critique of idolatry. Since in any religious situation true religion and false religion cohabitate, I must say that true religion is a critique of idolatry. False religion increases idolatry, while wherever there is a critique of idolatry, there is true religion. In personal terms, whenever we critique and repent of our own self-righteousness, we have a religious experience which may be called true. Self-righteousness is the essence of false religion. In 1935, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote; "There is no deeper pathos in the spiritual life of man than the cruelty of righteous people. If any one idea dominates the teachings of Jesus, it is his opposition to the self-righteousness of the righteous" (An Interpretation of Christian Ethics).

     In our theme, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" we find the foundation for true religion. I understand our theme to be one of the crucial words pointing to the essential character of the Biblical God. God is hesed (steadfast love, faithfulness, mercy, loving kindness, faithful love, pardoning grace, covenant faithfulness, goodness, loyalty) . God's hesed, faithful and merciful, is constant in comparison to Israel's hesed which is like a transient morning cloud (Hosea 6:4). Thus God experiences "disappointment and anguish" (Hosea, The Anchor Bible p.430). In spite of this disappointment, God's hesed becomes 6 6 pardoning grace " (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, abridged in one volume, p.223). God wills shalom. Hesed "is an act of inner faithfulness and therefore of grace" (Bernhard W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament, p.308). "Hesed is a matter of ultimate concern for Yahweh" (Anchor, ibid). Hesed, then, must also be the ultimate concern of humanity. The hesed God desires hesed from humanity.

      The Hosea passage is twice quoted by Jesus (Mt. 9:13, 12:7) In both instances he speaks of the hesed (The New Testament eleos) of God which is overflowing pardoning love for sinful humanity. The God of Jesus is ever ready to show mercy (Lk. 1: 5 8, Eph. 2:4, 1 Pet.1:3). "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Lk.6:36).

     The Father ever intends to create an enriching wholesome human relationship by teaching us that what we are is more important than what we have. "I desire what you are and not what you have". We must not forget that the astronomical amount of resources we poured into war preparations and wars in the twentieth century comes from our reverse reading of this; "I desire what you have not what you are". Hesed must not be translated into the English word "charity". The idea of charity is paternalistic. It flows from the fortunate to the less fortunate. The Christian tradition teaches that the love (agape) emanates from Jesus Christ when was completely peripherized and marginalized on the cross. "He saved others; he cannot save himself' (Mk. 15:32). The hesed of God flows from the crucified to those who are not crucified. We commend charity. But we must remember this extraordinary reverse flow when we say the word "charity".

     Speaking on Islam, the Qur'anic emphasis on " Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate" is indicated by the fact that all 1 14 chapters, except one, in the Qur'an open with this affirmation. Allah is severe and demanding (jalal) but Allah is tender and merciful (jamal). Allah's tenderness is more ultimate than Allah's severity. The holy refrain in the Qur'an is "Surely Thou turnest, and art All-compassionate" (2:123). Salvation comes to us when Allah in infinite compassion freely turns a merciful face towards us. All that came to be, is and shall be because of the unfathomable mercy of Allah. This is the Islamic way of saying "I desire hesed and not sacrifice".

     "Mercy" in my Japanese culture is personified in the ninth century statue of the Medicine Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism (Yakushi Nyorai ) enshrined in Japan's ancient city of Nara. The mythological Buddha who is somewhere between eternity and temporality, is tranquil, constant, intelligent, and full of mercy, holding a medicine box in his left hand, ever ready to help those who suffer spiritually and physically. Looking at this Buddha image Japanese would say what Muslims say "Surely Thou, [the Medicine Buddha], turnest, and art All-compassionate". This is the Mahayana Buddhist way of saying "I desire mercy and not sacrifice".

     For Jews, Christians and Muslims God's "I desire mercy" is the inner meaning of God's "I am who I am" (Ex. 3:14) not "I am what I have". The union between being and mercy, or to use the words of the Orthodox theologian, John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, has been the "heat" (tapas in the Hindu scripture) that has kept human civilization from perishing from the cold. Why is God of the three faiths hesed. No one can answer.

