Review: Scapegoats, sacrifice and non-violence

12 February 2018

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)

 


‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’

19 August 2014

With the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians showing no let-up, Christians are quoting this phrase a lot, chiefly at prayer meetings. So it might be worth a closer look.

It comes from verse 6 of Psalm 122. This psalm is one of David’s ‘Songs of Ascents’, sung by ancient Israelites as they made their way up to Jerusalem for the three annual Jewish festivals.

jerusalem marketIt is hard for us modern people to grasp the importance of Jerusalem to the Israelites. For them, their country was the centre of the world, and Jerusalem was the centre of their country—‘the city of God’. Later, in the reign of David’s son Solomon, God would establish his localised presence in the Temple at the city’s heart. But even before that, Jerusalem encapsulated the presence of God. Jerusalem was everything.

In Psalm 122 the weary pilgrims had arrived at last. The long and tiring journey behind them, they were finally within the city walls, close to the presence of God, and it was with a sigh of contentment that they exclaimed: ‘Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem’ (v2).

The notion that this city might come to harm was unthinkable. If it were to be overrun by enemies, the Israelites would be separated not only from the city and its Temple, but from their God who lived there. Because maintaining Jerusalem’s peace and prosperity was so vital, the pilgrims would exhort one another, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May those who love you be secure. May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels.” For the sake of my family and friends, I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your prosperity’ (v6-9).

Their worst fears, alas, were realised when in 586 BC the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar sacked the city, razed the Temple to the ground and took most of the citizens off into exile in Babylon. God had not answered the prayers for the peace of Jerusalem because Israelite prayers counted for nothing when Israelite lives were marked by blatant disobedience.

Some Jews returned to Jerusalem after the exile and, under Zerubbabel, helped build a smaller-scale Temple there. Later, around the time of Jesus, King Herod extended it, creating a huge Temple-complex of stunning scale and beauty. Standard Jewish worship continued there, and Jewish pilgrims still sang Psalm 122 as they made their way up to Jerusalem. Still they prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.

But once again, having rejected their peace-loving Messiah, they suffered violent disappointment. The armies of Rome destroyed both city and Temple in AD 70. Since then, while a few Jews have lived in Palestine, most have been scattered across the nations, maintaining their identity as the Diaspora.

That continued until the Second World War, when six million European Jews were gassed in Hitler’s extermination camps: the Holocaust. The western nations, conscience-smitten, took it upon themselves to exercise their imperialism by creating a homeland for the Jews in Palestine in 1948—the project rubber-stamped by the UN.

This was the birth of the modern State of Israel. It was not universally welcomed. Even many Jewish leaders expressed their opposition to it. Certainly it quickly became a concern to the Palestinian Arabs who had been the majority occupants of the territory for centuries. They soon found the Israelis to be bullying and land-grabbing. When the Arabs had had enough and tried to stop it, American financial and military support for Israel ensured that they were decisively beaten—in the Six Day War of 1967—and Israeli expansionist policy moved into a higher gear. Tension and mutual suspicion multiplied, and continue to this day.

Jerusalem remains divided. The Muslim Dome of the Rock sits on the old Temple Mount. The Israeli capital is Tel Aviv, but many Israelis want to see Jerusalem take its place, which would require the Arab presence to be forcibly removed since it is hard to see it ever happening voluntarily.

Meanwhile, many Christians take upon their lips the words of the ancient Israelite pilgrims and tell us we should ‘pray for the peace of Jerusalem’. What do they mean by that?

Some use it in its loosest sense to mean, ‘Pray that the tension and conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East will be resolved and that peace will come.’ That’s fine. We Christians need to pray for that just as we pray for peace in other troubled regions of the world. I myself pray along those lines often.

But many others use it in a sense loaded with dubious overtones. Some believe that the establishment of the modern State of Israel was a fulfilment of prophecy and that God is therefore on the Israeli side. So when they pray for the peace of Jerusalem they are really praying, ‘God, smash the Arabs. Crush the Palestinians. Drive them right out of Jerusalem so that the Israelis can have it as their capital, as you, Lord, have decreed.’

Personally, I find that appalling. For a start, having examined the Scriptures and sought to interpret them soundly, I can’t find the slightest connection between the fulfilment of prophecy and the current State of Israel. Those odd-ball, pro-Israeli American preachers on the God Channel who insist on a connection are hermeneutically challenged, to say the least. Sincere, no doubt, but sincerely up a gum tree.

But there’s worse. Some Christians mistakenly believe that a fearful conflagration in the Middle East is prophesied in Scripture. Many call it Armageddon. All of them see it spelling annihilation for the Arabs and the triumph of Jewish nationalism. If, as they believe, this is God’s declared will, then attempts to foster peace in the Middle East are working against it. So, for them, ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem’ means, ‘God, stir up the tensions to the point that will trigger the final battle, because it’s only after this battle has taken place that peace can come.’

Is that what the Prince of Peace is really after? Never!

How the Middle East situation will work out is anybody’s guess. I don’t believe the Israelis have any right to the land based on now-superseded Old Testament promises. But they are there and we can’t turn the clock back. Every nation on earth has seen its boundaries change over the centuries, always through war, invasion and conflict. How far back do you go to establish the ‘right’ of a people to certain territory? There’s no answer to that question. One could argue forever.

What matters is the current situation and how it can be sorted out. For better or worse, the State of Israel exists, and a key ingredient for peace must surely be the acceptance of that fact by the Palestinian people in particular, and the Arabs in general, who must ditch their determination to wipe Israel off the map. At the same time, the Israelis must set aside their heavy-handed approach to defending their perceived rights and treat their Arab neighbours with a good deal more respect than they have shown so far. And those Arab neighbours, I reckon, would clearly be in a better position to negotiate if they lived in a properly-constituted and defined Palestinian state. So when I pray for the peace of Jerusalem I have something like that in mind.

More than that, I pray that both Israelis and Palestinians will turn in huge numbers to Jesus Christ, who is both Israel’s Messiah and the Lord of the whole world. Can you imagine what a massive turnaround in Arab-Israeli relations that would bring?

For me, praying for the peace of Jerusalem also requires me to widen my prayer-horizons beyond the Middle East. In one sense that tiny patch of territory has ceased to be central. It’s ‘Old Jerusalem’ stuff, whereas the New Testament shifts our focus completely onto something bigger and better: the New Jerusalem.

This is the redefined ‘Israel’ or ‘people of God’ that we call the church: the redeemed community. It counts both Jews and Gentiles among its citizens. Divided and denominationalised it might be. Its members hold a variety of views on a myriad issues, both doctrinal and practical. But the bottom line is that all are united in their commitment to Jesus Christ as Son of God, Saviour and King of the world. So I pray for the peace of that Jerusalem. I pray that the church’s influence will increase, and I believe it surely will!

I pray that its influence will touch every conflict-ridden corner of the globe—including Old Jerusalem.

For more on this, particularly in connection with biblical prophecy, see my article Red Herring In Galilee here.


%d bloggers like this: