René Girard is a French literary scholar who has written on anthropology, theology and literature, discussing mimetic desire and sacrifice. His theories of the development of human behavior stem from study of classic texts in Western literature, from Shakespeare through to the Bible. Girard theorizes that human society is inherently unstable because humans have learned to not only imitate other people's actions but to also imitate their desires. When a number of people share a common desire, they become competitors which often results in violence, rivalry and other destabilising effects on their community.
According to Girard, societal crisis and chaos are often resolved by means of the expulsion or sacrifice of an arbitrary member of the group. Through the common 'banding together' of the community in opposition to the scapegoat, social cohesion is restored. These seemingly simply theories have been shown to be useful tools to apply to historical stories and mythologies in an attempt to understand them better. In the case of the Bible, the application of Girardian mimetic theory to our understanding of sacred scripture often has surprisingly useful results.
In the Beginning…
The earliest human societies arose from the group behaviours of our non-human forbears and probably contained many of the attributes of 'dominance behaviour' that we see in non-human primate groups today. Often these groups are led by a dominant 'alpha' male from whom the rankings of each member of the community spread out in a roughly hierarchical fashion.
Unlike our primate cousins however, the earliest human ancestors were capable of more sophisticated relationships, ones where the physical strength of each member became less important and other dynamics began to shape their relations with each other. As with human society today, a person's relationship to other members of the group can be effected by a myriad of factors, such as familial ties, special skills, past or future usefulness and any number of other issues. Because of the complexity of these relationships, Girard's theories predict that inevitably conflict will arise that will threaten to destroy the group.
Over and over again our proto-human ancestors must have built fledgling communities, only to have them self-destruct back into being little more than a 'primate troop' again. Yet occasionally, some groups may have begun to analyse the problems facing them and redirected their anger onto the member who they felt responsible, thus saving the entire group from chaos. These communities would have thus managed to stabilise themselves at a higher level of societal complexity than had been previously attained, allowing them to build upon this base to yet higher levels. In this way, human society and culture was born.
The Rise of Religion
In Girardian theory, religious rituals and sacrifice most likely arose through the community's identification of the peace brought by the expulsion of the victim with the victim themselves; the victim 'brought' the peace. Therefore, in order to maintain the peace that the victim brought them, early societies would re-enact, as closely as possible, the process that had previously worked to solve the chaos.
This 'sacred violence' was a much less traumatic process for a community to go through than the cycle of 'profane violence' which always contains the real risk of destruction of the community. Nevertheless, the 'sacred violence' is not as effective, and gradually a community would inevitably slide back into disorder again, until a new victim was found and a new rite established.
This process worked remarkably well, and at the beginning of recorded history it was apparently the dominant social model. For thousands of years entire cultures made use of ritual sacrifice to minimise conflict and maximise the periods between chaotic rivalries. In this way, Girard postulates, organised religion was born.
Where then, is God?
If human beings are simply a primate who evolved a level of intelligence and self-awareness that enabled them to solve the problem of building complex societies while maintaining peaceful co-existence, and if religion arose from the ritual re-enactment of the sacrificial murder that enabled this peace, then where in all of this do we find God?
The Bible is after all a book that spends an enormous amount of time describing specific rituals and laws, and also describes sacrifices that must be made to bring about peace either between humanity and God or between individuals. The story it tells is of a community who regularly veers between obeying these laws and making these sacrifices and then losing its way and ignoring God, often with disastrous and chaotic consequences which are only resolved when the community once again returns to proper religious observance.
From a Girardian point of view you would expect the Bible to be an open and shut case of the mythicising of the violence that lay at the heart of the Jewish community's cohesion, yet surprisingly Girard does not come to this conclusion.
Within the story of the Bible, Girard sees a revolutionary subversion of the processes of mimetic desire and scapegoating. From Old Testament examples such as the testing of Abraham through to the New Testament pinnacle of the crucifixion of Jesus, Girard identifies the stories not as reinforcing the sacrificial system but rather as being deeply subversive to it. Indeed, Jesus crucifixion is for Girard a watershed moment in the literary history of humanity; one where the sacrificial system is dealt a mortal blow that it has never recovered from. The spreading of the Gospel of Jesus throughout the world, telling of the expulsion of the most innocent victim of all, one who did not become divine through his murder but who was murdered already divine, and the joyful acceptance of this story by Christians everywhere, has undermined the sacrificial system in our culture to the point that today, 2000 years later, these mechanisms are regularly failing to have their age old effect.
The revelation contained in scripture, therefore, is the process whereby humanity discovers again and again something that it has always hidden from itself. The cycle of violence and victim hood that underlies human society was not invented by the God of the Bible, rather it is uncovered by the one who is at once both part of this world and also completely outside of it; thus the only one who can ever really show us to ourselves.
The Destiny of Humanity
As we have seen, René Girard sees humanity as being on a journey of development that we have yet to complete, and it is at this point that our use of Girard's theories move from being purely anthropological, firmly into the theological realm.
If we revisit once again our earliest beginnings, we are faced with the question of, "When precisely did the proto-humans stop being animals and start being us?" For it is at this moment that the human journey truly began, and it necessarily corresponds with the earliest occasion where divine grace could have been encountered by a human being, as there were no humans before this moment.
According to James Alison, the application of Girard's theories has led him to conclude that at some point in history, a scene of intra species rivalry must have led to a situation which concluded with one of the members lying dead. Alison maintains that it is within this moment of peace, where the members of the community reflect upon themselves and their relation to the one slain, that we may find the beginnings of human awareness.
Yet this awareness is not an 'uncovering' of something that was existent within the proto-humans, for it is itself the defining thing that makes them now human. This human awaRenéss is rather a revelation that has come from outside of them, and has then been incorporated into our picture of our personhood forever after.
Indeed in Girard's view humanity does not have the capacity to recognise these aspects of ourselves, and it is only through the revelation of God that we are shown them. As we come to recognise these mechanisms they have less power over us, and the message contained in the scriptures is one that urges us to see ourselves for what we are and to reject these patterns in our lives. If we ignore this message then we become part of the very system that it warns us about.
The Girardian interpretation of the scriptures is that we are called imitate God, not each other. As God identifies with the victim, and though Jesus Christ actually became the victim, then so to should we be the innocent lamb to be sacrificed who does not resist, but rather carries his own cross to Calvary. In this way we participate in the destruction of the cycle of violence.
Further, as we have seen it is in the very nature of the system that its victims become its Gods. Certainly figuratively, and perhaps literally, the Girardian view of our willing acceptance of our own sacrifice also has the societal side-effect of our divinization. Christian theology has long been sure that by imitating Christ we might one day be with him again, so we can see here a neat correspondence between human destiny in Girard's anthropology and that of Christian theology. According to Walter Kasper, our humanization is truly realised only as divinization, which is a sentiment that we can see that Girard would surely have to agree with.
Girard's concept of the human person is one that is rooted both in our biological and social history, yet also unites easily with 'salvation history' and Christian ideas of the human person.
Theologically, Girard's understanding of humanity as a people on an ever changing journey compels us toward a constant re-evaluation of both ourselves and of our understanding of what God wants from us.
Girard's anthropology, while acknowledging our inbuilt tendencies for violence and murder, is nevertheless one of hope for humanity. Girard sees us as continually progressing forward, from being mere creatures towards a day when humanity will share in the divine.
- Alison. J., The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes New York: Crossroad, 1998.
- Bailie, G., Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads New York : Crossroad, 1995.
- Girard, R., & Freccero, Y. (trans) The Scapegoat Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
- Hamerton-Kelly, R., The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.