Carl Schmitt was a Nazi. So I do not know what to do with Rene Girard’s use (in The One by Whom Scandal Comes) of his thought. Schmitt got into some trouble with the Nazis for trying to combine his support of the Reich with Catholicism. But, after the war, he did not fully renounce his Nazism.

He wrote about the concept of katechon (in The Nomos of the Earth).  This is a Greek word used in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 to mean the one who restrains the antichrist. In Schmitt sometimes this means Great Britain and the USA, who opposed Hitler. But, in the end, it seems mostly to mean the Roman Empire continued in the Church of Rome. Perhaps Schmitt’s idea was that Rome would have sufficiently restrained the destructive tendencies in Nazism.

Just like my reaction to Martin Heidegger, also a Nazi, my reaction to Schmitt is: Why are we listening to a freaking Nazi?

Anyway, Girard says that katechon is a useful concept for understanding what has happened in history since Jesus. Before Christ, through the myth of the scapegoat and ritualized violence societies temporarily achieved order and restrained evil. Since Christ, this has been ineffective. At least in the West, animal sacrifice has gone away and liberal democracy and humanistic ideas have undermined blood feuds, lynchings, and banishment.

The role that these things had in the past now gives way to law, due process, and checks and balances in the interest of minimizing violence. So katechon, apparently conceived as state power, has replaced mimetic violence as a principle of temporary order.

Satan was cast down but there is still something that restrains him. Whether Girard thinks the Roman Catholic Church plays a main role in the katechon, I cannot tell. He does say that the power of the Church to make people do anything has largely gone away. So I do not see how it would work to restrain evil. I think of Stalin’s question: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” But perhaps moral influence is part of the katechon.

I don’t know what the passage in 2 Thessalonians means. It is pretty obscure. It refers to something the ancient Thessalonian church knew, but which is a mystery to us. My best guess would be that Paul (or his companion, the prophet, Silas), steeped in 1st century Jewish apocalypticism, taught that an angel, perhaps the archangel Micheal, stood over against Satan and restrained him. Concretely, Paul might have thought the restraining angel intervened to cause the mad emperor Caligula to die before he could attempt to put his image in the Temple.

But Christian thought from the Tertullian on has connected the katechon to Paul’s call to obey and respect the governing authorities who “bear the sword” (Romans 13:4). It seems to be this line of thought that inspires Schmitt and Girard. For Girard, it means the use of violence to restrain violence and, for those who do not believe in violence because of Christ, functions at least to bring about the least possible amount of violence.

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Girard-resurrection and church

My current reading project is Rene Girard’s The One by Whom Scandal Comes.

My main interest in Girard is how he relates his theories to the Bible.

I have two items today.

First, the resurrection of Christ. It is pretty clear that the passion and death of Jesus play a major role for Girard. But his interviewer asks him about his view of the Resurrection.

He says it is different from the Crucifixion in that he can’t have a mimetic theory of the Resurrection. It is not an event that he can align with human anthropology or psychology. So he says it either happened or it was invented. He doesn’t think it was invented. He doesn’t go into a lot of detail about his reasons.

I note that he earlier said he had read Raymond Brown. I assume that Brown’s defense of the Resurrection influenced him. (I clearly remember in 1972 or 1973 one of my Bultmann-schooled New Testament professors coming to class in real consternation. He said that apparently Raymond Brown, whom he respected, had just gone “all Pannenberg”. He just shook his head. He did not understand.)

Something shattered the disciple’s view of Jesus as victim and scapegoat. Somehow they came to see him as innocent and vindicated, thus breaking with the myth of the scapegoat. So the disciples were right to see the Resurrection as the end of the world. It was the end of the world so far as the mythic role of mimetic violence was concerned. But he says that the disciples got a little ahead of themselves. The fall of Satan did not mean the immediate end of persecution and exploitation. In fact two thousand years has not been enough time for the Kingdom of God to arrive.

