‘You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ John 11:50
In the first article in this series, we outlined the first of Rene Girard’s big ideas: mimesis, the idea that we learn our desires from those around us, imitating those we love and admire. Yet this is not always a good thing: it may be laudable that I learn to love football from my father, but if what if my best friend and I are both in love with the same person? We mentioned the oft-repeated scene of a small child entering a playroom and wanting only what another child is playing with. Of course, we know how that scene develops: violence. The interloper will try to take the toy from the child who has it, and things go rapidly downhill from there.
Because Girard began his academic life as a lecturer in French literature at an American university, it was in that arena that he first noticed the conflict that mimesis brings: he noticed the centrality of love triangles and competition between friends in creating tension and conflict in literature and drama. This escalating circle of competition and conflict comes to include a negative form of mimesis – ‘if he’s going to do that, then I can too, and much worse…’ – so that whole communities become threatened by the impending chaos.
Girard’s next field of study was the myths of ancient civilisations, where he found a clear strategy for dealing with rising community tension: sacrifice. Girard posits that across the world the same event happened over and over again: a small community, wracked with conflict, found peace through human sacrifice. A premise would be concocted by which the murdered person was blamed for all the ills of the village (‘Demon possessed! A witch! A harlot! A spy!), and somehow, Girard claims, their death would indeed bring a sense of peace, if only for a season. The effect was so powerful and startling that the person was attributed supernatural powers post-mortem: they became either a god or a devil. The community’s reconciliation, however temporary, is so convincing that the murder is seen as a good thing, the dead victim ultimately remembered as agreeing to their sacrifice, like a political prisoner at a Soviet show trial.`
Girard sees these cathartic murders as the dawn of all sacrifice. Over time, sacrifice became more and more ritualistic and codified, but at its heart was always murder, or expulsion. Nowadays we speak about the process by which a community blames all its ills on an individual or minority as ‘scapegoating’, referencing the Old Testament practice of dealing with community sin by handing it over to a goat and then sending the goat into the wilderness to die.
We now make use of the term scapegoating in family therapy, in politics and international relations, and of course we can see it today in the debate about Brexit: ‘It’s all because of selfish, ignorant old people,’ ‘It’s all because of foreigners stealing our jobs,’ etc etc. The important thing about the kind of scapegoating that happens in popular culture and (perhaps) your own friendship group is that it enables a denial of sin: the fault lies completely with some other, who can be clearly identified for punishment.
Although Girard does use the term scapegoat, he makes one important point: that the Israelites knew what they were doing, knew that this was their sin they were expunging, and not the goat’s. The goat was not blamed for anything, so it never became a god or a devil. It was an example of the progress of religion that Girard sees all over the Jewish and Christian scriptures, culminating in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. In the quote from John’s gospel at the start of this article, Caiaphas outlines the sacrificial creed, but John comments that the High Priest doesn’t understand the significance of what is about to happen. Jesus sees his coming death as a thing of glory (John 12:23), a revealing of the true nature of things. The scandal of sacrificial violence is about to be exposed once and for all…