‘R’ is for René Girard, Human Violence and the Imitation of Christ
In this posting I will provide an short overview of the thought of René Girard, drawing mainly on three books: Michael Hardin’s The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus; and James Warren’s Compassion or Apocalypse? A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of Rene Girard and Anthony Bartlett's Virtually Christian. I believe that, in a number of ways, Girard’s ideas are helpful to Friends and everyone committed to nonviolence. In particular, this is because they offer:
- A vision of human culture which locates its dysfunctions in our imitation of one another and our desire to grasp and control things which leads to rivalry, violence and injustice.
- An explanation of the emergence of ancient sacred religion as a method of keeping this rivalry and violence under control.
- An explanation of the violence that we see in religion and in the Bible.
- A nonviolent understanding of the purpose of the Incarnation and in particular the death of Jesus (what is called nonviolent atonement).
- An argument that the imitation of Christ offers all people a way out of this on-going cycle of human violence.
- A vision of the universal Spirit of Christ working within human culture to undermine scapegoating and violence in a way that is quite independent of and unconstrained by human institutions and ideologies.
B. WHO IS René Girard?
René Girard is a French anthropological philosopher whose thought makes an important and fascinating contribution to our understanding of atonement and the death of Jesus. In particular, his work enables us to appreciate in a fresh and startling way, the nature of violence, the role of the Bible, the purpose of the Incarnation and the future of humanity. This all begins with his assertion that mimesis is fundamental to human identity, behaviour and culture.
C. mimesis and rivalry – the human problem or ‘sin’
1. What is mimesis?
The concept of mimesis, which means imitation, is the lynchpin of Girard’s theory. Because humans learn by imitation, our very sense of self comes to depend on others. There can be no human sense of self formed independently of those we imitate (Warren 2013, p.17). Through mimesis, we copy the desires of the other and this leads us to want the same things. We want something simply because someone else desires it or already has it (Warren 2013, pp.17-18). The imitation of the desires of others is almost always an unconscious action that we hide from ourselves. We are unwilling to admit that we desire something because someone else has it or desires it (Warren 2013, p.19 & 24). This effect grows within a group or community. Mimetic attraction can increase with the size of a crowd. This can develop into a ‘mimetic wave’, in which more and more desire is focused on one particular object. The object becomes more and more desirable because everyone else desires it (Warren 2013, pp.20-21).
2. How does mimesis work?
The key dimensions of human mimesis are as follows:
· A Model - is the object of our desire. It is a mediator of that desire (Warren 2013, pp.27-33).
· An Obstacle - is the one who stands between us and what we desire. An obstacle is also a mediator of desire (Warren 2013, pp.27-33).
· A Rival - is an obstacle with whom one directly exchanges hostilities. Rivals mirror each other’s desires and reinforce them (Warren 2013, pp.27-33). As rivalry intensifies, the rivals become more obsessed with each other and, so, less with the object of desire that was the original focus of the rivalry (Warren 2013, p.35).
· A Scandal – (based on the Greek skandalon meaning ‘snare’ or ‘stumbling block’) is an obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid because it creates a double-bind. The more it repels us, the more it attracts us. This is a state of psychological and spiritual enslavement. Rivals are always in this double-bind state of scandal, since they repel and fascinate each other at one and the same time (Warren 2013, pp.55-56 & 57).
When humans imitate each other’s desire for the model, they become obstacles to one another. When humans directly interact in relation to such shared desire, they become rivals. This rivalry can then develop into a scandal, where those involved in a rivalry, as obstacles to the other, become increasingly fascinated and obsessed with each other. These are the conditions in which rivalry escalates into violence.
3. Mimetic rivalry and human violence
Mimetic rivalry leads to violence - the imitating of the desires of others creates the rivalries that bring humans into conflict. Girard has shown that this is revealed in the writings of great literary figures, such as Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Proust, et al, who have grasped the essence of human relations (Warren 2013, pp.22). Scandal is the generator of the violence at the core of human relationships (Warren 2013, p.60).
Violence tends to escalate out of control - within human communities and society, the problem of reciprocal violence and vengeance running out of control is an ever-present threat to order and stability because of the hyper-mimetic sensitivity of humanity. Mimetic rivalry means that such escalation of violence can be virtually unstoppable. Therefore, in order to survive, humanity had to find a way to manage internal rivalries and the violence they engender (Warren 2013, pp.87-89).
