A Girardian Perspective on Kingship
According to Mimetic Theory, the sacrificial victim gets both a
and positive valence -- i.e., demonized and divinized. He or she
blamed for the superhuman turmoil and unrest
then also gets credit for the peace that ensues (which also is
experienced as superhuman), often even before the
sacrifice is made since the sacrificial institution anticipates
It seems strange to us, but it truly helps to interpret the
data. (If the reader has doubts about the positive valence -- that
scapegoat would also be divinized -- read this story about Sati in
India. Sati is a practice of throwing a young widow on her
husband's funeral pyre; people in the village of this 1987
were praying to their victim as a goddess within days. Mimetic
is the only anthropological hypothesis I know of that easily
One can see this same bi-valence, for instance, in the polytheistic pantheons of gods. Some are trouble-makers who sow chaos; some are bringers and keepers of societal order; and some are both.
Girard theorizes that the role of priest/king arose in ancient cultures out of the positive valence attached to the sacrificial victims. A prospective sacrificial victim could use the prestige to garnish an office of continuing to supply the sacrificial institution with victims. The priest/king role slowly evolves, then, as the presiders over the institutions of sacrifice themselves. One has to remember that these things developed over millennia, beginning in very primitive ritual settings. But, again, the thesis truly helps to synthesize the wide ranging data, from the practice of indigenous African tribes to the fall of the monarchy to democracy; see the Gil Bailie examples below.
1. René Girard, The Girard Reader (p. ix) cites pp. 104-10 of Violence and the Sacred; ch. 3 of The Scapegoat; and pp. 51-57 of Things Hidden. There is also a good discussion of it on pp. 269-72 of the Reader itself, an explanation of his thesis that primitive kingship began as the king basically being a sacrificial victim with an extended sentence. On page 107 of Violence and the Sacred, for example, Girard writes, “The king reigns only by virtue of his future death; he is no more and no less than a victim awaiting sacrifice, a condemned man about to be executed.”
2. Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled, pp. 123ff. Link here to his section "The Victim with an Extended Sentence," including some wonderful examples from Elias Canetti's Crowds and Power. An incredible piece from the latter on African Sacral Kingship is:
Sometimes the length of [the new king's] reign is fixed from the start: the kings of Jukun . . . originally ruled for seven years. Among the Bambara the newly elected king traditionally determined the length of his own reign. “A strip of cotton was put round his neck and two men pulled the ends in opposite directions whilst he himself took out of a calabash as many pebbles as he could grasp in his hand. These indicated the number of years he would reign, on the expiration of which he would be strangled.”One of Gil Bailie's other favorite references when it comes to kingship is this description of the guillotine gone wild following the beheading of King Louis XIV of France. It is from H. G. Wells, The Outline of History (Garden City, N.Y: Garden City Books, 1961), 2:725:
The Revolutionary Tribunal went to work, and a steady slaughtering began .... The invention of the guillotine was opportune to this mood. The queen was guillotined, and most of Robespierre’s antagonists were guillotined; atheists who argued that there was no Supreme Being were guillotined; Danton was guillotined because he thought there was too much guillotine; day by day, week by week, this infernal new machine chopped off heads and more heads and more. The reign of Robespierre lived, it seemed, on blood, and needed more and more, as an opium-taker needs more and more opium.3. S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice, pages 48ff. I continue to highly recommend Heim's book as one of the best applications of Mimetic Theory to Christian theology. His explication of MT is excellent -- witnessed by the following explanation of the bi-valence of sacred violence and how kingship issues from it:
The sacrificed subject is the object of both condemnation and honor.4. For more on the sacrifice of kings as the founding event for democracy, see Robert Hamerton-Kelly's "The King and the Crowd: Divine Right and Popular Sovereignty in the French Revolution" (Contagion, Spring 1996, pp. 67-84). If the American Revolution seems a more civilized affair than the French one, consider that in America the king's army was sacrificed as a substitute for the king to give birth to democracy. Was the madness of the guillotine worse than the slaughter of many innocent British soldiers in substitution for the king?
