Atonement and Mimetic Theory

Last modified: February 4, 2017

The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement

In the concluding words of an interview (The Girard Reader, pp. 262-288), René Girard makes the bold claim, “Mine is a search for the anthropology of the Cross, which turns out to rehabilitate orthodox theology” (p. 288). I find this to be true, and nowhere is it more true than with traditional theories of atonement. What follows our survey of Girard himself is a catalogue of sorts of those who have enlisted Girard’s “anthropology of the cross” to make better sense of the cross’s meaning.

We begin with Girard’s own works views on this subject — despite the fact that he rarely ventured into actual theologizing. Yet he suggests in the Reader interview that his entire work is dedicated to helping theologians with a theology of the cross by offering an anthropology of the cross. I offer one further excerpt from this interview which begins with this same, more general, point about anthropology aiding the work of theologians and the immediate transition that interviewer James Williams makes to the doctrine of atonement — to which Girard makes a brief reply. Additional background for the lead-in discussion is mimetic theory’s fundamental distinction between myth and Gospel. Both involve stories foundational to culture, but myth is from the perspective of the perpetrators of founding violence and Gospel is from the perspective of the victims. The Resurrection of Christ represents the permanent establishment of the victim’s perspective in history. (For more on myth and Gospel see Girard’s essay “Are the Gospels Mythical?“.)

J.W.: … You said that for you the resurrection is an objective event. Do you distinguish between “objective” as you use it here and “historical.”

R.G.: I am not certain I understand the difference. You see, the thing about the Gospels is that there may be tiny mythical infiltrations in them, but their basis is not mythical. The mythical mentality can take them and construe them mythically, but quintessentially they are the destruction of myth. Early Christian faith intuits or understands the nonmythical element and discerns, one way or the other, the mimetic phenomena that are unraveled. The structure of mythology is repeated in the Gospels, but in such a truthful way that the mythological structure is unmasked. The fathers of the church saw this, but were not able to express it in terms of generative scapegoating and the liberating representation thereof. Our mimetic interpretation is less important than their faith but, if it can help our own vacillating faith a little, it is useful.

Part of the problem in the history of Christian interpretation, beginning already with the fathers, was that the Passion was for them a unique event. That is understandable of course. They saw it as a unique event, a single, unique event in worldly history. It is indeed unique as revelation but not as a violent event. The earliest followers of Jesus did not make that mistake. They knew, or intuited, that in one sense it was like all other events of victimization “since the foundation of the world.” But it was different in that it revealed the meaning of these events going back to the beginnings of humanity: the victimization occurs because of mimetic rivalry, the victim is innocent, and God stands with the victim and restores him or her. If the Passion is regarded not as revelation but as only a violent event brought about by God, it is misunderstood and turned into an idol. In the Gospels Jesus says that he suffers the fate of all the other prophets going back to Abel the just and the foundation of the world (Matt. 23:35; Luke 11:50).

So what theology needs is a corroborating anthropology. This anthropology will open up the Gospels again to their own generative center and witness.

J.W.: You have already presented an atonement theory, in effect. Would you care to say more about it?

R.G.: The word “atonement” is unique to English as far as I know. Atonement is what the French, I believe, would call expiation. Atonement is “at-one-ment,” becoming reconciled with God, and this is the work of Christ.

J.W.: The doctrine that has dominated Christian thought, certainly since Anselm, is the satisfaction theory. According to it, the justice of God and God’s honor are satisfied by the one who dies, who is allowed to be scapegoated for the sake of all.

R.G.: What you can say, in my view, is that the Father is working on a sort of historical schedule. Christ comes at the right time, at the right hour. I think Gil Bailie’s paper (already cited)(1) is very important because it suggests that kenosis, emptying, here the emptying of the personality, is crucial. Bailie refers to Jean-Luc Marion, God without Being, and helps me understand it. I had struggled with the book. I think the title “God without being” could be translated as “God without the sacred” — God without sacred violence, God without scapegoating. (pp. 281-282)

The other place that Girard comes closest to talking about Christian doctrines of atonement in his books is in talking about the Jewish ritual of atonement, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 12, “Scapegoat”:

The biblical and Christian power of understanding phenomena of victimization comes to light in the modern meaning of certain expressions such as “scapegoat.” A “scapegoat” is initially the victim in the Israelite ritual that was celebrated during a great ceremony of atonement (Lev. 16:21). This ritual must be very ancient, for it is visibly quite alien to the specifically biblical inspiration as defined in chapters 9 [“The Uniqueness of the Bible”] and 10 [The Uniqueness of the Gospels”].

The ritual consisted of driving into the wilderness a goat on which all the sins of Israel had been laid. The high priest placed his hands on the head of the goat, and this act was supposed to transfer onto the animal everything likely to poison relations between members of the community. The effectiveness of the ritual was the idea that the sins were expelled with the goat and then the community was rid of them.