4. Mimetic rivalry - the Original Sin
Humans were made to imitate God but, in our brokenness, we copy each other instead. This has been our downfall (Hardin 2013, p.148). On this basis, human sin can be defined as a state of being, in we are all caught up in a matrix of imitation, rivalry and violence (Hardin 2013, p.151).
D. THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM – THE ANCIENT SACRED SOLUTION
So how did humanity find a way to manage internal rivalries and the violence that they engender? Girard argues that this was achieved through the development of religion, which involved a combination of ritualised sacrifice and the enforcement of prohibitions and taboos.
1. The Founding Murder
Girard suggests that the establishment of human culture and civilisation was associated with the phenomenon of founding murders. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the founding murder is portrayed in the story of Cain and Abel in chapter 4 of Genesis (following the murder of Abel, Cain is sent out into the world and builds a city, representing the establishment of human culture and civilisation). It seems that the sacrifice mechanism was discovered spontaneously by humans when a founding murder was seen to dissipate a build-up of violence within a group or community (Warren 2013, p.95).
2. The Scapegoat Mechanism
What it achieves - Girard shows how sacrifice in ancient religion served the sociological function of allowing a community to blow off violent energy in a channelled and controlled manner so that mimetic rivalries would not escalate to the point of anarchy and destroy the entire community (Warren 2013, p.81). Our earliest ancestors found a way to head off the problem of violence in the shocking act of transferring their collective hostility onto a random victim, a scapegoat. So humans became civilised through ritual murder (Hardin 2013, p.158). The mimetic mechanism of scapegoating prevented homosapiens from destroying themselves due to mimetic rivalry. This is what created human civilisation (Warren 2013, pp.96-97).
Redirecting mimetic violence - In the scapegoat mechanism all members of the group imitate each other, imitating the other’s gesture of hatred for a single victim, transforming all-against-all chaos into a safer pattern of all-against-one (Warren 2013, p.95). In this sense the victim fulfils the role of substitution.
The ‘monstrous’ victim - Through the scapegoat mechanism, people transfer all blame onto the victim, who became the monstrous embodiment of the chaos which threatens the group through the crisis of reciprocal violence (Warren 2013, pp.122-123). From the point of view of those involved, the ‘victim’ is viewed as a ‘monster’. Often, victims are those who stand out for some reason (Warren 2013, p.101). For the system to work, everyone must buy into the collective delusion that there is something hideously different about the victim to maintain mob solidarity and ensure no one individual can be held responsible (Warren 2013, p.100).
3. Prohibitions, Taboos and Hierarchies
So that the sacrificial process does not have to be enacted too often, humans learned to put taboos or prohibitions on the actions or situations that have the potential to cause the most rivalry and conflict. These help to ameliorate the potential for mimetic crisis and form the basis of the rule of law (Hardin 2013, p.160). However, in the end, prohibition was merely one form of violence or coercion being used to control another. Taboos may supress the symptoms of mimetic rivalry but they do not address the real disease. In addition, prohibitions tend to become models, suggesting the very thing they seeks to prohibit (Warren 2013, pp.116-118).
The Ten Commandments represent a good example of this. The prohibitions against killing, adultery, stealing and bearing false witness are all attempts to supress acts of violence (Warren 2013, p.118). The tenth commandment, in particular, is essentially about mimetic desire (Exodus 20:17). “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour” (Warren 2013, p.118).
In addition to the use of taboos and prohibitions, social distinctions and hierarchies serve to establish differentiation between people. They function to restrict the potential for scandalous rivalries by limiting the people with whom it is realistically possible to enter into this kind of relationship (Warren 2013, pp.102-103).
4. The Purpose of Myth
Girard argues that religious myths develop to mask the real nature of sacrifice (Warren 2013, p.81). Mythology includes imaginative reconstructions of founding murders and scapegoating, told from the point of view of the persecutors. It hides the innocence of the scapegoat and the arbitrariness of the choice of victim (Warren 2013, p.115). These myths, which describe the development of human civilisation and culture, represent an exercise in repressing human complicity in the murder of innocent victims.
