Some Thoughts on Justice

I hope my regular readers will pardon my relative silence lately. I have been trying to get all my ducks in a row, workwise. To be honest, I am not even sure I own ducks anymore. Certainly we don’t seem to occupy the same farmyard. So I haven’t had time to do a lot of writing (not non-academic writing, anyway), but I have had a lot of time to read.


One of the writers whose work I have been dealing closely with is French sociologist, Rene Girard. I have been chewing over something he wrote in Violence and the Sacred, which I think could radically impact on how we come to understand social justice – an issue that is at the forefront of South African public discourse (as well it should be). In this post I am not so much concerned with sociological ramifications of his ideas about the judicial system, though, but on the theological ones.


It is impossible, really, to condense Girard’s ideas into one blog post, certainly not without hugely diminishing the depth and scope of his vision, and the rigour with which he has compiled his research data, but he is simply too influential a thinker for me to leave him unknown to my readers, who would remain – consequently – significantly the poorer. So I will attempt to condense what is a thoughtfully and lengthily substantiated assertion into a few sentences (my apologies, Professor Girard).


In a nutshell, then, Girard argues that desire is mimetic – we desire the things we do not so much because those things are inherently desirable, but because they are perceived to be desirable by others. This leads to what he calls mimetic rivalry, which – if left to run its course – culminates in escalating reciprocal violence. For example, my son has a lot of toys. There are many that he never even looks at. He is getting better about it now, but in the past if a visiting child picked up one of those toys and started playing with it, he would get hysterical and demand it back because he wanted to play with it. Adults do much the same thing but the ‘toys’ serve more adult desires – sex, power, status (why are some jobs, for example, accorded higher esteem than others?).


Religion, Girard argues, evolved to control the violent effects stemming from mimetic rivalry: retributive violence, like blood-feuds between different groups of people, are not restricted in their impact to the rival parties, but threaten the harmony of the whole group. Religion, he argues, regulates this by placing prohibitions on anything that might awaken such mimetic rivalry (hence the sexual taboos in so many cultures), and by channelling the violence mimetic rivalry engenders (which demands to be dissipated) through ritual sacrifice, where a scapegoat victim is found who is both inside the group and outside it, in other words whose violent death both serves as a viable proxy (because the victim is ‘one of us’) and which will not bring the risk of retaliatory violence (because the victim is on the fringes of society – an outsider of sorts). The act of scapegoating is then hidden through the sacralising of the victim and the reality of what is happening is shrouded in the myths that develop around these acts.


Girard argues that the judicial system in the modern world serves much the same role as religion did in our collective past. The courts are not so much about justice as they are about controlled revenge. There is payback for the victim, but it does not come from a party that is associated with the victim and therefore there is no threat to social order of retaliatory violence. It is why the system only pays lip service to attempts to rehabilitate criminals: it did not evolve for that purpose, even though our pitiful attempts at rehabilitation are testament to the fact that at least tacitly society recognises that restorative justice, not vengeance, is true justice.


This, I think, is why those who hold to a penal substitution understanding of the atonement of Christ find it so easy to conflate the brutality of the cross with justice: for them, vengeance and justice are synonymous. Sadly, this plays into how we have come to understand not only our relationship with God, but our relationships with other people too. This misconception plays out in violent and tragic ways. We assume that God’s response to our disobedience must be retribution, because that is how humans operate. We cripple ourselves through fear of divine retribution, but that is not the worst of it. If bloody vengeance is God’s response to disobedience, we are in effect given license to respond in kind to what we perceive as violations of God’s laws. It means our violence is legitimised because we can tie it to God’s honour and to the restoration of it. A sort of blood feud with the infidels. It is why bad theology is so devastating: it drives misogyny, homophobia, racism, classism – all the social ills of humanity are perpetuated by, if not directly related to a twisted sense of justice.


But if we are prepared to pull aside the veil that hides the reality of the mechanisms driving our social institutions – whether those are religious, political, judicial or even familial – I think we will be astounded and horrified at what we see. And that, I think, is the metaphorical temple veil that was torn asunder at the crucifixion. With God hanging tortured and murdered on a tree, at the hands of the very ones Hen came to save, in a blatant expose of the injustice and failure of our social institutions, Jesus demonstrated – in his final words – that there is a better way: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”. Justice, then, is not an expression of power, but the surrender of it in the name of restoration and healing. Justice is not a function of empire, a form of controlled revenge, but is the final result of radically self-giving love.


My fellow Africans, on Africa Day I ask you this: what are you doing to bring justice to our Mother, to our family, to our home?

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