The disciples tried to compress a very long process into a short period. But, otherwise, they were right. He implies that the disciples did not reckon with God respecting human choice as much as he has. The length of time since the Resurrection is God’s accommodation to free will. If the human race would just accept the Kingdom of God we could proceed at once to the next world. So humans are responsible for the delay.


My second item has to do with the church. One of the interview questions he takes is about how he can be a Catholic when the church actually uses hierarchy and scapegoating. He answers without minimizing the fact that Christians have screwed up as much as the rest of humanity. However, he puts the Inquisition in some historical context. He asks why, in the era of Nazism, Communism and many violent police states we go back centuries to rehash the Inquisition–something that the church has put behind it and apologized for.

He says that Protestantism is not attractive and is crumbling. You might as well belong to the oldest and strongest form of the Christianity, even if it has flaws. He says that the legitimacy of the church comes from its connection to Christ, not from always having been right.

This leads to him making an interesting point from the New Testament. He says that Paul , in confronting Peter, faced the same problem that people today face in relation to Rome.

Paul was more radical than Peter. He lectured Peter, and often strongly disapproved of him. But in the end Paul always gave in to him because he knew that Christ had wanted Peter to speak for him. Paul went right to the heart of the matter in everything, and here he recognized the authority of tradition–a tradition that had only been in existence for a quarter of a century! And it is because he was perfectly aware of what was at stake that he acted as he did. If he hadn’t Christianity would never have survived; it would have fallen apart at once. To understand Christianity and orthodoxy one must think of Paul. Paul was indeed stronger than Peter, better educated, more cosmopolitan, but he always yielded to Peter’s primacy (p. 78).

As a default Protestant, I can think of some responses to this. But even without exactly believing in the primacy of Peter and apostolic succession, there is a good point about deferring to tradition as a condition for the survival of Christianity.

I do not always agree with his answers but I like that Girard gives direct answers to tough interview questions.

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In summarizing The One by Whom Scandal Comes  I feel like I am repeating phrases from Rene Girard, like “mimetic violence” and “scapegoat” that a lot of people just won’t understand. So now I am going to try to briefly state what I am getting as Girard’s basic theory and how it relates to a Christian doctrine of atonement through Christ.

Girard sees human violence arising from the fact that we easily want and try to take what others have. This is not usually because of our needs. Rather it is “mimetic”–based on our inclination to imitate others, to want not what we need or what God provides, but what we see others enjoying. This imitation of the desires of others makes conflict, rivalry and violence very common.

Girard claims that in pre-historic times, humans developed a way to limit violence within communities by projecting it outside the community onto a scapegoat. This worked. So we have been using the scapegoat mechanism ever since. Once they took action by killing or expelling the scapegoat, things would calm down for a while. But it was based on a lie.
Since the scapegoat was not really the cause of the problem, the scapegoat solution was temporary.

Girard applied this theory to the sacrificial systems of ancient religions, even Judaism. However, there was within Judaism a minority and a remnant that looked skeptically on sacrifice. Scriptures like Psalm 40:6 deny that God ever required sacrifice. The servant songs of Second Isaiah reveal the innocence of the scapegoat. Then the murder of Jesus confirmed this in historical reality.

So ever since Jesus many have tried to deal with violence in non-sacrificial ways. Inventing new ways to deal with rivalry and the violence it produces is the only way to get peace. But the apocalyptic writings of Israel and the church warn that nations will easily revert to violence. The Bible has as much dystopia as utopia.

The way the death of Jesus is effective is not as a penal substitution for you and me who deserve to be tortured and abused. His death is effective because it reveals the lie behind the scapegoat mechanism and renders it obsolete and impractical. It turned the main human myths inside out. It shattered the old system, while, in some ways, leaving us even more vulnerable to violence.

Thus, Girard combines a moral-influence theory of the atonement with a classic victory-of-Christ theory.

