Girard on Satan

Excerpts from René Girard’s essay “Satan,” from The Girard Reader, pp. 194-210


The essay begins:

In Mark 3:23 Jesus asks a question that he does not answer: “How can Satan cast out Satan?” In the modern period we pride ourselves on our superior knowledge and rationality, so the question of Satan and expelling Satan is an embarrassing puzzle for us. But the solution to the puzzle may be found in the Gospels, and in the Gospels we must go to the center of all significance, the Passion. Jesus calls it the hour of Satan. Why? Because it is Satan’s attempt to cast out Jesus, to expel him as if he were another Satan, a worse Satan than Satan himself.

This is the real answer to Jesus’ question, but we do not really understand what it means. The reason for our puzzlement is that the Passion as a violent process, a demonic expulsion, has always been ignored…. (p. 195)

After giving examples of collective violence additional to the Passion in the Gospels, such as the Parable of the Vineyard and the beheading of John the Baptist, Girard picks up with this:

Instead of one collective murder, we now have many, and their mimetic nature is the reason for their similarities. What is the relevance of this mimetic violence to the idea of Satan casting out Satan?

Besides collective violence, there is also violence and conflict on a smaller scale in the Gospels, violence between two or a few individuals. This violence also has a mimetic dimension, like the collective violence, and Satan is also involved.

Not unlike Jesus, Satan says to us: “Imitate me” and he, himself, is an imitator. His ultimate model is God the Father, the same model that Jesus has.

Imitation is characteristic of both Jesus and Satan. We always imitate someone when we desire, either Jesus or Satan. In the Gospels, therefore, desire itself is mimetic. It is rooted not in the desiring subject, not in the desired object but in a third party, the model of our desire. If this model influences us through his own desire, we both desire the same object. We become rivals.

Since Jesus recommends imitation, mimetic desire is good. It is even very good, the best thing in the world, since it is the only road to the true God. But it is the same as human freedom, and it is also the road to Satan. What is the difference between the mimetic desire of Jesus and the mimetic desire of Satan? The difference is that Satan imitates God in a spirit of rivalry. Jesus imitates God in a spirit of childlike and innocent obedience and this is what he advises us to do as well. Since there is no acquisitive desire in God, the docile imitation of God cannot generate rivalry.

When mimetic rivalry is triggered, the two competing desires ceaselessly reinforce each other and violence is likely to erupt. But mimetic rivalry is not satanic to begin with, it is not sinful per se, it is only a permanent occasion of sin.

In order to designate the exasperation of mimetic rivalry, the Gospels, have a marvelous word that, at times, seems almost synonymous with Satan, skandalon. The idea comes from the Bible and it means the obstacle against which one keeps stumbling. The Greek word appears first in the Greek Bible and it comes from a verb that signifies to limp. The more we stumble against an obstacle, the easier it should be to avoid further stumbling but, frequently, the opposite happens: we stumble so much that we seem to be limping.

The skandalon designates a very common inability to walk away from mimetic rivalry which turns it into an addiction…. (pp. 197-198)

After insightful elaboration on scandals and the skandalon he concludes this section:

The Christian communion is rooted in a passionate rejection and critique of what the other communion uncritically espouses, the guilt of the victim. It would be difficult to find two attitudes farther apart than these two.

The communion of mimetic rivalry is Satan’s work. The word “Satan,” originally, signifies the accuser, the one who brings a law suit against someone else. In the Gospels, Satan’s power is his ability to make false accusations so convincing that they become the unassailable truth of entire communities. To call this process “Satan,” which is what the Gospels really do, is highly appropriate.

The Christian communion is based on the rejection of the false accusation, on the understanding that it is false. According to John, this understanding must be ascribed not to men alone but to the Holy Spirit whose name is highly appropriate, too, as appropriate as Satan for the other communion, since he is called the “Paraclete,” a Greek word that simply means the lawyer for the defense, the defender of victims. Jesus is the first man who decisively disrupts the mimetic consensus against the most innocent of all victims, himself. That is why he is called the first Paraclete. After he is gone, a second Paraclete will continue his work.

Our understanding of the difference between the mimetic communion of the persecutors and the Christian communion depends upon the Paraclete. In the modem world, this understanding is either absent — and that explains why the modern world has never discovered the true difference between Christianity and the other religions — or it is present in forms that disguise its Christian origin. Instead of comparing innocent victims to the lamb of God, as we would do if we were willing to acknowledge the real source of our insight into social violence, we often say that these victims are “scapegoats.” We use this word not in the ritual sense of Leviticus but in the everyday modern sense which is much more interesting, the sense of a victim unjustly persecuted by a semi-conscious or unconscious group of human beings. (p. 201)

He is then ready to pick up again the original question:

We can now go back to the question with which I began this presentation. “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

From the beginning, you will recall, my answer has been that Satan casts out Satan through the collective violence of the Passion and all similar murders. This answer, now, should be fully intelligible. When scandals proliferate too much at the local level they come together, they converge upon a necessarily irrelevant or totally innocent victim and a consensus is established at the expense of that victim. The order that is thus born, or reborn, in this fashion is less violent as a rule than the disorder it overcomes but it is violent and unjust nevertheless; it is never entirely free of arbitrary violence. When Jesus accepts to die on the Cross he accepts being one of the innumerable unknown victims upon which human order has always been based.

The idea that Satan is both the exercised demon and the exorcist, the one cast out and the one who does the casting out, is not a logical impossibility, a mythological absurdity unworthy of our scientific outlook.