This ritual of expulsion is similar to that of the pharmakos in Greece, but it is much less sinister because the victim is never a human being. When an animal is chosen, the injustice seems less, or even nonexistent. This is no doubt why the scapegoat ritual doesn’t move us to the same repugnance as the “miraculous” stoning instigated by Apollonius of Tyana [described in ch. 4]. But the principle of transference is no less exactly the same. In a distant period when the ritual was effective as ritual, the transfer of the community’s transgressions onto the goat must have been facilitated by the bad reputation of this animal, by its nauseating odor and its aggressive sexual drive.

In the primitive and archaic world there are rituals of expulsion everywhere, and they give us the impression of enormous cynicism combined with a childish naivete. In the case of the scapegoat the process of substitution is so transparent that we understand it at first glance. It is this comprehension that the modern usage of “scapegoat” expresses; in other words, it is a spontaneous interpretation of the relationship between the ancient Jewish ritual and transferences of hostility in our world today. These latter are no longer part of religious ritual, but they always exist, usually in an attenuated form.

The people participating in rituals did not understand these phenomena as we do, but they observed their reconciling results and appreciated them so much, as we have seen, that they attempted to reproduce them without feeling shame. This was the case because the operation of transferring sins from community to victim seemed to occur from beyond, without their own real participation.

The modern understanding of “scapegoats” is simply part and parcel of the continually expanding knowledge of the mimetic contagion that governs events of victimization. The Gospels and the entire Bible nourished our ancestors for so long that our heritage enables us to comprehend these phenomena and condemn them.

“But never,” you will tell me, “does the New Testament resort to the term ‘scapegoat’ to designate Jesus as the innocent victim of an escalation of mimetic contagion.” You are right, no doubt, but it does use an expression equal and even superior to “scapegoat,” and this is lamb of God. It eliminates the negative attributes and unsympathetic connotations of the goat. Thereby it better corresponds to the idea of an innocent victim sacrificed unjustly.

Jesus applies another expression to himself that is extremely revealing. It is drawn from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” This verse tells not only of the expulsion of the single victim but of the later reversal that turns the expelled victim into the keystone of the entire community. (pp. 154-156)

The point to which Girard is leading is that the Lamb of God is taking away from us this sin of the world. Scapegoating is becoming increasingly difficult. He writes:

Because of Jewish and Christian influence scapegoat phenomena no longer occur in our time except in a shameful, furtive, and clandestine manner. We haven’t given up having scapegoats, but our belief in them is 90 percent spoiled. The phenomenon appears so morally base to us, so reprehensible, that when we catch ourselves “letting off steam” against someone innocent, we are ashamed of ourselves.

It is easier than in the past to observe collective transferences upon a scapegoat because they are no longer sanctioned and concealed by religion. And yet it is still difficult because the individuals addicted to them do everything they can to conceal their scapegoating from themselves, and as a general rule they succeed. Today as in the past, to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn’t have any. (p. 127)

Perhaps we might have a small quibble with Girard here when he says that scapegoating is “no longer sanctioned and concealed by religion.” The point of this page is to call attention to conventional Christian versions of substitutionary doctrines of atonement. Don’t they continue to attempt concealing our scapegoats from us behind a veil of religion? What lies behind American civil religion, for example, and its fervent belief in a retributive justice system? Isn’t it something like the punishing God of traditional doctrines of atonement? (J. Denny Weaver cites the book God’s Just Vengeance: Crime, Violence, and the Rhetoric of Salvation [Cambridge UP, 1996], by Timothy Gorringe.) Isn’t it about time that we let the revelation of an anthropology of the cross finally reveal to us our idols, the violent gods who justify our violence?

A precious resource on atonement from Girard himself is an online digital recording of an address given at the American Academy of Religion conference held in San Francisco in 1997. It is available through Gil Bailie’s Cornerstone Forum site, “Atonement.”

Catalog of Resources

1. James Alison, On Being Liked, chapter 2, “unpicking atonement’s knots.” From the introduction to this recent book, here is Alison’s own description of what he’s about in these chapters — and what I am about in offering this page on atonement:

First in importance in my own mind is the “salvation” triptych (chapters 2, 3 and 4). It seems to me that one of the things that we are still flailing about looking for in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council is an account of our salvation which makes sense to us. The old default account, common to both Catholic and Protestant “orthodoxy” was some variation on the “substitionary theory of the atonement.” That is, some version of a tale in which Jesus died for us, instead of us who really deserved it, so as to pay a bill for sin that we could not pay, but for whose settlement God himself immutably demanded payment. Not only does this not make sense, but it is scandalous in a variety of ways. It has been one of the principal merits of the thought of René Girard that at last it is enabling us to scrabble towards a new account of how we are being saved which is free from the long shadow of pagan sacrificial attitudes and practice. So, first of all I engage in a deconstruction of the old sacrificial way of understanding salvation, and the nasty little bits of residue it still leaves and which get in the way of our capacity to tell a properly Catholic story (chapter 2). However a deconstruction without helping put something better in its place would be either cruel, or radical posturing, or both. The real question is: how can we understand anew that Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, come among us, undergoing murder and rising again so that we can be unbound from our sin and enabled to live for ever. This is what I begin to re-imagine in chapter 3 by trying to find a non-resentful understanding of forgiveness, and it leads to what has been for me a hugely difficult imaginative shift: that of seeing “God wanting us to share in the act of creation from the inside” rather than “God dealing with sin” as being the central axis of the Christian story. That is where I point towards in Chapter 4. As will be clear, this fleshing out of a more healthy account of salvation is, I think, vital for Christian living as we move into the third millennium, and perhaps the most important bit of unfinished business in our reception of the Second Vatican Council. (pages xii-xiii)

James Alison has been speaking on the Atonement quite a bit since 2005. See his website for up-to-date information. There is an online essay, for example, “Some Thoughts on the Atonement” — which is the basis of ch. 3, “an atonement update,” in Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in (New York: Continuum, 2006).

