Violence and the Sacred

Rene Girard on Sacrifice, Scapegoating, and the Social Origins of Desire *

Delivered as "Violence and the Sacred"
by Dr. Jan Garrett

at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, KY
on May 24, 2015

Last Revised: June 5, 2015

   I saw a vision of us move in the dark:
   all that we did or dreamed of
Regarded each other, the man pursued the woman,
   the woman clung to the man,
   warriors and kings
Strained at each other in the darkness, all
   loved or fought inward, each one of the lost
Sought the eyes of another that another should
   praise him; sought never his own but
   another's; the net of desire
Had every nerve drawn to the center, so that
   they writhed like a full draught of fishes,
   all matted
In the one mesh; when they look backward they
   see only a man standing at the beginning,
Or forward, a man at the end; or if upward, men
   in the shining bitter sky striding and feasting,
Whom you call Gods

Robinson Jeffers, The Tower Beyond Tragedy

Quoted in Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (Stanford University Press, 1987)

If we carefully observe our own culture, we cannot help seeing, here and there, a close tie between violence and the sacred. The most obvious example for me is the way in which politicians and editorial writers insist on describing injuries and deaths suffered by soldiers of our country and those of our allies as sacrifices.

This sense of sacrifice is different from the metaphorical sense of the word used by economists, which is giving up one thing in order to get another you want, as you might sacrifice the cost of a season's ticket to Skypac shows to pay for your kid's braces. The reference to military sacrifice, on the other hand, is closer to the original meaning, to make sacred; "sacri-fice" derives from two Latin words, sacer, sacred, and facere, to make. To sacrifice in this sense is to devote something to what is assumed sacred and thus to make the thing sacrificed itself sacred in a secondary sense. But thinking of a sacrifice in this way presumes that the thing the sacrifice serves is itself sacred. In effect, those performing and approving the sacrifices are reinforcing the belief that the beneficiary of the sacrifice is sacred. What seems to be made sacred in the case of military sacrifices is the war-making national state or national identity, or, in the case of violent deaths motivated by religion, the religion or religious identity involved.

Of course, these are not sacred for everybody: the perception of a war as unjust will undercut the view that the state engaging in it is itself sacred; it may suggest that the state has become an idol.

The link between violence and the sacred is not unique to our times. Rather current examples of such links provide a clue to the original nature of religion, in particular, the religions I shall call archaic. These are not only the pagan or polytheistic religions that existed prior to Christianity but also those that survived into the Christian era as long as they were not influenced by challenges like that posed by Christianity.

How can we say anything about archaic religion, likely the first form of religion? We find traces of it in the mythologies of the world. We can also study archeological remains of very ancient religious sites. We can read written expressions of archaic religions in translations from old languages like ancient Greek whose vocabulary and grammar we can still master. In reading Homer, we can gain insights into Greek religion centuries prior to Plato. Greek drama, which is often based upon Greek myth, though composed later, also provides a distorted yet partly revealing window on archaic religion. Thousands of years of archaic religion came before writing was invented, but writing emerges centuries before archaic religion has to deal with state-sanctioned Christianity or Islam.

At the heart of archaic religion, yet shocking to modern sensitivities, is the presence of murder, including dismemberment, of a victim, that we find in the evidence. In the Babylonian creation myth, the goddess Tiamat is described as a monster fought and subdued by the hero/creator god Marduk. Marduk then constructs the universe by dismembering Tiamat and using her bodily parts to create the parts and structure of the material world. Monsters in myth represent chaos—in this case the chaos out of which Marduk creates physical world-order. But monsters and hybrid creatures, like the part-lion, part-human sphinx, also represent social disorder, violence or civil discord within a community. In the face of such chaos, creation or the return to order may be as recent as one's own generation. Other mythical references to social chaos include plagues and floods. Genesis 6:5 describes the human wickedness that preceded God's decision to send the flood that would wipe out almost all life on earth. But the violence that flows from our designs toward each other may suffice in itself to destroy a community. Speaking of a great flood or a plague may conceal human responsibility for social catastrophe.

But, if Rene Girard is right, early human beings found a way, at least temporarily, to suppress disorder and establish social rules, or rather rituals, which are the source of social rules. At the heart of rituals is the sacrificial ritual, and behind that ritual is the distorted memory of a unique type of event, the collective violent removal of a person from the community, originally by stoning, later by expulsion from the community. In archaic times expulsion was not very different from killing because people depended almost entirely on support from their local community.

Now I turn to the most striking discovery in this line of inquiry: the role of the human scapegoat. I say this to distinguish it from the later animal scapegoat described in Leviticus [16:5-10], part of ancient Israelite religion. The animal scapegoat was assigned the unspecified sins of the people and sent off "into the wilderness," which probably amounted to being driven off a cliff to its doom (Talmudic Tractate Yoma 6:4). This ritual was likely one of those performed at the Jerusalem Temple.