     What kind of saying is "I desire mercy and not sacrifice"? It is not a scientific objective statement. It can be heard and received only by faith and trust. Its truthfulness is hidden in the profundity with which it speaks to our basic human problem. It is important for the human community to know that hesed is the measure of community life for humanity.

      But human community cannot be governed by the direct application of this saying, just as Jesus' counsel to forgive "seventy-seven times" (Mt. 1 8:22) cannot serve as the rule of law. There is no direct connection between sociology and theology. The tax table must be influenced by hesed. But hesed cannot replace the tax table. In the words of Reinhold Niebuhr; "It is like all true religious visions, possible of approximation but not of realization in actual history" (Moral Man and Immoral Society p.22) Our theme combats dehumanization. It casts out the unclean spirits of society.

      This great pronouncement of Hosea draws attention to one of my serious problems with religion. It is the proximity between sacrifice and violence. They seem to live under one roof Where there is sacrifice, there is violence, and vice versa. If sacrifice is, as is often suggested, an important element in religion, then is violence also an inescapable accompaniment of religion? Could I suggest an alternative reading to Hosea, "I desire mercy and not violence," without changing the message? But there must be a difference, I say to myself, between violence and sacrifice. For instance, Christianity is based on the sacrifice Jesus made, but not on violence. I would like to suggest that false religion calls violence sacrifice. True religion exposes this deception, suggesting that mercy is a necessary content of sacrifice. Sacrifice which is not the embodiment of mercy is nothing but violence. In a nut shell, that is where I am in my thinking now.

      Let me make a few observations on this. It appears to me that both in violence and in sacrifice as we have generally conceived them we often violate Others in order to enhance our own security. Violence and sacrifice, in most cases, spring from the egoistic spirit. I hear little eulogy of sacrifice from those people who are sacrificed. But I must be careful now because sacrifice is a highly ambiguous concept.

      When I think of sacrifice the color red, the color of blood, comes immediately to my mind. In the distant past, when our ancestors slaughtered an animal to get raw meat, they must have seen the red blood in the animal which was like their own. This commonality made the idea of transference possible. In eating animal flesh life was transferred metamorphosed - to human life. What they were engaged was not violence, but "transference". I understand that this possibility of transference is essential to the concept of "sacrifice." For sacrifice to have meaning, something - life or death, blessing or curse - has to be moved from this location to that. Lions are not violent against zebras. They are eating -transferring zebra to themselves. Here simply and inevitably life is feeding on life, to use the Hindu Kali goddess axiom. The modem meat packing industry belongs to the category of transference, not violence.

      I do not have much difficulty with the Lion-Zebra situation. But I realize that the human situation is different, because humans overkill. All civilizations are built upon overkill. "Elijah said to them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape'. Then they seized them; and Elijah brought them down to the Wadi Kishon, and killed them there" (I Kg. 18:40). Surely, it was overkill! It is notable that soon afterwards Elijah himself was fired. Did God, perhaps, see Elijah's massacre of the priests of Baal as overkill? Civilizations are always accompanied by war and genocide. All civilizations and all nations - are incorrigibly idolatrous and self-righteous. Individual persons may repent, but nations do not.

     Civilizations, past and present, have practiced, even demanded, some kind of liturgy of over- or runaway-sacrifice. In the deeper level of the collective human psyche, our civilized life is motivated by false religion. Therefore all civilizations practice slavery, caste-system, inquisition, racism, sexism, economic exploitation, war and genocide. When I read the Book of Leviticus (1: 1 - 7:3 8), though my senses are overwhelmed by blood, and the smell of smoke, I see a connection between Leviticus and the New York Times. Both report on a human society which is in need of spilling of blood in order to maintain a religious civilization. Religions commend sacrifice, and all empires are willing to sacrifice any number of people for the enhancement of their glory. Our language is hopelessly confused. Calling violence sacrifice we justify violence. False religion is fully at work!

     Two sages of the ancient East, the Buddha and Confucius, rejected sacrifice as useless magic catering to the ignorant mind. By moral endeavor, not by slaughtering animals, they taught (with Zoroaster), genuine human fulfillment is accomplished. The Qur'an rejects the sacrificial way of approaching Allah. "It is not their meat nor their blood, that reaches Allah: it is your piety that reaches Him' (22:3 7). In Islam, the slaughter of "the sacrificial camels" acquires religious significance not as a sacrifice offered to Allah but as providing an occasion to distribute meat to the needy. The Qur'anic suggestion comes pleasingly closer to the Lion-Zebra paradigm.