2. James Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Essay 6, “Undergoing Atonement: The Reverse-Flow Sacrifice,” pp. 233-298. This is the most thorough treatment of atonement by Alison to-date, bringing together threads of past reflections into one integrated whole. It weaves together: the Second Temple understanding of the pre-exilic atonement rites, the story of David’s reconciliation with the Gibeonites by the sacrifice of Saul’s descendents, the Gerasene Demoniac joined with a story of gay-bullying in modern-day Venezuela, and two short texts from Paul. He concludes:

In both passages it really is as though Paul wants to stress that God has a terrible time trying to get across to us that he’s basically good and for us, and had to come up with this way of showing that he really is for us, actually likes us, loves us, wants to be on our side. He’s saying “I do want to play with you. I know you’re a susceptible lot, and the only way I can get it across to you that I like you is by occupying the very worst space that any of you can come up with, a place which you typically think I like to put people in. I don’t. It’s you who put people there, you at your very worst. I’ll occupy that space to show you that I’m not out to get you, that I really do like you. The moment you see that, then you can relax, and trust my goodness. Then you need no longer engage in that awful business of making yourselves good over against, or by comparison with each other. Instead you can relax about being good, and as you relax you will find yourselves becoming something much better, much richer in humanity than you can possibly imagine.”

Jesus, in going to his death, brought together the liturgical, the ethical and the personal in a totally benevolent movement towards, for and in the face of, us frightened, violent creatures who find it so difficult to imagine ourselves as loved. (p. 298)

3. Anthony Bartlett, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement [T&T Clark, 2001]. James G. Williams writes: “It is a radically Girardian analysis and constructive proposal regarding the Christian doctrine of atonement.” This remarkable book takes the relatively undeveloped thesis from Girard’s Things Hidden, chapter three of Part II on “The Sacrificial Reading and Historical Christianity,” and takes a huge leap forward in reading large portions of Christian history through the lens of an anthropology of the cross. Bartlett not only takes a close look at Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, but he carefully places it in history: that it was written as the First Crusade was brewing. Coincidence? Or is there a connection between the sacred violence of the Crusades and the sacred violence of Anselm’s atonement theory? Bartlett has also written a very helpful online introduction to this book, outlining the issues and explaining why he wrote it.

Bartlett also briefly engages Anselm’s atonement theology in Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation Anew, pp. 139ff., 205-207.

4. Mark Heim‘s two part essay offers Girard’s work as an alternative to substitutionary atonement. In “Christ Crucified: Why does Jesus’ death matter?” (The Christian Century, March 7, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 8, pp.12-17; subscription required for online access), Heim lays out the problems that modern folks experience with the traditional theories of atonement, and with the sheer violence of the cross itself. “Visible Victim: Christ’s death to end sacrifice” (The Christian Century, March 14, 2001, Vol. 118, No. 9, pp.19-23; subscription required for online access) is an excellent introduction to Girard’s work around the modern reaction of scandal to the cross. I highly recommend reading these two essays on atonement. Link to an online version: Part 1, on atonement theories in general; Part 2, on Girard’s anthropology as a key to a more plausible atonement theory.

5. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross [Eerdmans, 2006]. Alongside Anthony Bartlett‘s Cross Purposes (above), this is the definitive monogram of Ansemian atonement from the perspective of Mimetic Theory. Heim’s treatment has a better introduction to Girardian thinking than Bartlett’s; they together represent significant and complementary treatments. The Eerdmans webpage on this book says, “In order to highlight the dimensions of his argument, Heim carefully and critically draws on the groundbreaking work of French theorist and biblical scholar René Girard. Yet Heim goes beyond Girard to develop a comprehensive theology of the atonement and the cross through his fresh readings of well-known biblical passages and his exploration of the place of the victim.”

6. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence: Paul’s Hermeneutic of the Cross. This book doesn’t specifically name atonement theology, nor argue against “substitutionary atonement,” but it remains a gold standard in the interpretation of Paul’s theology of the Cross from the perspective of Mimetic Theory — and as such bears great impact on getting a theology of the cross right. The first chapter provides a great overall introduction to Mimetic Theory, especially on the dimension of sacred violence. The second chapter outlines the most relevant modern issues to interpreting Paul. And then the third chapter, “Sacred Violence and the Cross: The Death of Christ as an Epiphany of Violence,” provides a must-read interpretation of Paul’s theology of the cross from the perspective of Mimetic Theory — with great relevance to getting atonement theology right. Here, for example:

Clearly we are on the way to a radical reorientation of the understanding of the relationship between the death of Christ and the sacrificial categories of [religion], which entails a restatement of the sense in which Christ’s death can be called a sacrifice. The major new element is that Paul inverts the traditional understanding of sacrifice so that God is the offerer, not the receiver, and the scapegoat goes into the sacred precinct rather than out of it. Christ is a divine offering to humankind, not a human offering to God.

