In Part I and II of René Girard’s I see Satan Fall Like a Lightning, René Girard, a French Christian philosopher, offers a sociological and philosophical perspective on the atonement as understood in the Christian tradition emphasizing the similarities between the mythological and the biblical of the Gospels. For him the way in which mythology and the Gospels characterize their victims is noteworthy. In this respect, Girard introduces the concept of scapegoats which are “innocent targets of a senseless collective transference that is mimetic and mechanical.” (p. 1) In other words, the scapegoat is a member of a community who is victimized. Through this act, the community tries to resolve the collective conflicts by uniting itself against the person who will take all blame. Unlike Greek mythology, for example, the Gospels do not follow the scapegoat thesis. Rather, the Gospels claim the innocence of the scapegoat, demystifying and deconstructing such a mechanism.
One interesting aspect Girard claims is the divinization of the scapegoat in ancient mythology –they paradoxically become saviors and culprits. In mythology, the scapegoat is divinized on one hand, but on the other hand, they seem to have undeniable guilt. The Gospels in contrast claim for Jesus’s innocence. Besides this difference, in the Gospels, the news from the scapegoating emerges from the dissenting group (Jesus’s followers) and not from the accusing community.
As one observes the scapegoat thesis opens the door for a rediscovery of the powers and the devil in the Gospels. For Girard, the devil is both violence and a violence mechanism. Thus, Jesus’s death attacks directly the source: the devil and his violence mechanism. In this respect, what one sees is a defense of the victim and its proclamation to the whole community (p. 4). Therefore, it is the defense of the victims and the demystification of the scapegoating mechanism which open the door to interpret the cross as a sound idea from an anthropological perspective.
The Notion of Scandal in the Bible
Based on the tenth commandment (Cf. Ex. 20:17), Girard criticizes the traditional translation of the verb ‘covet’ i
The desire prohibited by the tenth commandment must be the desire of all human beings in other words, simply desire as such, Girard writes (p. 7).
For him, the tenth divine command suggests that human beings are inclined to what the other has or wants. This suggestion has also an important implication: If human beings are inclined to desire by nature, then, the rivalry between people is engrained in human nature (p. 8). And such rivalry must be controlled in order to avoid that internal violence increases in the community. Then, Girard reads the tenth commandment as a command which moves from particular and changing objects (a house, a spouse, a servant, an ox, and a donkey) to a general and unchanging object: the neighbor. In this respect, Girard states, “What the tenth commandment sketches, without defining it explicitly, is a fundamental revolution in the understanding of desire. We assume that desire is objective or subjective, but in reality it rests on a third party who gives value to the objects.” (p. 9). As one observes, the lawmaker prohibits a series of commands in terms of the neighbor. If we want to preserve social peace and community, we ought to take into account our desires in regard to the other. For Girard, this is the basis to develop the notion of “mimetic desire, or imitation of our desire.” (p. 10)
Although the desire itself does not always end in conflict, imitation, however, will be intensified. One’s desire can wake up another person’s desire toward an object, and vice-versa. What this shows, according to Girard, is the fragility of human relations. Under this framework, human violence
The principal source of violence between human beings is the mimetic rivalry, the rivalry resulting from imitation of a model who becomes a rival or of a rival who becomes a model. (p. 11).
Avoiding this rivalry is not unique of the Hebrew mind but it is also found in ancient cultures. When the NT talks about the imitation of Christ there is no reference to aesthetics but a reference to imitating Christ’s approach to desire. Christ wants to be like his Father and he invites us to do the same thing (p. 13). In other words, Jesus invites us to imitate him as he imitates God the Father, suggesting that it is God the Father not him the model to imitate. Girard’s belief that the offer of a good model is the best way to avoid violence agrees with this. He writes:
The best way of preventing violence does not consist in forbidding objects, or even
rivalisticdesire, as the tenth commandment does, but in offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries. (p. 14).
