Review: Scapegoats, sacrifice and non-violence

Frenchman René Girard, who died in 2015, is best known for his ‘mimetic theory’. This holds that people copy one another in desiring things, which leads to conflict. To deal with the conflict, a scapegoat is chosen and sacrificed. This pattern, he alleges, is the foundation of sacrificial systems, of all human violence and, indeed, of human culture. But the Bible, he believes, subverts the pattern at various levels, culminating in Jesus, the ultimate scapegoat, who by his death made sacrifice redundant and indicates a new life-pattern of love, non-violence and forgiveness.

Steven Berry conducted a series of interviews with Girard shortly before the latter’s death. These have been edited into readable format by Michael Hardin, making Girard’s views more accessible to the average reader than his own learned writings. The book is:

Reading the Bible with René Girard: Conversations with Steven E. Berry edited by Michael Hardin (JDL Press, 2015).

rtbwrglargeIt makes fascinating reading, revealing some fresh and thought-provoking insights into some well-known passages of Scripture. Girard shows how he discovered and developed the mimetic theory from his early studies of great European literature (he quotes, among others, Cervantes, Flaubert and Shakespeare), and later came to see how the Bible reflected many aspects of it while, at the same time, marking a clear trajectory away from it.

If Girard’s concepts are new to you, it will take a while to get your head round them. But once you manage it, they are strangely compelling. They shed light on so many everyday aspects of social life. This book could be a good starter for you.

Of course, you will be uncomfortable if you can’t accept the principle of absolute non-violence, which Girard maintains that the Bible teaches, culminating in the teaching of Jesus himself. So be prepared to be a bit unsettled by this book. Maybe that could be a good thing, especially if you think you’ve got all your doctrine ironed out already?

[Here are some quotations. The numbers are not page numbers but Kindle location numbers.]

…the Caiaphas solution: “It is more expedient that one man should die, rather than the whole nation should suffer.” (John 11:49-53)  (235 – from Preface by Steven Berry)

The relationship between Don Quixote and all the other novels is that desire is not independent, not rooted in the self, or in the object. There is not a straight line between the desiring subject and the desired object; rather, there is a triangle with a model directing the desire of the hero towards an object which, if he had been all by himself, he would not have desired. The idea of what I call “triangular desire” was born there in the novel.  (417)

Rivalries in human beings don’t end with a dominant-dominated pattern; rather, they end with vengeance.  (543)

Sacrifice is repeating the event that has saved the community from its own violence, which is killing a victim.  (621)

Sacrifice is the lightning rod for the community’s violence, because it mobilizes the whole community against a fake enemy, who is not a member of the community, thus preventing people in the community from killing each other.  (762)

When you say that someone is a scapegoat, he is not your scapegoat. To have a scapegoat is to be unaware that you have a scapegoat, to think he really is guilty. It’s so simple that people don’t understand it. Scapegoating is effective only if it is nonconscious. Then you do not call it scapegoating; you call it justice.  (870)

The Bible shows that scapegoaters who slander the victim and wrongly accuse the victim have no basis on which to do so. The prophetic and Christian texts destroy that slander by demonstrating the innocence of the victim.  (1038)

Everywhere Christianity appears and seriously implants itself, blood sacrifices disappear. Where blood sacrifices disappear, you have no more real cultural protection against your own violence.  (1061)

[Re the Eden story]  …the general temptation of disregarding the will of God and preferring our own will, which always turns out not to be our own but our neighbor’s. In the Genesis text, the neighbor is represented as an animal that we call the serpent.  (1194)

All myths are wrong since they tell us that the scapegoat is guilty. They fulfill the function of mythology, which is to expel an innocent, but they don’t know it. That’s how they can do it. Whereas the Gospels tell us the victim is innocent. Once you have the Passion text inside your world, it contaminates all the scapegoats around and tends to make you discover that all collective victims must be a little bit similar to Christ, that they are condemned for no reason at all. That’s why the great stories of the Bible, which reveal the innocence of Joseph, of Job, and so on, are beginning to shatter the scapegoat system all around, but Christianity does this more completely as it invades the pagan world.  (1358)

Abraham is the symbol of that enormous change, which is from the sacrifice of humans and even children to the sacrifice of animals. It’s a sign of tremendous progress in civilization.  (1417)

[Re Judah’s sparing of his brother Joseph]  Scholars consider this story to be produced quite late in the chronology of the Bible; it can therefore be labeled prophetic, belonging to the spirit of the great prophets, which is explicitly anti-sacrificial. The idea of sacrifice is changing; God wants pity and compassion, not human or animal sacrifice. One can see this in Hosea, Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and the greater prophetic tradition of the Jewish Bible.  (1525)

The desire that was prohibited in the Ten Commandments was mimetic desire.  (1741)

Christ is in the place of all victims since the foundation of the world, all sacrificial victims, revealing their innocence.  (1765)

The building block of animal culture is what the specialists today call dominance patterns; these are seen in physical encounters, for example, between wild wolves. The male wild wolves vie for the same female, but there is no death; there is surrender. When wolves fight this type of fight, the defeated wolf lies on his back and offers his throat to the victor, who does not kill him but becomes the dominant animal. So we can assume that the threshold of hominization is when this no longer happens but the killing of the submissive rival occurs.  (1776)

