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Violence at the Altars

Michael Kirwan

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The chilling executions of American hostages 'for the sake of God' have again exposed the link between religion and violence. No one understands that link better than Rene Girard.

Might the numbing acts of terror of recent years -- not least the horrifying executions this week in Iraq -- cure us of our "holophobia"? The word is used by Terry Eagleton, professor of cultural theory at Manchester University, to describe the contemporary fear of "grand narratives" -- a resistance to standing back and seeing things whole. "At just the point that we have begun to think small, history has begun to act big," he writes in After Theory (2003). Cultural theory, he says, "must start thinking ambitiously once again, so that it can seek to make sense of the grand narratives in which it is now embroiled."

This "holophobic" reticence is, from one point of view, perfectly understandable. Too much theorising about violence and religion -- from 11 September to Beslan -- has been superficial and sensationally reactive. But Rene Girard, possibly the most compelling Christian thinker of our time, offers insights about religion and violence on an appropriately grand scale. His arrival in London next month to speak at a conference celebrating his work could not have been better timed.

In the spring of 1959, Girard was a youngish French literary critic teaching in the United States who underwent a religious experience. He had been working on his first book, a study of five important European novelists, with particular attention to the ways in which Cervantes, Proust, Dostoevsky and others present strikingly similar patterns of desire among their characters. He became increasingly aware, in turn, of another connection. The pattern of desire which he detected in these novels was analogous to religious themes of conversion and resurrection -- even though not all the writers were Christians. Girard had been an agnostic for quite a number of years, but what he stumbled on shattered his unbelief.

Girard, a busy man teaching in two places at the time, recalls being steeped in reverie and ecstasy while looking at the sunset on his weekly rail journey from Baltimore to Philadelphia. A conversion took place -- largely an aesthetic or intellectual one. Soon after he had a cancer scare, which made his interest in Christianity suddenly more urgent and personal. The all-clear from the doctors coincided with his being reconciled to the Catholic Church, in a "death and resurrection" entry into the Easter liturgies of that year.

The lasting legacy of this experience is what Girard has termed "mimetic theory", which is his attempt, over 40 years, to articulate the insights that came to him during those spring weeks. The theory itself is astonishingly simple to set out: it is like the joyful discovery of a particular cause and effect, similar to the recognition, say, of the healing properties of penicillin.

Girard's intuition is that a major feature of human desire is its "mimetic", or imitated, quality: we learn from one another what it is that we should desire; we desire what others desire. This mimetic desire lies behind a propensity among human individuals and societies to channel violence and aggression onto a vulnerable individual or group in times of social crisis. The turbulence is "resolved" by this propensity, which Girard called the "scapegoat mechanism".

Girard offers here a theory of religion which he understands in functional terms as the means by which human societies cope with the fear of overwhelming aggression. In a memorable phrase he asserts that "violence is the heart and secret soul of the sacred". When this theory first came to general attention with Girard's book Violence and the Sacred, it caused something of a revolution. The French newspaper Le Monde declared that "the year 1972 should be marked with an asterisk in the annals of the humanities".

Since then, Girard's insight has modified the landscape of the social sciences, beginning from literary criticism and ending up with a general theory of culture. There have been countless books and conferences reassessing the role of religion in primitive societies and causing scholars to look again at the impact of Christianity on culture. Ethnology, history of religion, philosophy, psychoanalysis, psychology and literary criticism -- all have been harnessed to this intellectual adventure, profoundly marking, in the process, theology, economics and political sciences, history and sociology -- in short, all the social sciences, and those that used to be called moral sciences.

What is revealed time and again, is the complicity of religion and violence. But Girard is no secular critic. On the contrary, he asserts that it is the Christian revelation which has exposed this complicity most fully, and it is the way of Christ, rather than a programme of anti-religious enlightenment, which offers a definitive way out of murderous violence.

Girard has shown how ancient societies, in the centuries before prisons, police and judges, preserved order by channelling religious aggression onto a vulnerable scapegoat which the cultural myths portray as in some way guilty or unclean. This is why the rituals of "sacrifice" -- whether of humans, or of animals as a substitute -- are so intrinsic to primitive religion. To sacrifice life in the name of God -- as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's terror gang did this week in Iraq -- is nothing new. At times of social breakdown, human beings revert to primitive mechanisms.

The Bible, however, unravels this complicity. Although in the early chapters of the Old Testament the scapegoat mechanism is still evident, the God of Exodus and of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah slowly reveal that the victim is innocent and that God is on their side. Jesus Christ's revelation reverses the "hidden" mechanism: God becomes the scapegoat, and unmasks the complicity of religion and violence. This is the secret that has been hidden "since the foundation of the world" and is why Jesus can declare to his apostles that he has seen Satan "fall like lightning".

Jesus' tirades against the scribes and Pharisees, who are described as "whited sepulchres", and "unmarked graves", are a denunciation of religion's potential for "covering up" its violence. Here is a critique of religion as fiercely eloquent as those produced by Feuerbach or Marx. Yet Girard is asserting something that seems startlingly counter-intuitive to many people: that the power to unmask and denounce religious violence comes primarily from the Judaeo-Christian revelation, and not from secular modernity's critiques of religion.

Of the many perspectives that this insight opens up, it is worth mentioning at least one. Girard asserts at one point that he is interested in "conflict as a subtle destroyer of the differential meaning it seems to inflate". What this means in plain language is none other than the paradox that violence makes antagonists identical to one another, even when their mutual hatred stresses only the differences (racial, religious) between them.

During the days that followed the 11 September atrocity, the traumatised DJ of the rock radio station to which I listened could only respond by playing John Lennon's "Imagine" every half hour. Lennon's "utopian" vision of a world completely devoid of religious, cultural and material distinctions is still widely revered as a recipe for global peace; yet it is precisely this bland, "imperialist" neglect of cultural distinctiveness which is finally being recognised as one of the fuels of fundamentalist reaction and aggression. Girard corrects this popular insistence by emphasising that it is, in fact, the fear of sameness -- of loss of identity -- that leads to violence, rather than our actual differences. The eruption of sacrificial violence in Iraq is an age-old symptom of cultural breakdown.

But while the Christian revelation unmasks and delegitimises the complicity of religion and violence, of religious righteousness and scapegoating, of religious ideals and human sacrifice, without true conversion Christians remain in its thrall. It is a tragic paradox that even while its Scriptures unmask the scapegoating mechanism, the Church has scapegoated, too, throughout its history -- in its attempt to make the Jews of early modern Europe, to take one obvious example, guilty of the Crucifixion.

The theory of the victim is not, it must be emphasised, an ideology of "political correctness". The distorted partisanship for the victim which is only another way of seeking power or advantage is a parody of what mimetic theory points us to. This is also what the Scriptures unmask. Religious conversion for Girard is no less than the discovery that "we are all butchers pretending to be sacrificers". Without that revelation, it is all too easy for each of us to see only the scapegoats and the victims of others, not our own. As long as the people who brutalise are "out there", in some satanic realm of fanaticism or perversion, as long as I am only able to appreciate how I have been a victim, and not how -- just possibly -- I may have been the perpetrator, or have been complicit in excluding someone, then the grace of conversion has passed me by. Without such a conversion, the West will be unable to offer a Christian challenge to sacrificial violence committed in the name of God.

Michael Kirwan SJ is a lecturer in theology at Heythrop College, London, and the author of Discovering Girard (Darton, Longman & Todd).

Read this article on the Tablet website.

Posted: 10/1/04

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