This contradictory situation makes sense in Girard’s view. The sacrificial mechanism produces this polarity, since the victim is viewed as powerful and holy, because capable of producing such benevolent results, but also eminently deserving of death for having transgressed the most profound commandments. One will search in vain for a consistent list of features inherent to the entities classified in the category of “the sacred,” even though the category itself exists in all cultures. Girard claims to see the explanation for both the differences and the commonality. Persons are not chosen to be killed because they are sacred, because they belong to some special if elusive class. They are “sacred” because they are chosen to be killed. It is designation for sacrifice, by whatever formula, that constitutes something as sacred. Designated victims are holy because their death has a supernatural, reconciling power.
The great anthropologists catalogued innumerable variations on this process. In some cases it is a king or a priest who ritually transgresses the most awful taboos as a preliminary to being sacrificed (literally or figuratively) to renew the people. In other cases it is a prisoner of war, an outcast, or a common criminal who is elevated to a place of honor and rendered all manner of service prior to sacrifice. This model is well known from the Aztec example. What prisoners of war from outside a society and kings who rule in it have in common is that they can easily be isolated, the one by their strangeness and the other by their eminence (kings belong to a class that by definition has only one member). Ideal sacrificial victims must be without ties or supporters that would stand in the way of their execution, but their identification with the community must be sufficient so as to embody the evil, the polluting crime to be purged with their destruction. The cause of the sacrificial crisis is to be found somewhere within the community itself, but in someone whose supposed offense removes any possible ties or sympathy. The contrary treatments of the criminal and the king thus point in the same ultimate direction, meeting the requirements of the sacred. The king, who is a consummate insider, must be dramatically separated and condemned, while the prisoner of war, who already bears the onus of a criminal or enemy, must be adopted in such a manner as to have a veneer of identity with his captors.
The disorienting inconsistency in the condemnation and honor extended to the victim is understandable in light of those two essential if paradoxical qualities of the sacred: the transgressions that rightly merit sacrifice and the honor due one whose death saves society. Girard suggests that only such an insight can make sense of data like an African investiture hymn for a king that contains the following formula.You are a turd,
You are a heap of refuse,
You have come to kill us,
You have come to save us. (pp. 48-49)
5. James G. Williams, "King as Servant, Sacrifice as Service: Gospel Transformations," in Violence Renounced, pp. 178-199; see also his chapter on kingship and prophecy in The Bible, Violence & the Sacred.
6. Sermon on Jesus' transformation of kingship entitled "A
King Who Makes His Home with the Homeless."
7. Robert Hamerton-Kelly,
from November 25, 2001 (Woodside Village Church).
8. N.T. Wright, How
God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels.
This book, along with Surprised
by Hope, I consider the two most important books by
Wright. How God Became King, to me, makes his most direct
and compelling case as to what Jesus and the Gospel is all about:
the fulfillment of Israel's story, God's faithfulness to Israel
and the Creation, through the coming of the Messiah in Jesus of
Nazareth. God has become king through Jesus and established the
divine reign as the power of renewal and transformation that is
bringing Creation to fulfillment. On this Christ the King Sunday,
I find his thesis to be immensely important. Here are some of
Wright's own words in introducing his thesis:
It has been slowly dawning on me over many years that there is a fundamental problem deep at the heart of Christian faith and practice as I have known them. This problem can be summarized quite easily: we have all forgotten what the four gospels are about. Yes, they’re about Jesus, but what exactly are they saying about Jesus? Yes, they’re about God, but what precisely are they saying about God? Yes, they’re about the beginnings of what later became known as Christianity, but what are they saying about that strange new movement, and how do they resource it for its life and work?To the questions about theocracy, Wright's primary answer is that God in Jesus is a completely different kind of king than the other human kings we have come to know in history. God redefines kingship, leadership, and power through Jesus the Messiah. In Girardian terms, God has launched the process of redeeming our institutions from the Satanic powers. Wright actually makes understanding the Satanic powers crucial to his thesis, too; unfortunately, he does come up short on a more in-depth anthropological understanding of those powers.
