Violence Renounced is a collection of fourteen essays, most of which were presented at a conference on René Girard and
Biblical Peace Theology held at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in June of 1994. It is the fourth volume in the
Studies in Peace and Scripture Series sponsored by the Institute of Mennonite Studies, Elkhart, Indiana. According to
Willard M. Swartley, the book’s editor, the purpose of the essays is to ask,
Does Girard help us to understand better the
role of violence in biblical literature; God’s wrath; Jesus’ death, sacrifice, and atonement? By engaging Girard’s thought in
critical dialogue with biblical texts, each of these Christian beliefs is explicated in fresh and provocative perspectives.
Swartley’s introduction indicates that the first seven essays
lay a foundation for the reader to understand Girard’s theories
and how they interact with biblical study and basic theological doctrines, especially the atonement. The next six essays
show exegetical payoff, go beneath and beyond Girard, and elucidate, probe, and challenge various aspects of Girard’s
assumptions and theses. The fourteenth essay is a response to the collection contributed by René Girard. As a response, it
has to come last, but it should be read first, for it is by far the most jargon-free presentation of Girardian concepts given in
the collection. The assumed authority with which Swartley pronounces which essays or essayists surpass others in nearness
to truth may cause one to wonder what kind of hermeneutics will inform the essays, but every essay is intriguing and eye-opening, at least for this reader. If my own experience is representative, the reading of these essays will give new
understanding to such books as Deuteronomy, Joshua, Hebrews, and many of the most familiar passages in Isaiah and the
Each essay looks at biblical texts in the context of René Girard’s penetrating analysis of how human acquisitive desire leads to violence and the scapegoating of others in human culture. Girard’s analysis of biblical texts is particularly attractive to those who work for justice and peace and see peacemaking as central to Jesus’s teaching. I am not in a position to evaluate to what extent this collection is a contribution to knowledge or to cite its strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps the best service I can give to a potential reader of this work is to share some of the understanding I gleaned from the work, an understanding that draws freely from essays throughout the collection.
According to Girard, conflict and violence have their root in what he calls mimetic desire. That is, we imitate each other in our desires, we want what our neighbors and friends want. As soon as we pattern our desires on our neighbor’s desires, we become entangled in rivalries. We want to have the best, to be the best friend, the most popular, the top of the class; we want the choice position in the company or in the church, or maybe just in the car on the way to church. Acquisitive desire caused Esau to trick his father into giving him the blessing that was rightfully his brother Jacob’s. King David caused the death of Uriah the Hittite because he desired his wife Bathsheba. A few years ago we heard of the mother who tired to kill a young girl who was competing with her daughter for a position on the cheerleading squad so that she and her daughter might fulfill their desires. According to Girard, our desires are often thwarted by the very persons who are the models we imitate, for we want to replace them. Hence they become objectified as obstacles. This explains the addictive nature of the imitation of selfish desire and its potential for leading to conflict, violence, and destruction. Conflicts among individuals spread to whole communities and nations.
Comically or tragically we turn each other into obstacles, into objects that block our fulfillment of the very passions we
keep inspiring in each other by imitation.
Something there is about the misfortunes of even our best friends that is not
altogether displeasing (LaRocheFoucalt). Acquisitive desire, the desire to have what selected others have or to be like
them leads to a phenomenon that is as old as human civilization: scapegoating.
Girard believes that violence is a universal human characteristic and that in earlier times it was regulated by ritual sacrifices. A carefully regulated practice of ritual sacrifice is central to religions in primitive cultures. One needs only think of the sacrificial rules in the Old Testament. These ritual sacrifices played the role that governments and legal institutions play in modern society-that of preventing violence from destroying a society and restoring order in times of crisis. Girard posits that the way to resolve a mounting crisis is to arbitrarily select a victim onto whom the violence of the entire community can be projected. Of course, no one in the community sees the selection as arbitrary. This victim is the scapegoat. After the victim-seen as a threat by the entire community-has been killed, peace comes to the group. Then a surprising thing happens: the group begins to see the victim as the one who brought salvation from the crisis and saved the society from possible destruction. This has been in some cultures the way in which idolatry arises, a society first arbitrarily selects a victim to sacrifice and then they come to worship the victim of their violence. Thus they begin to see the projection of violence and its catharsis as holy or sacred and legitimate, and the institutionalization of such violent sacrifice becomes a basis for human culture.