These features can be seen in Paul’s adaptation of the Jewish Christian idea of Christ’s death as a sacrifice in Romans 3:21-26. The first point to note is that the initiator of the offering is God. In the normal order of sacrifice, humans give and the god receives; here the god gives and humans receive. We must insist on the fact that the recipients are human, otherwise we fall into the absurdity of God’s giving a propitiatory gift to God. The usual explanation of this passage is that human sin deserved divine punishment, but in mercy God substituted a propitiatory offering to bear the divine wrath instead of humanity. The second point to note is that not only the order of giver and receiver is reversed but also the spatial order. Normally the offerer goes from profane to sacred space to make the offering; here the offerer comes out of sacred space into profane, publicly to set forth (proetheto) the propitiation (hilastērion) there. These inversions of the normal order of sacrifice mean that it is not God who needs to be propitiated, but humanity, and not in the recesses of the Sacred, but in the full light of day.

The element of substitution, which is part of the traditional interpretation of these verses, might be explained in the terms I am proposing by a reconsideration of the concept of “the wrath.” Below I have argued that for Paul wrath is not the active divine vengeance but the effects of sacred violence in the human world. The wrath that falls on Christ instead of on humanity is, therefore, human vengeance dissembled through the Sacred and borne with absolute vulnerability, with the result that Christ stands out as the one complete victim and target of the wrath. All the rest of us pull back more or less into the defensive structures of the Sacred and protect ourselves against bad violence by means of good. He alone eschews all aid from sacred violence and thus bears the wrath for us, to disclose and thus disarm it.

This means that substitution has become representation; Christ the perfect victim does not bear the wrath instead of us in the sense that we therefore need not bear it; rather as perfect representative he represents our wrath to us, in the sense of mirroring the decoded double transference. To bear it in our place would be to continue to hide our violence from us and thus perpetuate the deception of the double transference. To represent our wrath to us is to give us the opportunity to take responsibility for it, and make the proper changes from acquisitive and conflictual to nonacquisitive and consensual mimesis. We have seen how the victim is the synecdoche/metonymy and the metaphor of the group. In this sense Christ is a substitute for the human race; he is the one who stands for, in the sense of represents, the many (metonymy/synecdoche), and the one who stands for the other (metaphor). To decode the double transference all we need to do is decode the metonymies and metaphors of the Cross. (pp. 80-81)

7. Craig L. Nessan, “Violence and Atonement,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Winter 1996), pages 26-34. Nessan argues, “The most fruitful interpretation of Jesus’ crucifixion which takes that historical death with utmost seriousness has been elaborated by René Girard and those who build upon his fundamental proposal.”

For those who are ELCA (Lutheran) like me, Craig Nessan is a professor of theology at Wartburg Seminary. And Nessan isn’t the only ELCA seminary professor who has made critical use of Girard’s work when writing on atonement theory or the work of Jesus Christ. See also Gerhard Forde, “Seventh Locus: The Work of Christ,” in Vol. II of Christian Dogmatics [ed. by Carl Braaten and Robert Jenson, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1984], pp. 87ff.; and Ted Peters, God — The World’s Future: Systematic Theology for a New Age [2nd ed., Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], pp. 228-229.

8. Michael Hardin and Brad Jersak, editors. Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007. “In the search for constructive rethinking of the cross, this book is a mother lode of resources.” — S. Mark Heim. Contributors include: James Alison, Anthony Bartlett, Marcus Borg, Miroslav Volf, Rowan Williams, N. T. Wright, and many more.

9. Michael Hardin, “Preaching Peace,” often take up the topic on atonement theory from the perspective of mimetic theory, most recently on their page for Epiphany 2A, click on “Anthropological Reading” or “So What?”. Michael Hardin‘s excellent book The Jesus Driven Life [JDL Press, 2010] also has much on laying out alternatives to Anselmian atonement.

10. Robert J. Daly SJ, Sacrifice Unveiled: The True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice. This book is essentially one long meditation on atonement from a Girardian perspective, since it seeks to properly understand sacrifice from a Christian perspective — with insightful emphasis on the Eucharist. The index cites numerous references to where atonement is explicitly discussed, including where it is “identified or associated with sacrifice” (e.g., pp. 99-168).

11. Michael Kirwan, and Sheelah Treflé Hidden, editors; Williams, Rowan, foreword. Mimesis and Atonement: René Girard and the Doctrine of Salvation, Volume 5: Violence, Desire, and the Sacred. Bloomsbury, 2016. Cloth, 208 pages. Mimesis and Atonement brings together philosophers from Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox, and Jewish backgrounds — including James Alison, Anthony Bartlett, Nikolaus Wandinger, and Michael Kirwan — to examine the continued significance of Girard’s work. They do so in the light of new developments, such as the controversial ‘new scholarship’ on Paul.

12. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, a section entitled, “Sacrificial Christianity and Atonement Theology,” pp. 285-95. Near the conclusion he writes,

Combining Girard, Abelard, and Christus Victor, I would say that by nonviolently expressing limitless compassion and forgiveness in the face of human abuse, Jesus exposed the scapegoat mechanism and made himself the model for a new humanity. Imitation of Christ rewires our violent neuro-circuitry, links us together in community, and reconciles us to God. In the process, the Satan of anarchic mimetic rivalry and the Satan of sacred violence are both cast out. Christus Victor! …

The word atonement first appears in print in Tyndale’s 1526 translation of the English Bible. It means, literally, “at-one-ment,” being a contraction of “at” and “one.” In other words, it means reconciliation. But we must bear in mind that while Jesus effected a reconciliation of humanity to God, God had no need to be reconciled to us. The rivalry had been all on one side; from God’s side there had always been unconditional love. Jesus’ death and resurrection has given us access to that love, as a result of the opening of our hearts in response to his infinite forgiveness. In the place where our envy and anger should have been met with reciprocal violence, it encountered instead an absolutely unlimited font of compassionate forgiveness. As Paul wrote, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts…” (Romans 5:5) It was a great victory over the devil of mimetic rivalry and the satanic scapegoat mechanism. Something like this, I believe, is the meaning of “atonement.” (pp. 294, 295)

13. Brian McLaren, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, pp. 157, 208-19. He makes brief mention of atonement theology in the section on doctrine (p. 157), but then gives it central place in the liturgical section in his chapter on the Eucharist, Ch. 23, “How the Table Differs from the Altar.” (McLaren has other good discussions of atonement in other books, but this is the one which makes use of Girard.)

14. Kelly Brown Douglas, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?, pp. 89-103, a section titled, “Atonement Tradition Revisited.” Girard’s work has a prominent place in examining atonement theory; Ms. Douglas was a presenter at the 2013 Theology & Peace Conference.

15. Brian Robinette, Grammars of Resurrection, dealt with throughout the book but especially in the two chapters, 7-8, which make heavy use of Girard’s anthropology. After beginning, for example, with a quote from Girard in ch. 7, Robinette introduces the chapters, saying,

The following two chapters represent an extended study of the resurrection event as God’s non-violent offer of forgiveness. The present chapter focuses more on the problem of mimetic and scapegoat violence in human interpersonal relations, and how the dynamic of such violence is operative in Jesus’ crucifixion. The following chapter addresses more specifically the grammar of double reversal in resurrection kerygma. There I shall state more formally, behind the force of the preceding analysis, the inadequacy of atonement motifs  that explicitly or implicitly assume God’s endorsement of the violence  leading to Jesus’ death. Appeal shall be made to the patristic theme of Christus Victor as the most effective response to sacrificial atonement theory. (p. 250)

16. David Dawson, Flesh Becomes Word; in a book that studies the word scapegoat, there are several places that deal with atonement, beginning with the Levitical scapegoat in chapter 1. But atonement theologies, from Anselm to Aulen, are especially covered in ch. 4, “Economies of Blood,” pp. 33-48.

17. Michael Kirwan, Girard and Theology, pp. 59-80. In a book on Girard and theology, there would have to be significant portions on atonement theology. There is a section on Girard and Anselm, pp. 61-67, and an entire chapter on metaphors of atonement (ch. 7), pp. 70-80. Kirwan also makes brief mention of atonement theology and Girard in Discovering Girard, pp. 108-10.

18. Chris Fleming, René Girard: Violence and Mimesis, pp. 132-136 are devoted to this topic, within the context of an overall introduction to Girard’s Mimetic Theory.

19. Derek Flood, Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross. This ‘does’ atonement theology with a significant upgrade: reading the entire Judeo-Christian message in terms of God seeking to change our minds and hearts on justice, from retributive to restorative. Anthony Bartlett says, ”On a cresting wave of reaction against violent atonement theory, Healing the Gospel charts a sea-change course back to Jesus’s ministry as a model of gracious restoration, moving far beyond the traditional, abusive contours of penal substitution as explanation of Christ’s death . . . Jesus dies to show us God’s enemy-love, which changes everything. A splendid, stirring, and essential book!”

20. André Rabe, Desire Found Me; this is another fine, recent introduction to Mimetic Theory, with two of the closing chapters on atonement theology. Rabe even coins the term in Chapter 16, “Mimetic At-one-ment.”

21. Matthew Distefano, All Set Free: How God Is Revealed in Jesus and Why That Is Really Good News. Another in the growing list of books that effectively takes on substitutionary atonement from the perspective of MT.

22. Rob Grayson, “The cross: religious self-projection or radical discontinuity?“, a 2016 online essay that is another excellent working-out of the clarity which Mimetic Theory brings to the meaning of the cross. He argues for a “Submission and forgiveness” understanding of the cross instead of the familiar “Crime and punishment” understanding.

23. N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. HarperOne, 2016. The foremost New Testament scholar of our day has finally written a book which is essentially a close reading of scripture related to atonement theology, the meaning of the crucifixion. See my review of this book, “The Parable of the Pharisee and Tax Collector, N.T. Wright’s Latest Book, and the Idolatry of Anti-Idolatry.”