In the original general and pre-Israelite form of the scapegoat mechanism, the scapegoat is not a goat but a human being. We today understand scapegoats as people innocent of most of the charges made against them. This understanding benefits from criticisms of the witch craze of the 1400's and 1500's, when large numbers of Jews, religious heretics, and old women without husbands or property were tried and executed as witches or worshippers of the devil. It is noteworthy how little time separates this witch craze from the emergence of more disciplined methods to discover causes, which fed into the rise of modern science in the 1600's.

In the modern understanding, a scapegoat is someone innocent of the wrongs attributed to him or her. But much earlier, when scapegoating was central to archaic religion, there was no lawyer for the defense, no chance to consider that he or she might be innocent: people believed that he or she was guilty as charged; otherwise the hysterical unanimity of the community in favor of her lynching or his expulsion would have been impossible. In fact, even the scapegoated person often admitted without being tortured that he or she was guilty.

In archaic times, picking out a vulnerable person—someone on the margins of the community: a stranger, a new arrival, a person with a physical defect, an unattached woman—could suddenly transform a situation of increasing social disorder into social peace. Just before the victim is collectively killed, he or she is unanimously perceived as evil, the cause somehow of all the community's woes otherwise hard to explain. The culprit must have cast her evil eye upon someone who had inexplicably gotten very ill or died; he was seen going out at night, why, maybe to engage in ceremonies involving demons or the devil himself. Communal tensions have reached such a fever pitch that the killing or expulsion of somebody (almost anybody) will seem preferable to doing nothing about them.

But in early archaic communities the scapegoating victim is also credited after the fact with the sudden return of peace, a pure blessing compared to the chaos just prior to the killing or expulsion. James Alison puts it this way:

The group cannot perceive that …its own unanimous violence… has produced the peace, because that would be to recognize the innocence of the victim and the chance, random nature of its selection. So the magic peace is attributed to the victim, who was perceived as violent and the cause of all problems while with the group and who, once gone, bequeaths peace to the group. Conclusion: we were visited by a god, an ambiguous god, previously horrible, now benevolent. (Alison, Raising Abel, 21-22)
According to Rene Girard, communities created the earliest gods in just this collective way, although they could not have clearly understood how they had done so.

The duality of the scapegoat, as both demonic and divine, is reflected in the ancient meanings of the Latin word sacer, from which our word "sacred" derives: on the one hand, it means accursed, or wicked; on the other hand it connotes an association with divinity or holiness.

If Girard is right, the scapegoat event becomes the basis for rituals that eventually produce what we call civilization. Societies seek to avoid the return of the disorder that climaxed in the violence of the scapegoating event. But the peace that then descended upon the community gradually wears away, for reasons we will discuss. A need is soon recognized to prevent the return of chaos—to restore peace—by imitating, in a more controlled form, the process that led to the violent death or expulsion of the scapegoat. As a result we get rituals that mimic the social disorder that preceded the killing of the scapegoat, of which the deliberate chaos of festivals like Mardi Gras is a faint echo, but this is carefully orchestrated to end with a less violent echo of the original murder—perhaps the sacrifice of a captured enemy at first, then the substitution of animals for human beings, or the crowning of a new communal figurehead, which assumes the relative loss of significance of the former figurehead.

We find echoes of archaic rituals in the electoral system of the United States; the losers of elections are expelled from positions of prominence or denied access to them; the winners of one election may be "sacrificed" in the next election. Rituals simulate violence in order to con-secr-ate (another word from "sacer") peace.

To fill out the picture, we must press back to the causes of the conflict without which the scapegoat mechanism and the many rituals of civil life would have little value. Imagine yourself back in the original community prior to the earliest scapegoat events. You may say that this is impossible: They took place before video-cams or writing aimed at objective recording of events. Granted. But if human psychology is constant in certain respects, we might be able to discover the process that led to sharp conflict within the archaic community.

Our modern view assumes that human vice is somehow inside separate individuals. But this ignores that the evidence of wickedness is typically linked to conflict, which requires persons or groups in relationship with one another. Conflict of course depends on human biology but it is basically a matter of relationships.

Humans are born not knowing what they need to survive and contribute to their communities. They must learn from those who do. The way they learn, common to some other animal types, is through imitation. We learn from other humans how to interact with one another, how to meet our needs and fulfill our desires, and before long, how to produce results through interaction with the material and social world. This imitative or mimetic aspect of human existence is necessary: without it we could not become fully human.

But there is another dimension to mimetic learning. We cannot learn how to do things without also learning what our role models regard as desirable or valuable. If we learn how to color in the lines, we learn that coloring within the lines is desirable and, in the absence of a model to the contrary, we learn that coloring across the lines is not. Thus, values are taught along with how to make what is valued.

Conflict arises when two or more people value or desire something that cannot be easily shared. Actually, two or more higher mammals will struggle with each other, when they both want more or less exclusive control over some object, even for a short period. Our dog provides an example: he may not be interested in a familiar toy unless I pick it up, then he will sink his teeth into it and try to get it away from me; it fascinates him most when it is contested, when we are each trying to get it away from the other. It is as if he doesn't know it is desirable until another animal sufficiently like him wants it. He will lose interest if the other animal stops trying to get it away from him.

