The following was the Welcome and Introduction to the themes of this website for about fifteen years (2001-2016):
This is another of the blossoming number of websites designed to aid friends-in-Christ in their weekly engagement with the lectionary, the assigned readings from Scripture for worship. But it must be stated clearly at the outset that these reflections are of a highly specialized variety: “Girardian” reflections.
2 What Are “Girardian” Reflections?
René Girard, now a professor Emeritus at Stanford University, has elaborated what he refers to as “mimetic theory,” but which is also becoming known as an “anthropology of the cross.” The hope with these lectionary reflections is to illustrate the significance of this anthropology as a new key to interpreting the Gospel. (Note: See also “Preaching Peace,” by Michael Hardin and Jeff Krantz, as an excellent website with a similar mission as this one.)
The age-old need for an adequate anthropology might be made plain by considering a portion of Karl Barth’s radical theology of revelation. In Volume 1 Part 2 of Church Dogmatics, there is a section (§17) boldly titled “The Revelation of God as the Abolition of Religion.” Barth takes the modern position that religion is an entirely human affair. (New Testament scholars such as J. Louis Martyn are increasingly arguing that this is St. Paul’s pre-modern position, too; for more see the Romans 3 portion of the page for Reformation Day.) But Barth comes to this conclusion not in the fashion of an atheist like Freud, but as an evangelical who sees human religion as sorely in need of God’s same redemptive grace as is any individual human being. While there is much brilliant theologizing in Barth’s work, I would suggest that what his work still lacks is an evangelical anthropology as brilliant as his theology — and that with the work of Girard we finally do have such an anthropology. We can know more precisely how religion is a human affair resulting in idolatry, in need of redemption.
What is the significance of such an anthropology? If religion is a human affair, and its gods are mostly all idols, then how can we ever hope to hear the voice of the true God, or to see the true God’s Word made manifest among us? It would be like Isaiah prophesied, and Jesus repeated, ‘These people have ears unhearing and eyes unseeing’ (Isa. 6:9-11; quoted in Mark 4:12). We could never hope to penetrate the nature of our idolatry without an anthropological revelation as piercing as the theological one. For human idolatry is a matter of anthropology more than theology. The idolatry is of our nature not God’s. If we could come to better understand the nature of our own idolatry, it might begin the process of finally unstopping our ears and unveiling our eyes to better hear and see the true God. And I believe that this has been the significance of the Christian doctrines regarding the two natures of Christ, divine and human. We have always understood that Christ reveals true theology. Now, with the advent of anthropology as a science, we are better positioned to see the importance of Christ’s humanity as the revelation of true anthropology.
The proposal to you in these pages is that René Girard’s anthropology of the cross takes an extraordinary step to more fully unpacking that anthropological revelation, as it comes to us through the scriptural account of the Christ event.
3 God’s Rescue Mission of Homo Sapiens from Its Violence
In light of Girard’s Mimetic Theory, we might characterize the biblical message in general, and the Christ event in particular, as God’s rescue of homo sapiens from its own implosive violence. The prehistory of Genesis 1-11 resonates with a Girardian account of human evolution. Genesis 3-4 shows the contagion of creaturely desire — the woman catches the desire for the forbidden fruit from the serpent, and the man from the woman. And the result is a spiral downward into envy, broken relationship, and violence: the man and woman covet God’s knowledge of good and evil; they suffer broken relationships with other creatures (3:15), with each other (3:16), with the earth (3:17-18), and with God (3:23-24); and their first son kills their second son. The aftermath of fratricide is continuing cycles of vengeance until Lamech, Cain’s great-great-great grandson claims seventy-seven fold vengeance on his enemies. The story of the Great Flood begins with this terse observation: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). Genesis 1-11 paints a picture of the first principle of mimetic theory: the contagion of human desire continually falls into rivalry, resentment, and conflict, breaking apart relationships and scattering homo sapiens across the earth.
A good deal of the remainder of Scripture — both Hebrew and Christian — seems to pivot around the other basic principle of mimetic theory, namely, that the uniquely human solution to implosive, intraspecies violence is sacred violence, a measured violence carried out by humans at the command of the gods. (Examples of sacred violence include the ritual blood sacrifice original in all human cultures, execution carried out according to law, police force used to uphold the law, and war — all wars originally beginning as ‘holy wars’ commanded by gods.) But there is a significant problem that unfolds in the long story of the Creator God’s covenant with Israel: that the true Creator God has never truly commanded such violence. This is the point for which our eyes remain unseeing and our ears unhearing. What human beings instead persist on seeing and hearing is that sacred violence is our only salvation from contagious mimetic violence, and so we also must continue to see it as commanded to us from some higher being. If we were to instead take responsibility for this violence as solely ours (which can only be done under the condition of unconditional forgiveness), then the game would be off. In short, seeing our violence as god-commanded or approved is a sin on which our survival has seemed to us to depend — and so we see our violence in the light of divine righteousness instead of as a sin of human origins. The latter is the chief blindness of which the Christ event can cure us (see James Alison‘s brilliant reading of John 9 in The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes).