     On the other hand, I am not yet ready to move away from the ambiguity of sacrifice-making. The Bible raises all sorts of questions.

What is the meaning of the sacrifice of Isaac? Was it, as some have suggested, a move in the direction of the abolition of human sacrifice?
Was the death of Egypt's firstborn on the night of Israel's escape a kind of sacrifice? (Ex. 12: 29-3 1)? To what benefit?
Were the Bethlehem infants sacrificed (Mt. 2:16-18)? To what purpose?
And in our own day - was the holocaust of 6 million Jews a "sacrifice"? Offered to whom?
Were 200.000 people destroyed in an instant in Hiroshima "sacrificed"? In exchange for the lives of American soldiers?
Was the life of poverty of Saint Francis or is that of Mother Teresa a sacrifice? Is celibacy a sacrifice? Tillich says that acknowledgment of our own human finiteness is a sacrifice. Do we agree? (Systematic Theology Vol III p.288)

     And now I must also ask if the death of Christ was a sacrifice. That Christ made the supreme sacrifice that satisfied God who is therefore able to forgive sinners without compromising his justice (or without "loosing face") is a summary of the gospel I was taught as a child and believed for so long, though it has remained a disturbing puzzle for all these years. The particularly troublesome part of this summary for me is the suggestion that the death of Christ satisfied God. ". - -as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God" (Eph. 5:2). Is the death of Christ on the cross "a fragrant offering" that satisfied God? I feel threatened by this anthropomorphism because it contains the concealed germ of violence. The fragrant offering unnecessarily offends people of the Buddhist-Confucian East. I shall return to this, but for now may I invite you a brief session of Biblical study on the subject.

     First, is there in the Bible a critique of sacrifice religion? There is, in the prophecy of Micah.

With what shall I come before the Lord, bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, 0 mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (6:6-8).

And from Isaiah;

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? Says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; ... Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. ...When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. (Isa. 1: 1 I- 1 7, See: I Sam. 1 5:22, Amos 5:21-27, Ps.51:16f)

     These are hot words. How are we to interpret them? Are the prophets suggesting the abolition of sacrifice or are they criticizing the offering of sacrifices which are not accompanied by acts of hesed? Without concern for the poor incense (worship) is a mockery, an abomination to God. For the prophets spiritual life and ethical life are one.

     That sector of American Christianity which identifies Christianity with American cultural ideals (I call this American imperial Christianity) loves to talk about the sacrifice of Christ. But the more it eulogizes the sacrifice of Christ, the more insignificant hesed becomes. I contend that the prophets expose the difference between the true religion that defends the orphan and a false religion of self-righteousness that cannot see beyond burnt offerings of rams.

      Is not God's hesed, which is overflowing, capable of achieving salvation without resorting to a system of sacrifice?

     Joachim Jeremias studies the 40 parables of Jesus in Rediscovering the Parables (1966). This magisterial work presents no hint that the coming of the kingdom of God will require anything more than the gracious intention of God. The parables confidently and directly announce the coming of the kingdom;

The strong man is disarmed, the powers of evil have to yield, the physician has come to the sick, the lepers are cleansed, the heavy burden of guilt is removed, the lost sheep is brought home, the door of the Father' house is opened, the poor and the beggars are summoned to the banquet, a master whose kindness is undeserved pays wages in full, a great joy fills all hearts. God's acceptable year has come. For there has appeared the one whose veiled majesty shines through every word and every parable - the Savior (p. 181 )

     Jesus' parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt. 18:23-35) contains a decisive moment: "Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" (v.33). There is an immense difference in the size of the debts: 1 0,000 talents and I 00 denarii. ("A talent was worth more than fifteen years' wages of a laborer. The denarius was the usual day's wage for a laborer" [The NRSV footnotes]). The huge quantitative difference is a way to suggest the astonishing primacy of God's hesed. Without sacrifice, God forgives. The un-merciful servant failed to reciprocate the hesed he received. In the manner of false (sacrificial) religion, he demanded overkill.