As I have both studied and written about Jesus and the gospels, and as I have tried to lead and teach Christian communities that were doing their best to follow Jesus and order their lives by the gospels, I have had the increasing impression, over many years now, that most of the Western Christian tradition has simply forgotten what the gospels are really all about. Despite centuries of intense and heavy industry expended on the study of all sorts of features of the gospels, we have often managed to miss the main thing that they, all four of them, are most eager to tell us. I have therefore come to the conclusion that what we need is not just a bit of fine-tuning, an adjustment here and there. We need a fundamental rethink about what the gospels are trying to say, and hence about how best we should read them, together and individually. And — not least — about how we then might order our life and work in accordance with them.
...The question, then, is not only: Can we learn to read the gospels better, more in tune with what their original writers intended? It is also: Can we discover, by doing this, a new vision for God’s mission in the world, in and through Jesus, and then — now! — in and through his followers? And, in doing so, can we grow closer together in mission and life, in faith and hope, and even in love? Might a fresh reading of the gospels, in other words, clear the way for renewed efforts in mission and unity? Is that what it would look like if we really believed that the living God was king on earth as in heaven?
That, after all, is the story all four gospels tell. I am aware, of course, that there are other documents that have been called “gospels,” and I shall say something about them in passing. But I am here dealing with the four that were recognized, from very early on, as part of the church’s “rule of life,” that is, part of the “canon”: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. And the story that the four evangelists tell is the story, as in my title, of “how God became king.”
This, I discover, comes as a surprise to most people, and an unwelcome shock to some. It appears, as we say today, counterintuitive; that is, the claim that God has become king doesn’t seem to square with the world as we know it. “If God is really king, why is there still cancer? Why are there still tsunamis? Why are there still tyranny, genocide, child abuse, and massive economic corruption?” What’s more, as we shall see, some people, not least some Christians, appear allergic to the very idea of God becoming, or being, “king.” “Isn’t God as king triumphalist? Doesn’t that lead us toward that dreaded word ‘theocracy’? And isn’t that one of the problems of our day, not one of the solutions?”
Questions like that are important. But even if the gospel writers had heard us asking them, they would not have backed off from the claim they were making. To discover why not and to see what they might have said in reply to such comments, we have to take a deep breath and go back to the beginning. (pp. ix-xi)
1. See James Alison below under gospel lesson. This passage is behind the several gospel texts which lament God's people wandering lost without a Good Shepherd. Alison links this image with the first word from the cross (Lk 23:34) from the day's gospel lesson.
1. The sermon I preached in 1995 used the prophetic critique of kingship as a jumping off point to make some Girardian reflections on leadership. It ended up being a Girard 101, entitled "Understanding the Gravity of Our Situation."
1. James Alison. In both of his major books, Raising Abel and The Joy of Being Wrong, Alison develops the idea of creation in Christ as one of the early points of revelation for the apostles in the aftermath of the resurrection. This passage from Colossians is a primary example. In RA the section on creation in Christ (link) is found on pp. 49-56; in JBW on pp. 94-102. Here is a crucial part of his argument in JBW:
It seems to me that in the light of the elaboration of the intelligence of the victim which I have been attempting, it does become possible to see why the presence to the apostolic group of the crucified-and-risen victim should have recast their understanding of creation. I will attempt, in what I am aware is a highly tentative and experimental way, to set out what seems to me to be an internal coherence between the intelligence of the victim and the recasting of creation.[After showing the development in intertestamental sources he concludes:]
The reader will remember the Girardian generative scene: the scene which gives birth to representation. It will also be remembered that for Girard this is probably a scene repeated very frequently over many centuries or millennia as the conditions of hominization (the development of mimetic desire and the forging of cultural controls) are brought about, before the actual time of hominization and the birth of properly human culture. The scene involves a group in which growing mimetic rivalry leads to the collapse of differences, and the resolution of the resulting violent chaos in an aleatory and unanimous act of victimization. This victim, having been expelled, is held to have produced the resulting peace, whereas in fact it is the unanimity against the arbitrary victim that is the reestablishement of peace. Thus a certain sort of misunderstanding, the illusion of the persecutors, of what has been going on is vital for the production and maintenance of the peace: the victim must be held to be truly guilty, but also, because it has produced the peace, to enjoy a divine quality. Where before there was violence and chaos, now, thanks to the departing divinity, peace and order has been established. So, in the development of the myth and the rituals that flow from this, we have a two-faced divinity, both disturbing and pacifying, who produces order out of chaos.