We need to imitate Christ. But Christ says to imitate him because he imitates the Father. It would be ridiculous, as Nietzsche saw, for him to say imitate me because I am not an imitator. Jesus stands in a mimetic relation to the Father. So imitation of Christ is not just a matter of individualistic idealism or pacifism.

As I understand him, Girard is saying that Christ’s moral influence is not so much a matter of setting an example of renouncing violence as it is an undermining of the desire to have what others have that leads to rivalry and violence.

Girard, for instance, is not shocked by the violent language in Lamentations and Psalms. These are the words of innocent victims. They have a right to cry out against their torturers and murderers. They have a right to call on God for help. But to call for help is plainly to call for violence. Yet what we should take from these passages is not that they condone violence, but that they show that it is right for victims to seek to escape violence.

This is all difficult. I have at least a disagreement or two with it. But right now I am just trying to understand Girard.

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The passion accounts in the Gospels hold high significance for Rene Girard. In The One by Whom Scandal Comes he answers questions about his thought posed by Maria Stella Barberi. She asks him about his interpretation of the gospels and his opinion about historical-critical scholarship. He says he owes a debt to such scholarship. He especially likes the work of Raymond Brown about the death of Jesus.

But he approaches the opinions of critics with caution. Girard has a skeptical eye for their changing theories. “Today it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, but ten years ago it was thought to have been written in Antioch. Who knows what will be believed tomorrow? (p. 65). Yes. I think this is a concern for all of us who have been reading the critics for a while. The fashion keeps changing. Sometimes this is progress. Sometimes it is just change.

The use of criticism to discount the gospel accounts doesn’t make sense to him. Speaking of the four accounts of the passion of Christ, he says:

The critics have detected insurmountable inconsistencies in these accounts, but their diversity is also susceptible to another, more positive interpretation. The human mind is incapable of apprehending so great a truth by means of one text alone; in this case four were needed. The variation in perspective was necessary, it seems to me, because the human mind finds it impossible to conceive at once of Christ as a total scapegoat and as a divine being. Each Gospel–and this is the source of their strength, taken together–lays particular emphasis on one aspect of mystery (p. 64)

For Girard the Gospel of Mark is the most important account. His notion of Jesus as scapegoat is most transparent there. Other writers, especially Luke and John, have superimposed other themes over the truth of Jesus as victim of unanimous mimetic violence. This truth is still there. But it is most stark in Mark.

In Mark the disciples always appear in a negative light. They are rivals one of another. They try to construct their own little hierarchy. They all run out on Jesus. Mark is harsh in his treatment of the disciples. Before the Resurrection none of them say anything that isn’t foolish. To Girard, this gives credibility to the tradition that Peter had something to do with Mark.

He sees Peter’s recognition that he had abandoned and denied Jesus as a conversion. Conversion always means coming to see oneself as having participated in violence or persecution. When, in Mark 14:72, Peter realizes this he breaks down and weeps. (Paul’s conversion also involved recognizing that he had been persecuting Jesus.)

But in Mark none of the disciples realize this at all until after Peter does. This small spark, which grew after the Resurrection, broke the satanic circle of scapegoating and the projecting of violence upon an innocent victim.

Apparently Girard thinks this is the way it was historically. The disciples showed no intelligence about Jesus during his ministry. The other gospels read some of the disciple’s post-Resurrection insights back into his ministry, but for Mark even Peter was Satan who needed to get out of his way (Mark 8:33).

This accords with Girard’s theory of unanimous violence. Society unanimously condemns the scapegoat. So in Mark the scapegoating of Jesus includes the disciples. Scapegoating as a way to bring order in a violent society only works if it is a unanimous action. Breaking the unanimity breaks the cycle and changes the dynamic.

I kind of see this.

But I don’t fully understand it yet.

