Scandalous! A Mini-Compendium

Girardians speak of the dangers of taking offense — that is, of feeling offended, feeling a certain indignity, a sense of insult and affront — and its relationship to something Jesus spoke of as skandalon, or scandal, a stumbling block that repeatedly attracts us and trips us up. Jesus says woe to those who cause offense and stumbling (Matthew 18:7, Luke 17:1), he calls Peter ‘Satan’ and a stumbling block (Matt. 16:23), and Jesus himself is called a stumbling block (1 Cor. 1:22-23) and he proclaims those blessed who aren’t offended by him (Matt. 11:6).

So I was interested to come upon Fred (at Slacktivist) writing recently about David Dark’s book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything. He quotes this from a chapter titled ‘Questioning Our Offendedness‘:

“To keep it all simple and safe, we often become selective fundamentalists. We know where to go to have our prejudices explained as just and sensible, our convictions strengthened, our group or political party reaffirmed. We process whatever already fits the grid that is hardwired (or re-hardwired) in our heads. It’s difficult for anything else to get through. We’re easily offended. Maybe we’re looking to feel offended, which can make us feel better about ourselves. Feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation. And if the image of God hardwired into our nervous system is easily offended and put off by certain people and their offensive behavior, there’s a feeling of being that much closer to the winning side, that much more likely to be numbered among the elect, the saved, the documented.”

He (Slackivist) speaks of the difference between taking offense or feeling moral indignation, and holy anger. One of his commenters says what occurs to me in response: “The inherent problem is that offense and righteous anger feel similar.”

Another commenter adds: “So it becomes easy to not question one’s own internal sense of ‘righteous anger’, while assuming that the other side is only wallowing in offendedness, and furthermore making an insincere bad-faith claim about being wronged.”


Robert Hamerton-Kelly, in The Gospel and the Sacred, writes about offense and scandal in Mark 6 (pp. 95-97), when the townspeople say, Isn’t this guy a carpenter? Don’t we know his family? Who does he think he is? “And they took offense at him” ( Mark 6:4):

“The hometown crowd recognize [Jesus’s] wisdom and miraculous power but are unable to believe it because of their preconceptions. They have him embedded in their mimetic network. They know his family and therefore it is impossible that he could be what he appears to be. Their ambivalence is well-described as ‘scandal’ (6:3), because the dynamics of scandal are the dynamics of mimetic rivalry, of the model that both attracts and repels.

Scandal begins with the assumption that we are potentially our model’s equal and can always be the same as he. We want not only to equal but also to surpass the model; if we achieve that, he ceases to be a model. We do not want that, however, because the tension of our desire depends on his modeling, and so we desire a contradiction, to surpass and to be surpassed by our model. We attack and cherish, hate and love, diminish and exalt him.

This is scandal, and it is the essence of anxiety (and addiction) because it is the love of what one hates and the hatred of what one loves.

Mark tells us it is the state of the hometown crowd in Nazareth with respect to Jesus. The proverb that a prophet is honored everywhere except in his own home sums up the scandal. Envy is the power of the model/obstacle to attract and repel at the same time. The crowd wants to be like the other and to destroy him, because he is so pleasing.”

>> See also: To Become An Extremist, Hang Around with People You Agree With in The Spectator

As Rene Girard, writing in “From the Novelistic Experience to the Oedipal Myth,” collected in Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire ( ), says:

“The Proust of Jean Santeuil is a discerning psychologist. He knows very well how to recognize in the moral indignation of Others the sign of an ambivalent desire. His own indignation, by contrast, appears to him as justified, if only by the blindness of the Others.”


Girard, in The Girard Reader, talks about scandal as a sort of trap individuals are drawn to, thinking our indignations and outrages define us as different from others, eventually becoming so burdened with them that we transfer them outside ourselves:

Scandals … are permanently conflictual relationships in our individual lives. … We tend to feel that our private rivalries, our intense conflicts, do express something genuinely personal and unique in us. The conflictual nature of scandals seems to guarantee that they are what the existentialists would call an authentic modality of human existence, that they cannot turn gregarious at the drop of a hat.

We feel this way because, as a rule, we are scandalized. Jesus is not and he feels differently. He knows that scandals are mimetic from the start and they become more so as they are exacerbated. They become more and more impersonal, anonymous, undifferentiated, and therefore interchangeable.  …

“If we look carefully at the operation of scandals in the Gospels, we will have to conclude that they are very much the same thing as demonic and satanic possession, which is also characterized by a process of transference ….

“All those who join a belligerent crowd … transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. “

(referenced at Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary)


Girard, writing in the chapter “Beyond Scandal” in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1987), elaborates on scandal, indignation, and violent mimesis:

“The indignation caused by scandal is invariably a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favour and to distribute punishment. The person who is scandalized wants to bring the affair out into the open; he has a burning desire to see the scandal in the clear light of day and pillory the guilty party. This eager and morbid curiosity is closely akin to the passion for demystification on which we previously touched. Scandal always calls for demystification and de- mystification, far from putting an end to scandal, propagates and universalizes it.