The Eucharist is really related to sacrifice, but rather than representing the violence against the victim, of it being the victim that you eat, you eat the total refusal of violence, which is Christ. It’s a reversal, but it’s still the same symbolism.  (1834)

Cannibalism means you eat the sacrificial victim in order to be your victim, because you want to be that victim. The reason you killed him is you want to be him or her. So if you absorb his or her flesh, you become them, just as if you absorb the flesh of Christ, you should become a little bit nonviolent, more than you were before.  (1847)

Satan has to be contrasted with the Holy Spirit because ‘Satan’ comes from a Persian word that means the accuser. The Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is called the Paraclete, which means counselor for the defense in a court. The Holy Spirit is the defender, the advocate.  (1884)

I feel that the resistance to the mimetic theory on the part of academic circles is understandable, because in a way the mimetic theory interrupts or reverses a trend that has been with us since the eighteenth century, since the Enlightenment. This is the trend of secularism, of expelling religious studies from academic life.  (2053)

Many aspects of the refusal of violence are perhaps more intelligible today, but it’s still not acceptable to most people. Most people, even Christians, don’t take the biblical emphasis on the renunciation of violence found in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels, very seriously.  (2159)

The ultimate test is not the interpretation of texts, of course, but how you behave with your neighbor. That’s a real example that you provide in the flesh, that’s going to convert people, and you’re lucky if your language and your actions coincide. But if your actions don’t coincide with your language, your language will have very little influence.  (2195)

Peter’s denial is, in a way, the most beautiful story. Here, Peter is a figure representative of all humanity, who cannot resist the powerful pull of the crowd. We cannot resist the mimetic contagion. When you’re in a crowd, you become literally possessed by the crowd.  (2207)

Those who accuse Christianity of being responsible for violence are not right, of course, but indirectly they are saying something which is true: the more the Gospel influences the world, the more it destroys the sacrificial apparatus that up to now has protected human culture.  (2325)

If you act like Christ you’re not going to be happier, you’re going to be persecuted. You’ll be happier in a higher sense, but you’re going to be persecuted.  (2445)

“They hated me without a cause,” as a prophetic word, is a fascinating phrase because it’s the definition of a scapegoat.  (2497)

Good mimesis is defined in the Gospels as not only imitation of Christ but also imitation of those who imitate Christ.  (2509)

[Re: “Resist not evil. Do not resist one who is evil, but if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”]  If you resist evil, you yourself are in evil. You imitate. Resistance and agreement ultimately amount to the same thing. This is one of the paradoxes of Satan where I’d say, “The more you resist him, the more he plays dead.” The satanic loves that kind of resistance. That resistance is what creates devils, what turns people into twins in the mimetic sense. So the key to this is readily accessible: If you resist evil, you do what evil invites you to do.  (2585)

[Re the Gerasene demoniac]  When the people show up, they notice that this man is just safe and sound. He’s acting normally, dressed normally, talking to Jesus, and they’re terrified. This shows that, in a way, the reason the demoniac was not tied sufficiently so he could always be safely imprisoned, was so he could free himself from time to time, so that the whole thing is a show that the people are playing for themselves. It’s part of their neurotic life. They need some of these people as fools in the medieval sense who perform the craziness of which they themselves are free, and which they want to scapegoat of course, but which they need, in a way, for the balance of the community. It’s a kind of sacrificial system where you don’t really kill people, but you perpetuate their sickness because you allow him to have these escapades from time to time, in which he goes on a rampage and they all watch with a certain pleasurable awe.  (2683)

Why is the first stone the hardest to cast? Because no stone before has been cast and you have no one to imitate. It’s really a mimetic phenomenon.  (2720)

In the story of the adulterous woman, the text tells us that when Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” he turns his eyes toward the ground. He was writing in the sand before and he starts writing again. Some people say silly things about that. They say that he’s writing down the name of those who will be sent to hell. But in fact, he’s trying to avoid eye contact. He knows that if he makes eye contact with his interlocutors, rivalry is going to be born in that mutual glance, and it will be impossible to avoid a violent resolution. The woman will be stoned. It’s not like Jesus to avoid eye contact, but in this case, he does so to save the woman, and it works.  (2731)

I believe Christianity today is the scapegoat for absolutely fundamental reasons, because it says something about humanity that people don’t want to believe, which sounds impossible. It destroys our pride. It says our cultures feed on scapegoats, so no wonder Christianity is the hated religion. For instance, if you look at the media, have you ever seen the media attack religions other than Christianity? No! They never do. As a matter of fact, concerning Islam, the media consistently sides with Islam. But Christianity has everybody against it, just as Jesus had.  (2779)

The God of wrath is always somewhat connected with the scapegoat system in which the god is both good and bad. This is no longer true of the biblical God. When the biblical God is wrathful, he’s wrathful for good reasons; we might even say just reasons. However, still there is a change, it seems, in the nature of God from the oldest part of the First Testament to the prophetic God of the great prophets and then to Christ himself. You see, this “new” God is no longer punitive; it’s people who punish themselves. It’s people who are going to threaten the survival of the world. It’s people who refuse to turn the other cheek and maintain peace who get into all sorts of trouble.  (2816)

 

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