Excerpt from René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001, pp. 38-43.

One can see in all this an anthropology of mimetic desire, that is, an anthropology of crises that stem from mimetic rivalry and of crowd phenomena, which end these crises in triggering a new mimetic cycle. Such an anthropology is found in the Gospel of John. In one of the discourses that he ascribes to Jesus, John inserts a short speech of fifteen verses. Though in it we find all that we analyzed in the synoptic Gospels, its form is so elliptical and condensed that it occasions even more misunderstanding than the Gospel statements that I have just examined. In spite of differences of vocabulary, which make it appear more difficult, the Johannine doctrine is the same as that of the synoptics.

Our contemporaries often condemn the text of John as superstitious and vindictive. What John does, however, is to define anew, abruptly indeed but also without hostility, the consequences for human beings of rivalistic imitation. In this discourse Jesus enters into dialogue with some people who will soon abandon him because they do not understand his teaching. Many of the first followers who listened to Jesus are already scandalized:

"If God were your Father, you would love me,
for I proceeded and came forth from God;
I did not come forth of my own accord,
but he himself sent me.
Why don't you understand what I'm saying?
It is because you are unable to hear my word.
You are of your father the devil
and it is the desires of your father
that you wish to do.
From the beginning he was a murderer
and had nothing to do with the truth
because the truth is not in him.
When he speaks lies,
he draws them from his own nature,
because he is a liar and the father of lies." (John 8:42-44)
Jesus tells these people, who still think of themselves as his disciples, that their father is neither Abraham nor God, as they avow, but the devil. The reason for this judgment? These people have the devil for a father because it is the desires of the devil that they want to fulfill and not the desires of God. They take the devil as the model for their desires.

The desire of which Jesus speaks is therefore based on imitation, whether of the devil or of God. What our text is talking about is mimetic desire in the sense already defined. To repeat, the idea of "father" is here the same thing as the model without which human desire, lacking its own proper object, cannot come into being.

God and Satan are the two supreme models, "arch models," whose opposition to one another corresponds to what I have already described: one between models who never become obstacles and rivals for their disciples because they desire nothing in a greedy and competitive way and models whose greed for whatever they desire has immediate repercussions on their imitators, transforming them right away into diabolic obstacles. The first verses of our text are therefore an explicitly mimetic definition of desire and of the options for the human race that stem from it.

If the models that humans choose do not orient them in the right direction, one without conflict through Christ as intermediary, they expose themselves eventually to violent loss of differences and identity and thus to the single victim mechanism. And it is just here that we find the devil in the text of John. The sons of the devil are those who let themselves be taken into the circle of rivalistic desire and who, unknowingly, become the playthings of mimetic violence. Like all the victims of this process, "they don't know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

If we do not imitate Jesus, our models become the living obstacles that we also become for them. We descend together on the infernal spiral that leads to generalized mimetic crises and, ultimately, to the mimetic state of all against one. This inevitable consequence explains the apparently inexplicable shift of theme, the sudden allusion to collective murder:

From the beginning [the devil] was a murderer.
If readers do not find the mimetic cycle here, again it is because they do not understand it. They have the impression of an arbitrary, inexplicable rupture between this sentence and those that precede it. In reality the succession of themes is perfectly logical, corresponding to the stages of the mimetic cycle. John attributes the mimetic all-against-one to the devil because he already views him as the source of the desire responsible for scandals. He could just as well attribute the whole process to humans, and occasionally he does so.

The text from John is a new definition, ultrarapid but complete, of the mimetic cycle. In us and about us scandals proliferate; sooner or later they carry us along toward mimetic snowballing and the single victim mechanism. It makes us unknowingly the accomplices of unanimous murders, all the more deceived by the devil because we are not aware of our own complicity, which is not conscious of itself. We continue to imagine ourselves alien to all violence.

From time to time people go all the way in accomplishing the desires of their satanic father and fall back into the single victim mechanism. At the moment when Jesus speaks the word on which we are commenting, the mechanism that formerly mobilized the Cainites against Abel and subsequently thousands of crowds against thousands of single victims is at the point of being repeated against him.

Immediately after these fundamental assertions our text states that the devil "has nothing to do with the truth." What makes him our prince, or our "father," is false accusation, unjust condemnation of an innocent victim. It is not based on anything real or objective, but it succeeds no less in making itself unanimously convincing by virtue of violent contagion. The primary meaning of Satan in the Bible, we may recall, is the meaning found in the book of job: the chief prosecuting magistrate, the prosecutor in a case at court.

The devil is obviously untruthful, for if the persecutors understood the truth, the innocence of their victim, they could no longer get rid of their own violence at this victim's expense. The single victim mechanism only functions by means of the ignorance of those who keep it working. They believe they are supporting the truth when they are really living a lie.

The devil's "quintessential being," the source from which he draws his lies, is the violent contagion that has no substance to it. The devil does not have a stable foundation; he has no being at all. To clothe himself in the semblance of being, he must act as a parasite on God's creatures. He is totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self. The devil is also the father of lies; in certain manuscripts he is the father of "liars" because his deceitful violence has repercussions for generation after generation in human cultures. These cultures remain dependent on their founding murders and the rituals that reproduce them.

The Gospel of John scandalizes those who do not detect in it the choice it implies. The people to whom Jesus was speaking did not detect it either. Many people believe they are faithful to Jesus, and yet they address superficial reproaches to the Gospels. This shows that they remain subject to mimetic rivalries and their violent one-upmanship. If we don't see that the choice is inevitable between the two supreme models, God and the devil, then we have already chosen the devil and his mimetic violence.

Our righteous indignation against John's Gospel has no basis. Jesus speaks the truth to his questioners: they have chosen rivalistic desire, and the long-term consequences will be disastrous. The fact that these people are Jews is much less important than those exegetes who are a little too eager to convict the Gospels of anti-Semitism.

After its mimetic definition of desire, the Gospel of John makes the consequences of this desire explicit -- satanic murder. The impression that Christian animosity toward the Jews produced this text is due to our misunderstanding of its content, so we imagine a series of gratuitous insults. This effect of our ignorance is often compounded by a preconceived hostility toward the gospel message. (1) We project our own resentment upon Christianity. John is talking to all humankind, not just to the Jews Jesus immediately addressed. This is usually the case in all the Gospels.

The devil, or Satan, signifies rivalistic contagion, up to and including the single victim mechanism. He may be located either in the entire process or in one of its stages. Modern exegetes, not recognizing the mimetic cycle, have the impression that since the word "Satan" means so many different things, it no longer means anything. This impression is deceptive. If we take up one by one the propositions I have analyzed, we easily see that this teaching is coherent. Far from being too absurd to deserve our attention, this Gospel theme contains incomparable knowledge of human conflict and the societies that are generated by the violent resolution of such conflict. Everything I have said about Satan corresponds to what the prior analysis of scandals enables us to understand. When the trouble caused by Satan becomes too great, Satan himself becomes his own antidote of sorts: he stirs up the mimetic snowballing and then the unanimous violence that makes everything peaceful once again.

1. See 1 John 3:10, which speaks of "children of God and children of the devil" as a way of distinguishing those who love God and obey him and those who are lawless and sinners. The distinction has nothing to do with Christians vs. Jews. The author of l John was either the author of the Gospel or someone in the Johannine community.