Crossroad tracksIn the first post in this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of René Girard’s mimetic theory, focusing on the scapegoating mechanism and its central role in helping societies maintain a semblance of peace by transferring their aggression onto a chosen victim. I concluded by noting that Jesus, by dying as an indisputably innocent victim and returning from the grave announcing not vengeance but peace, exposed the scapegoating mechanism and thus irreparably jammed up its ability to create social cohesion by mythologising the violence that fuelled it.

If you haven’t yet read the first part, please do so before continuing: we have more ground to cover, and I simply don’t have the space to bring you up to speed first.

In short, the Gospel has been permeating societies for the past two centuries, undoing the power of sacred violence and the scapegoating mechanism by increasingly giving voice to victims at all levels. (For those who have ears to hear, the voice of the victim first made itself heard in the Hebrew scriptures that we now know as the Old Testament.)

Think about it: rare is the television or radio news bulletin that doesn’t include a story about victims seeking and/or being granted redress because of their suffering. The reason we find ourselves increasingly awash with abuse scandals that have lain dormant for decades is that what Girard calls “the modern concern for victims” [1] has, in fact, become the overriding concern by which social progress is measured. Girard’s contention is that, whether irreligious moderns are aware of it or not, this concern for victims has its roots in the Gospel revelation that originally exposed and undid the victimage mechanism.

This recognition of and solidarity with victims is undoubtedly a good thing. After all, didn’t Jesus himself spend much of his ministry eschewing the rich and powerful elite and seeking to lift up those who found themselves at the bottom of the food chain, victims of principalities and powers that kept them firmly in their place? However, according to Girard, the concern for victims and its crippling effect on the scapegoating mechanism is a double-edged sword, for it also has a frightening consequence: societies no longer have recourse to the once powerful and effective tool of scapegoating violence to resolve their escalating social and religious crises.

According to Girard, then, the Gospel and its powerful and subversive effects, which stubbornly continue to infiltrate society just as yeast eventually finds its way into every part of the dough, confront us with a great paradox: in exposing the violent foundations of human culture and civilisation, the Gospel threatens that very civilisation with annihilation. To put it another way, if society only survives by creating and then forgetting victims, what happens when those victims can no longer be forgotten? The obvious and chilling answer is that ultimately, society cannot continue to sustain itself on the same foundations upon which it has up to now relied.

Let me now repeat something I wrote in the first part of this series: 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. But before you dismiss me as the kind of conspiracy-touting doom-monger that I myself often decry, please hear me out in the light of everything that precedes.

The logical argument is quite simple. If humanity has a besetting problem, it is without doubt our propensity to resort to violence as the ultimate solution to our ills. A cursory glance at the twentieth century alone should be enough to confirm this, but the problem goes back much further – in fact, to Cain and Abel and the foundation of human civilisation. And the problem with violence is that, well, it just keeps on getting more violent. If group A defeats group B through violence, group A will only remain dominant until group C comes along with more and greater violence. And so the cycle goes on.

It follows that, to prevent ourselves from being utterly consumed and destroyed by our own violence, we need some mechanism to periodically reduce that violence to manageable levels. But the mechanism upon which humanity previously relied – expelling violence onto innocent victims through scapegoating as a way to reconstitute societal cohesion – has been robbed of its power by the Gospel revelation.

Those who think common sense or enlightenment will be enough to ward off the threat of world-destroying violence are, I fear, sadly deluded. Yes, we have had the Cold War, we have had the Cuban Missile Crisis: the threat of global destruction is nothing new. However, it seems to me that a couple of things have changed.

First, the march of technology means that destructive power is available more cheaply than ever before. Thirty years ago, the idea of anyone other than a select few nations being able to get their hands on weapons of mass destruction was laughable; now it’s an all too real possibility.

Second, globalisation – which we now seem to take for granted as an unquestionable good – means that what might previously have been restricted to one particular geographical region can now be projected across the globe. Thus, terrorist acts that might previously have been confined to the Middle East might easily be perpetrated in Europe or America.

Okay then, let’s boil this all down.

Violence, if not defused and dampened, leads to ever-escalating violence, the only ultimate terminus of which is global destruction. Given that the only effective mechanism for defusing and dampening violence – the victimage mechanism – has been effectively rendered ineffective by the Gospel, we are left with two choices: either continue to resort to violence, and in doing so bring upon ourselves complete destruction; or turn from our wicked ways and build a future in which violence has no place and no opportunity.

As a race, we must either quickly lay down our arms and learn the way of forgiveness and reconciliation, or suffer consequences too appalling to contemplate. I believe the choice is that stark.

Jesus warned his fellow Jews that, because of their stubborn refusal to learn the things that made for peace, they would face destruction on an unprecedented scale within a generation. We find his words recorded in Matthew 24. I wonder whether he is not speaking those same words to us today.

Of course, we like to think of Jesus, Prince of Peace, ushering in an era of peace. But let us not forget his words: “The Son of Man is come not to bring peace but a sword.” Maybe it was by robbing us of our violent means of sustaining societal order that he neutralised our mythical and victim-based peace and left us only with a metaphorical sword.

Perhaps I will leave the last word to René Girard himself:

Few Christians still talk about the apocalypse, and they usually have a completely mythological conception of it. They think that the violence of the end of time will come from God himself. They cannot do without a cruel God. Strangely, they do not see that the violence we ourselves are in the process of amassing and that is looming over our own heads is entirely sufficient to trigger the worst. [2]

[1] See Chapter 13, “The Modern Concern for Victims”, in René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (Orbis Books/Gracewing, 2001)

[2] From René Girard, On War and Apocalypse, adapted from Achever Clausewitz (see http://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/apocalypse-now)

( Image: Ron Cogswell )