     In the parables there is no mention of a "fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." In the parable of the Prodigal Son we read; "But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him." (Lk. 1 5:20). In this impressive simplicity of hesed, Judaism, Christianity and Islam come to a joyous unity. The gospels do not suggest the image of a God who requires the sacrifice of Jesus Christ in order to forgive humanity.

     Paul writes to the Roman congregation;

Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. (3:23-25)

     Justification is "a gift". There is no suggestion here that the death of Christ Jesus is a sacrifice to satisfy God's honor. "The redemption that is in Christ Jesus" is the event that "God put forward". Paul's language is focused on "gift" not on computation or negotiation.

     According to Gunther Bornkamm the Lord's Supper cannot be fit into the framework of the Jewish Passover meal. (See: Jesus of Nazareth, p. 1 6 1) I suggest that the theology of the Institution of the Lord's Supper is closer to that of the Suffering Servant (Isa.52:1353:12) than to that of the Passover. The one who bears "our infirmities and carries our diseases" is the image of passionate hesed for the salvation of the whole community.

     But how about the use of sacrificial language by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews (9:23-10:18)? Indeed, this writer uses the very sacrificial paradigm of the Mosaic law. But he sees the "sacrifice" Christ made of himself as qualitatively discontinuous in many ways from the old concept of the blood and bloodless sacrifices. The writer to the Hebrews insists that the self-offering of Christ is the final "sacrifice" that "once for all" rendered all previous and all sacrificial practices meaningless. Jesus is "the man who fits no formula" (See: Jesus by Eduard Schweizer, pp. 13-5 1).

     I wish to invite you to the thought developed in the celebrated work Cur Deus Homo by the eleventh century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury. He poses the question "Whether it were proper for God to put away sins by compassion alone, without any payment of debt". According to him God's compassion and God's justice coincide without any exterior necessity. Therefore it is improper for the dignity of God to "let the sinner go unpunished........ it is mockery to ascribe such compassion to God" (First Book, chapter 24) According to him, only the God-Man can restore to God "what the sinner has defrauded him" (See: Second Book, chapters 6.7). To whom is the satisfaction derived from sacrifice directed? Anselm is clear that the satisfaction ("payment") is made to God, not, as the third century theologian Origin suggested, to the devil. There is an element of quid pro quo ("something for something") in Anselm's thought. In my mind the quid pro quo conflicts with the image of "the father who runs towards the returning son".

     But is not the death of Christ a sacrifice, the supreme sacrifice in the church's teaching? The word "sacrifice" is central to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994). The saving mystery of Jesus Christ is called the "Paschal mystery" which points to the Paschal Lamb (Heb. pesah, Gk. pascha means "Passover". See. I Cor.5:7, Jn 1:29). The Paschal Mystery expresses itself in Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension and the Sending of the Holy Spirit. [1171] "The Eucharist is the memorial of Christ's Passover, the making present and the sacramental offering of his unique sacrifice, ... " [1362] "...On the altar, which is the center of the church, the sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs" [ 182]. "The Holy Sacrifice ... completes and surpasses all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant." [1330] "...The sacrificial character of the Eucharist is manifested in the very words of institution." [1365]

     In the recent important ecumenical document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, published by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches (1982) we read;

The eucharist is the memorial of the crucified and risen Christ, i.e. the living and effective sign of his sacrifice, accomplished once and for all on the cross and still operative on behalf of all humankind (p.11)

      John of the Epistles writes, "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (I Jn. 2:2). I understand this to mean that the death of Jesus on the cross is a sacrifice that does not fit any formula since with him sacrifice is completely identical with hesed, and therefore, sacrifice is completely separated from violence. There is no imperialism in Jesus Christ. He, the center person goes to periphery. He lives among us as the one who serves. He was violently executed. But he was not violent. He remained a full embodiment of hesed. He was the true martyr, the primary witness. Bringing together and unifying mercy and sacrifice on the cross, Jesus abolished "once for all" the efficacy of all sacrifices which are in essence violence. John the Baptist, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, young German university students who opposed Hitler, Korean Christian ministers who stood against the imperial cult of Japan during the WWII, Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and many others were violently executed, but they were not violent. In their deaths, hesed and sacrifice were united as in the case of Jesus Christ. Christianity as a faith stands on the hesed demonstrated by "the immeasurable greatness " of Christ (Eph. 1: 19). Hesed, not sacrifice, is the foundation of the faith.