The issue is not imitating about God but imitating false models. If this happens, the rivalry will never cease. Through
The question which arises here is the connection between the Gospels and mimetic desire. Girard makes the connection through the word ‘scandal,’ which is derived from a Greek word that also means ‘to limp’. As limping, the process of mimetic rivalry “prevent[s] each other from appropriating the object they covet, reinforce[s] more and more their double desire, their desire for both the other’s object of desire and for the desire of the other.” (p. 16) In the end, scandals are responsible for mimetic rivalry. If this process does not stop, it would become stronger and more violent. For example, Girard uses the word ‘scandalize’ in Matthew 18:8-9 to offer an example. New translations, for him, have failed in offering a message that shocks people. For Girard Jesus wants us to be aware that our fight is against the powers that promote mimetic rivalries (p. 17). Now, how can we see mimetic rivalry applied to the Gospels? Girard argues that the hostility against Jesus became contagious. He offers the example of Peter to prove his theory. Peter succumbs to the hostility of the crowd against Jesus. For Girard Jesus’s warning to Peter that he would betray him is a warning against mimetic rivalry. But Peter fails in fighting against such internal conflict (p. 19). This, however, does not mean one should psychologize Peter and trying to figure out his reasons against such a betrayal. For Girard, the issue does not rest there but “in succumbing to the violent contagion” (p. 20). Like Peter, Pilate also succumbs to the mimetic contagion. Despite Pilate wants to free Jesus he takes Jesus to the cross.
The Reinterpretation of the Cross Symbol
Girard states, “From the anthropological aspect the Cross is the moment when a thousand mimetic conflicts, a thousand scandals that crash violently into one another during the crisis, converge against Jesus alone. For the contagion that divides, fragments, and decomposes communities is substituted a collective contagion that gathers all those scandalized to act against a single victim who is promoted to the role of universal scandal.” (p. 21) One point to clarify is that this contagion is not something God has done. Instead, the responsible parties are the human agents themselves who have succumbed to the violent contagion. To explain the process of contagion, Girard bases his reasoning on how mimetic conflict evolves. Each person shows his/her discontent with the desired object. As the rage increases in people’s hearts, they antagonize against each other. But at the same time, they became united by violence. Because the process continues and goes on, the power struggle becomes more attractive and, in this way, it happens mimetic competition, where the whole community is now against the same object. But who are usually the victims of this process? The answer is diverse: it goes from women to disabled people, children, religious persons, etc.
After discussing the scapegoat and mimetic rivalry, Girard moves on to analyze the figure of the devil in the mimetic process. Girard notes that the devil also wants other people to imitate him. He does this through seduction. But one of the places he appears is in mimetic crises. The devil then transforms himself from a seducer to an adversary. An important idea Girard highlights here is that identification of the cross with the mechanism of the devil (Cf. Luke 22:53). Girard suggests that in this verse Jesus designates the crucifixion as an evil mechanism where the devil consolidates his power over humanity (p. 37). In the cross, the Aristotelian notion of cathartic violence happens: the angry community finds peace after the death of the victim. But such a process is indeed the devil’s work. “The mimetic cycle begins with desire and its rivalries, it continues through the multiplication of scandals and a mimetic crisis, and it is resolved finally in the single victim mechanism “(p. 38).
To reaffirm his view Girard offers the passage of John 8:42-44 where Jesus argues that some of his apparent followers were not really his followers but of the devil’s. The key point is regarding their desire. The real disciples of God want to do God’s desires (God as a model). For this reason, Girard argues that this text is indeed taking about mimetic desire, where God and the devil are two archetype models. The devil’s followers want to do the devil’s desires. The only way to break the mimetic cycle is Jesus telling the truth and demythologizing the process.
Girard’s notion of mimetic desire builds the foundation to violence contagion and an anthropological theory which adds new meanings to the theology of atonement. The hidden point is that the devil who reestablishes order is the same entity who promotes violence. The devil does this by imitating what God does. The evil kingdom promotes the single victim mechanism. This leads Girard to later claim that the devil with scandals. Although he identifies some differences between the two, he still claims both are the same. He later argues that Satan “is the absent subject of structures of disorder and order, which stem from rivalistic relations among human beings.” (p. 70) In other words, as Girard affirms, the devil refers to mimetic contagion itself. After discussing these several aspects of mimetics, he moves on to claim that violence is indeed the “founding mechanism of sovereign states” (95). The devil creates such a violence along with the powers, who are also promoters of these plans.
Notes & References
As we observe, Girard’s theory leaves no room for violence to be redemptive. If something emerges from his discussion is the compatibility between his theory and biblical revelation. Some questions which emerge from Girard’s view are: (1) Could we say that the New Testament presents Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the scapegoat? (2) Girard does not see the devil as a personal reality. To what extend does this movement affect his project of rediscovering the role of the devil and the powers in the theology of atonement?