James Alison on “The Intelligence of the Victim”
A phrase that James Alison uses a great deal in his work is “the intelligence of the victim.” It describes the revelation that begins to issue forth, through the power of the Spirit (the “Paraclete” in John’s Gospel), as Jesus the Risen Victim appears to witnesses on Easter morning. According to mimetic theory, all human mythology is from the persepective of the victimizers, namely, the story of human culture generated at the expense of victims — though the collective violence of culture is veiled behind the violence of the gods. The Gospel is the inbreaking into human mythology of God’s story of salvation as told from the perspective of the Lamb of God, God’s Son offered to our cultural mechanisms of victimage. “The intelligence of the victim” is an epistemology that proceeds from the perspective of the victim.
A typical Alisonian method is to use an “order of discovery” rather than an “order of logic.” For example, John uses an order of logic by placing the pre-existent Christ of creation at the beginning of his gospel, but that was not the order of discovery (see The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 100). For the latter, the “order of discovery,” Alison always begins with the Resurrection as the originating point of the Christian revelation, the experience which enabled the apostles to go back and begin to understand other things anew, beginning with the cross and moving backward through Jesus’ life to even later ideas such as the Trinity and Creation in Christ. Alison typically begins with the disciples’ experience on Easter and proceeds to gradually spin out other aspects of the Christian revelation.
For an example of this method, see chapter 3, “The Search for a Soteriology,” in The Joy of Being Wrong, whose subsections are laid out in the order of discovery: “Revelation as Discovery,” “The Resurrection,” “The Intelligence of the Victim,” The Founding of the New Israel of God,” “The Universality of the New Israel,” “Creation in Christ,” and “Trinity: The Monotheism of the Victim.” All of this leads into a discovery of “original sin” as part of the Christian revelation. (So scholars who point out that a doctrine of original sin is not present as such in the Old Testament are correct; that doctrine is a by-product of the Christian revelation which begins at the Resurrection and continues through the power of “the intelligence of the victim.”)
In fact, the first several sections of “The Search for a Soteriology” (i.e., “The Resurrection” through “The Universality of the New Israel”) are a condensed version of Alison’s first book, Knowing Jesus, which is where “the intelligence of the victim” is first explained. Here are several of the opening paragraphs of the second chapter:
One of the things that happened as a result of the resurrection was a shift in the possibility of human knowledge. That is to say, that before the resurrection of our Lord, there was an area of human life that was radically unknown, maybe even unknowable. And this area of human unknowing was laid bare, opened up, by the resurrection….
I take it for granted that Jesus’ resurrection focalized an understanding of the afterlife — but that is not what I’m interested in pointing out here. I would like to refer to what I mean when I say that something radically new became known by using the phrase, ‘the intelligence of the victim.’ As a result of the resurrection of Jesus the disciples underwent a profound shift in their understanding, such that they were able to understand something about human life and relationships that had never really been understood before. That something was, to put it simply, the relationship between God and victims.
The gospels are all quite clear on this. Until the resurrection, the disciples did not understand what was going on with Jesus. From the resurrection onwards, they were suddenly able to understand something quite new about Jesus, and about God, and about human beings. The principal evidence for this is that the gospels show simultaneously the non-understanding of the disciples, sometimes the misunderstanding, and at the same time, they show a profound understanding by Jesus of exactly what was going on, where he was going, what was going to happen to him and why.
Now, these two understandings, present in the same texts, are not there because the disciples didn’t understand, but preserved Jesus’ words, so that any future generation might be able to understand what was going on. No, the two understandings are there because, after the resurrection, the disciples were able to understand, and could remember the gap between their understanding then, and their understanding now. They were able to tell the story in a new unified way, from the point of view of the risen victim.