The scandal is really violence and the violent knowledge attaching to violence. … Yet the scandal is also often present in subtle and concealed forms, even in the language of non-violence and in the concern for those who are suffering. …

“If we look at the Gospels we can see that even where no mention is made of the skandalon, we are still dealing with the same interdividual relationships; invariably the texts condemn the game of scandal and of reciprocal demystification, with a perfect aptness: Judge not, that you be not judged…” (Matt 7:1-5) …

“To imagine oneself immune to scandal is to claim the self- sufficiency of the god of violence and so to expose oneself to imminent disaster. “


Scandal comes about when we feel that something we believe is right (just, moral, sacred, ethical, true, good, etc.) has been violated. As Slacktivist writes, “feeling offended summons a sense of being in the right, a certain strength, a kind of power, an espresso shot of righteous indignation.”

When our ‘scandal’ button is pushed, it’s because our deep beliefs , the ones we “hold sacred” (whether we have a belief about God or not), the values that seem to most define us, have been threatened with contravention and our identity somehow diminished by this.

James Alison writes about this in his essay “‘Like children sitting in the market place’:   a teaching on Wisdom, vanity and desire,” in which he concludes that Jesus affirms the “easily moved”  people — the crowds, those who are easily swayed — simply because the ‘easily moveds’ have a looser grip on ‘the sacred’ than the ‘up-tights.’  Both groups are mimetically violent:

“What is key here, and it is a feature of Jesus teaching in all the Gospels, is that being an ‘up-tight’ is no different from being an ‘easilymoved’ in terms of desire: both are equal and opposite pathologies of desire which play into each other. The up-tights need the easily-moveds so as to compare themselves with them and feel good about themselves by contrast. And the easily-moveds need the up-tights because the uptights are so obviously inhuman and screwed up in  comparison to ‘us good, plain common folk, none of your lah-di-dah airs and graces’. Each stakes out his own petty ‘goodness’ over against the other.”

But the ‘easilymoveds’ are less likely to be scandalised, less likely to be ‘paralysed’ by the ‘highly dangerous pursuit of goodness’:

“Jesus is not a populist teacher, and crowds and their patterns of desire are not good things in the Gospels! Jesus is observing something much  more straightforwardly anthropological: of the two equal and opposite pathologies of desire, being easily moved has the advantage that it is  easier to get out of. If you are the sort of person who is easily moved, it has the disadvantage that it makes it awfully difficult for you to be  consistently and constantly involved in a project over time, and much easier for you to swept up in a fashion, or for a little slip-up to progress rapidly into a major vice. But it has the advantage that it is much less hard for you to be able to recognise that you’ve screwed up and to respond to help when it is offered. Whereas, if you are one of the up-tights, you will be unaware of how much your own needs and desires, including your reactions to the crowd, are enmeshed in your long-term making of yourself good.… In other words, it will be much more difficult for you to be stripped down and refitted for entry into the Kingdom. “

I agree with Alison, and I think the tricky thing here — another way of lacking awareness — is that it can look so completely like we hold nothing sacred when in fact we really do, and we hold fast, but we are ashamed and embarrassed that we do, because what we hold sacred may be being “not uptight”, seeming to be loose and free and light-hearted, full of fun and wit, open to all new experiences.

Or, we may hold onto our identity as simply a cool original, and being cool and original means denying mimesis, rivalry, need for admiration and need for models, the derivative nature of our desires  — in effect, denying the reality of living among other humans. We hold fast to being individuals when we are actually interdividuals, to use Girard’s term for beings formed by mimetic desire.

In terms of scandal, those of us invested in being cool, originals, free and easy people may be blaise about sex scandals, political scandals, social scandals, and crowd actions, but let our individuality or our identity as an open and free person be questioned — let us be called imitators, normal, average — and we will become offended indeed.


There’s an excellent discussion of the double bind of rivalrous mimesis (we both do and don’t want what others want, and we can’t get it anyway; the desired object must appear continually “to be both obtainable and unobtainable; it must, in other words, take on the appearance of the sacred“), exploring Calvin Klein and other ads, in “Sociological Propaganda: A Burkean and Girardian Analysis of Twentieth-Century American Advertising” by Kathleen M. Vandenberg.

In it, Vandenberg notes that when consumers respond to commercials and “purchase the shirt, their disappointment at its failure to transform them will merely be transformed into desire for yet other objects. The more objects people obtain, the more it became necessary to sacralize the objects; the sacred, as Andrew McKenna explains, ‘always being what must both attract and repel desires’.