Girard criticizes the idea that conversion consists in receiving Jesus (I doubt that he is thinking about this as a pet phrase of evangelicals–he is probably thinking of John 1:11-12). The disciples received Jesus in one sense but, because they were ambiguous and wavering, they were really still on the other side. Only a conversion like that of Peter, where they realized that they had a part in the condemnation of Jesus, was enough.

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Girard-systems thinker?

I have had some distracting computer troubles the last few days so I am behind on my reading. However, I have been thinking about the Rene Girard book, The One by Whom Scandal Comes.

Before I retired, what they payed me for was not being a Bible scholar. I would rather have played a kind of Christian rabbi and I did let what scholarship I made time for feed my preaching and the Bible studies I led.

But what they paid me for was attempting to fix dysfunctional congregations. An important tool for that work was a systems theory about how groups like families and churches work. I used systems theory in my work but I was never good at explaining what it was all about. Practicing systems therapy is more of a creative art than a precise science in that it relies on recognizing patterns rather than straight-line reasoning.

I am talking about this because in Girard I recognize a similar approach. Girard seems to see mimetic violence as a pattern in human relationships. And his thinking seems similar to that of Gregory Bateson whose work you study when you study systems theory.

Bateson used abductive inference as opposed to deductive or inductive inference. The simplest explanation of this that I have found online is here.

Often systems thinking is said to be nonlinear. At first, I thought this meant that it would be cyclical. But actually it is more like a layered approach to reality. Some historians, for instance, see history as strung out along a linear timeline. Others see recurring cycles. But archeologists discover history in layers, one age piled on top of another.

I know a lot of people will have trouble with Rene Girard because his mimetic theory does not follow a linear kind of logic. It depends on seeing patterns in human relationships and it finds these patterns in literature more than in polls or surveys and other sociological data.

But my experience is that this approach is important if you actually want to help families and congregations. Surface issues behind conflict may be things like budgets or job descriptions. But digging down to an underlying layer finds that the real issue may be who gets to say. In other words, the rivalries that Girard talks about contribute to the dysfunction of groups.

Groups where dysfunction gets out of hand often find an unhealthy equilibrium. Did one of the siblings attempt suicide? We pretend it did not happen and try to get back to normal. But this secret is poison for relationships in the family. Did the preacher leave his wife and run off with a soprano in the choir? We bury the incident and get back to a kind of normal. But distrust of preachers and musicians lingers. Satan has cast out Satan.

Talk therapy does not really fix these things. But a new person, like an interim pastor, with an “unhealthy” curiosity about the past can join the group and change the dynamic. This is especially true in a church where the position of pastor is seen as a prize, but the interim pastor renounces that prize and lets another take it, thus modeling a different kind of leaving, a better kind of goodbye, a healthier kind of grief.

This experience is why I am listening to Girard, difficult as he is.

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Girard-murder and Satan

In the later part of The One by Whom Scandal Comes, Rene Girard answers interview questions and seeks to respond to criticism and clarify his views.

He reads the whole Bible in the light of the gospels and the story of the murder of Christ. Some readers, he says, did not understand his theory because of a chronological problem. He had developed his theory of mimetic violence as an anthropological theory. But then he saw that the theory was already embedded in the Bible.

Anthropologically, mimetic violence proceeds on a time-line from the evolution of humans to the revealing of  covetousness or mimetic desire to murder and war. All of what he calls the archaic cultures arose to deal with and control rivalry of this kind. They used forms of ritualized violence to protect order. In this chronology Jesus comes late.

But Girard reads the Bible in a different order. He begins with the gospels. They reveal that the death of Jesus was the death of an innocent victim. Thus they reveal the history that went before them, that there is a mechanism in human life that over and over leads to murder.

So, he explains, some of his readers have been disoriented because he moves back and forth between these two chronological perspectives.

Another question, besides this one about why some find his previous work hard to understand, is what he believes about Satan. He has used the idea of Satan a lot and made the statement of Jesus, “I saw Satan fall like lightning” (Luke 10:18) the title of a book.

