I would like to introduce you to Rene Girard, if you’re not already familiar with his work, but first this. Micah Mattix, in his excellent Prufrock daily blog, quotes a W.H. Auden note to a publisher who refused Ezra Pound’s poetry because he (Pound) was a fascist. Auden wrote:
“[B]egin by banning his poems not because you object to them but because you object to him, and you will end, as the nazis did, by slaughtering his wife and children.”
The Auden quote relates to the work of Girard because the publisher’s renunciation of Pound was an instance of the build-up of the scapegoating tendency in societies, about which Girard writes.
Girard theorized quite compellingly that people form their desires based on what others desire. This creates rivalries and a heightened tension throughout society, building until it is discharged in the form of scapegoating an individual (or groups) in order to restore peace. A classic example is the scapegoating of Jews in Nazi Germany. Because the Nazi ideology was neo-pagan, it followed the pagan pattern of creating a mob mentality – the irrational placing of blame on a sacrificial victim.
It’s happening right now, in the prevalent neo-pagan culture of the good ole’ US of A, and it’s alarming. You’re witnessing it when you see outrage instead of rational discourse. You’re deemed evil, not just wrong, if you stand in opposition to feminism, socialism, gender fluidity, militant secularism, or postmodernism in general.
Girard deliberately writes from an anthropological point of view rather than a religious one. He accomplishes this by writing of Christianity as a “myth,” not in the sense of being fictional, but in the sense of a reality paradigm told in story. That is, you can believe the Christian story is about actual events or not, but what it tells us about human nature and societies is true. It can thus be laid alongside the pagan myths which are mythic even in the sense of being fictional. By comparing them thus, we can see the essential difference.
You may recall that the tenth commandment is “thou shalt not covet.” Girard says the commandment is not solely about respecting property rights. We have another commandment – no stealing – which accomplishes that. Girard writes that “covetousness” implies more. It is about one’s subjective desire, after all. That desire, Girard writes, is the “mimetic desire” people naturally form from imitating their influencers.
We’re to resist that, according to Girard’s understanding of the commandment, because it leads us into collectivism – the tendency to think in terms of “we” rather than “I.” A natural result is the adoption of a groupthink, which can be irrational. I have used the phrase “socialism of thought” to express what I think Girard means. It is political correctness, which, as is all too obvious, results in injustice. Specifically, injustice directed at people who don’t subscribe to the tantrum du jour. They become scapegoats.
Girard uses the Leviticus (chapter 16) reference to a scapegoat to illustrate this, but finds its expression more generally in the system of sacrifices heavily emphasized throughout the Old Testament. Sacrifice was propitiation for sin. And of course, Jesus was considered the ultimate and final sacrifice, according to orthodox Christianity. Because He was perfect, the sacrifice was perfect, and is accepted as the final and complete sacrifice, by which He bought peace with God, for those He came to save. The Christian story exposes the mechanism of scapegoating for what it is.
The Jews engaged in sacrifice just as did all the pagan societies around them. It had different motivations and purposes, and did not involve direct human sacrifice, but otherwise looked similar. It was a reflection of the society’s need to purge itself of tensions built up by the process of mimetic desire and its collectivist manifestation, “mimetic contagion” – the groupthink that could be irrationally directed at human victims. Girard held that the mimetic contagion (or “mimetic violence” or “violent contagion”) was an element of pagan myths, but the pagan myths, unlike the Gospel, obscured the process.
The process of mimetic contagion was exposed, Girard holds, by the Gospel. Jesus was sacrificed as the scapegoat as a result of this mimetic contagion (or political correctness, or groupthink, or mob mentality). By His resurrection, however, He showed it to be what it is: a flawed process for resolving violence resulting from the covetousness that underlies all human relations. The central idea in Christianity, Girard would say, is that Jesus is substituted as our model for desire. If we desire what Jesus did; if we take Him as our chief influencer, the pagan form of repetitive collective scapegoating will be defeated.
Let me summarize the rest of Girard’s insights by quoting relevant parts of Girard’s I See Satan Fall Like Lightning:
“The more ‘proud’ and ‘egotistic’ we are, the more enslaved we become to our mimetic models.”
“As soon as mimetic contagion has taken over the community, its members are possessed by it. Violent contagion speaks for them; mimetic violence pronounces the guilt of the victim and the innocence of the persecutors. The community no longer speaks; the speaker is rather the one the Gospels name as the accuser, Satan.”
“The best way of preventing violence [lies in] . . . offering to people the model that will protect them from mimetic rivalries rather than involving them in these rivalries.”
“Far from being minor, the divergence of the Biblical account and the myth of Oedipus, or whatever other myth, is so great that no greater difference could exist. It’s the difference between a world where arbitrary violence triumphs without being recognized and a world where this same violence is identified, denounced, and finally forgiven.”
“The mythic process is based on a certain ignorance or even a persecutory unconscious that the myths never identify since it possesses them. The Gospels disclose this unconscious[ness, for example, in] . . . the famous prayer of Jesus during the Crucifixion: ‘Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they are doing.’ Here, as with all the sayings of Jesus, it is crucial to avoid emptying what he says of its basic sense by reducing it to a rhetorical formula, to a kind of sentimental exaggeration, for example. We should always take Jesus at his word. He expresses the powerlessness of those caught up in the mimetic snowballing process to see what moves and compels them. Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.”
“The persecutors don’t know that their sudden harmony, like their previous discord, is the work of contagious imitation. They believe they have on their hands a dangerous person, someone evil, of whom they must rid the community. What could be more sincere than their hatred?”
[The Gospel story of Pilate capitulating to the mob] “underscore[s] the paradox of the sovereign power that surrenders to the crowd and melts into it, as it were, for fear of an encounter with it. The account thus shows once again the omnipotence of mimetic contagion.”
“First of all we lament the victims we admit to making or allowing to be made. Then we lament the hypocrisy of our lamentation, and finally we lament Christianity, the indispensable scapegoat, for there is no ritual without a victim, and in our day Christianity is always it, the scapegoat of last resort.”
“Our concern for victims is the secular mask of Christian love.”
“We are living through a caricatural ‘ultra-Christianity’ that tries to escape from the Judeo-Christian orbit by ‘radicalizing’ the concern for victims in an anti-Christian manner.”
“The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition.”