What we desire depends upon imitation. Such desire exists before any overt conflict develops. It is unconscious before it becomes conscious. It starts with a model or teacher. The model or teacher conveys the desirability of a person, object, or status, to the learner; but having learned to desire something or someone, the learner is likely to pursue the same object as the model even if only one can enjoy it at a time.

In a novel by Dostoyevsky, a young man learns to appreciate the qualities of a woman after hearing her praised by a somewhat older friend, who clearly is attracted to her himself; but when the young man pursues her, he becomes a rival with his model. Where there was friendship and mutual affection between the two males before, now there is distrust, envy, jealousy, resentment, fear, and maybe hatred. Political allies may support each other and learn from each other how to advance their common values including the value of winning but if they decide to enter primaries as competitors for a single slot on the ballot that both value, they become opponents. As long as one person agrees to support her friend in the friend's struggle for high office, no problem, but they become enemies the moment they commit to run for the same office. Without a context of norms to exclude violence and dirty tricks, the community is in trouble. In the heat of conflict over something both parties desire and yet cannot share, the object that for a while fascinates them both can even disappear from consciousness because now they only desire the destruction of each other.

Such hostility can be contagious. In a community where people know each other well, increased hostility between one pair can increase the tensions between another pair by modifying the social climate; the second pair may unconsciously imitate the first. Conflicts between two organized parties can be contained as long as cooperation reigns within each camp and rules are enforced to conduct the competition along lines designed to discourage escalation. But the tendency to imitate is real. What might have remained a single division can turn into what Thomas Hobbes feared most: a war of each against all, in which the life of human beings becomes nasty, brutish, and short.

This situation makes invocation of the scapegoat mechanism possible, sometimes likely. Great literature is full of scapegoat events, for instance, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, based on ancient Roman political history. Julius Caesar is collectively murdered by Roman senators, including his former friends. In Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus the King, the three main male characters accuse each other, in almost identical terms, of bringing a plague, understood as Apollo's curse, onto their city of Thebes. Relatively flimsy evidence then convinces everyone present of Oedipus' guilt, who then puts out his own eyes and lets himself be expelled from the city.

Is there an escape from the violent sacred, from scapegoating? The Jewish Bible contains both traces of archaic violence and hints about a way out. One example is the Joseph story at the end of Genesis: Joseph is victimized by his brothers, who were jealous of their father's greater love for Joseph; they discuss killing him but decide instead to seize him and sell him into slavery. Years later, after he is freed from slavery in Egypt and rises to great political influence, he not only saves them and their families from a famine but also forgives them for what they did to him earlier.

Another book in the Jewish Bible, which presents the story of Job, contains a another variation on the scapegoat mechanism: great misfortunes—terrible material losses, death of family members, and horrific diseases—befall Job. His so-called friends show up and try to prove that Job himself must have brought these calamities upon himself by his own moral failings; in other words, he deserved the worst, which is what he got. But Job pleads his own innocence and, in the end, God vindicates Job against his "friends."

The New Testament builds on such elements in the Jewish Bible. Yet a perspective similar to that of Job's so-called friends often guides interpretations of Christianity today. This makes it hard for religious liberals and progressives to appreciate the nonviolent, anti-victimizing aim of original Christianity. This is a topic to which we might come back on another occasion.

* This talk tries to cover the primary contributions of Rene Girard related to these topics, apart from his insights specifically concerning the New Testament. The short version of the title itself was borrowed from Girard 1977. The talk also draws from other works by Girard. See below.

Partial Bibliography

Selected Works by Rene Girard

Girard, Rene, 1977. Violence and the Sacred. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Girard, Rene, 1986. The Scapegoat. Johns Hopkins University Press. (available in ebook)

Girard, Rene, 1987. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford University Press. (Translation of the French original published in 1978.)

Girard, Rene, 1991. The Theatre of Envy: William Shakespeare. Oxford University Press.

Girard, Rene, 1996. The Girard Reader. James G. Williams, ed. Crossroad Publishing. Chapter 1, "Mimesis and Violence," is the most convenient single summary of Girard's mimetic model, the heart of what is sometimes described as his interindividual psychology (in contrast with the more common focus on "individual psychology").

Girard, Rene, 2001. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books. (available in ebook). Chapter 4 of this book discusses a relatively late case of scapegoating that occurred in Ephesus in the 2nd century AD (as related by Philostratus, a pagan author, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a pagan "wonder-worker").

Girard, Rene, 2004. Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire. Marc R. Anspach, ed. Stanford University Press.

Works by Thinkers influenced by Girard

Alison, James, 2013. Jesus the Forgiving Victim. Glenview, Illinois: Doers Publishing. (available in ebook)

Alison, James, 1992. Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Dumouchel, Paul, 2014. The Ambivalence of Scarcity and Other Essays. East Lansing: Michigan State University. (available in ebook) The chapter entitled "Ijime," on bullying in Japanese junior and senior high schools, shows how Girardian themes connect to current issues.