Girard on skandalon

René Girard and the New Testament Use of skandalon

1. When René Girard wants to show that Jesus understood the human situation in terms resonant with mimetic theory, he develops the theme of skandalon — first developed more fully at the conclusion of Things Hidden, pp. 416-431. On skandalon and the cross, for example, Girard has this to say (after quoting 1 Peter 2 on Christ the cornerstone which the builders had rejected):

The Cross is the supreme scandal not because on it divine majesty succumbs to the most inglorious punishment — quite similar things are found in most religions — but because the Gospels are making a much more radical revelation. They are unveiling the founding mechanism of all worldly prestige, all forms of sacredness and all forms of cultural meaning. The workings of the Gospel are almost the same, so it would seem, as workings of all earlier religions. That is why all our thinkers concur that there is no difference between them. But in fact this resemblance is only half the story. Another operation is taking place below the surface, and it has no precedence. It discredits and demonstrates all the gods of violence, since it reveals the true God, who has not the slightest violence in him. Since the time of the Gospels, mankind as a whole has always failed to comprehend this mystery, and it does so still. So no empty threat or gratuitous nastiness is involved in the text’s saying exactly what has always been happening and what will continue to happen, despite the fact that present-day circumstances combine to make the revelation ever more plain. For us, as for those who first heard the Gospel, the stone rejected by the builders has become the permanent stumbling block. By refusing to listen to what is being said to us, we are creating a fearsome destiny for ourselves. And there is no one, except ourselves, who can be held responsible.

Christ plays this role for all who remain scandalized by the wisdom embodied in the text. His role, though understandable, is paradoxical, since he offers not the slightest hold to any form of rivalry or mimetic interference. There is no acquisitive desire in him. As a consequence, any will that is really turned toward Jesus will not meet with the slightest of obstacles. His yolk is easy and his burden is light. With him, we run no risk of getting caught up in the evil opposition between doubles. (pp. 429-430)

2. Girard’s latest book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, opens with a chapter entitled “Scandal Must Come.” After laying out the basics of mimetic desire, he concludes the chapter with these reflections:

If mimetic rivalry plays an essential role in the Gospels, how does it happen, you may object, that Jesus does not put us on guard against it? Actually he does put us on guard, but we don’t know it. When what he says contradicts our illusions, we ignore him.

The words that designate mimetic rivalry and its consequences are the noun skandalon and the verb skandalizein. Like the Hebrew word that it translates, “scandal” means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into it the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us. Those who are scandalized put all the more ardor in injuring themselves against it because they were injured there before.

The Greek word skandalizein comes from a verb that means “to limp.” What does a lame person resemble? To someone following a person limping it appears that the person continually collides with his or her own shadow.

Understanding this strange phenomenon depends upon seeing in it what I have just described: the behavior of mimetic rivals who, as they mutually prevent each other from appropriating the object they covet, reinforce more and more their double desire, their desire for both the other’s object of desire and for the desire of the other. Each consistently takes the opposite view of the other in order to escape their inexorable rivalry, but they always return to collide with the fascinating obstacle that each one has come to be for the other.

Scandals are responsible for the false infinity of mimetic rivalry. They secrete increasing quantities of envy, jealousy, resentment, hatred — all the poisons most harmful not only for the initial antagonists but also for all those who become fascinated by their rivalistic desires. At the height of scandal each reprisal calls forth a new one more violent than its predecessor. If nothing stops it, the spiral has to lead to a series of acts of vengeance in a perfect fusion of violence and contagion. (1)

“Woe to the one by whom scandal comes!” Jesus reserves his most solemn warning for the adults who seduce children into the infernal prison of scandal. The more the imitation is innocent and trusting, the more the one who imitates is easily scandalized, and the more the seducer is guilty of abusing this innocence. Scandals are so formidable that to put us on guard against them, Jesus resorts to an uncharacteristic hyperbolic style: “If your hand scandalizes you, cut it off; if you eye scandalizes you, pull it out” (Matt. 18:8-9).

Recent translators, trying to make the Bible psychoanalytically correct, attempt to eliminate all the terms censured by contemporary dogmatism. They replace the admirable “stumbling block” of our older Bibles, for example, with insipid euphemisms, although “stumbling block” is the only translation that captures the repetitive and addictive dimension of scandals.

Jesus would not be astonished that his teaching is not recognized. He has no illusion about the way in which his message will be received. To the glory that comes from God, invisible in this world, the majority prefer the glory that comes from humankind, a glory that multiplies scandal as it makes its way. It consists in gaining victory in mimetic rivalries often organized by the powers of this world, rivalries that are political, economic, athletic, sexual, artistic, intellectual . . . and even religious.