By selecting a scapegoat, perhaps a person who is offensive to us in some physical, or social, or mental way, we transfer
our hostility onto
it and with the sacrifice or ostracism of the victim peace is restored. In any institution or government
where there is a monarch, or chief administrator, or pastor, or leader, it is that person’s role to manage the conflicts in the
group he or she leads, to keep acquisitive desire managed by rules or procedures. If the leader can manage the conflicts that
arise in the group, he or she is loved and revered. If the leader fails to solve the problems, then he or she, perhaps a pastor
or academic dean, becomes the scapegoat and is sacrificed, and that restores order to the community, at least for a time.
Scapegoating is not only delusional, but contagious. All of us, at one time or another, have been scapegoaters, victimizers. Perhaps it is only when we talk to a third person or many persons about someone we are angry with or disappointed in instead of going to the person with whom we have a problem. Most scapegoaters never see through their own scapegoating. They interpret it as legitimate critique or punishment for a bona fide culprit. That is why the worst scapegoaters are oblivious to their own scapegoating.
Girard believes that what is unique about the life of Jesus and the Gospels is that Jesus revealed the scapegoating mechanism for what it is-that it is an arbitrary selection of a victim to solve conflicts that grow out of our own acquisitive desires, our desires for what others want because they want it. By being innocent, Jesus showed that the victim or scapegoat is innocent, and at the very least no different from others in guilt. The Bible and the gospels portray scapegoating in such a way that we cannot fail to see this. The writers of the gospels dramatize the scapegoating contagion that overwhelms the entire crowd at Jesus crucifixion, including even Peter who after years of close association with Jesus denies that he even knows him. They make us see the reality of this practice and its injustice.
In its essence, scapegoating is turning other persons into objects, or types or even the negation of types-jocks, homosexuals, non-Mennonites, instead of relating to them as particular subjects. My treating another as an object becomes a part of my relationship with them. I have, in such a case and by such analysis, removed myself from them and alienated them.
A Christianity that merely teaches that our natural desires are selfish and that we must adopt a selfless attitude in relation to others does not have much attraction to those who are in positions of relative power in any culture, and may not put an end to our scapegoating, may not transform the status or self conceptions of those who are real victims-in fact may lead to scapegoating ourselves. Christ modeled loving mimesis in contrast to selfish mimetic desire. Loving imitation is to desire the other’s subjectivity; loving mimesis is the desire to relate to the other person simply in his or her own character as a person, not on the basis of church membership, color of skin, personal attractiveness, income, grade point average, academic degrees, or past experiences; it is to embrace and love others and the world simply because of the wonder and mystery of their existence.
If I imitate this kind of action I end up desiring not only myself, but others and potentially everything around me as a subject, as having its own irreducible being, yet in dynamic interrelation to me. This experience is to be united with others in feeling. Entering into and maintaining this dynamic relation is adopting the same unconditional love that Christ exemplified.
Any conception of the imitation of Christ or Christian love as mere self sacrifice or service to others misses out on the joy
of being united with others in feeling, in intersubjective relationships. Peace as the will to love is an active, powerful
concept that is able to confront injustice and to create new realities for those who are real victims in our culture. This is the
lesson that Paul tries to teach in II Corinthians:
For anyone united to Christ, there is a new creation: the old order has
gone: a new order has already begun. All this has been the work of God. He has reconciled us to himself through Christ,
and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, no longer holding
people’s misdeeds against them, and has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation (vs. 17- 19).
Contributors to this volume represent Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist-Mennonite theological traditions, and they write for a broad scholarly audience with interests in biblical scholarship and theological reflection. However, as I have tried to demonstrate, the essays are accessible at some level for anyone interested in biblical studies.
John K. Sheriff