5. The Creation of Gods and Religion
For Girard, sacrifice, mythology and prohibition were the three pillars of ancient religion. Religion developed as an attempt to control human violence and prevent it from escalating out of control. This was achieved by finding a scapegoat upon whom the hostility of the community could be transferred (Hardin 2013, pp.150-151). The sacrificed victim became sacred because of the beneficial effect his or her murder had on the community. The dissipation of pent-up violence and the maintenance of social stability must have appeared miraculous at the time (Warren 2013, p.96). It is in this way that gods were created (Warren 2013, p.122). The gods were feared, placated, appeased, then venerated, worshiped and loved for the benefits they generously bestowed. This was all a product of group delusion based on the projection of the group’s own violence onto a convenient target, creating the sacred and giving birth to religion (Warren 2013, p.125).
6. The Ancient Sacred
Because sacrifice served such a crucial function, it became institutionalised as the very nerve centre of human culture (Warren 2013, p.82). However, those involved had to buy into the sacredness of the entire sacrificial process. If belief weakened, confidence would be lost and sacrifice would lose its ability to channel violence out of the community (Warren 2013, p.90). These mechanisms were temporary measures that allowed civilisation to survive, but in using them, humanity got caught on a treadmill that made it even more deeply enslaved to violence (Warren 2013, p.119). What would it take to liberate humanity from this bondage?
E. THE WAY OF JESUS – THE NEW NONVIOLENT SOLUTION
Girard argues that the way of Jesus offers liberation from bondage to mimetic rivalry and violence.
1. Revealing the nonviolence of God
From Girard’s perspective, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus brought an entirely new conception of the human condition and of the character of God. Violence and victimisation were shown to be the very basis of human culture and God was revealed to be entirely without violence (Hardin 2013, p.181). By removing retribution from the work and character of God, Jesus opened up a new way for humanity (Hardin 2013, p.70). Unlike the gods of the past, the God revealed in Jesus was utterly nonviolent. This had the effect of radically revaluing the individual as a beloved child of God (Warren 2013, p.285). For Jesus, God’s reign was not tied to the sacred structure of substitutionary sacrifice and zealous nationalism, but to the transformation of the human condition in the image of the nonviolent God (Hardin 2013, p.89).
2. Solidarity with the victim
We have seen that human culture and civilisation were founded on the sacrificial murder of innocent victims as scapegoats. It is no coincidence, therefore, that a key aspect of the life and teaching of Jesus was his support for and identification with victims. This identification went as far as putting himself in the very place of the victim, surrounded by mob violence and excluded from society (Warren 2013, p.282).
3. Exposing the scapegoat mechanism
The story of the Bible is about how God in Jesus entered the human religion of sacred violence, suffered its most horrible side effects and revealed the whole system to be ungodly and doomed (Hardin 2013, p.163). He consistently exposed the scapegoat mechanism by what he taught, by the way he lived and by the very giving of his life (Warren 2013, p.217). The uniqueness of Jesus’ death is found in its meaning, which was to reveal the scapegoat mechanism and the human violence that invented and perpetrated it (Warren 2013, p.220). When God raised Jesus, the scars and wounds of his victimization were still visible in his resurrected flesh. This was a victory over the scapegoat mechanism and sacred violence (Warren 2013, p.239).
· He became a scapegoat - by allowing us to see that Jesus was an entirely innocent victim and by telling the story from the victim’s perspective rather than from the perspective of the persecutor, the Gospels expose the illusionary power of the scapegoat mechanism (Warren 2013, p.227).
· He revealed the victim - Jesus’ mission was to become a scapegoat who would turn the basis of human civilisation on its head. In him, the victim would be revealed and affirmed, allowing a new ethic to emerge (Warren 2013, p.221). After Jesus, it was no longer possible to hide the innocent victim; not entirely, not forever, not without difficulty (Warren 2013, p.280).
· He revealed human violence - Jesus exposed human violence wherever he went. By making himself its living target, Jesus exposed the violence of the scapegoat mechanism and revealed human violence as the essence of the sacred (Warren 2013, p.238). There was no option of sitting on the fence for his contemporaries, who found themselves in a crisis position. Everything was brought into the light. Would people face up to the truth or not (Warren 2013, p.214)?
