Friday, August 17, 2007

Back to René Girard: Two Types of Sacrifice

(Image from Touchstone Magazine)

Still surfing the internet waves for information on René Girard, I managed to find an interview, "Violence & the Lamb Slain," by Brian McDonald for FSJ's Touchstone Magazine that explicates Girard's view of Christianity as a 'sacrificial' religion, a topic that I was wondering about a couple of blog entries ago.

As a preface to the interview, McDonald provides an illuminating illustration summarizing Girard's theory of the scapegoat:
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, "No, my toy!", pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.

As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, "Oh, there's old fat butt!" "Yeah," says his brother. "Big fat butt!" The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying.

It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Girard builds his whole theory of human nature and human culture through a close analysis of the dynamics operating in this story. Most human desires are not "original" or spontaneous, he argues, but are created by imitating another whom he calls the "model." When the model claims an object, that tells another that it is desirable -- and that he must have it instead of him. Girard calls this "mimetic" (or imitative) desire. In the subsequent rivalry, the two parties will come to forget the object and will come to desire the conflict for itself. Harmony will only be restored if the conflicting parties can vent their anger on a common enemy or "scapegoat."
This is precisely the sort of illustrative story that good teachers use to explain some thinker's system, and it pulls together and tightens a lot of loose ends in my understanding of Girard's views.

As for Christianity and sacrifice, which is one of the things that I went internet-surfing for, McDonald had a question similar to my own:
McDonald: You have advocated what is seen as a "non-sacrificial" reading of the death of Christ that is significantly at odds with the usual understanding of that death as a "hilasterion" [i.e., "propitiation"] that satisfies the wrath and justice of God. Could you describe that view and how your study of the formation and maintenance of human cultures has led you to it?
This is more or less what I was wondering about in my piecemeal readings of Girard, and his answer involves a distinction between two concepts of sacrifice:
Girard: Oh, this is a question that will require a long answer! It is not quite true that I take what you have called a "non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ." We must establish first of all that there are two kinds of sacrifice.

Both forms are shown together (and I am not sure anywhere else) in the story of Solomon's judgment in the third chapter of 1 Kings. Two prostitutes bring a baby. They are doubles engaging in a rivalry over what is apparently a surviving child. When Solomon offers to split the child, the one woman says "yes," because she wishes to triumph over her rival. The other woman then says, "No, she may have the child," because she seeks only its life. On the basis of this love, the king declares that "she is the mother."

Note that it does not matter who is the biological mother. The one who was willing to sacrifice herself for the child's life is in fact the mother. The first woman is willing to sacrifice a child to the needs of rivalry. Sacrifice is the solution to mimetic rivalry and the foundation of it. The second woman is willing to sacrifice everything she wants for the sake of the child's life. This is sacrifice in the sense of the gospel. It is in this sense that Christ is a sacrifice since he gave himself "for the life of the world."

What I have called "bad sacrifice" is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.

But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been "deified," he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).

But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate "scapegoat" -- precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.
In his prefactory remarks to this interview, McDonald makes an astute observation:
Girard's belief about the death of Christ may be no less controversial among Christians than his allegiance to Christ is scandalous to the secular world. Against the view of Christ's death that would see him as a propitiatory sacrifice offered to the Father, Girard would argue that Christ's death was intended to overthrow in its entirety the religion of propitiatory sacrifice, since he sees that religion as of the very essence of fallen man.
Girard's view is thus rather problematic for orthodox Christianity, for his reading of the crucifixion would turn the orthodox interpretation on its head, transforming Christianity from the religion of sacrificial atonement par excellence into the religion of anti-sacrificial atonement par excellence. The sense in which Christianity remains sacrificial seems to reside solely in the gesture whereby Jesus relinquishes vengeance against his tormentors through his willingness to sacrifice even that very understandable desire for the sake of their lives, a synecdochal image of Christ giving himself for the life of the world, in Girard's understanding anyway.

Christ's death is therefore not the actual sacrifice but, rather, Jesus's renunciation of revenge, the death itself thus being at most a sort of noble death, similar to the death of Socrates at this hands of his enemies but taking things one step further by the explicit forgiveness of the enemies.

Interesting views, but probably unacceptable for most Christians.

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At 10:48 AM, Anonymous Daniel said...

Hey Jeffery,
Interesting that you're getting into Girard. I've never read any of his books all the way through; I tried getting into him about a year ago but didn't have enough time to devote to it. Unfortunately, this summer is frantically coming to a close and I've several projects I've got to finish before the beginning of the semester so I'm pretty slammed for time, and won't be able to read through these posts. Happy travels though! He's worth devoting some time to, and I hope I'll be able to also some day. -Daniel

At 10:55 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Daniel, I know what you mean about projects. I need to write three more articles before the semester begins, but I cannot do that, of course...

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:30 PM, Anonymous daniel said...

Exactly! I NEED to finish these projects, but that will be impossible...

At 12:59 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Still, like Don Quixote, the Man of La Mancha, we dream our impossible dreams...

Jeffery Hodges

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