Biblical scholars seem to agree that the oldest parts of the gospels are the passion narratives, probably the Marcan passion narrative. Which one came first doesn’t matter from the present point of view. What is important is that the disciples started being able to tell the story of Jesus’ execution not from the point of view of the muddled, frightened, half-hearted semi-traitors that they all were, but from the point of view of the victim. They could suddenly see that it all made sense. Not ‘suddenly’ in the sense of in a flash, but rather in the sense of starting from a fixed point in time — the resurrection. (Knowing Jesus, pp. 33-35; my emphasis)
In the following pages, Alison goes on to further explain what he means by this process of revelation he is calling “the intelligence of the victim”:
It was this that enabled them to go back in their memories and tell the story of Jesus as that of the self-giving, and self-revealing victim, who alone knew what was really going on. First of all they were able to tell the story of his passion in this way. The evidence for this is in the early preaching of Peter in Acts. Peter’s first speeches are full of Old Testament references showing an understanding of the crucifixion as the rejection by Israel of God’s Holy One, done in ignorance; the resurrection offers Israel an opportunity to be forgiven, and to be brought out of ignorance concerning God and sin. Time and again in the New Testament we come across the phrase ‘The stone rejected by the builders has become the head of the corner.’ The quotation is from Psalm 118, and would have been known to all those involved. Its meaning has suddenly come alive, as it is seen to reveal how the whole edifice of the understanding of Israel as God’s chosen people is recast, starting from the expelled victim.
So, the making of this man a victim, apparently in ignorance, and done to please God (Jesus had been judged a blasphemer) was in fact the condition which made it possible for God to be revealed for what he really is: the forgiving victim. This is the great irony present in all the gospels, and particularly in Luke and Acts: that by killing the Messiah, Israel was, without being aware of it, offering up the sacrifice of all sacrifices to God, the sacrifice that could become the basis for their salvation.
It is interesting to see how this understanding, the perception, or what I have called the intelligence of the victim, the victim’s own understanding, is slowly read back into the living memory of those who had been with Jesus, and who had preserved his sayings, whether by memory, or by writing them down. For all the gospels show the life of Jesus leading up to the passion. It is not as though he lived his life, and then by mistake got involved in an imbroglio in Jerusalem and so got killed. From the vantage point of the resurrection, the presence of the forgiving victim, the disciples could see that the whole drift of Jesus’ life had been towards the passion.
Now please note what I am not saying here. I am not saying that as a result of the resurrection, the disciples invented a whole set of stories about Jesus as their way of explaining the resurrection. The texts manifestly are not about the disciples’ new self-understanding, even though they do reveal that the disciples did now understand things anew. The gospels all bear witness to Jesus himself having understood all this from the beginning. That is precisely what the disciples did not understand before Jesus’ death, and did understand after his resurrection. They all bear witness to the fact that, unlike themselves, Jesus had what I have called ‘the intelligence of the victim’ from the beginning….
Yet that is the story that the disciples are telling: the story of the lynching from the point of view of the victim’s own understanding of what was going on before the lynching happened, up to, and during it. That is to say, they, the disciples, are not in the center of the story, the victim is, and it is the victim’s intelligence that is allowed to provide the lines which make the story what it is. (Knowing Jesus, pp. 36-38, 39)
In the last sentence, a synonym for intelligence might be perspective. It is the victim’s perspective which comes to light. This is in keeping with the Girardian idea that the Gospel demythologizes conventional myth precisely because it gives the victim’s perspective on the foundational stories for communities; myth, according to mimetic theory, gives the persecutor’s perspective on those stories.