4. Forgiveness: an end to mimetic rivalry and sacred violence
Jesus bruises (i.e. crushes) the head of the serpent (see Genesis 3:14-15 & Romans 16:20) in the sense that he stops the venom of mimetic rivalry from poisoning humanity (Warren 2013, p.46). His prophetic act in the temple symbolised the closing down of the whole sacrificial system (Hardin 2013, pp.82-83). “Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than that of Abel” (Hebrews 12:24) because it cries out for mercy, rather than vengeance (Hardin 2013, p.188). Through forgiveness, Jesus liberates us from our bondage to the cycle of mimetic violence (Hardin 2013, p.163). Forgiveness abolishes the sacrificial principle because it is simply, freely and profusely given us by God. We do not need to get into an economy of exchange to receive it (Hardin 2013, p.107). Forgiveness is the only way that the cycle of retributive violence can be ended. This is what we see in the way of Jesus; in his life and in his death (Hardin 2013, p.101).
5. A new mimesis: imitating God
It was God’s desire that humanity should be set free from the demonic spirit of murder and myth. Jesus imitates his Father’s desire, making it his own (Warren 2013, p.218). God, as the transcendent one, is not in rivalry with us (Warren 2013, p.65) and so Jesus, as an imitator of ‘the Father’, is not in rivalry with us. Jesus’ relationship with God becomes the mimetic foundation of a new community of disciples (Warren 2013, pp.71-72). This new mimesis is not acquisitive; it contains no rivalry and thus no acquisitive desire, no covetousness, no scandal (Warren 2013, p.73). We can become like Jesus by imitating him and in doing this we can break out of the imitation of each other, with all this entails (Hardin 2013, p.153).
6. A new way of being human
If the cross shows us how humans really are in all their violence, then the resurrection offers the possibility of a radically new life (Hardin 2013, p.172). Through his nonviolent compassion, servanthood, humility, generosity and love, Jesus becomes the model for a new humanity (Warren 2013, p.73). Allowing Jesus to be one’s model generates the desire to do the will of God and seek the good of the other, rather than the covetous desire to acquire from the other (Warren 2013, p.71). To imitate Jesus is to imitate his own imitation of the Father. This is a radical reorientation of life that liberates us from the perpetual cycles of violence into which our mimetic rivalries have plunged us (Warren 2013, p.71). In this sense, salvation is not an intellectual matter of confessing certain dogmatic beliefs but an experience grounded in the same mimetic capacity that built the old sacred world, but now modelled on Jesus (Warren 2013, p.115). The imitation of Christ rewires our violent neuro-circuitry, linking us together as a community and reconciling us to the nonviolent God. In the process, the Satan of anarchic mimetic rivalry and the Satan of sacred violence are both cast out. This is Christus victor (Warren 2013, p.294)!
F. THE PLACE OF THE SCRIPTURES – REVEALING VIOLENCE, RAISING THE VICTIM
The Bible reveals human violence
For Girard, it was the Bible’s job to consciously and explicitly reveal the whole sacrificial scapegoating system (Warren 2013, p.332). This is difficult for people to recognise, because we are so used to reading the Bible in light of the very principle it seeks to undermine (Hardin 2013, p.170). For almost all of human history, the violent god has simply been the projection of human violence onto a deity. Girard argues that this starts to change in the Hebrew Scriptures. Throughout the Bible, true revelation begins to assert itself. This revelation unveils what humans do when they sacrifice others and then sacralise their victims. This revelation then shows us the redeeming, compassionate and suffering God (Hardin 2013, pp.171-172).
The Hebrew Scriptures
The Hebrew Scriptures are a ‘text in travail’, a text that displays competing notions about God. Here we see a Janus-faced God; a God of mercy who is also a God of vengeance (Warren 2013, p.141). Girard argues that the Bible contains both the perspective of the persecuted and that of the persecutor. However, the Hebrew Scriptures represent the earliest literature that gave a voice to the victim and not just the killer (Hardin 2013, p.168). For example, in the Cain and Abel story we encounter for the first time the voice of the God who takes the side of the innocent victim (Hardin 2013, p.169). This is a text that begins to unveil the problem of human violence. Civilisation is formed following Cain’s founding murder of Abel and within a few generations we see retributive violence spiralling out of control (Hardin 2013, pp.188-189). The story of Lamech (Genesis 4:23-24) shows this quite clearly (Hardin 2013, p.169). Earlier in the Genesis account of the fall of humanity, we see the very beginnings of human mimetic rivalry presented in the allegorical form of the serpent. The voice of the serpent can be understood as the urgings of mimetic rivalry. When God curses the serpent he is cursing mimetic rivalry (Warren 2013, p.46).
