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Jesu, Juva

Girard

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I love big ideas that explain many things (see Edwin Friedman). René Girard’s big idea is to see a cyclical process of imitation (what he calls mimesis) and violence everywhere.

The cycle is as follows:

  1. Human beings are imitative people: we see what someone else is doing and are interested in doing the same. Deep down, this is because we see what someone else desires and we desire it for ourselves.
  2. This may begin quite innocently; for example, who can fault the desire to be a skilled musician? But it often escalates to a competitive situation: envy. Some situations may be zero–sum (e.g., two men desiring the same woman), while others may not be (there is room in the world for many great musicians). However, even situations that are not zero–sum result in envious competition, because what is really desired is the praise of men.
  3. It only takes two people for envy and scapegoating to happen. But within a society or community, it gains additional power as other people coalesce around the competition. This process is compelling because taking sides allows people to overcome their usual differences and experience unity. Thus, the competition escalates.
  4. The escalation results in violence, which can be ended only with a scapegoat: ideally, one party confesses guilt. In any case, that party is expelled in some sense.
  5. Over time a society buries the memory of its own guilt, and the expelled party becomes lionized as kind of hero or savior, with the narrative that they brought both unity and relief to the violence. (This is how myth begins.)
  6. However, this perverse cycle repeats indefinitely in a culture. Although it is evil, it is difficult to rid a culture of the scapegoating cycle because it is so (temporarily) cathartic.

Girard expertly identifies this pattern at work across a wide variety of situations in myth, scripture, history, and current events. While he may at times seem to be using his hammer to turn everything into a nail, it is amazing how many nails he finds. The scapegoating process is everywhere.

In Girard’s telling, there are a number of Biblical stories such as Job (who we should read first and foremost as a type of Jesus) that expose this process, but without giving way to it. Jesus’s own death is the great true–myth that is able to expose the scapegoating process, and therefore deal a final blow to it. Girard himself was brought to faith by his discovery that the Biblical stories all expose and defeat scapegoating, unlike any other stories.

Part of the reason that the scapegoating process is so powerful is that it is a justification mechanism. If you can demonize your opponent, then you are justified in whatever you have done or will do to him to gain the advantage. But there is also a kind of feedback loop here: the more we magnify the evil of our opponents, the smaller our own sins become. This enables us to feel justified in all our sins, even if they have nothing to do with the cause or opponent we are fighting. Whom do you despise? You are quite likely scapegoating them to feel justified in yourself. Especially if you despise them together with someone else, allowing you to feel a deeper unity in your justified despising.

This process obviously fails to justify us whatsoever. But what is amazing is that Jesus by his death as our scapegoat actually accomplishes our justification! However, in order to appropriate his justification, you must repent of your sins (including admitting to any scapegoating you have engaged in) and you must agree with his innocence. This completely reverses the pagan scapegoating process, where the scapegoat is made to plead guilty. (Cancel culture and watchblogging are evil things even when their broken clocks happen to tell the right time). If you make Jesus your scapegoat by hating him and persecuting his people, then you are not justified. But if you accept Jesus as your gift–scapegoat, then you are justified.

In order for Jesus’s kingdom to grow, we must become like him. This means that we resist and expose the scapegoating process wherever it appears, instead calling people to repentance and faith in Jesus. The church is often called to suffer like Jesus for the sake of the world, but equally like Jesus we refuse to agree with the false charges of our enemies. And while our growth in righteousness and mission requires us to faithfully imitate Jesus in all these ways, we must at the same time be watchful of ourselves, lest we allow our imitation of him to devolve into a pagan competition.

Additional resources and reading

Written by Scott Moonen

March 27, 2020 at 8:08 pm

Posted in Miscellany

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