Satan is the principle behind the dynamic of mimetic violence. The statement in John 8:44 that Satan was a murderer from the beginning is key for Girard. Furthermore Girard uses the statement that “Satan casts out Satan” from Matthew 22:26 and Luke 11;:18 to talk about how this dynamic worked. Satan used ritualized violence of lynchings and banishment to control violence and keep some order in the world. But the vision of Jesus when he saw Satan fall like lightning means this is no longer the case. It does not mean Satan was done away with. Rather, now Satan no longer has power to produce order, only disorder. He has fallen to earth and so is closer to us and more dangerous.

When directly asked if he thinks Satan is a real entity, he replies that he agrees with the view of some medieval theologians that Satan does not have “being”. He uses the idea that Satan is a parasite and is a principle of disorder that, nevertheless, has to feed off of order.

I think the use of Satan by Girard has as its purpose the revival of the theories of the atonement found in some of the church fathers that Satan was tricked, paid off or defeated in the Christ-event. These theories had the advantage of avoiding the idea that God was paid off.

Still, to Americans who have watched Dana Carvey as the church lady on SNL ascribe everything to “Satan”, this may be a hard sell.

That’s all I have for today.

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Girard-clarifying about sacrifice

I am writing about parts of Rene Girard’s The One by Whom Scandal Comes.

Girard thinks we use sacrifice too much in connection with the passion of Christ.  But he makes room for some use of the idea.

In this book Girard distinguishes two kinds of sacrifice. One he calls archaic sacrifice. This is the mostly pagan, but sometimes Jewish, form of sacrifice where a human or animal victim becomes an alternative to society’s pattern of turning violence toward a scapegoat. (He is aware of the biblical scapegoat ritual, but he mostly uses the word in the ordinary sense of a blameless person to blame.)

He says it is a mistake to see archaic sacrifice as a gift or offering to a deity. Instead it is an attempt to maintain the unity of society by focusing mimetic violence on a chosen victim. As best I understand it, Girard sees a pattern of societal murder of the innocent as a strategy for tamping down natural mimetic rivalries.

He sees Solomon’s judgment against a child (1 Kings 3:16-27) as a prime example of archaic sacrifice. Two prostitutes come to Solomon with a dispute over a child. Both claim to have birthed the child. But Solomon decrees that the child should be killed and divided. This sacrificial murder of an innocent would settle the dispute and remove the mimetic rivalry between the two.

A second kind of sacrifice comes out in the story. One of the prostitutes is fine with dividing the child. But the other one renounces her rivalry and, for the sake of the innocent child, gives up her claim. She short circuits the process of claim and counter-claim, of she-said-she-said.  This is the same kind of sacrifice exposed in the passion of Jesus.

“She does therefore what Christ would have urged her to do: she takes renunciation to its furthest possible extreme, for she renounces that which is dearest to a mother, her own child. Just as Christ dies so that humanity might abandon its habit of violent sacrifice, the good prostitute sacrifices her own motherhood so that the child may live” (p. 42).

So Girard understands sacrifice here in the sense of renunciation or letting go.

Apparently in an earlier book, Girard had used the idea of sacrifice as an entirely negative concept, drawing on some passages from the prophets that seem to condemn all sacrifice. Thus he criticized the Book of Hebrews for trying to apply the idea of sacrifice to Jesus.

He was stung by some critics who pointed out that he was departing from orthodox Christianity. Now Girard says that this was not his intention at all. He was merely trying to hold up what he sees as a sharp contrast between myth and Christianity. He says he is not really versed in the fine points of theology. But he hopes that his present position–that what we have in Jesus is an entirely different kind of sacrifice–clarifies his thinking.

I am going to start reading the part of the book that is an interview of Girard by Maria Stella Barbari, a Sicilian cultural theorist. I am in hopes that this will help to fill out some of Girard’s concepts.

My concern at this point is that he may not treat Judaism fairly.

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