“The Burning of the Darkness” by Nicholas Roerich
The late great French intellectual Rene Girard is known for developing an anthropological philosophy around a few key ideas. The most famous of these are the fundamental roles of mimetic desire and scapegoating in all societies.
Mimetic desire is the concept that human beings, aside from natural instincts, learn to desire what we see other people desiring. This idea–that we want what other people want–is not new, but Girard places it at the center of human life, and so reframes the way we understand the working of human relationships, from the interpersonal to the societal.
If you’re wondering what this has to do with Christianity, bear with me. That’s coming up fast. Girard observed that this basic motivation creates competition and rivalry whenever two alike people end up desiring an object that cannot be shared. The tensions that result tend to erupt in violence, which threatens the fabric of communities that depend on peace and stability.
Here’s where Girard’s second basic notion of scapegoating enters. Looking at literature and history from societies around the world, he observed that when tensions threatened to drown communities in their own violence, inevitably and unconsciously, they chose either one person or a particular type of people to transfer their animosities to. In other words, they substituted a scapegoat who would suffer for the collective violence in the hearts.
And because this was an unconscious transfer, the resulting catharsis would be so baffling that it occurred to the people that their violence must have been planned by a divine being. It must have been a kind of sacrifice that the gods were teaching them to repeat, and the ritualization of this violence was believed to serve a social purpose: to keep the peace, to insure rains for their crops, to keep the sun happy, etc.
Likewise, by deeming a certain kind of sacrificial violence as sacred, it made it possible for societies to express their thirst for violence without tearing one another apart. Only one or a few people had to die, and doing so they would “save” everybody from the same fate.
Does this sound familiar yet? You may recall this passage from John’s telling of the Passion of Christ (Jn 11:45-53):
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.”
Some might read this and think that Rene Girard was an atheist trying to debunk Christianity, or explain it away as just one myth among many similar others. The truth is quite the opposite: Girard was a devout Catholic convert, who saw the genius of Christianity in turning this dark dynamic on its head.
In relationships where mimetic rivalry leads to violence, and especially where the restrictions of society channel violence onto more acceptable victims, the constant delusion is that the recipients of violence somehow deserve their fate. They must have had it coming to them, and they must be punished so that peace–the illusory peace “as the world gives” that Christ disregards (Jn 14:27)–would reign with righteousness restored to the community.
Girard sees this dynamic throughout human societies, from ancient myths to the modern world. In the Bible, however, this delusion of a guilty victim is repeatedly unmasked, leading up to the ultimate revelation of the innocence of scapegoats in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We see, for example, that jealousy leads Cain to kill his brother Abel. Mimetic desire at work: Cain wanted to please God with his sacrifice, as Abel had pleased God. But where Greek and Roman tragedies end with the hero’s tragic flaw resulting in his demise, Abel is presented as a truly innocent victim. And even Cain, who is guilty of murdering his own brother, is saved by God from mob justice. Despite God’s outrage (“What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”), the Lord “put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight” after banishing him from his home (Gen 4:10,15).
In the story of Job, we see the accusations of guilt on account of his sufferings by his so-called friends. “Reflect now,” Eliphaz says, “what innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed? As I see it, those who plow mischief and sow trouble will reap them,” (Job 4:7-8). But despite wavering under immense grief, Job holds firm to the knowledge of his innocence and fast to his trust in God. In the end, God rewards him with wealth beyond his losses.
There are other biblical stories centered on innocent victims whose faithfulness bears fruit. Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery, eventually became a magistrate of Egypt whose gift for prophesy saved many from starvation. When his brothers came to collect grain for their family, it was Judah’s self-sacrificial offer to stay in place of his brother that impressed Joseph, and led to his rewarding the whole lot.
Rather than focusing on punishments as a means to achieve justice–which Girard says is the mask people place on the process of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating–God, through the prophets and ultimately in Christ, says, “If you want to help restore the balance, if you want to bring true peace and reconciliation, be imitators of me. Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect, merciful as he is merciful. Take up your cross, those obstacles to love, and follow me. I love you. I am not your rival.”
The spotless One who sacrificed himself for our sake and, as Hans von Balthasar said, is so fully alive that he can afford to die, did die so that our self-sacrifices would unfasten our closed selves to receive his divine life. His grace is what opens up the dramas of life, so that they arc toward infinite, eternal life.
The life of Christ, indeed, is so attractive in its vibrancy and compelling in its breadth, that those who embody the Gospel evangelize by their own depth of life. Their stories are more than tragedies or comedies or morality plays. They’re love in flesh and blood. They’re sacrificial deaths and resurrections. They’re little gospels. They’re little bodies of Christ.
If you would like to know more about how the saints mirrored Christ, consider joining us for an Afternoon Tea With the Saints at the Pilgrim Center of Hope! Enjoy tea and cookies, and a conversation about St. Josemaria Escriva on June 16th at 2:00 pm. Click here for future dates.