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.