Survival of the species. This is the evolutionary aspect of Mimetic Theory which is crucial to understand. (See especially Girard’s recent book Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origins of Culture.) Girard theorizes that the dominance hierarchies of other higher animal groups ceased to work for hominid groups, which is why all other known species of humanoid has not survived. They imploded in their own intraspecies violence — or perhaps several of them were finished off by homo sapiens. Only homo sapiens sufficiently developed the cultures of religious violence that helps keep a lid on all-against-all violence in order to maintian some semblance of order. In short, ritual blood sacrifice, according to Mimetic Theory, is what saved us as a species!
. . .So far, that is. To this point in history, we have been saved by our false gods who command us to perform sacred violence in order to keep the profane violence at bay. But we now possess weapons of mass destruction. And the ‘containment field’ of sacred violence has been weakened by the revelation of Jesus Christ — “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus knew that his death and resurrection made the advent of apocalyptic violence a greater possibility, because he unveils sacred violence as human violence, which is why Mark 13 (and parallels) is so central in the Gospel story. (See especially Girard’s recent book Battling to the End, and what is close to the Introduction of that book printed in First Things, “On War and Apocalypse.”) Increasingly, our situation today is as Jesus’ 20th century follower, Martin Luther King, Jr., said,
It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…. I believe today that there is a need for all people of good will to come with a massive act of conscience and say in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “We ain’t goin’ study war no more.”
4 The Influence of Mimetic Theory on Hermeneutics and Preaching
But, if the bottom line of the biblical narrative is intended to be nonviolence, then there arises an obvious yet crucial question for the tasks of biblical interpretation and preaching: Why is there so much violence in the Bible, including violence commanded by God? Mimetic theory helps us to understand why violence is so entrenched in the biblical narrative if we allow for the fact that it is the story of God’s people and not just God. We human beings are the ones entrenched in violence. But mimetic theory also helps us to understand this entrenchment not as part of our human nature, but, first, as the natural outcome of the shape of our desiring. We catch our desires from other persons’ desiring, and so we find ourselves reaching to acquire the same objects of desire. We thus find ourselves in conflict unless there is some effective means of deferral. The only significant exception to falling into conflict in this way would be to catch our desiring from God’s perfect agape love, which is non-acquisitive. Through Christ, the second Adam, we are finally able to imitate God’s non-rivalrous, loving desire for everything in creation.
Without Christ, however, we are perpetually fallen into a conflictual desiring which leads to a first category of violence which we may simply call “mimetic violence.” This would constantly descend into the terrifying violence of all-against-all if not, as mentioned above, for an effective means of deferral. With other animals, the means of deferral is a hierarchy based on dominance established through fighting (not killing). For homo sapiens the hierarchy of referral is based on religion institutionalizing everything according to the Sacred. In Western culture the past fifty years, for example, the hierarchies of deferral based on religion has been in the process of being debunked: sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc. Until recently, there has always been a second category of violence to arise, namely, sacred violence, which is institutionalized into our culture as the remedy to the first violence, mimetic violence. And the crucial element of this second institutionalized violence is that it is seen to be commanded by the gods. (Sexism was justified, for example, on the basis that God made men superior to women.) In short, idolatry of violent gods is a necessary element deeply embedded in our cultural anthropology.
My take on the Bible thus begins with this question: If there is a creative, nonviolent God trying to break through our idolatry, what would that true God have to do? Three things (in order): (1) Make a covenant with someone with whom to interact as a covenant people over many centuries, because this break-through would involve a long-long-term relationship of God faithfully speaking and acting and the people’s faithfulness growing in much travail — typically, one step forward and three steps back. (2) When the kairos-time was right, that true God would send a faithful Messiah to embody the identity of the loving God as one whose truth would necessarily need to suffer our untruth as death, as a victim of sacred violence. (3) In order that the truth of the victim not be lost yet again (since killing is generally an effective means of silencing), that true God would need to intervene with Resurrection, raising the Victim as forgiveness, in order for a beach-head of Truth to be established in history forever. That, I believe, is the shape of the story which the Bible gives us, with the decisive breakthrough finally coming on the day of Resurrection.