It is this that is important for the understanding of the re-casting of the perception of creation that followed the resurrection. We start, in pre-Jewish (and abundantly, in extra-Jewish) mythology with an understanding of creation that is intrinsically related to the divine production of order out of chaos. It is this same extra-Jewish material that is reworked, in the light of the Covenant, in the first chapter of genesis. It is interesting that the reworking is not complete: the account of creation is not entirely recast in the light of the Covenant, and there are signs of the remains of a creation-out-of-chaos myth in the description, as the words tohu wabohu (Gen 1:2) attest. Particularly the Jahwist editor(s) have undertaken a re-reading of the origins of the world in the light of Israel's experience of salvation - the true "direction" of everything is known from its finality, the revelation of God at Sinai and the election of Israel. It is this re-reading in the light of an experience of salvation which led to a subversion of pagan cosmovisions, and permits an understanding of creation which accords with a single and a benevolent God.
However, this subversion in the light of the experience of salvation is still only partial in Genesis: we still have elements of a story of creation by the suppression of pre-existent chaos. What I would like to suggest is that the partiality of the subversion is related to the still partial subversion of the mythology which covers over the founding victimization at the basis of human culture. Very close to the story of the creation, we have also the story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve by God from Paradise, a story in which there is still an involvement of God in victimizing, on the way towards the understanding that expulsion is a purely human mechanism, and that God is its victim rather than its instigator (Jn 1:1-18). Then we have the story of the foundational assassination, where it is revealed that what we have is simply a sordid murder, in which God is not an accomplice. Yet, in his posterior treatment of Cain, God is seen as involved in the setting up of the (ultimately fatally flawed) cultural mechanisms by which humans protect themselves from the spiral of internecine violence: the beginnings of the link between God and the Law whose caducity will be so forcibly argued by St Paul.
We have then, a partial intelligence of the victim at work: the founding murder is revealed as a sordid crime, and creation is the beneficent work of a single God, but there remain some elements proper to the vision produced by the founding murder, the persecutory illusion. My suggestion is that these two work in tandem: the re-vealing of the real sense of creation, and the complete setting free from the illusion produced by the founding murder are part of the same process. The Old Testament itself seems to point to this. To the degree in which the arbitrary nature of victimization or persecution becomes apparent in the Old Testament, so it becomes possible to tell the story of a foundation or creation which does not involve a god in the suppression of chaos. It became possible to give a non-mythological account of creation, because it became possible to see that God is anterior to any human violence, and thus anterior to chaos. Thus it becomes possible to understand creation as ex nihilo. It seems to me to be enormously important to indicate the huge cultural process of discovery, of the overcoming of the victimary illusion, which made possible what appears to be an abstract piece of philosophical reasoning.
What I am suggesting is that the development of the understanding of the resurrection of the dead and that of the creation is a simultaneous development, and that it is the intelligence of the victim that makes it possible. This is a vital part of the praeparatio evangelica, for it provides the clue to the way in which the resurrection of Christ, by completely revealing the mechanism of foundational victimage, also completely revealed the understanding of creation. I am speaking of a simultaneous recasting of the two understandings: that of the resurrection of the dead, and that of creation, in the light of the same understanding: the intelligence of the victim. Thus, in the resurrection accounts of Jesus there has disappeared the element of a divine vindication of Jesus over against his enemies. Jesus' resurrection is not revealed as an eschatological revenge, but as an eschatological pardon. It happens not to confound the persecutors, but to bring about a reconciliation. God is revealed as not partisan, not interested in vindicating any particular group over against its enemies. Rather God is revealed as the self-giving victim of the remaining victimizing tendency of even the chosen people, thus permitting the definitive demythologization of God. God, completely outside human reciprocity, is the human victim. The Father is the origin of the self-giving of the human victim. Thus, far from creation having anything to do with the establishment of an order, what is revealed is that the gratuitous self-giving of the victim is identical with, and the heretofore hidden center and culmination of, the gratuitous giving that is the creation. (The Joy of Being Wrong, pp. 95-97, 98)
2. Brian McLaren, "The Historical Jesus: What You Focus
on Determines What You Miss," a presentation at a conference
hosted by Richard Rohr's Center for Action and Contemplation, and
available on DVD titled Emerging Church: Christians
Creating and New World Together (see the CAC store for more info).
