Chapter 6, The Scandal of Christianity
Girard gets to the heart of things quickly in this chapter:
** What’s different about Christianity?
Asked why the phenomenon of the founding murder is so hard to ascertain, Girard replies that the founding murder is the phenomenon (“to shine,” “to appear,” “to emerge in full light”) “that cannot appear, because if it succeeds, then everybody is united against the victim who appears to be genuinely guilty; if it fails, if there is no unanimity, there is simply no phenomenon to watch! In order for the phenomenon to be observable, there must be a group of very lucid observers, small enough not to threaten the unanimity of the persecutors. It’s the case in Christ’s Passion. … All participation in the scapegoat phenomenon is the same sin of the persecution of Christ, And all human beings commit this sin.”
“Ultimately, archaic religion and Christianity are structurally similar because man, even at the most archaic level, has always worshipped his own innocent victims, without being aware of it. This is [where] the unity of religion lies: it centres on the worshipping of the victim.
He affirms that it’s always possible that a given society or group “could reach a form of radical awareness of the violence nature of human beings” apart from the Christian revelation. He gives as an example the Jains who were persecuted in the past for being against the sacrificial order. But although the Jains are non-violent in nature, the religion “eventually relapsed into a patriarchal caste system of Hindu Brahmanical heritage which … represents a form of exclusion, of symbolic and actual outcasting.” Girard believes that some Eastern religions are fully aware of the dangers of anger, resentment, envy, and violence, but at the same time, they are “not fully aware of the scapegoat mechanism. They know what sacrifice is, and they progressively try to forbid it. The difference I see between them and Christianity is that the latter was able to formulate in the Gospels and unmask in a full light the anthropological mechanism of mimetic scapegoating and sacrifice.”
Girard reads Nietzsche’s statement that “God is dead” as actually saying “We killed him.” After which, he says, “we have to invent some ritual of atonement, that is to say, a new religion. … The text is speaking about the birth of religion as well as its death, because they amount to the same thing.” Wow. And how do we reconcile this with any adherence to Christianity as a religion? One of the things that attracts me to Girard’s ideas, and unsettles me, is his apparent inconsistency (so like mine).
** Mimetic Mechanism Stabilises Communities — So What Happens When It’s Revealed?
He speaks quite a lot in this chapter and the following one about the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ consequences of mimesis and the scapegoating mechanism. Here, he says that “the mimetic mechanism produces a complex form of transcendence, which plays a very important role in the stability of archaic society and therefore one cannot condemn it from an anthropological and sociological standpoint, because it is necessary for the survival and development of humanity.
He notes that the mechanism is “an illusory and idolatrous form of sacred that, nonetheless, can protect the archaic human community from greater and more disruptive forms of violence.” In chapter 7, he expands on this.
“Jesus saves all human beings because of his revelation of the scapegoat mechanism, which also deprives us more and more of sacrificial protection, therefore forcing us to abstain from violence if we want to survive.”
Girard mentions in this chapter, and addresses at greater length in chapter 7, the state of the world post-revelation of the mimetic mechanism. He claims to “always use Jacques Maritain’s formula: ‘with the passing of time there is always more good and more evil in the world.”
Girard also definitely says in this chapter that though “desire is always mimetic, … some human beings resist desire and being carried away by mimetic violence. When Jesus says ‘scandals must happen’ (Matthew 18) he is talking about communities. … To talk about freedom means to talk about man’s ability to resist the mimetic mechanism.”
He goes on to say that “we are free because we can truly convert ourselves at any time. In other words, we can refuse to join the mimetic unanimity. …[C]onversion means to become aware that we are persecutors. It means choosing Christ or a Christlike individual as a model for our desires.”
** Skandalon and Satan
Some of my favourite of Girard’s ideas concern Satan, because they completely change my previous view of ‘Satan’ and make so much more sense to me!
He starts by talking about skandalon (a Greek word used quite a bit in the Bible that means a ‘stumbling block’), then widens the discussion by saying that skandalon and Satan are “fundamentally the same thing,” two terms for different aspects of the same phenomenon — the mimetic mechanism.
“Skandalon becomes the inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry, an inability that turns rivalry into an addiction, servitude, because we kneel in front of those who are important for us, without seeing what is at stake. The proliferation of scandals, meaning of mimetic rivalry, is what produces disorder and instability in society, but this instability is put to an end by the scapegoat resolution, which produces order. Satan [or Stan, as I like to type it] casts out Satan, meaning that the scapegoat mechanism produces a false transcendence that stabilizes society, through a satanic principle, and the order cannot but be only temporary, and it is bound to revert, sooner or later, into the disorder of scandals.”
He points out that there’s no ‘Satan’ in the Christian creed. Satan is essentially a non-being. Satan simply describes the unanimity of the crowd when it accuses and expels a victim.
** Sacrifice and Self-Sacrifice
“In order to free oneself from sacrifice, someone has to set the example, and renounce all mimetic retaliations. … To learn about the role of mimetism in human violence helps to understand why Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are what they are. They are not masochistic; they are not excessive. They are simply realistic, taking into account our almost irresistible tendency to retaliate. The Bible conceives the history of the elected people as constant relapsing into mimetic violence and its sacrificial consequences.”
Central to Girard’s exposition on self-sacrifice, very different from murderous sacrifice, is his reading of the Judgement of Solomon. Two women come before Solomon claiming the other woman stole her child. Solomon threatens to divide the child between them. One woman says OK, the other woman gives up the child rather than have it split. Girard says that this situation is “the fundamental human situation. … There is no doubt that the distance between these two actions is the greatest possible, and it is the difference between the archaic sacrifice, which turns against a third victim the violence of those who are fighting, and the Christian sacrifice which is the renunciation of all egoistic claiming, even to life if needed, in order not to kill.”
He says that the Gospels read in this story the bad woman and the bad sacrifice as a metaphor for the old humanity, unable to escape violence without sacrificing others. Christ, through his own sacrifice, frees us from this necessity. We have then to use the word ‘sacrifice’ as self-sacrifice, in the sense of Christ. Then it becomes viable to say that the primitive, the archaic, is prophetic of Christ in its own imperfect way. No greater difference can be found: on the one hand, sacrifice as murder; on the other hand, sacrifice as the readiness to die in order not to participate in sacrifice as murder.”
There is, Girard says, no neutral viewpoint.