A ‘text in travail’ -
· Thick texts – are texts which express an understanding of God that is entirely within the world view of the primitive sacred (e.g. Judges 14:19).
· Thin texts – are texts in which the reality of the primitive sacred is only thinly veiled (e.g. 2 Samuel 21:1-14).
· Challenge texts – are texts written to challenge prevailing notions of God as sacred violence (e.g. Jonah).
· High watermark texts – are texts that contain explicit criticism of the primitive sacred and its sacrificial mentality. Examples include: 1 Kings 3:16-28, Amos 5:21-22, Jeremiah 19:47, Psalms 22:16-17, Isaiah 52:13-53 (Warren 2013, pp.142-143).
The New Testament
For Girard, the New Testament is a text that fully reveals human mimesis, rivalry, violence and the scapegoat mechanism. In particular, Jesus’ whole ministry was an unveiling of human bondage to mimetic desire and a demonstration of the way out (Warren, 2013, p.53). Michael Hardin has suggested that the cruciform centre from which to interpret both the Bible and culture is the violence done by humans to the innocent Jesus (Hardin 2013, p.34). Here are a few examples of this revelation:
· Revealing scandalous rivalry - in the Gospel of Matthew (16:20-23). Jesus predicts his death and Peter denies that this will happen. Jesus responds ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling-block (skandalon) to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Peter has created a scandal situation. He has tempted Jesus to imitate him rather than God. Jesus is both repelled by Peter’s suggestion but at the same time attracted to it and tempted by it (Warren, 2013, p.55).
· Revealing founding murders – in the Gospel of Luke (11:47-51), Jesus refers to the founding murder and all of the repetitions of that murder throughout history (Warren 2013, p.213).
· Revealing the scapegoat mechanism – in the Gospel of Mark (5:1-20), the story of the Gerasene demoniac reveals in some detail the workings of the scapegoat mechanism within a community.
G. THE WAY THINGS ARE – COMPASSION OR APOCALYPSE?
1. Good news and not-so-good news
What Jesus brings into the world is both a joyous, positive thing and something that destabilises human culture in a way that could prove terminal (Warren 2013, p.275). In a world without the scapegoat mechanism to defuse pent-up rivalry and aggression, humanity might well destroy itself unless an alternative way to resolve rivalries can be found (Warren 2013, p.298). The breakdown of sacred hierarchies and taboos also leads to the liberation of desires and the multiplication of rivalries.
Scapegoating continues in the world today but, since Jesus revealed its true nature, its violence is no longer effective in defusing violence (Warren 2013, p.313). Despite this, humans continue to look to some form of violence as the solution to the problems of rivals and enemies. What is clear is that the problem of violence is human, not divine (Warren 2013, p.325).
2. The response in the western world
The West has managed to temporarily absorb rivalries and violence through the fads and crazes of consumerism, which keep people preoccupied. Through the economic system of Capitalism, mimetic desire has been exploited for profit. Economic competition allows people to play hard without getting bloody (Warren 2013, pp.319-320). The technology of the mass media provides all the narcotic dreaminess a civilisation could possibly need for keeping violence at bay, but how long can this relative stability last? In such circumstances, economic crises become extremely dangerous (Warren 2013, pp.222-224).
3. Political liberation movements
Political liberation movements practice a form of imitation of Christ, but this is often perverted by the desire to usurp and replace the Spirit of Christ in a struggle to rule this world. This is the temptation to exercise power and control that Jesus continually faced and consistently rejected. In these movements, we see the scapegoating of ‘oppressors’ and sacrifice in the name of the victim. Thus, the old violent sacred is perpetuated in a new form (Warren 2013, p.309).