In other words, we look to our objects to transport us from the material world by both causing us to desire them (because others desire them) and then failing to give us what we desire. But maybe the next one will.


The scandal of the Gospels: Jesus, story, and offense by David McCracken covers scandal and bible pretty thoroughly, and provides a background of skandalon in the Bible, including noting that it’s often not recognised as such because it goes by various names:

“Whenever skandalon appears in the Greek text, it is translated in the RSV as ’cause for stumbling,’ ’cause of sin,’ ‘difficulty,’ ‘hindrance,’ ‘hindrance inthe way,’ ‘make fall,’ ‘pitfall,’ ‘stumbling block,’ ‘temptation,’ or ‘temptation to sin.’ With all these varied translations, is it any wonder that we fail to recognize a common idea repeatedly surfacing in the New Testament?”

Not only, says McCracken, is the idea of offense located in the word scandalon (and scandalizo and skandalizein), “but it is essentially a dramatic action, at work in the narratives of the Gospels.”

McCracken also succinctly sums up how scandal works, how it feels, why it’s so powerful and so hard to recognise in oneself as scandal – why it looks and feels like an invoking of the sacred, exactly like “holy anger”:

The “difficult-to-bear, personal nature of an offense, its confrontational nature that makes it hard to ignore or to shrug off, its blatant attack on what we take to be our deepest selves or our strongest allegiances — these are precisely what give the offense its power. The offense has a way of bringing the individual to a moment of crisis, revealing the heart’s desire.” …

“A scandal may titillate or outrage us; either way, the titillation or moral indignation effectively prevents any challenge of the sort that offense brings to the assumptions and truths we hold most dear and the idols we cherish most deeply. Offense violates our assumptions about what our world is or what we think it ought to be. Whatever is unofficial, unestablished, or non-normal, deviant or nonstandard, in our view,  carries with it the possibility of offense.”

McCracken usefully contrast the biblical and Girardian view of scandal with Jacques Derrida’s:

“Scandal is, in Derrida’s view, a useful deconstructive tool that deconstructs the accepted truths of old concepts and then deconstructs itself. The biblical skandalon, on the other hand, is not a tool but an action. It does not deconstruct old concepts; it hardens them. Or, alternatively, it reveals truth, although not truth as a philosophical concept or doctrine. In its biblical form, the skandalon is encoutered by individuals on the way to idolatry or to truth.”


Much more can be said connecting scandal, offense, the sacred and purity and defilement. McCracken explores this in the second chapter of his book, and Paul Nuechterlein draws together several sources on the topic in his lectionary notes.

There’s also a modern theory, Moral Foundations Theory, that categorises ethical views in terms of harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect,  and purity/sanctity, connecting these moral foundations to political liberalism and conservatism. It seems a bit misleading, though, to label only one foundation with ‘sanctity,’ as though someone who is morally outraged by racial injustice, to take one example, doesn’t feel that racial equality is blessed, universally and beyond argument right.


While pondering all of this in my heart and head, I came across this news article, Ireland Outlaws Blasphemy. Really interesting are the comments by Michael Nugent, co-founder of Atheist Ireland, strongly criticising the law — in fact, a bit outraged by it:

“It is silly because it revives a medieval religious crime in a modern pluralist republic. And it is dangerous because it incentivises religious outrage, by making it the first trigger for defining blasphemy.

“The problematic behaviour here is the outrage, not the expression of different beliefs. Instead of incentivising outrage, we should be educating people to respond in a more healthy manner than outrage when somebody expresses a belief that they find insulting.”


Which brings me full circle — when is outrage and offense-taking ‘justified’, if ever, and how can we respond when feeling outraged?

One reply might be, as McCracken suggested above, that outrage is justified “when it leads to truth,” when it leads to an unveiling of  our own motivations, the revelation of  “the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning,” when it leads us out of  “permanently conflictual relationships” and our desperate grip on the sacred and the drama of being outraged, and into pacific mimesis, the “joy of being wrong,” forgiveness, an abundant life.

We could consider what triggers our own outrage or moral indignation (what assumptions, values, experience, beliefs), notice when we’re offended and when we seem to offend others, and practice refraining from judging, practice feeling angry and outraged and morally right without immediately acting on it.  Easier said than done!

I think there is a time for acting decisively to try to stop actions that seem wrong. It takes practice to know when those times are. One clue, for me, is that I feel less powered by indignation, anger, hate, envy, a sense of my own woundedness, a desire to retaliate or avenge, a desire to be a hero or saviour, a desire to crusade against injustice, etc., and more imbued with a sense of compassion, a hope that what I’m doing is guided by love, a humility concerning all the ways in which it’s not, an awareness of how quickly my sense of the sacred can harden and keep me from living in the moment, in the kingdom, in the felt presence of Life.


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