Excerpt from René Girard's Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Research undertaken in collaboration with Jean-Michel Oughourlian and Guy Lefort. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987, pages 196-202.

The Preaching of the Kingdom

G. L.: But among the consequences of the collective violence should we not take into account the essential themes of the grouping of the disciples around a Jesus who has been raised from the dead and made God? Do we not have here something analogous to other religions?

R. G.: I would like to show you that this crucial question must be answered in the negative. But before I do I must complete my explanation of the apocalyptic theme from a non-sacrificial perspective, and I must add to it a second important theme -- that of the Kingdom of God -- which can now be articulated (for the first time, I believe) with a logic that bears both on the Crucifixion and on the Apocalypse.

For the gospel criticism of the past two centuries, the conjunction of these two themes -- the Apocalypse and the so-called preaching of the 'Kingdom of God' -- has posed an insurmountable difficulty. In the middle of the nineteenth century, emphasis was placed on the Kingdom: liberal thinkers like Renan fabricated a Jesus with humanitarian and socialist traits. The apocalyptic theme was minimized. Albert Schweitzer wrote a famous essay that exposed the vanity of these attempts and once again emphasized the apocalyptic theme, which, however, he declared to be more or less unintelligible from our point of view -- and foreign to the conditions of modern existence. (1) This was at the outset of the twentieth century!

Throughout the first part of Jesus' preaching, the tone is in fact quite different; there is no trace of apocalyptic prophecy; the texts mention only the reconciliation between men that is also the Kingdom of God, to which all are invited to belong.

J.-M. O.: We defined the Kingdom of God when we spoke of the attitude of the Gospels toward the Jewish law. The Kingdom is the substitution of love for prohibitions and rituals -- for the whole apparatus of the sacrificial religions.

R. G.: Look again at the Sermon on the Mount. We can see that the significance of the Kingdom of God is completely clear. It is always a matter of bringing together the warring brothers, of putting an end to the mimetic crisis by a universal renunciation of violence. Apart from collective expulsion -- which brings about reconciliation because it is unanimous -- only the unconditional and, if necessary, unilateral renunciation of violence can put an end to the relation of doubles. The Kingdom of God means the complete and definitive elimination of every form of vengeance and every form of reprisal in relations between men.

Jesus makes all of this an absolute duty in everyday life. It is an obligation without counterpart, which makes no condition that it must be reciprocated:

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well (Matthew 5:38-40).
Modern interpreters certainly see that everything in the Kingdom of God comes down to the project of ridding men of violence. But because they conceive of violence in the wrong way, they do not appreciate the rigorous objectivity of the methods which Jesus advocates. People imagine either that violence is no more than a kind of parasite, which the appropriate safeguards can easily eliminate or that it is an ineradicable trait of human nature, an instinct or fatal tendency that it is fruitless to fight.

But the Gospels tell quite a different story. Jesus invites all men to devote themselves to the project of getting rid of violence, a project conceived with reference to the true nature of violence, taking into account the illusions it fosters, the methods by which it gains ground, and all the laws that we have verified over the course of these discussions.

Violence is the enslavement of a pervasive lie; it imposes upon men a falsified vision not only of God but also of everything else. And that is indeed why it is a closed kingdom. Escaping from violence is escaping from this kingdom into another kingdom, whose existence the majority of people do not even suspect. This is the Kingdom of love, which is also the domain of the true God, the Father of Jesus, of whom the prisoners of violence cannot even conceive.

