From where I stand, the world looks pretty bleak. And it is not the Covid pandemic – although it is frightening in its own right – that has me terrified. I have spent a lot of time in recent years doing reading around Girard and mimetic theory. It has opened new doors of insight for me into human nature, and – by extension – into theology. It has allowed me to feel that following Jesus can go beyond mystical wishful thinking, and lent for me an intellectual rigour to choosing to be Christian that I was not sure that choice had, when framed in modern Protestant and Evangelical terms. Nevertheless, despite my misgivings around Christianity, there has always been something about Jesus that made sense to me. I just didn’t know how to frame the distinction until I encountered Girard.
But all knowledge comes at a cost. And the cost of starting to see the significance of Girard’s work, the terrible price for unveiling how human society functions, is the realisation of just how helpless we are before the bloodthirsty beast that is human culture. And when I look at the world, wriggling in the grip of this pandemic, through the lens of mimetic theory, it is the monstrous leviathan of human culture that I see beginning to rouse from its slumber, coming to our rescue, and I am absolutely petrified.
All human culture has its origin in religion, and at the heart of all religion is sacrifice, collective violence against a scapegoat. We protect ourselves against the bloody rivalry that mimetic desire generates by venting our collective violence on an innocent victim. Initially we must demonise that victim to legitimise the violence, and then we sacralise the act by veiling it in myth. You see, scapegoating only works if we remain unaware that there is a scapegoat; we have – as a society – to truly believe that the victim of our violence is guilty if the violence is to have the desired pacific effect. And so whenever society finds itself on the brink of fragmentation – as now – it (unconsciously) finds a scapegoat to sacrifice. It weaves a myth to sacralise the violence, and peace is temporarily restored in the unity of the collective violence. But it is a fragile peace: we need only to need pick away at the myths to expose the sacrificial act for the murder it is, and the whole sacrifice loses its power. Those who dare expose the myth will be drawn into the murder, as co-victims, and the mythology will be expanded to include them, so that the exposure of the myth – rather than preventing the violence, actually escalates it .
The great lie of the modern age is that we have evolved past religion. Because we do not believe in the gods anymore, we believe we have left religion behind. But we lie to ourselves. The old gods are still there, only they are dressed differently. And they still demand blood. Girard argued that in the modern world the judicial system has taken over the role of religion. It issues the prohibitions and taboos that religion used to, which control how our mediated desires operate; it takes upon itself the responsibility of sacrificing the scapegoated victims (whose incarceration or death averts escalating reciprocal violence); it is a system that allows us to cast all of the guilt for the ills of society onto selected individuals, who are then cast out. And we have developed a complicated narrative around it called “justice” that prevents us ever from having to look at ourselves and – as interdividuals – take some responsibility for the crimes that our victims committed. We bring peace to our society by destroying the lives of criminals, and that is a fundamentally religious act.
The old gods wear other disguises too: ideologies – like democracy, Marxism, humanism, decolonization, pro-life – any number of social movements that bring peace through sacrifice. We may not recognise them as deities anymore, but they still hold us in thrall and give shape and meaning to our lives. To quote Michael Hardin, from his latest book, Knowing God: “No matter how civilized we become, no matter how scientifically brilliant we become, no matter how technologically advanced we become, all human cultures and groups still participate in this antique ritual [scapegoating sacrifice] because we believe it has power”.
What scares me about the modern world is that we have started to see through the myths. That should be a good thing, right? And it is. We understand, in this age more than any other in history, that scapegoating is unjust. Increasingly, the victims of our sacrifices are being given their voices: the blood of Abel cries out for vindication. We probably do not recognize it as the gospel, but when we are confronted by #Blacklivesmatter, by Pride marches, by demands to decolonise education, we have no choice but to confront the fact that the ways we have configured culture and maintained social order through demonising certain groups of people and sacrificing them in various ways is not right. It is dawning on humanity that the mechanisms we use to order our societies are inherently unjust and that this must change. That is enormously positive. So why, then, am I scared?
At this point, to help me explain, I will turn to the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. You probably know it. Two brothers, Cain and Abel, offer sacrifices to God. Cain’s offering is from the “fruits of the soil” and Abel’s is the “fat portion from some of the firstborn of his flock”. Abel’s sacrifice is acceptable to God but Cain’s is not. This infuriates Cain, who lures Abel into a field and murders him.
Now before I continue, I want to make it clear that, for me, the power of the revelation contained in the Biblical texts is primarily anthropological, and only thereafter theological. In other words, The Biblical texts show us who we are, and only from that vantage point can we begin to wrestle with the revelation of who God is: Jesus. Put in the terms of Genesis 3, we are “made in God’s image”, so that only once we see ourselves clearly can we begin to see God; if we have a distorted anthropology, it follows inevitably that we will have a distorted theology.
Because the revelation the Bible offers is primarily anthropological, there is no real point in debating why God found Abel’s gory offering more pleasing than Cain’s more sanitised one. This is not, after all, a story about God; it is a tale about humanity. Sacrifice is an anthropological institution, not a theological one. We are the ones who need sacrifice, not God. And the story of Cain and Abel demonstrates it well.