Consider, for example, Luke’s Resurrection Day stories:
[Jesus said to them,] “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. — Luke 24:26-27
Then Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day…” — Luke 24:44-46
Wouldn’t you love to know what Jesus said that Easter evening on the road to Emmaus and in the upper room? What does it mean to understand the scriptures according to Jesus? Could Luke possibly have given us a clue in the proclamation he records for us in his sequel Acts? I have a suggestion: Amidst the diverse themes and circumstances of the first five recorded sermons in church history, Peter does ring out one common thread (my emphases in italics):
“…this man … you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up…” (Acts 2:23-24)
“…and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:15)
“…by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 4:10)
“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” (Acts 5:30)
“They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear…” (Acts 10:39-40)
Humankind kills. God raises to life. This is what we most desperately need to understand about the scriptures according to the cross and resurrection of Jesus. We are the ones who do violence, not God. And we need to finally leave behind all idolatries of gods who are violent like us and ask us to carry out their violence — which is simply the unconscious way we have of justifying our violence. When I say “unconscious,” I mean a mechanism built into our anthropology. I mean the pre-conscious idolatry for which we are forgiven when Jesus says from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” In short, the first five recorded sermons of the newly in-Spirited church proclaim the central meaning of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as that which reveals two things: (1) we human beings are the ones responsible for the murder that gathers up all other murders into its vortex of sin; and (2) the God of Life, through the Son raised, is revealed as the one offering us salvation from the violence. The latter insight is theological; but the former is anthropological. And further anthropological insight helps us to finally see the nature of our idolatry, namely, that we tend to worship violent gods who justify our violence.
In the evangelical anthropology of René Girard, then, I find a hermeneutic for reading Scripture that guides me more than any other in following the preaching of Good News in line with the church’s first five sermons. We kill, God raises to life. We can understand more clearly that our anthropology is based in collective murder that looks just like the Cross, at the same time that we fully recognize that the God who gives us life also forgives us, calling us to a way of life based on forgiveness instead of vengeance (or debt-keeping). And any god who requires sacrificial violence of us, instead of mercy (Hos. 6:6; quoted in Matt. 9:13; 12:7), is an idol. Girard articulates an anthropology in which it is made clear that gods of sacrificial violence are idols — which, in turn, informs theology in discerning the true God of Jesus Christ as solely a God of mercy, love, and life. (For an example of immense importance of learning to read the God of the Hebrew scriptures as a God of mercy, not wrath, see the reading of St. Paul’s transfiguration of the “God of wrath” in his letter to the Romans, in Part II of “My Core Convictions.”) Isn’t this what John means when he writes:
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in God there is no darkness at all. (1 John 1:5)
Or his simplest of summaries: “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16)? The bottom line is that anthropology becomes the key to a theology of a nonviolent God of love. The Good News is that God sends Jesus Christ to save humankind from our violence, both sacred and profane. We must put anyway any version of the Gospel that features Jesus saving us from God’s violence. (For a brief statement of the Gospel informed by this anthropology, including a sketch of sin as violence, see “What Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?“)
5 “Anthropological Criticism”
In the context of modern biblical criticism, a hermeneutic guided by mimetic theory might be dubbed “anthropological criticism.” It is closely related to what is referred to in recent years as intercultural criticism, the awareness that one’s “social location” makes a difference in interpreting scripture. Intercultural criticism has sprung up with the increasing awareness of the quite different reading strategies that exist between oppressors and oppressed. Mimetic theory as an “anthropological criticism” makes this difference explicit.
One of Girard’s most prominent themes (see “Are the Gospels Mythical?“) is that “myth” is written from the perspective (or “social location,” to use the language of intercultural criticism) of the perpetrators of collective violence, while “Gospel” (the climax of the biblical worldview) is from the perspective of the victim of such violence. (See also a brief contrast of Girard and Joseph Campbell on myth.) In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you have for the first time in history the permanent survival of the victim’s perspective becoming a thematic in history through the Spirit of Truth, the Paraclete. It is the Paraclete’s work, therefore, that gradually makes possible a reading from the perspective of Empire’s victims.
“Anthropological criticism” explains the possibility of intercultural criticism. It doesn’t replace it, but it can give both a wider framework and a measure for the readings from various social locations. It helps to explain why the social location of the oppressed is generally preferred to that of the oppressor. But mimetic theory also is realistic about the anthropological tendency to justify vengeance. Even the oppressed’s perspective can easily become tainted with righteous violence. These days it has become difficult to argue that violence is “righteous” unless it is that of a victim against his or her oppressor. Again, it is the Risen Jesus Christ who provides the measure of truth because he returns as a forgiving victim.
“Anthropological criticism” might also be a helpful tool in interfaith dialogue. Where in other Scriptures is the voice of the victim heard? Where in Christian theology and tradition have we failed to hear the voice of the victim but instead reinforced the perspective of the oppressor?
