For the past two days, the world has looked on in horror and alarm as French security forces have hunted down radical Islamist terrorists who had murdered twelve people at the offices of a satirical news magazine in Paris. As I write this post, there have been a number of further connected incidents, culminating in the “neutralisation” of the three men believed to be involved in the attack.
But my purpose is not to tell you the news.
Shortly after the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo took place, I shared the following thoughts on my Facebook timeline:
Anyone who thinks the threat of apocalyptic violence is not real need only watch today’s news.
Once again, we see violence used as a means to attempt to defeat an opposing ideology and generate support and solidarity among the community of the perpetrators. The ironic thing is that that last sentence could just as well have been applied to the West’s violent intervention in the Middle East as it can to today’s events in Paris.
I tend to eschew alarmist thinking. But it’s becoming clearer by the day that humanity is faced with an increasingly stark choice: either learn the way of forgiveness, reconciliation and tolerance, or risk self-destruction.
I must emphasise that as a rule, I am not someone who buys into alarmist thinking. The world can be an alarming enough place as it is without pouring oil on the fire. However, I really do feel that humanity is at a crossroads in history where the stakes are frighteningly high – and where most of the western world is happily sleepwalking towards its fate.
For the avoidance of doubt, I am not – of course – suggesting that recent events in Paris have somehow launched the world onto a new and more dangerous course. I’m merely using these events as an opportunity to highlight the issue that underlies them – an issue which can, I believe, be traced all the way back through the millennia to the very dawn of human history: namely, the problem of human violence.
Many will argue that the world has always been a violent place: if humanity has managed to survive two world wars, the Cold War with its threat of mutual assured destruction, and countless civil wars and genocides in the last century alone, why suppose that it is now spiralling ever faster towards an apocalyptic meltdown?
To answer that question, I need to give you a quick précis of some of the work of René Girard, little known to the public but hailed by some as the greatest Christian thinker of his time. He has notably developed the mimetic theory, which posits that much human behaviour is driven by desire. In short, we non-consciously desire what other people desire, and this mutual desire leads to escalating rivalry and violence. Think about it: from a child desiring the one toy in a room full of toys that the other child is playing with, to love triangles in which fast friends become sworn enemies over a mutually desired femme fatale, it’s not difficult to see how this theory plays out in practice.
Perhaps Girard’s greatest insight, however, has been to identify and explain how groups, societies and even nations overcome this escalating violence rather than being completely consumed by it. The answer lies in what Girard calls the scapegoating mechanism.
Simply put, societies achieve temporary cohesion by uniting against a common enemy. Just at the point when rivalry and the accompanying violence are at their most extreme – what Girard calls a mimetic crisis – the group transfers its animus, aggression and rivalry onto a victim. The turmoil of chaotic violence is redirected with laser precision against this single victim, whose expulsion or death (whether literal or figurative) restores at least temporary harmony and social stability to the community.
Girard first identified this phenomenon of mimetic desire, mounting rivalry and subsequent scapegoating by studying world literature, where he found it to be an oft-repeated pattern. For those with eyes to see, it has also been a frequent pattern throughout history. (One need only think, for example, of the Jews, who have filled the role of scapegoat sickeningly often.) He also showed it to be at the origin and heart of sacrificial religion: uniting against a victim to avert a mimetic crisis is recast as sacrificing a victim to the gods to avert their wrath.
As a Christian, however, Girard also understood that the greatest scapegoating event of all time took place two thousand years ago when Yeshua ben Yosef, the most perfect human being who ever lived, was executed outside Jerusalem as a common criminal. In the midst of a city and a nation in foment, he became the target of the ire and violence of the Romans, Herod the puppet king, the priestly aristocracy and the common mob. With his death, the pervading threat of insurrection and societal disintegration was warded off and stability was restored.
With me so far? Good. But listen carefully: this is where it gets really interesting.
In order for the scapegoating mechanism to work its dark power, it’s crucial that everyone is united in seeing the chosen victim as guilty. (Whether or not the victim is actually guilty matters not at all; only that the mob considers him or her guilty.) The victim’s voice must therefore remain forever silent; his body must be buried so he can safely be forgotten about and the world can continue on its merry way.
But what happens when the body doesn’t stay buried? What happens when the victim rises from the grave and returns? And what happens when, over time, it becomes shockingly clear to all of humanity that the victim was completely innocent all along? For this, of course, is exactly what happened following the death of Jesus.
According to Girard, what happens when the victim’s innocence is revealed is that the scapegoating mechanism is unmasked. Once the victim’s voice is heard and his innocence proclaimed for all to hear, the scapegoating mechanism is robbed of its mystifying power and can no longer function in the same way. Its wheels may continue to turn, but it will never be able to create and maintain its mythical cohesion in the same way.
In short, then, this is what the gospel does: it gives voice to the myriad victims of scapegoating violence from time immemorial, and in doing so exposes the scapegoating mechanism in all its sinister machinations. And in exposing the scapegoating mechanism – in making a show of it openly – the gospel robs it of its mythmaking power.
In the next part, we’ll consider the implications of the gospel’s unmasking of the scapegoating mechanism, particularly as they pertain to human violence and its outworking today.
To read the second and concluding part of this series, click here.
[ Image: VinIcius Ghise ]