24. Marit Trestad, editor. Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2006. Michael Hardin recommends this book as “a powerful book of theological reasoning and an ally in deconstructing the false power of the logic of sacrificial theology” (p. 15) — and as a womanist balance to the majority male perspective of the Stricken by God? volume. In addition to S. Mark Heim’s contribution from a Girardian perspective, contributors to this collection include: Rita Nakashima Brock, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Susan L. Nelson, Alicia Vargas, Delores S. Williams, Douglas John Hall, and Jurgen Moltmann.

25. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation I, ch. 4C, “Metaphors of Atonement and Restorative Justice: A Theological Interlude,” pages 93-100, provides a short and insightful look at Atonement, and cites many of the other resources here on this page.

26. Charles K. Bellinger, The Genealogy of Violence: Reflections on Creation, Freedom, and Evil, chapter 9, “Conclusion: The Healing of the Soul,” focuses on atonement theory with both Girard and Kierkegaard in mind.

27. Robin Collins, “Girard and Atonement: An Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation,” chapter 7 in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. by Willard M. Swartley, pages 132-153.

28. J. Denny Weaver, The Nonviolent Atonement [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001]. Weaver is putting forward in this book his own version of atonement which he calls “Narrative Christus Victor,” an updated (enhanced?) version of Gustaf Aulén’s classic argument. Along the way, Weaver enlists Girard’s anthropology as an important support for his Narrative Christus Victor (pp. 46-49). After a brief description of Girard’s thesis, Weaver concludes:

Narrative Christus Victor finds a great deal of support in Girard’s theory of the origin of violence and human culture and in his reading of the narrative of Jesus in the Gospels. Of particular importance for my argument is his insistence on the nonviolence of Jesus and the nonviolent character of God and the reign of God, and his consequent argument that the crucifixion of Jesus cannot be interpreted as a divinely sanctioned or divinely willed sacrifice. It is very important to underscore that violence originates with humans and not with God.

Narrative Christus Victor has a more broadly based understanding of the life and teaching of Jesus than does Girard’s view. Narrative Christus Victor has more focus on the entire scope of Jesus’ mission to make the reign of God visible, which obviously includes the rejection of violence but is not limited to it. The Jesus of narrative Christus Victor is thus more activist than Girard’s Jesus, whose death unmasks the violence of the scapegoat mechanism. One specific place to see this difference is in interpretations of Jesus’ sayings about turning the other cheek and surrendering the cloak along with the coat (Matthew 5:38-40). Girard interprets these as complete renunciation of retaliation, “ridding men of violence” (Girard, Things Hidden, p. 197). While I agree that these sayings are a renunciation of violence, narrative Christus Victor follows Walter Wink in also understanding them as posing activist ways to turn the situation against the aggressor. (pp. 48-49)

Weaver provides a nice summary of the importance of Girard’s work for doctrines of atonement. I think he is also correct in identifying the difference around issues of nonviolence. Weaver points to the work of Walter Wink in describing a nonviolence of active resistance to evil. He sees Girard’s interpretation as more of a passive nonresistance. Without getting into a lengthy argument here about the difference, I would take my cue from Girard, and from my own reading of the Gospel, to describe Jesus’ nonviolence as active nonresistance. Perhaps this is an oxymoron, but I intuit a difference between a nonresistance which is completely passive and a nonresistance which is chosen with a high level of intentionality.

One verse from Matthew’s Gospel which I have found intriguing in this regard is 11:12: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” The Greek word for “has suffered violence,” biazetai, is the present indicative form of biazomai — which means, first of all, that the NRSV is inaccurate: it should be “is suffering violence.” But the most difficult aspect of this word is that the declension is the same for either the middle or passive voice, thus making this passage notoriously difficult to translate. The choices have wavered between a more active translation, “is inflicting violence,” and a passive one, “is suffering violence.” But what if the middle voice actually conveys to us something in between active and passive? That is, a suffering of violence that is knowingly entered into on behalf of others? Would this constitute an “active nonresistance”?

Weaver goes on to cite St. Paul in support of his thesis, using a reading of Paul that combines J. Christiaan Beker’s emphasis on Pauline apocalypticism (pp. 49-55) and Raymund Schwager’s dramatic narrative form of Girardian theologizing (pp. 55-58). He also refers to Girard and Schwager in interpreting Old Testament Sacrifices and the Letter to the Hebrews (pp. 58-66). Weaver chooses very poignant quotes from Schwager which are among those in what follows, citing Schwager more directly.

29. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation. As Weaver (immediately above) indicates, Schwager makes a reading of Paul which undermines substitutionary atonement theories which make God a potentially violent actor in the drama of salvation. Of 2 Corinthians 5:21 (“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”), Schwager writes, “As we interpret this text, the final decision must be made as to how Paul’s view of the judgment on sin is to be understood and whether one may and ought to speak of an angry and destructive direct action of God toward the crucified one” (p. 166). He concludes:

God was not the direct actor, but he sent his Son into the world ruled by sin, and thus, through the excess of sin making use of the law, he became sin and a curse….