We saw in Genesis 3 how we attempt to restore peace through scapegoating: Adam blames Eve to try and restore the relationship with God; Eve blames the serpent for the same reason, and to also restore the relationship with Adam. We restore social harmony through sacrifice. The story of Cain and Abel tells us what happens when that sacrifice fails.
The point is not that God demands blood; the point is that Cain’s bloodless sacrifice fails. And because it fails, in ‘God’s’ words: “sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.” (Genesis 4: 7). Sacrifice, in other words, keeps sin – and “sin” has a very narrow definition here i.e. violence – at bay. Without it, our mimetic rivalry – our desire to outdo the other – escalates into violence and murder. And the consequences of that are a separation from God (Cain is driven out) and a separation from one another (“Am I my brother’s keeper?”). Uncontrolled mimetic rivalry, in other words, threatens to destabilise our very interdividuality. Sacrifice, whether in the ancient form of human or animal bloodletting, or in the more palatable modern forms, like “justice”, like gossip, like fanatical devotion to a sports team – any activity where we create unity through defining a problematic other and expelling them – is integral to the maintenance of the social order that an interdividual species requires.
And that is precisely what, in these supposedly enlightened times, we have not seen. We have recognised the inherent injustice of sacrificial systems without recognising what it is that these sacrificial systems have evolved to protect us from. We do not see that they are a lesser violence designed to contain a greater one. Without them, like Cain, we will become murderers. As Girard noted, when the myths surrounding our scapegoating begin to unravel, when we begin to see the fundamental injustice of what is happening and the group is no longer unanimous in the bloodletting, then – unwilling to let go of the only way we know how to restore peace – the sacrifices must become even more bloody, must incorporate more victims; as the system becomes increasingly desperate to sustain the illusion of validity, the warning to the group not to question it must become even more brutal. The story of Cain and Abel reveals an important anthropological truth: until we find a bloodless way to vent mimetic tension, bloodless sacrifice will be doomed to fail.
And we have not found that way yet. Or perhaps we have, but we have dismissed it: we must accept our complicity in the broken relationship by refusing blame, and instead offering forgiveness. Something I like about the Genesis stories is that God does into buy into the scapegoating and pick a side. In Genesis 3, all must bear the responsibility for the broken relationship. God does not say: You are right, Adam, Eve made you do it. God does not let Eve get away with laying the blame at the ..feet?…of the serpent. In Genesis 4, when Abel’s blood ‘cries out to God from the ground’ for vindication, God does not participate in reciprocal violence, but actively protects Cain. In the words of the writer to the Hebrews, Jesus’s blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel: Jesus is a different kind of victim, the forgiving victim; unlike Abel, he does not demand vindication.
If there is a theological lesson for me amidst this anthropological revelation, it is this: wherever there are accusations and cries for “justice”, God is not there. As the liberal left and the conservative right, modern-day Cains and Abels, squabble over who is doing the work of God (or whatever higher power they serve), they are both blind to the fact that God is nailed to a cross, dead, and they killed him. And if they would see that, if they would pause and look up and recognise their complicity in creating and sustaining the unjust sacrificial systems of the world, by which we managed to murder God, and if they would hear how the Jesus responded to that: “Father, forgive them…”, if I believed that people could do that, I would see hope. But we long ago sacrificed the ideas of reconciliation and forgiveness to the god of Justice.
So when I look around, I see a world desperately trying to legitimise sacrifice again, a humanity desperately trying to escape from the realisation that we are all complicit in scapegoating, a world trying to hide its victims once more. #Black-lives-matter is met with #All-lives-matter: a desperate effort to silence victims of the system in case we see the scapegoating as unjust. The #Metoo movement is met with a male discussion on toxic masculinity (which is not an invaluable discussion in and of itself, but can too easily be used to shift the focus away from the victim, hiding the scapegoating mechanism again). Discussions around decolonising education are met with arguments that education needs to “prepare young people for the realities of a competitive global world”, which invariably means prioritising the learning of English and the adoption of Western epistemologies. We are seldom conscious of it, but we are hardwired to participate in the defence of sacrificial systems.
And the liberal left is, in this respect anyway, no different from the conservative right. They, too, create unity by providing (new) scapegoats. Anyone who is intolerant in some form – racist, sexist, homophobic – is to be vilified and expelled. In the words of Walter Wink, what we are seeing playing out in these modern cultural revolutions is an attempt to change the rulers without recognising the need to change the rules. Liberalism does nothing more towards the reconciliation of interdividuals than the conservative right, even though it generally operates from a more insightful logic and compassionate ethic. Still, fundamentalism happens on both sides.
As these attempts to reinstate the ubiquity of a sacrificial system wage on, when all the while the mythologies by which we justify our religious (read scapegoating) ways are rapidly losing credibility, the result for society can only be terribly violent. And that is if we manage to restore the religious status quo. If we don’t, and if we fail to see that the only way to manage mimetic tension is through forgiveness (and I don’t see much hope for that), then I can only ponder, in the words of W.B. Yeats, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last;/ slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”