Okay, maybe it is because he is French and this is a translation, but I am struggling to get my head around some of Rene Girard’s concepts in his The One by Whom Scandal Comes. Still, I am pretty sure he is saying something important.
Girard clearly thinks Christianity is unique among religions. This flies in the face of the usual view in our culture. It flies in the face of multiculturalism. And, most importantly for Girard, it flies in the face of the culturally prevailing relativism of elites in the West. .
He thinks Christianity is unique because only Christianity really deals with the mimetic reality of human violence. I was having a hard time getting a focus on how this works as an argument until I came to his discussion of Nietzsche.
Nietzsche called Christianity a “slave morality”. He preferred Greco-Roman myths where the community is always right to strike out against the victim. In the myth of Oedipus, the Thebians expel Oedipus because they see him as the cause of a plague. The community’s action against Oedipus are right and necessary according to the myth.
In contrast the Hebrew Scriptures have the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, an innocent victim who suffers at the hands of the community. And the gospels show this embodied in the passion of Jesus.
Nietzsche found this offensive and claimed that such stories were a way that the weak take sneaky revenge upon the strong. But society needs strength. And Nietzsche thought Christianity undermined this strength by championing the victim.
This is where Girard’s apologetic meets modern thought. Nietzsche and those influenced by him fail to see how morality and truth align in the reality that the victim is truly innocent and the whole community is truly acting out an immoral process of “violent mimeticism” against a chosen scapegoat. Thus the idea that Jesus is innocent and the world is guilty reflects the reality and truth of Christianity.
This process of violent mimeticism acted out against an innocent scapegoat is the result of Girard’s analysis of human interactions. I am sure we will get into this more as we go along.
For now I want to point out how Girard’s position is opposed to two lines of thought that we often run into today.
One of these is the idea that Western Civilization is advanced or evolved beyond the primitive nature of ancient or even contemporary non-Western societies. The violence, superstition, bloody religious rituals, and blood feuds between tribes that characterized primitive peoples has been overcome by the West. This point of view gives Western Civilization a moral superiority over other cultures. This is supposed to be a modern, rather than at postmodern, attitude. But you still find it widely, sometimes hypocritically, assumed.
The other idea is at the base of post-colonial and multicultural thought. The idea here is that everything is relative and that we in the West cannot judge other societies.
Now, as I understand it, Girard would not deny that there is some truth in both of these perspectives. There are reasons for celebrating Western Civilization. But there is no reason to think that the West has done away with the pattern of mimetic violence that characterized humanity. The arrogance of colonialism and the devastation of the two World Wars should cause us to realize that the West has not achieved much of a moral advance.
Girard admits that historically Jewish and Christian communities have not succeeded any more than other communities in resisting the contagion of mimetic violence. Small minorities within Judaism and Christianity have tried to resist.
But the unique nature of the Biblical stories tells us that these minorities influenced the formation of the canon of scripture. Thus revelation was rare but passed through a few people who had enough influence to shape the Bible and the great traditions of Judaism and Christianity.
“This is why, unlike in myths, where the dramatic resolution is invariably harmonious and ‘constructive,’ since it reflects the cathartic, purgative effect of violent unanimity, collective violence in Judeo-Christian texts produces disunion, especially emphasized in the Gospels. The synoptic gospels quote Jesus as saying that he brought war and not peace; John shows that Jesus provoked dissension and conflict wherever he went. The sudden intrusion of the truth destroyed as social harmony that depended on the lie of unanimous violence” (p. 37).
I do not claim to understand Girard’s perspective entirely. But he seems to be advocating a kind of canonical view of scriptural authority, but with the twist that it was minority, remnant groups that shaped the canon.
My observation would be that this works better for some parts of scripture than others. But it is a very provocative and insightful approach.