To leave violence behind, it is necessary to give up the idea of retribution; it is therefore necessary to give up forms of conduct that have always seemed to be natural and legitimate. For example, we think it quite fair to respond to good dealings with good dealings, and to evil dealings with evil, but this is precisely what all the communities on the planet have always done, with familiar results. People imagine that to escape from violence it is sufficient to give up any kind of violent initiative, but since no one in fact thinks of himself as taking this initiative -- since all violence has a mimetic character, and derives or can be thought to derive from a first violence that is always perceived as originating with the opponent -- this act of renunciation is no more than a sham, and cannot bring about any kind of change at all. Violence is always perceived as being a legitimate reprisal or even self-defence. So what must be given up is the right to reprisals and even the right to what passes, in a number of cases, for legitimate defence. Since the violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result:

And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:33-35).
If we interpret the gospel doctrine in the light of our own observations about violence, we can see that it explains, in the most clear and concise fashion, all that people must do in order to break with the circularity of closed societies, whether they be tribal, national, philosophical or religious. There is nothing missing and there is no superfluous detail. This doctrine is completely realistic. It envisages perfectly all that is implied in going beyond the 'metaphysical closure', and it never falls into the associated errors of modern fanaticism, which misunderstands the ambiguity and the ubiquity of violence, and invariably limits its indictment either to the loss of sacrificial order or to the presence of that order, either to unruliness alone or to rules alone, in the belief that to triumph over violence is simply a matter of violently eliminating one or other -- either by curbing individual impulses or by taking the opposite path and 'liberating' them in the expectation that this act will establish peace in our time.

Because they have no knowledge of violence and the role that it plays in human life, these commentators sometimes imagine that the Gospels preach a sort of natural morality that men, being naturally good, would respect of their own accord if there were no 'wicked' people to prevent them from doing so, and sometimes they imagine that the Kingdom of God is a kind of Utopia, a dream of perfection invented by some gentle dreamer who was incapable of understanding the ground rules upon which humankind has always operated.

No one can see that the true nature of violence is deduced with implacable logic, from the simple and single rule of the Kingdom. No one can see that disobeying or obeying this rule gives rise to two kingdoms which cannot communicate with one another, since they are separated by a real abyss. Mankind can cross this abyss, but to do so all men together should adopt the single rule of the Kingdom of God. The decision to do so must come from each individual separately, however; for once, others are not involved.

J.-M. O.: If we follow your reasoning, the real human subject can only come out of the rule of the Kingdom; apart from this rule, there is never anything but mimetism and the 'interdividual'. Until this happens, the only subject is the mimetic structure.

R. G.: That is quite right . . . . To complete our understanding of the Kingdom of God, we must fully grasp the context in which it is being preached. The gospels show themselves to be placed at the paroxysm of the crisis that John the Baptist defines as sacrificial and prophetic when he re-employs the opening of the second part of Isaiah: 'Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.' This is the great and tragic act of levelling, the triumph of reciprocal violence. That is why the mutual recognition of John the Baptist and Christ, which gives the seal of prophetic and messianic authenticity, consists first and foremost in the absence of any symmetrical antagonism, in the simple and miraculous fact of not succumbing to the escalating violence of the two who turn themselves into 'enemy twins', like Oedipus and Tiresias.

Throughout the prophetic period, it is invariably in the midst of such a crisis that the prophets address the chosen people and, invariably, what they advocate is the substitution of love and harmony for the sterile and symmetrical conflict of doubles -- the violence that sacrifice is no longer capable of curing. The more desperate the situation, the more absurd the reciprocal violence strikes us as being, and the more the message is likely, so it would seem, to be taken seriously.

With Jesus, it is the same crisis and the same message, except for the fact that, according to the Gospels the final paroxysm has arrived. All the aspects of the dilemma are conveyed with the greatest clarity: since the resources of sacrifice have been finally exhausted and since violence is just on the point of being brought into the open, there will be no further possibility of compromise, no escape any more.

We can understand why one of the titles given to Jesus is that of 'prophet'. Jesus is the last and greatest of the prophets, the one who sums them up and goes further than all of them. He is the prophet of the last, but also of the best, chance. With him there takes place a shift that is both tiny and gigantic -- a shift that follows on directly from the Old Testament but constitutes a decisive break as well. This is the complete elimination of the sacrificial for the first time -- the end of divine violence and the explicit revelation of all that has gone before. It calls for a complete change of emphasis and a spiritual metamorphosis without precedent in the whole history of mankind. It also amounts to an absolute simplification of the relations between human beings, in so far as all the false differences between doubles are annulled -- a simplification in the sense in which we speak of an algebraic simplification.