      Without concern for the poor the offering of incense is an abomination to God. I invite you to think of this in relation to "the immeasurable greatness of Christ". Both the prophets and the New Testament writers touch the depth of human history sustained by the healing hesed of God.

      In the Second Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln (1865) we read;

Fondly do we hope- fervently do we pray - that this mighty scourge of war might speedily pass away. Yet, if God will that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous together.

      "The bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil", firmly imprinted in human history, cannot easily be erased. What shall we do with this violence? Might it yet have to be "paid by another drawn by the sword"? Is there such possibility? Is this just another quid pro quo, a sacrifice - "something for something"? But Lincoln is not speaking "something for something." He is confronted by the mystery of God: " ..if God will that it (this mighty scourge of war) continue...". What I am suggesting is that the hesed and the quid pro quo are mutually exclusive and yet mutually communicating. The hesed deepens the meaning of the quid pro quo, and only those who know the weight of the quid pro quo can come to a genuine appreciation of the hesed. The world is deeply wounded, "from the sole of the foot even to the head" (Isa. 1:6), by false religion which supports overkill. So many Wounded Knees! We are not to serve true religion and false religion. But we do.

      Since we serve both true religion and false religion, neither the Hindu doctrine of karman (whatever you do to others will eventually come back to you) nor the Biblical law of retaliation (lex talionis, "..life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," Ex.21:23-25) nor even the Biblical Golden Rule ("In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets". Mt. 7:12, See Lk. 6:3 1) can heal the wounds of the world.

     "Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny" (Mt.5:26). your incense is an abomination to me." What shall we do? It is in this "no exit" condition "the immeasurable greatness of Christ" strikes us.

     The gospel goes beyond all kinds of balancing. According to the oriental doctrine of karman, the cosmic order seeks balance through "action and reaction". "Tooth for tooth" will eventually insure balance. Even the Gold Rule contains the element of balancing. Balancing or "making payment", is a fundamental idea contained in sacrifice. I believe that a Christian understanding of "I desire hesed and not sacrifice" points to the "immeasurable greatness of Christ" in whom sacrifice and mercy are completely united. The new reality that appreciates the ethics of balancing, yet transcends all balancing acts has unexpectedly appeared. This gospel, however, comes to us when we see in all four directions the "bond-man's two hundred fifty years unrequited toil," and are deeply troubled by it.

     According to Rene Girard Christianity accepted the theology of sacred violence (sacrifice) and lost sight of the gospel's essential message which rejects a sacrificial approach to deity. He writes; "Thanks to the sacrificial reading it has been possible for what we call Christendom to exist for fifteen or twenty centuries". (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World p. 181) In his view Christianity has survived on a mistaken premise, the sacrificial understanding of the atonement. In my view, when the hesed is the white-hot contents of sacrifice as in the case of Jesus Christ, we can authentically and pastorally speak about the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. I repeat that Christ was violently killed. But he was not violent. Here the genuine sacrifice - sacer facere ["holy" "to make"], the freedom from violence, and "to make [human history] holy", was concretely demonstrated. In this we see the light that can expose the deception of the false religion of violence.

     This paper is called "An Ecumenical Interpretation". There can be no honest Christian ecumenism without a recognition of two universals; the universality of shalom for which Christ gave his life, and the universality of violence by which humanity destroys itself . "Man's Disorder and God's Design" was the urgent theme of the First General Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Amsterdam in 1948. The urgency is still with us. In ecumenism we are, in our contrite heart, deeply concerned about the human reality of violence. We must not repeat the enormous violence of the 20th century in the 21st century. In the dignity of our being human created in the image of God we must not allow this to happen again. Any word of the Christian theologia crucis enlightened by the Torah of Israel, encouraged by the teaching of Islam and inspiring to Buddhists and Hindus, that stands against violence will speak meaningfully to all peoples throughout oikumene, the inhabited world.