The power of sin is so cunning that it can get completely within its grasp the good and holy law and can so distort it that it works against God and his envoy. If Jesus in the name of the divine law was condemned as a “blasphemer” and thus was made into a curse, even into Satan (John 10:33; 19:7), it was consequently not God, the originator of the law, who cursed his Son. The power of evil rather turned back the command which came from God against the Son. Working from this insight, we are finally led to the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:21, that God did not himself destroy Christ in judgment. Certainly, he sent him into the world of sin, but entirely with the aim of saving humankind. However, the power of sin was so great that it was able by means of its own mechanism and dynamic to draw him into its world and thus to make him into sin. (pp. 167, 168)

Also very important to this drama of salvation is the willingness of Jesus to let himself be made into sin. God sent him into a human world in which we typically make people into sin so that we can expel them, and Jesus willingly let himself be made into one of those “sinners.” Weaver has mirrored Schwager’s line of argument by moving from Paul through “Sacrifice in the Old Testament” to Hebrews. The crucial paragraph is:

The will of Jesus in his passion (Heb. 10:10[: “And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all”]) has appeared to us under a double aspect: (1) as identification with his opponents, insofar as they themselves are victims; (2) as “conversion” and transformation of evil in surrender. Under the first aspect we can see Christ’s love for enemies, insofar as he preferred, faced with his own will to survive, to share their destiny and to suffer in advance on their behalf those consequences of sin which necessarily result from it. This will to identification bore salvation to the extent that it was a presupposition for the second: the conversion and transformation of evil action in love. He turned the radical delivering of himself to his enemies, as he experienced this in being executed, into a radical surrender to his Father. Christ never consented to the lies and killing which constitute sin, but rather he dared to suffer the concrete sinful deeds (as being killed by sin) to the point where he was transformed precisely by them into a limitless surrender. Through his identification with his opponents he also infiltrated their world in which their evil will had imprisoned itself and by his transforming power opened it up once again from its new depths to the heavenly Father. Hell, toward which they were already bent, was once more broken open. What at first seemed to be something purely negative, as the rejection of love and closing in on oneself, was transformed by Christ into a surrender which bursts all dimensions of earthly existence. He is therefore both scapegoat and lamb of God; he is the one who is the one slain and the bread of life; he is the one made into sin and the source of holiness. (p. 189)

I might simply add that Weaver’s enlistment of Schwager’s argument seems to me to speak in favor of “active nonresistance” more than his own active nonviolent resistance. Jesus’ “radical surrender” seems more of the former to me than the latter.

30. Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement. The 20th century Swedish Lutheran theologian wrote the modern classic on this topic, which most likely became the major influence over the last 75 years in the cascading of re-examining the substitutionary atonement which had stood at the center of Western theology for centuries. Aulen’s alternative is also considered the classic, renewed statement of “Christus Victor” atonement theology.

31. Gil Bailie most directly addresses themes related to atonement when reflecting on John the Baptist’s proclamation, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the Sin of the world” (John 1:29; “sin” is singular in the original Greek). Consult, for example, tape #3 of the “Cross Purposes” audio tape lecture series; and his essay “René Girard’s Contribution to the Church of the 21st Century,” Communio 26, no. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 134-153. The Sin of the world is the scapegoating mechanism which is our deeply rooted anthropological mechanism for removing sins (more conventionally understood in the plural) from the community. It is a sacrificial process manifested in the scapegoating ritual atonement of Leviticus 16. Christ takes away this Sin-ful means of atonement by himself becoming the Lamb of God offered to our sacrificial mechanisms. As our Risen Lord, he returns with the means of crippling that mechanism forever: forgiveness. Bailie concludes in his Communio essay,

All atonement theories are rooted in this relationship between the Cross and forgiveness, but none of them has resolved it in a way that holds evangelical promise for the twenty-first century. Relating the Cross and forgiveness more coherently than they have hitherto been related is the precondition for meeting the apologetic and evangelical challenges we now face. This is where Girard’s work becomes most fruitful. (p. 151)

32. Willard M. Swartley, “Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus/Suffering Servant: The Mimesis of New Creation,” in Violence Renounced. Swartley does a superb job of taking on too long of a tradition of downplaying the role of imitation in the New Testament, and connects it with the doctrine of salvation in standard atonement theologies. He argues:

In this chapter I seek to show that major strands of NT teaching are directed specifically to just this reality: transformation of desire that enables a positive, nonacquisitive mimesis. This study seeks to show how foundational and ubiquitous this idea is in the New Testament.

Further, I develop this thesis: that the NT use of imitation/discipleship language carries contextual emphases that prevent, even repudiate, the mimesis of acquisitive desire. Rather, this stream of NT paranesis (i.e., counsel, exhortation, instruction) sets forth another type of mimesis, one antithetical to the mimetic desire that generates rivalry and in turn leads to violence. The mimesis enjoined by the NT canonical literature is grounded in the Jesus cross event, an event that exposes violence and, from Jesus’ side, manifests the freedom and power of new creation.