We saw earlier that throughout the texts of the Old Testament it was impossible to conclude the deconstruction of myths, rituals and law since the plenary revelation of the founding murder had not yet taken place. The divinity may be to some extent stripped of violence, but not completely so. That is why there is still an indeterminate and indistinct future, in which the resolution of the problem by human means alone -- the face-to-face reconciliation that ought to result when people are alerted to the stupidity and uselessness of symmetrical violence -- remains confused to a certain extent with the hope of a new epiphany of violence that is distinctively divine in origin, a 'Day of Yahweh' that would combine the paroxysm of God's anger with a no less God-given reconciliation. However remarkably the prophets progress toward a precise understanding of what it is that structures religion and culture, the Old Testament never tips over into the complete rationality that would dispense with this hope of a purgation by violence and would give up requiring God to take the apocalyptic solution by completely liquidating the 'evil' in order to ensure the happiness of the chosen.

J.-M. O.: To sum up: it is in the perpetuation of God's purging and violence -- though in a modified form -- that we can locate the differences between the apocalypses of the Old Testament and the gospel Apocalypse. Yet, confronted with the latter, all the commentators inevitably regress toward the Old Testament conceptions.

R. G.: The metamorphosis from Old Testament into Gospel is not an exclusively intellectual development; it is the crisis itself that matures. A historical moment comes about that was never possible before, a moment in which there can only be an absolute and conscious choice between two forms of reciprocity which are at once very close and radically opposed. At this moment the loosening of cultural constraints and the awareness of the truth underlying violence have matured, so that everything will soon topple over, either into a form of violence with infinite powers of destruction, or into the non-violence of the Kingdom of God, which now is alone capable of ensuring the survival of the community.

At this supreme moment, the risks have never been greater. But it has never been easier to change people's allegiance and alter their behaviour, since the vanity and stupidity of violence have never been more obvious. The offer of the Kingdom has to intervene at this very moment, which corresponds to a concept in the Gospels that is very important yet very imperfectly understood: that of the hour of Christ. At the beginning of the Gospels, and in particular that of John, Jesus is extremely concerned not to speak until his hour has come, and also, as we might expect, not to let slip the hour, which will not come again.

The offer of the Kingdom is no mere formality. It coincides with a possibility that has never been more accessible to the Jews, prepared as they are -- I emphasize the term, which comes from the Gospels -- by the Old Testament to throw themselves into the great adventure of the Kingdom. It is precisely because this possibility is not in the least illusory that the message of Jesus is good news here and now on this earth. For the first time, people are capable of escaping from the misunderstanding and ignorance that have surrounded mankind throughout its history. As long as there is any chance of its success, the preaching of the Kingdom has no dark counterpart and is accompanied by no pronouncements that strike fear.

By the same token, we can clarify the remarkable note of urgency that marks this initial stage of Christ's preaching -- the pressing and even impatient tone that colours his urging. The slightest hesitation amounts to a final refusal. If the chance is lost, it will not occur again . . . . Woe to him who looks backwards, woe to him who looks towards his neighbours and waits for them to decide, before himself deciding to follow the example of Jesus.

J.-M. O.: So in fact it is not a question of redifferentiating the community, but of reversing the universal negative reciprocity -- which profits no one and harms everyone -- into a beneficent reciprocity which is the love and light of the true God. At the moment when violence is at its peak, when the community is one the brink of dissolution, the chances of succeeding are at their greatest, as are the dangers, if men will not recognize the situation of extreme urgency in which they find themselves.

In the light of what you say, we can grasp why the Kingdom of God is presented as a permanent reality, which is always on offer to all men, and also as a historical opportunity without precedent. One can understand why Jesus talks of his hour with such solemnity and attempts to put across to his immediate audience the huge responsibility -- but at the same time the exceptional opportunity -- that they have in living at this hour which is absolutely unique in all human history (John 2:4; 8:20; 12:23-27; 13:1; 17:1).

1. The Quest of the Historical Jesus, pp. 330-403 and passim.