Friday, October 18, 2019

Violence or Love

René Girard did a five-part series of interviews with the CBC in 2011.  Each part was one hour long, so this represents a very nice overview of his thoughts.  I will begin here with Part 3. As always, with audio or video interviews and discussions, quoted items are as close I as I can get them. 

Parts 1 & 2 offer a good introduction; I will not detail these here as the information is similar to an earlier post I wrote on Girard.  I only offer the following, from the earlier post:

Girard was a twentieth century philosopher.  His fundamental concept is ‘mimetic desire’.  This is more than imitation.  Students of Plato understand that humans are the species most apt at imitation; per Girard, we also imitate desire and this can sometimes lead to conflict as we desire the same things.  My focus will specifically be his views on the scapegoat and the victim, and how this mechanism was used to reduce conflict in early societies and how this evolved via Christianity.

For those still confused about what any of this has to do with liberty, might I suggest that liberty has a chance to be sustained in a peaceful society; it stands no chance in a society consumed by conflict.  Property rights, let alone life, stand no chance against a societal mob.

Now on to comments from the interview.  The general theme of Part 3 is that sacrifice would no longer work as a method of reducing conflict via the sacrifice of a scapegoat.  This change was seen even during the time of the Hebrew prophets:

The prophets offered that sacrifice no longer works; a new way had to be found.  The new way was through Jesus.  Instead of dealing with risk of escalating violence, we are to turn the other cheek.

It was the message of the Cross that put the exclamation point on this new way:

Regarding the Cross, when you see the truth of that violence, suddenly that violence repels you. 

The word Girard uses is “repels”: the violence of the Cross repels you.  It isn’t the Cross, but who was on the Cross, what He is, what He has done.  That He could have removed Himself from this violence with just a word; Herod was almost begging Him for this.  But He knew what had to be done if there was to be hope of ending the violence without further sacrifice.  So, He did not offer a word to Herod. 

Before the Cross, every violence is portrayed as heroic, epic, even tragedy – justifying the casting out of the victim. Only the Bible doesn’t do that. 

There were hints of the change to come in the Old Testament.  Elsewhere Girard has noted hints of this in the Cain and Abel story, or in the brothers casting out of Joseph.  In these stories, the violence was not heroic; it was condemned.  Jesus brought this change – hinted at in the Old Testament and in the prophets – to completion:

Jesus’s teaching is a teaching of escalating violence when the old sacrificial order is undone.  The injunction to love your enemy is the way of dealing with certain, critical situations. 

What does Girard mean by this?  Without the old sacrificial order, the choice is either escalating violence or love.  There is no third way.

Jesus destroys the whole concept of sacrificial violence by accepting it – even when forsaken by God and abandoned by Peter. 

The most perfect and innocent sacrifice was offered.  If this wasn’t sufficient to end the escalation of violence, it would mean the apocalypse.  By apocalypse, Girard doesn’t see God throwing down lightning bolts from heaven or any such thing as this; instead:

If we increase the violence, we are going to kill each other; the apocalypse is right here.  The apocalypse is not some invention; if we are without sacrifices, either we are going to kill each other or we are going to die.  We have no more protection of our own violence.  Either we are going to follow the Kingdom of God, or we are going to die.

I recall from something else I had seen or read of Girard.  He believes that what is written in the Bible about the apocalypse is a warning: this is what man will bring on himself if he does not move toward love.

It would seem that this is where we are.  We no longer have a community that will coalesce around a common scapegoat; we certainly are not following the Kingdom of God and love.  This is clear within the West.

We may also get the version of Armageddon as desired by Christian Zionists, but it won’t be God’s doing.  Per Girard (and it is also my view) mankind is perfectly capable of destroying itself without any help from God.


Therefore, we owe so much to the Bible – yet we cannot recognize our debt.  When we criticize the Bible, we can only criticize it with the Bible – we cannot criticize it with The Iliad, not with Greek philosophy. 

This is the farce of modern society.  Many believe that without the Bible, there will be peace.  But it was only through the Bible that we are able to criticize violence; violence was accepted as normal – even desired – outside of the Biblical tradition. 

We have assimilated it so much that we cannot even recognize that what we have assimilated comes from the Bible: violence is ugly, and not heroic.

Not that peace totally ruled the land after the Cross – even among Christians.  Human behavior does not change so quickly.  But when we look back at our history today, we condemn wrong that which was previously accepted.  We criticize, but we are looking through the wrong end of the telescope.  We have the luxury of looking backwards on institutions such as slavery with a more refined ethic; but this ethic has only been refined thanks to Christianity.


  1. "We have assimilated it so much that we cannot even recognize that what we have assimilated comes from the Bible: violence is ugly, and not heroic."

    I stand with Tolkien in believing that violence can be heroic, but only if sanctified, or if you prefer justified, by the Christian faith. This is not to say that any violence that has in history gained the approval of the Church is justified, or that anyone stating that God is 'on their side' is justified.

    Violence in protection of one's homeland, one's neighbors, one's family, or one's self is justified. Even Christ told His disciples to pick up a sword in the garden of Gethsemane, even if He did stop them from using them.

    Having said that, I generally like Rene Girard and his concept of the scapegoat and how Jesus broke that tradition. Very interesting how you've tied it into the discussion of liberty. Fits well!

    "Per Girard (and it is also my view) mankind is perfectly capable of destroying itself without any help from God."

    So true. Reminds me of a great quote by G.K. Chesterton:

    "According to most philosophers, God in making the world enslaved it. According to Christianity, in making it, He set it free. God had written, not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage-managers, who had since made a great mess of it."

    This is more or less what I believe about our existence. Lol

    1. Elsewhere I have heard it said of Girard that he is not a pacifist, but I have not read him or heard him enough to parse this out.

      Even in five hours of interviews, I respect that his ideas are nuanced: for example, when thinking of violence as he uses it in the above, his context could be regarding the scapegoat, or he could be meaning aggression.

      So I am willing to continue to try and understand (as I know you are also).