Focusing primarily on Matthew 16, he concludes with reflections on
Col. 1:15-20. Here are my notes:
3. Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. This is a brilliant reading of Paul's letter in a postmodern context. In conversation with both our contemporary culture and Paul's first century Jewish experience of Roman imperialist culture, they provide targum readings of three portions of the text: 1:1-14, 1:15-20, and 2:8-3:4. Link to an excerpt of these three targums -- but check out this book and the excellent commentary that surrounds the targums. This book is quite simply one of my favorite monographs on a book of the Bible. Here, for example, is the beginning of their targum on Col. 1:15-20:
1. Gil Bailie, "The Gospel of Luke" audio series, tape #11. These lectures are also now available online in clips; this portion is covered by "The Poetry of Truth," Part 169, Part 170.
2. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from November 25, 2007 (Society of St. John at St. Mark's Chapel, Palo Alto).
3. James Alison, Raising Abel, pp. 187-188. He quotes the first word from the cross in reflections that also bring in the shepherd imagery from the day's first lesson:
I'm trying to sketch out something much more interesting: in the measure that we learn unconcern about our reputation, in that measure the Father can produce in us the same love which he has for his Son, and the same love which he and his Son have for the human race. Here is where we have to make an imaginative effort, or at least I do. That love is in no way marked by any desire for vindication, for restoring besmirched reputations, for turning the tables of this world, and all that might seem to us to be just and proper, given the horror of the violence of our world. That love loves all that! It loves the persecutors, the scandalized, it loves the depressives and the traitors and the finger pointers. That love doesn't seek a fulminating revelation of what has really been going on as a final vengeance for all the violence, even though we may fear that it will be so. That love is utterly removed from being party to any final settling of accounts. That love, the love which was the inner dynamic of the coming of the Son to the world, of Jesus' historical living out, seeks desperately and insatiably that good and evil may participate in a wedding banquet.4. Tom Truby, a member of Theology & Peace, used Girardian insights to offer a sermon in 2013, titled "A Strange Act of Communication."
This means that it is the mind fixed on the things that are above which allows the heart to be re-formed in the image of the Father's love, forgiving the traitors, the executioners, the persecutors, the weak, those gone astray, not on account of some ethical demand, or so as to obey some commandment, but quite simply because they are loved, they are delighted in. When Luke has Jesus on the Cross say, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Lk 23:34), he was not only depicting a Jesus who was effectively revealing the mechanism of death, which includes the blindness of its participants as to what they are doing, nor was it an ethical imperative that Jesus should forgive them so that he might go to his Father 'clean'; rather it was just that, in truth, and without any remorse or sadomasochism, Jesus loved his slayers.