Let me suggest an example of the latter: the extremely popular, entrenched Christian view of atonement as a substitutionary sacrifice — namely, that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a substitutionary sacrifice to a wrathful God who otherwise would be punishing us sinners. It is important to know that here on this site the word “sacrifice” generally refers to the ritual blood sacrifice of ancient religions, not to the self-sacrifice into which Jesus transformed it. Because of the cross we now mean “self-sacrifice” when we say “sacrifice.” The point of Mimetic Theory’s critique of the popular atonement theology is that the latter goes back to the old logic of the ancient practices and theologies of sacrifice. By helping us to understand the anthropology of ritual blood sacrifice, the hermeneutic of mimetic theory can help us to see that the responsibility of the cross’s violence lies fully with us human beings and not a wit with God. John 3:16 tells us that God gave us the Son out of love, not wrath. In other Johannine language: God gave us his Lamb to our satanic engines of sacrifice so that this sin would be taken away from us. We finally understand that if ‘God requires mercy not sacrifice,’ then we are the ones, not God, who have required sacrifice all along. Mimetic theory provides an anthropological explanation of how sacrifice is bound up with human idolatry. And, to the extent that atonement doctrines follow the human logic of sacrifice, mimetic theory is extremely valuable in exposing the idolatry of such doctrines. (See the resource page, “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.” Mark Heim‘s book, Saved from Sacrifice, performs a close reading of the biblical and theological texts using Girard’s anthropology in order to bring clarity to atonement theology.)
6 A Theory of Culture
A further significance of Girard’s anthropology is the powerful analysis of culture it provides. We talk a great deal about culture these days. Some of the talk I find helpful, but nothing comes close to matching the depth of Girard’s work in this regard because the other analyses do not really help us to understand how culture comes about.
Let me make an analogy to biology / zoology. Aristotle gives us a good start in the biological sciences with his classifications of genus and species. But Darwin truly revolutionizes these sciences for us when he theorizes about the actual genetic mechanisms that generate the different genus and species. Most of the analyses of culture I come across these days operate in the Aristotelian mode of classifying cultures according to traits, characteristics, and elements. Girard’s work offers us something akin to a Darwinian revolution for cultural anthropology by suggesting how it is that human culture is generated in the first place. And the even more incredible aspect is that he places the Cross of Jesus Christ at the heart of the revelation of our coming to know anything about what otherwise lies hidden at the foundations of culture.
Sound impossible? Perhaps. But what do the synoptic gospels really mean when they tell us that Jesus came to bring God’s Kingdom near to us? I suggest that we interpret “kingdom” in terms of our modern talk about “culture.” Girard’s work proposes to us that what generates our human culture is completely different than what generates God’s culture — though the key to unlock the revelation of both lies with the Cross of Christ. God, in Jesus Christ, has come to expose the murderous foundations of human culture, to graciously forgive us for it, and to call us to begin living in God’s Culture.
Paul uses different language to say the same thing. He uses anthropological language in his typology of Romans 5:12-21, between the “one man” Adam and the “one man” Christ. (“One man” in Greek is henos anthrōpos.) Adam typifies one way of being human in which we have become trapped; Jesus Christ typifies a transformed way of being human through which we are being liberated. “Living in the flesh” is continuing to live shaped by human enculturation; “living in the Spirit” is to begin living in God’s enculturation, the inbreaking of God’s “Kingdom” into this world through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
7 Discipleship as a Call to Faith in the Nonviolent God — and in Nonviolence
As an anthropology that clarifies the movement out from idolatry, Girard’s work helps provide a more unified reading of the Judeo-Christian scriptures: we can read them in terms of a gradual process of God’s people being redeemed from our idolatry. And this is the point of it all: the Living God revealed through Jesus Christ is completely nonviolent, and so a call to follow this Jesus is also a call to faith in nonviolent suffering as the way to peace. I have come to increasingly see the Christian revelation in terms of its unique teachings on nonviolence and on love — even love of one’s enemies. The powers of violence are Satanic powers which are, in the end, self-defeating. (For more on the Satanic powers of violence as self-defeating, see the St. Michael and All Angels Day sermon “Faith Is Trusting that the Satanic Violence Is Self-Defeating,” and also Girard’s reading of the “parable” of Satan casting out Satan, Mark 3:22-27, at Proper 5B.) Faith means believing in the Living God’s nonviolent power of love even in the face of the continuing threat of human violence.
The Book of Revelation, I believe, shows us a picture of the beastly powers of violence finally collapsing into their own hell-hole of violence, together with a plea to the faithful to maintain their faith. In the midst of relating his vision, John the Seer pauses to speak directly to those faithful:
Let anyone who has an ear listen: If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (Revelation 13:9-10)
Nonviolence — namely, forgiveness as radical nonretaliation toward those who would hurt us — as being at the heart of the Christian faith is not a claim I can substantiate in this brief introduction, but I hope that a regular visit to these pages can help persuade you.