4. Religious fundamentalism
The various forms of religious fundamentalisms in the modern world are all attempts to revive sacred violence and make it effective again. However, since this is not possible following the Incarnation, the result is merely further escalation of violence (Warren 2013, p.313).
5. World on the brink: a choice for humanity
The cross has destroyed once and for all the cathartic power of the scapegoat mechanism. As a result, the gospel does not guarantee a happy ending to history. It simply presents Humanity with two options; either imitate Christ, giving up all mimetic violence, or run the risk of self-destruction (Warren 2013, p.334). Humanity finds itself approaching a world-wide sacrificial crisis, a confused, blurred confrontation of all against all (Warren 2013, pp.349-350). The good news is that the Spirit of Christ is at work within the world in an organic way. It does not need a systematic body of doctrine or the institution of the church to have an effect. It is like a virus working within the hard drive of human culture (Warren 2013, p.340).
So the nonviolent, forgiving, compassionate and self-giving Christ represents the only life-giving alternative to violent destruction (Warren 2013, p.340). If we imitate him rather than each other, Christ offers the real power to break the hold of humanity’s satanic bondage to scandalous mimetic rivalry and the escalation of reciprocal violence that it produces. Will we accept the offer to follow Christ (Warren 2013, p.352)?
H. no More Scapegoats - René GIRARD AND ATONEMENT
How does the thought of René Girard contribute to the understanding of atonement within Christian theology?
1. Christus Victor and Moral Influence
Girard’s vision of the last scapegoat works with a combination of Christus victor and moral influence atonement motifs (Warren 2013, p.295):
· Christus Victor - Jesus’s death was a great victory over the devil of mimetic rivalry and the satanic scapegoat mechanism (Warren 2013, p.295).
· Moral Influence - Jesus’ death gives us access to God’s unconditional love, opening our hearts in response to this infinite forgiveness (Warren 2013, p.295).
· Violence is Human, not Divine – Girard is very clear that violence does play a part in the atonement process. It is human violence. There was no wrath of God poured out on Jesus on the cross; the wrath was strictly ours (Hardin 2013, p.175).
2. Satisfaction and Penal Substitution
Based on Girard’s vision, we can see that the satisfaction and Penal substitution models of atonement reflect a form of ‘sacrificial Christianity’, in which the church imitates the sacred violence it inherited from the pagan world (Warren 2013, pp.286-288):
· Anselm - assimilated Jesus’ death to that of the pagan sacrificial principle and made God the object of Jesus’ atonement (Hardin 2013, p.108).
· John Calvin - took the cruel step of seeing the cross as punishment in order to placate a wrathful God (Hardin 2013, p.109).
3. Christianity’s Fall Back into Sacred Violence
Girard’s work enables us to build on a critique of Christendom Christianity. We can see that, along with the side-lining of the ethics of Jesus, the merging of church and empire also led to a return to the ways of sacred violence (Warren 2013, p.297). Christendom worshiped the innocent victim while, at the same time, adopting the way of ancient sacred violence. Attempts to manage this internal contradiction led to a bloody history of wars and crusades and the violent scapegoating of Jews, Muslims and others (Warren 2013, p.297). Anthony Bartlett sums this situation up well:
“it is unfathomably ironic that the icon of human non-retaliation, Jesus’ cross, gets turned in the tradition into a supreme piece of vengeance in which God punishes Jesus in our place” (Bartlett 2011, p.9).
Bartlett, Anthony (2011) Virtually Christian (O-Books)
Girard, Rene (2001) I See Satan Falling Like Lightning (Gracewing)
Hardin, Michael (2013) The Jesus-Driven Life: Reconnecting Humanity with Jesus (JDL Press)
Jersak, Brad and Hardin, Michael (2007) Stricken by God: Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ (Wm. B. Eerdmans)
Warren, James (2012) Compassion or Apocalypse? A Comprehensible Guide to the Thought of Rene Girard (Christian Alternative)
Weaver, J Denny (2001) The Nonviolent Atonement (Wm. B. Eeerdmans)
Williams, James G. (1996) The Girard Reader (Crossroads)
Wink, Walter (2000) The Powers That Be: Theology for the New Millennium (Bantam Doubleday Dell)