In the twentieth century, some scientists have developed the theory of the so-called self-organizing systems, complex entities in which the principle of order and the principle of disorder are one and the same. As soon as disorder reaches a certain threshold in these systems, the forces of disruption turn into a force for reintegration and reordering.

The Satan of the Gospels is a self-organizing system. The words are not the same, of course, but the idea of Jesus is obviously the same. Jesus might very well have said: How can Satan cast out himself? but he chose to repeat the noun “Satan.” All three synoptic Gospels repeat the word “Satan.” This repetition is more pleasant to the ear, no doubt, but it is not for esthetic reasons that Jesus does it. Stylistic considerations are subordinate to his primary purpose, which is to emphasize the paradox implicit in his own question. This paradox is the oneness of order and disorder.

Far from being afraid of this paradox, as the now scientifically outmoded thinking of a Rudolf Bultmann would be, the thinking of Jesus focuses our attention upon this apparent scandal: How can Satan expel Satan? Who will be foolish enough to believe that such a thing is possible? According to the traditional conception of straight causality, it is impossible, but Jesus knows exactly what he is doing. He emphasizes what is the most original feature in his conception of Satan. Both the disorder and order of human culture are from the same source which is not directly divine and this, to my knowledge, is unique to the Gospels, so unique that, to my knowledge, it has never been really understood.

Satan, therefore, represents a source of transcendence. From the point of view of the Gospels, this transcendence is false in the sense that it is not really supernatural but it is real in the sense that the power of political and social institutions rooted in pagan religion is quite real. In order to designate these strange combinations of religious illusion and social reality, the Gospels have a number of labels such as “the powers of this world,” “celestial powers,” “thrones,” “dominations,” “principalities,” “rulers of this world,” “angels,” and, of course, “Satan.” (pp. 201-203)

So how is it that the Cross becomes unique in revealing all this?

The texts on the subject all claim that mankind, thanks to the Cross, for the first time in its history, is no longer in bondage to Satan. Since Satan’s power is revealed by the Passion, it has to be identical with the Passion in some essential respect and this identity can only related to the violent process we have uncovered, the mimetic polarization and unanimous murder which is the process of Satan casting out Satan. This is the secret that the Gospels force out of hiding merely by their faithful representation of one collective murder typical of them all, typical of the process that has dominated human culture since the foundation of the world.

The spotlight upon Satan makes it impossible for him to fool humanity any longer. Once the secret is revealed, it loses all its value. It even looks pathetic in comparison with its enormous historical effects. Paul never quite manages to define this secret, and the reason is not that he has doubts, or that he hesitates, or that his thinking is not up to the task, but the words he needs simply do not exist. There is no appropriate vocabulary for what he is saying. Here is how Colossians 2:13-15 articulates the whole question:

And you . . . God made alive together with Christ, having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the Cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

The metaphor of a legal document that would be the charter of our bondage is suggested to Paul, I suppose, by the legal tinge given to the whole question of victims by the very names of Satan and the Paraclete, one being the prosecutor, as I suggested before, and the other the lawyer for the defense. The nailing of this document to the Cross is a first attempt to say that the principalities and powers, in other words Satan, are defeated and even ridiculed by the Cross.

Let me repeat this essential point: once we understand that Satan’s secret is the founding murder and the scapegoat mechanism, the idea that Satan’s power is reduced to nothing by the Cross makes perfect sense. By providing us with an accurate portrayal of the mimetic process behind the death of Jesus, and secondarily the death of John the Baptist, the Gospels reveal something which, in the long run, is bound to discredit not one particular lie about one particular victim of collective persecution only but all lies rooted in the victimage mechanism, in the grotesquely deceptive scapegoat misunderstanding. Satan becomes a ludicrous nonentity.

The idea that the Cross was really a trap set by God himself in order to lure Satan flows logically from the preceding: Since Jesus, almost every time he opens his mouth, reveals the secret of Satan’s power, he becomes, in the eyes of Satan, a most intolerable source of disorder; he must be silenced once and for all. In order to reach this goal, Satan only has to resort to his favorite trick which is exactly what is needed in this case, the very trick about which Jesus is talking so much, the traditional trick of the mimetic murder and scapegoat mechanism. Since this trick has always succeeded in the past, Satan sees no reason why it would not succeed in the case of Jesus.

Everything turns out as anticipated by Satan except for one thing. With the help of the Paraclete, Jesus’ disciples finally break away from the mimetic consensus and provide the world with a truthful account of what should remain hidden in this affair, at least from the perspective of Satan.

In the light of this reading, 1 Corinthians 2:7-8, which is the crucial text, becomes fully intelligible:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glorification. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

The rulers of this age, are the same thing as the powers of this world and Satan himself. Had they foreseen that the crucifixion would deprive them of the powerful tool with which they had been operating all along, their first order of business would have been the protection of the scapegoat mechanism, and they would have refrained from crucifying Jesus. They would have become even before the Passion what they now have become, hypocritical lawyers for the defense; they would have imitated Jesus in a satanic way. They would have become the Antichrist much earlier than they have. (pp. 206-207)

The only amendment I might make to this account would be the emphasis on the Resurrection that James Alison makes in picking up the Girardian anthropology for theology. It is the Resurrection which makes the Cross unique in revealing our violence to us; it is the Resurrection which sets the Paraclete loose in this world to continue that work of revelation, whether we are ready for it or not.

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