So the disciples’ slowness in coming around to the intelligence of the victim that Jesus was able to carry into this world was not a matter of being dim-witted. Nor is getting the intelligence of the victim a matter of being intellectually bright. Alison explains:
The difficulty of Jesus’ teaching was something to do not in the first place with its own content, but with the constitution of the consciousness of those he was teaching. It was as if they had had a veil over their eyes until after the resurrection. That is to say, what Jesus was revealing was something about which human knowledge is always shrouded in self-deception. The disciples understanding was (as ours is) formed by what Jesus was trying to change: that is, the constitution of our consciousness in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion of the other. What the disciples became aware of after the resurrection was that the person whose consciousness is constituted in rivalry and survival by victimization does not possess the intelligence of the victim. The beginning of the perception of the intelligence of the victim is already an alteration in what constitutes human consciousness, permitting us to see things from the viewpoint of the victim, and from the point of gratuitous self-donation. This, they saw, was already fully present in Jesus’ life: his human awareness was simply not constituted by the same “other” as their own. It would of course take some time to move from the perception that the other who formed and moved Jesus was simply the Father, to the awareness that this meant that the Son was in fact a perfect imitation (or eikôn) of the Father, to the awareness that this implied an equality of substance with the Father, and the beginnings of the doctrine of the Trinity. (JBW, pp. 80-81)
In Knowing Jesus, he uses a helpful analogy to explain:
The only way I think I can explain this is with reference to personal experience. I hope that we have all had the experience of gradually coming to perceive exactly the same things in a different way. We look out at a certain reality, at home, at work, in a relationship, and realize that, without our having understood a particular fact, or circumstance that we didn’t before, nevertheless, we are aware that our whole way of looking has changed profoundly and subtly. This might be for any number of reasons, like a new friendship, or the end of a period of anxiety where we hadn’t realized how much we’d allowed it to color our vision. The point is that the change is not in our conscious awareness, but in the background to that, in what makes us have a conscious awareness at all. It is as though we are watching a film; the film doesn’t change, but the projectionist subtly puts a filter into the projector, so that exactly the same film comes out, but is changed into sepia, or pink, or whatever.
The point of my bringing this out is that the disciples’ block to understanding the intelligence of the victim was at this level. It was not a question of stupidity, of not grasping certain basic teachings. The problem was for them, and is for us, that the intelligence that was in Jesus was an intelligence at the level of what makes us conscious, what makes us aware. The disciples had, as we have, a background to understanding, which is actually formed by what Jesus was trying to change. The filter, if you like, which colors our perception without our being aware of it, not only is not the same as Jesus’ intelligence of the victim, but is in fact its reverse: our programming, if you like, forms us in rivalry, and the techniques of survival by exclusion.
None of this, it must be said, could have been known until after the resurrection, when the new intelligence was able to irrupt into the lives of the disciples. However, they did then understand that Jesus had been trying to make this available to them not only in the way he went to his death, but in all the things he had taught them. (Knowing Jesus, pp. 40-41)
In The Joy of Being Wrong, this epistemological blockage is a major part of what constitutes original sin: that which normally forms us, culturally and individually, forms us into rivalry and a victimage mechanism for dealing with the conflict. With the intelligence of the victim which Jesus brings from the Father, we have the opportunity to be re-formed in non-rivalrous, peaceful ways.
How is this intelligence made available to us? Through the forgiving presence of the risen victim, and through the Spirit he makes available to us. The Trinitarian structure to this is a hint which Alison leaves us at the end of Knowing Jesus (something on which he elaborates in JBW):
What links the Father and Jesus, therefore, is the intelligence of the victim. It is in the light of the intelligence of the victim that we can begin to understand the relationship between the two — the love for us that involved sending Jesus, the love for Jesus that involved sending, and raising him up, the love which Jesus had for his Father which involved giving himself for us knowingly to victimization. It is this knowledge of the intelligence of the victim which sets us free: the truth which sets us free is the truth of the victim. The Counselor [Paraclete (1)], the Spirit of truth, who is the advocate for the defense against the lynching of the world, this is the intelligence of the victim, bearing witness to the truth which flows from the victim. It is for this reason that Jesus told his disciples in Luke 12:11, ‘And when they bring you before the authorities, do not be anxious how or what you are to answer, or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.’ And no wonder that the Holy Spirit will do just that; it will not be a sort of additional function of the Holy Spirit to do that as well as all sorts of other things. As I hope has become clear by now, the Holy Spirit is the intelligence of the victim. (Knowing Jesus, pp. 112-113)
1. In short, the intelligence of the victim is another way of talking about what Girardians mean when they talk about the work of the Paraclete. See the webpage on “René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”