This means that when we are able to stand loose from our reputation, and because of that, from our need to insist on a day of reckoning, the eschatological imagination, the mind fixed on the things that are above, begins to give us the capacity to love human beings without any sort of discrimination, in imitation of that love, quite without rivalry, which the Father has for us. Another way of saying this is to say that there begins to be formed within us something of a shepherd's heart which is deeply moved by humans and human waywardness. Please notice that "heart of a shepherd" means being able to look at wolves in their sheepliness. It is not a question of us fearing that there are many people dressed as sheep who are, in fact, wolves, but, on the contrary, of being able creatively to imagine wolves as, in some, more or less well-hidden part of their lives, in fact, sheep, and to love them as such. Various times in the Gospel the word splangchnidzomai crops up, which we usually translate as 'moved with compassion'. Jesus was moved with compassion by this or that person or situation, or that the multitudes should be like sheep having no shepherd (Mt 9:36). However the word is rather strong, and means a deep commotion of the entrails, a visceral commotion. This is what is so hard to imagine: as we become unhooked from our partisan loves, our searches, our clinging to reputation, with these formed in reaction to this situation or that, there begins to be formed in us that absolutely gratuitous visceral commotion, born outside all reaction, which the ancients called agape, and which is nothing other than the inexplicable love which God has for us in our violence and our scandals. We begin to be able not only to know ourselves loved as human beings, but to be able to love other humans, to love the human race and condition. (Raising Abel, pp. 187-188)
1. In 2013, I began with the emphasis that Luke places on
the necessity of the Messiah's suffering. He is the only one to
have the Risen Jesus emphasize this to two groups of disciples on
Easter (Luke 24:26, 46). God, in short, works transformation and
healing by going through the suffering.
A lighter way of conveying this wisdom has come to me in my reading of the children's classic We're Going on a Bear Hunt. It's a story of facing obstacles on a journey: tall grass, a river, mud, a forest, a snowstorm, and finally a cave. In each instance the refrain is,
It has been meaningful to me to use this book in expressing the wisdom of God bringing healing and transformation to the world, both personal and transpersonal (cultural), through suffering. Thus, the sermon "'We're Going on a King Hunt.'"
We can't go over it.
We can't go under it.
Oh no! We've got to go through it!
2. I have made the connection between the thief on the cross who receives a promise of Paradise and the Parable of the Rich Fool (Proper 13), who receives quite different consequences. Both are at the moment of death, but they have quite different dialogue partners. The rich fool basically has had himself as his only dialogue partner throughout the parable, until God intervenes with a word about his consequences for trying to be in charge of his own life. The thief on the cross receives a promise of Paradise for coming into dialogue with Jesus and giving his life over to him. I also roll in the story about Paradise lost from Gen. 2-3.
3. A general reflection on "Christ the King" Sunday: We don't often think in terms of kings or kingdoms anymore. The PC way of talking about it is to talk about a "Reign of Christ." But I'm not sure that catches it, either. In this democratic, capitalist age we don't talk about either kingdoms or reigns. Even "nation" is becoming less of an issue. What is it that we talk about the most these days when it comes to social constructs? Isn't it "culture"? Everything these days is about "culture," isn't it? So how about the "Culture of Christ" Sunday?
And then Girard's cultural anthropology, which is both generative and evangelical, promises tremendous insight. The generative aspect is quite unique. I get sick to death, frankly, of going to seminar after seminar in which there is so much babble about culture that amounts to little more than a cataloguing of characteristics. I am not aware of any other theories about culture that actually suggests how culture is generated, how it comes into being. That kind of depth of understanding about culture has been sorely and ironically lacking in this culture of ours which talks ad nauseam about culture.
And Girard's cultural anthropology is evangelical in that he puts the Cross of Christ exactly at the center of what reveals to us the generation of culture as founded in murder -- which is exactly what this Sunday can be about. In the cross of Christ we see both the revelation of how we found our culture and how God founds the divine culture offered to us in Christ. The latter is founded in Christ's giving himself up to the murder which founds our culture, at the same time that he forgives us for it.
4. How different are these cultures, human and divine? Perhaps a pertinent example is the ongoing crisis against terroism. Our culture can conceive of no other option than to meet a violent force with another violent force. We make peace by threatening violence. We truly can't imagine another option for the President, can we? How could we possibly found the affairs of State on something like the Cross? What would that look like? We can't even imagine it. But God could. And God has, in fact, founded a new culture, a new reign, on the opposite of murder and vengeance, i.e., on being murdered and forgiveness.
5. In 2001, my sermon took up these themes, using the quotes from Canetti, "Christ the King -- Are We Joking?" (manuscript unfinished).
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