Wills on Girard from “Papal Sin”

Excerpt from Garry Wills’ Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit, Doubleday, 2000, pages 303-307.

He concludes his entire argument about the papacy by elucidating the work of Girard to begin his final chapter.


The Truth That Frees

What does it mean to say that Christ is truth (Jn 14:6)? Not that he speaks truthfully, or defends the truth, or represents it, but that he, simply, is truth? One effort at an answer to this question has a chance of being adequate, because it is as radical as anything must be to match the revolutionary gospels. René Girard, the cultural critic, argues (in a substantial body of work) that human societies are established by an initial violence that both controls later expressions of it and validates them. (1) This is reflected in the “founding murder” discoverable in so many cultures — the murder of Abel by Cain, or of Remus by Romulus — as well as in the scapegoats sacrificed to avert threats to the community (Jonah, Oedipus, Prometheus). The community builds itself around a shared enmity and seals its bond by a sacrifice of the object of its fear. Girard notes the way Aeschylus’s Furies express this in his tragedy, The Eumenides (996-97):

For many ills one attitude is the cure,
When it agrees on what to hate. (2)

The salvific outcome of such creative destruction is the sacred — which is revived in all forms of religious sacrifice. This universal trait of sacrifice is meant to placate — to flatter and, at the same time, bribe — appropriately violent sets of gods. Envious rivalry (which Girard somewhat misleadingly calls mimesis) leads to and is assuaged by concentration on a foe (or its surrogate), on whatever must be destroyed that the people might live. After that, the state is made the guardian of the violence that articulated its structure in the first place. Since the surcease achieved by hatred is based on unreasoning contagions of panic, the whole fabric of social life is essentially a structure of deception, beginning with self-deception. That is why Jesus calls Satan the prince of this world, “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44), the embodiment of the whole system of violence.

Girard is a believing Christian — a Roman Catholic, in fact, with whom I used to go to Mass when we both taught at Johns Hopkins. It will be clear that his radical anthropology is consonant with the doctrine of original sin. In fact, Girard’s thought is very close to Augustine’s, though he rarely quotes him. Augustine, too, maintains that the City of Man was founded on the murder of Abel, and that it lives by violence, in opposition to the City of God, which is founded on, and operates on, love. (3) This recognition of love as a structural principle is far from wishy-washy do-goodism. Jesus indicts the whole world of creative hatreds and architectonic violence:

I say, to all you who can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. To one seizing your cloak, do not refuse your tunic under it. Whoever asks, give to him. Whoever seizes, do not resist. Exactly how you wish to be treated, in that way treat others. For if you love those who love back, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners themselves love those who love back. If you treat well those treating you well, what mark of virtue have you? That is how sinners act. If you lend only where you calculate a return, what mark of virtue have you? Sinners, too, lend to sinners, calculating an exact return. No, rather love your foes, and treat them well, and lend without any calculation of return. Your great reward will be that you are children of the Highest One, who also favors ingrates and scoundrels. Be just as lenient as that lenient Father. Be not a judge, then, and you will not be judged. Be no executioner, and you will not be executed. Pardon, and you will be pardoned. Give, and what will be given you is recompense of crammed-in, sifted-down, over-toppling good showered into your lap. The excess will reflect the measure of your excess. (Lk 6:27-40.)

Jesus speaks for a God of topsy-turvydom, the Highest who sides with the lowest. Giving to ingrates is the way to imitate this God. Scoundrels are his pets. As Jesus says in Matthew (21:31), “Quislings and whores are entering the Kingdom before you [chief priests].” This is a particularly provocative thing for Jesus to say, since part of the enmity that would try to make him a polluted scapegoat came from his mixing with the “unclean,” with quislings and sinners (Mt 9:11; Mk 2:18). The whole category of the unclean arises from the sacred realm of sacrifice, and he is defying that at its root.

This challenge to the founding principle of the world’s very existence unites Christ’s foes around him — all the enmity of the powers that be, Jewish and Roman, soldiers and the mob. Girard even notes the unifying effect of scapegoatism in the New Testament itself (Lk 23:12): “On precisely that day [of Jesus’ trial] Herod and Pilate were reconciled, after their previous enmity.” The followers of Jesus disperse, unable to resist the harmony of hate that blossoms from sacred violence. They have still to learn that when Jesus says one can only follow him by taking up the cross (Mt 10:38), this means meeting the violence of the world with unresisting love. Only this willingness frees one from the dominance of the power system called Satan.

Girard claims that Christ reveals the emptiness of worldly power’s claims, but how can this be? When the world unites to oppose him, and his followers either desert or are silenced, isn’t this just another instance of successful scapegoating? Girard distinguishes Christ’s situation from that of scapegoats, who either agree with their accusers, or oppose them by arguing from the same principles of power that are invoked against them. Only Jesus acts on a principle of total nonresistance to violence, which removes the rationale for sacrifice. He presents a vindicated innocence to refute the conviction of guilt. Girard finds a prophetic forerunner of Jesus in the job who protests his own innocence, who refuses to accept the logic of his accusing “comforters.”

