November 14, 2015


The unlikely Christianity of René Girard (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, November 10, 2015, The Week)

In Girard's framework, mimetic desire and scapegoating are connected. Mimetic desire causes conflict. Because most people desire the same things, the conflict becomes endemic, and unless the conflict destroys society first, the society unleashes its violent urges on someone: a scapegoat. After the cathartic violence, the mimetic desire vanishes, and peace is suddenly restored, which, perversely, vindicates the scapegoating -- if killing the scapegoat leads to peace, then the scapegoat must really have been the source of the conflict.

Girard finds this scapegoating dynamic at the heart of most myths. Oedipus, King of Thebes, had sex with his mother and killed his father; as a result of this sacrilege, the Greek gods visit a plague on Thebes. Once Oedipus tears out his eyes and leaves the city, the plague is lifted. Romulus and his brother Remus found the city of Rome; Remus breaks the law of the newly-founded city, so his brother kills him.

We find this same destructive dynamic at the heart of social life even today -- perhaps especially on social media. And there is only one to defeat it: expose it as a lie.

To Girard, there was only one religious text which did that: the Bible. Girard, who was an atheist until his work on mimetic theory and the Bible led him to see things differently, expected to see the same scapegoating dynamics at work in the Bible as he did in other sacred religious texts and myths. Instead he saw exactly the opposite: the Bible's stories deconstruct and denounce scapegoating.

The Biblical story of Joseph, for example, has Joseph falsely accused of trying to rape his Egyptian master's wife and put in prison. Egypt only avoids famine when Joseph is vindicated. The contrast with the story of Oedipus is striking: In the Oedipus story, Oedipus really did commit incest and patricide, and it was only by effectively killing him -- maiming him and driving him into exile -- that order could be restored. The Joseph story is the exact opposite: The Biblical narrative insists on Joseph's innocence and the land can only prosper once the truth is accepted.

Many Biblical stories revolve around this deconstruction and denunciation of scapegoating, but they culminate, Girard found, in the story of Jesus. After all, he is the ultimate scapegoat, condemned by all rightful authorities. But the Cross exposes scapegoating as a lie and thereby, if it is heeded, empties it of its power.

Posted by at November 14, 2015 6:00 PM