The phrase “Scandal must come” (see Matt. 18:7) has nothing to do with either ancient fatalism or scientific determinism. Taken individually, human beings are not necessarily given over to mimetic rivalries, but by virtue of the great number of individuals they contain, human communities cannot escape them. When the first scandal occurs, it gives birth to others, and the result is mimetic crises, which spread without ceasing and become worse and worse. (I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pp. 16-18)

3. Here’s a particularly helpful passage on skandalon from The Girard Reader:

Scandals, we found, are permanently conflictual relationships in our individual lives. Now we see that the word also applies to the participation in the mimetic consensus against Jesus. This use is disconcerting. We tend to feel that our private rivalries, our intense conflicts, do express something genuinely personal and unique in us. The conflictual nature of scandals seems to guarantee that they are what the existentialists would call an authentic modality of human existence, that they cannot turn gregarious at the drop of a hat.

We feel this way because, as a rule, we are scandalized. Jesus is not and he feels differently. He knows that scandals are mimetic from the start and they become more so as they are exacerbated. They become more and more impersonal, anonymous, undifferentiated, and therefore interchangeable. Beyond a certain threshold of exasperation, scandals will substitute for one another, with no awareness on our part.

If we look carefully at the operation of scandals in the Gospels, we will have to conclude that they are very much the same thing as demonic and satanic possession, which is also characterized by a process of transference, as in the case of the Gerasa demons, for instance. Jesus, I believe, prefers to speak the language of scandals, whereas his disciples feel more at home in the language of Satan and his demons.

Once again, Peter is a good example. When Jesus first announces that he will suffer at the hands of the people, Peter is scandalized. His ideal is the same as ours, worldly success, and he tries to instill it into his master. He turns his own desire into a model that Jesus should imitate. This is how Satan operates, of course. Hence the famous words: “Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me.” If the scandalized disciple had succeeded in mimetically transmitting his own mimetic desire to his master, he would have scandalized Jesus straight out of his divine mission.

Peter’s behavior is the combined effect of his preexisting scandal, which is mimetic, and the additional mimetic push provided by the crowd.

All those who join a belligerent crowd act more or less like Peter. They all transfer their private scandals to some public target. Men become so burdened with scandals that they desperately, if unconsciously, seek the public substitutes upon whom to unburden themselves. As they become more numerous, the target’s attractiveness as a target increases, and the process becomes irresistible.

The notion of scandal bridges the gap between individual and collective violence. The mobility of scandals, their tendency to unite around a common victim, provides a mediation, a communication between the two levels.

The violent unanimity of the Passion results from a massive transference of scandals, a snowballing so powerful that its effects become inescapable. (The Girard Reader, pp. 199-200)

4. Students of Girard have also picked up on this major theme in Girard’s work. David McCracken has dedicated an entire book on the Girardian understanding of skandalon, The Scandal of the Gospels (including an appendix with a complete listing of skandalon in the NT, pp. 194-197). Matthew uses these words the most of the Synoptic Gospels (Luke the least), so McCracken’s book focuses the most on Matthew. McCracken also has a nice summary of his findings on skandalon in his essay “Scandal and Imitation: In Matthew, Kierkegaard, and Girard,” Contagion Vol. 4 (Spring, 1997), pp. 146-162.

5. Link to a complete listing of skandalon in the New Testament.

6. René Girard, The One by Whom Scandal Comes is a title that strikes the theme of skandalon; especially ch. 5, “Scandal and Conversion.”

7. Gil Bailie expounds on the Girardian reading of the devil, Satan, and Scandal, in Violence Unveiled, pp. 202-210 — two sections “The Devil and Satan” and “Scandal.”

8. James Alison‘s primary expositions on skandalon include Raising Abel, pp. 154-158; The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 140-146, on “The Skandalon Revealed”; and chapter 8, “On Not Being Scandalized,” in Faith Beyond Resentment, pp. 170-193.

9. Raymund Schwager, Must There Be Scapegoats?, pp. 139ff., has a great explication of how Psalm 118:22 (“The stone which the builders rejected…”) became one of the most oft quoted OT passages in the NT. 1 Peter 2:1-10 is discussed on pp. 142-143.

10. James Warren, Compassion or Apocalypse?, ch. 3, “Scandal and Desire in the Gospels.”

11. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life, pp. 44-48, 62-64.

12. Wolfgang Palaver, René Girard’s Mimetic Theory, pp. 255ff.

13. Jeremiah Alberg, Beneath the Veil of the Strange Verses: Reading Scandalous Texts, especially ch. 1, “The Language of Scandal and the Scandal of Language.”

Note from I See Satan

1. Girard uses mimétisme here, for which English has no equivalent. In his usage it refers to imitation of others’ desires and a complex of rivalries, that spread rapidly and increase to the point that sandals begin to accumulate. This is an unconscious process that leads to the “war of all against all” if it were not for a mechanism, an unconscious operation, that avoids chaos by the unanimous resort to expelling or lynching a victim. In subsequent chapters I often translate mimétisme as “violent contagion.” — Trans.

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