Girard’s most radical assertion is that Jesus is not a sacrifice. His Father is not one whose aggressions need to be bought off. Jesus is not an item of barter in the exchange system set up by sacrifice; God does not accept victims. He sides with the victim against its slayers, reversing the whole logic of placation. The prophets of Israel had moved toward the insight that God does not want sacrifice, but Jesus turns their hesitant questioning of the system into confident assertion of its irrelevance. This is clearest in his opposition to the Temple activities that all revolved around sacrifice. His “cleansing” of the Temple was not an attack on peripheral abuses like money exchanges in the forecourt. He is rejecting the validity of sacrifice as an avenue to God — a view of the episode that Raymond Brown finds John’s text capable of bearing. (4) “Do not make my Father’s house a house barter” (Jn 2:16). The commerce in victims is ended.

Jesus promises to destroy the Temple and raise it up again — not the former Temple, where sacrifice was conducted. His risen body is the new Temple, the presence of the Father in Christ, and Christ’s presence in the body of believers. This Father is not a distant figure whose wrath is to be pushed away, who can be approached, ritually, only in fear and trembling. He approaches us, in the Christ who incorporates us as living stones into his living Temple. Augustine notes the paradox involved in Christ’s calling himself the path to the Father: “I am path and truth and life — no one arrives at the Father except through me” (Jn 14:16). The Father is already here when the path is here, speaking to us: “Where should we go but to him? And how should we go but by way of him? So he goes to himself [as truth] through himself [as path], and we go to him by way of him, and both of us — he and we — arrive at the Father.” (5) The approach to God is not by ritual or violence, but by receiving the approach of Christ.

Passage after passage in the gospel takes on new intensity when looked at through the lens Girard has provided. Take the famously knotty words at John 16:8-11:

When the Defender [Paraclete] comes, he will expose the world’s lie about sin, about conformity with God, and about criminal execution — about sin, because they do not recognize me [as sinless]; about conformity with God, because I am the one who arrives at the Father (when you lose sight of me); and about criminal execution, because the Prince of This World is the one convicted. (6)

The world, that is, takes Jesus as the polluted one, heaping sin on him, hoping for reconciliation with God through offering him up as a sacrifice. Yet it is this very act of scapegoating — the Satan system of condoned violence — that is being condemned. The lying pattern collapses when triumph over the victim becomes a triumph of the victim.

Girard makes it clear why the triumph of Christ is a struggle with Satan. Jesus lets the violence of the world system defeat itself on his dying body — instead of this being a sacrifice to a vengeful God, it is a paradoxical defeat of the torturer. The fallen world of satanic resistance to God causes the final violence, not any placatory act demanded by the Father. The only sacrifice by Jesus is his offering of his innocent body to the fury of the sacrificial system that is being canceled. This was exactly the position of Augustine. In an early work, he opposed the ransom theory of Christ’s death, the theory that Jesus was a substitute who accepted the suffering that the Father wanted to inflict on others — as if the Father could find satisfaction in causing pain: “The Lord’s was obviously not a death of ransom but of restoration (dignitatis non debiti).” (7)


1. The basic text is René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, translated by Patrick Gregory (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977). Girard’s application of his insight to the gospels is most extended in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, translated by Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer (Stanford University Press, 1987).

2. René Girard. Job, the Victim of His People (Stanford University Press, 1987), p. 148. The French translation Girard works from does not bring out enough the typically Greek word play on one and many, registered in my version. The text is thus even closer to Girard’s thought, which stresses the need of unanimity in the social act of violence.

3. Augustine, City of God 14.28, 15.5, 8.

4. Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John, I-XII (AB 1966), p. 122. Girard admits that opposition to sacrifice is not reflected in the Epistle to the Hebrews, but this letter seems to have been written before the temple was destroyed and to reflect the Separatist Christian attitude of the 60s CE — see Raymond Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (AB 1996), pp. 691-703. For a negotiation of the differences between Girard’s anti-sacrificial approach and older sacrificial views, see Raymond Schwager, “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice,” Semeia 33 (1985), pp. 109-23. Christ’s priesthood in Hebrews is the end of sacrificial priesthood.

5. Augustine, Interpreting John’s Gospel 69.2.

6. Brown, op. cit., p. 711, on the commentators’ problems with this passage, beginning with the sense of elenchein (expose the lie).

7. Augustine, Analysis of Some Theses in the Letter to the Romans 48, text in Paula Fredriksen Landes, Augustine on Romans (Scholars Press, 1982), p. 19.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email