Today, I am trying to wrap up my blogging about Rene Girard’s book, The One by Whom Scandal Comes.
I appreciate that Girard has given us a very creative reading of the Bible that I can partly accept. So my expression of concerns in this post will probably make my take on Girard seem more negative than it actually is. Still I feel I need to express some concerns.
One thing that comes out is that he has a doctrine of the Fall and that his thought about the cross answers to that. He speaks of the Fall as a prehistoric “founding murder.” This is where his thought reminds people of Sigmund Freud. Freud thought that originally the Oedipal jealousy of sons against their father led the sons to murder the father. This “original sin” lay at the base of human neurosis.
Freud apparently thought that you could use theory to project back to actual happenings that are invisible to history. He also claimed that the Jews murdered Moses. Again this had more to do with his theory than with history, although he drew on some who misinterpreted Hosea 12:13-14 in this way.
Girard protests that his idea of a founding murder based on mimetic rivalry has nothing to do with Freud’s Oedipal complex and so is quite different. But I see the same attempt to use theory to project an event into the past.
The problem is the use of theory in this way. It think of Mendenhall and Gottwald who used social theory to project back a peasant revolt upon ancient Israel. Some fringe feminists have used theory to project back an original matriarchy upon history. To me, this use of theory to claim that certain past events must have happened is the problem.
Another concern has to do with the focus on violence as the main human problem.
A couple of months ago a friend of mine and former parishioner was murdered. An employee went postal and killed him and another man at his place of business. It is a terrible and shocking thing, especially for his family.
But it has gotten me thinking just how rare a thing this is in real life. The first several minutes of every local newscast in Kansas City is devoted to crime and violence. Certainly there are places where gang violence and crime happen a lot. But in real life lots of other bad things are much more likely to happen to most of us.
There has been no shortage of times when life has been unfair. But usually it is because of disease and random accidents. Of course, I have seen conflict–law suits, divorces, gossip, alienation, church splits and general bickering. But never has it escalated into actual violence.
Thus, my conviction is that most of the injustice in the world is not social injustice. It is not what we do to each other. It is what God does to us. The Book of Job recognizes this. The things that happen to Job do not have to do with violence or oppression. God allows Satan to send unfair, but natural, calamities upon him. They are not the kinds of things that we could protest, or legislate, or negotiate out of existence.
So I am seeing Girard’s focus on violence as incomplete. There are places in this book where he seems to admit this. But, in fact, he interprets Christianity as a response to violence. His understanding of Satan (contrast with Satan in Job) is as a the principle of murder and violence. His understanding of Christ’s victory is as a victory over the social mechanism of violence.
He has many interesting and valid things to say about this. But he developed his mimetic theory of violence as an anthropologist. Then he read the Bible. I think of the saying that to a man with a hammer everything is a nail.
A further concern is the scheme of salvation-history that he develops. Before Christ the human race, including the Jews, used sacrifice and scapegoating to deal with violence. After Christ, this is revealed to have been based on a lie. So now the processes that restrain violence are different. And, even though violence and scapegoating continue, there has been some historical development toward tolerance, democracy, and peace.
He was presented in the interview with the question of how his theory makes any sense after Auschwitz. He responded by talking about the universality of the Jewish people. For him, their function as scapegoat stands for the victimization of the whole human race. So he downplays the special, ethnic election of Israel. But I wonder how, if Christ’s passion really rendered scapegoating ineffective, do we account for the genocide of those whom we have reason to call the people of God.
His theory of atonement rests on new knowledge that Christ’s murder revealed. (I am not calling his thought gnostic because that would have connotations I do not intend.) The mythic stories of sacrifice and projecting blame onto a scapegoat got stood on their head and revealed as based on an untruth. I cannot find in his thought any belief that, besides revealing this knowledge, the death of Christ did anything. I think a classic doctrine of atonement would claim that the death of Christ changed something in the moral structure of the world. I do not find this in Girard.
I am more a Bible student than a theologian and Girard is more an anthropologist than a theologian. So we are both forced to talk about theology without grasping all the fine points. So all I can say is that I wonder about how he would speak to the question of Christianity as an answer to suffering that has nothing to do with violence. And I wonder if his thought about the Hebrew Scriptures and Israel is coherent.