In developing this thesis, this chapter also sheds fresh light on the long-standing issue in biblical studies of the role of imitation in Christian character formation, a point in the modem debate initiated by Martin Luther’s strong reaction to imitatio Christi because it threatened to undermine his central and precious doctrine of justification by faith alone. (2) Any effort to imitate Christ, says Luther, invites through the side door a works righteousness into the salvation experience, and thereby mitigates God’s grace and salvation extra nos.

Much Protestant exegesis has continued in Luther’s footsteps, spurred additionally by atonement theology that sets off Jesus’ suffering and death as so unique in its salvific purpose that it disconnects discipleship from salvation. This produces lamentable moral results and invites through the side door the old acquisitive mimesis under the guise of protecting salvation. Consequently, the liberating gospel of peace is substituted with a self-serving redeemer myth. Further, one or both of these factors often play into the exegetical comments that argue down the importance of NT imitational/example language.

The influential article by Michaelis in Kittel’s TDNT work demonstrates the point. Disagreeing with Oepke and Larsson in their important and full-length studies of the topic, (3) Michaelis argues against any genuine imitation in Paul:

First, there is simple comparison. The older example seems to be imitated, but there is no conscious imitation. This type occurs in 1 Th. 2:14 and 1 Th. 1:6. Then there is the following of an example. This use is found in 2 Th. 3:7, 9; Phil. 3:17, and Paul is always the example. Recognition of the authority of Paul is plainly implied in these passages, so that following his example carried with it obedience to his commands. In the third group obedience is predominant, so exclusively so in 1 C. 4:16 that the thought of an example is quite overshadowed, and in 1 C. 11:1; 1 Th. 1:6; Eph. 5:1 it is quite obvious that the main stress falls on the element of obedience. In this third group alone are Christ and God associated with Paul as authorities in relation to whom one must be a mimetes. (4)

Given this reductionism of mimesis in Paul to a command-obedience paradigm, it is easy to see why Elizabeth Castelli, in her recent study of Paul’s imitation language, (5) concludes that Paul’s call/command to imitation functions to imprint the hierarchical structure of power on Christian thought and conduct. But, as Fodor points out, Castelli’s wider study of mimesis in Greek literature, and her own caution against reductionism of its meaning, should have prevented her narrow conclusion. (6)

In view of this mimetic error in NT scholarship, one purpose of this chapter is to resolve this problematic by doing fresh exegetical commentary on the mimesis texts in light of Girard’s theory. Indeed, if Girard’s theories are correct, mimesis in the NT can be very bad news, given Castelli’s thesis that it reinforces a conservative hierarchical power structure, or it might also be very very good news, if the call to imitation is securely linked with renunciation of acquisitive mimetic desire, through Jesus’ own model, so that the spiral of rivalry and violence is decisively broken.

If the Girardian thesis is correct, that mimetic rivalry is the generative power behind the scapegoating mechanism that led to Jesus’ violent death, and if Jesus’ life-death breaks this spiral of violence empowered by rivalry — the thesis that I will argue — then it should be possible to show exegetically that Jesus’ teachings on discipleship and the early church’s teaching of imitation (later called imitatio Christi, see also note 8) function as antidote to aspirations of rivalry. They are analogous to Jesus’ own refusal to play the mimetic game that feeds destructive impulses and leads to violence, sacralized under the guise of having made peace (a counterfeit to true peace). Further, if it is exegetically possible to demonstrate this point, then theological quarrel among biblical scholars about the relationship between discipleship and imitation in the NT will be resolved via a fresh perspective on the topic. (pp. 219-221)

Girard makes a response to Swartley’s thesis on imitation in the New Testament in his afterword to Violence Renounced.


1. Gil Bailie, “The Vine and Branches Discourse: The Gospel’s Psychological Apocalypse,” Contagion 4 (1997), pages 120-145. (The link gives access to downloading this entire issue of Contagion as a pdf.)

2. This, however, is not the first time that mimesisplays a crucial role in Christian theological dispute. Jim Fodor, in a manuscript, “Imitation and Emulation: Training in Practical Christian Judgment” (For Stanley Hauerwas, The Divinity School of Duke University), observes that Augustine’s controversy with the Arians hinged on the issue of the Incarnate Son’s relation to the Father, as to whether or not the Son’s being is a true mimesis or only a pale reflection. Further, the issue arises in describing the interrelation of the Father, Son, and Spirit more broadly, and is thus intrinsic to the disputed doctrine of perichoresis (Fodor, 40).

3. A. Oepke, Nachfolge and Nachahmung Christi im NT, AELKZ 71 (1938), 853-69, and Edvin Larsson, Christus als Vorbild: Eine Untersuehung zu den paulinischen Tauf- and Eikontexten, Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Upsaliensis XXIII (Lund-Uppsal: C. W. K. Gleerup, 1962).

4. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, trans. G. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1967), 4.671-72.

5. Elizabeth A. Castelli, Imitating Paul: A Discourse of Power (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/John Knox, 1991).

6. Fodor, “Imitation and Emulation,” 47-48. Worth noting in this regard is that clearly in the thought and life of Ignatius (early second century), who profoundly emulates Paul, the concept of imitatio Christi is central. See Willard M. Swartley, “The Imitatio Christi in the Ignatian Letters,” Vigiliae Christianae 27 (1973), 81-103.

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