How Jesus Christ upended the scapegoat myth: a Girardian interpretation
Religion & Liberty Online

How Jesus Christ upended the scapegoat myth: a Girardian interpretation

All societies, writes the French philosopher Rene Girard, are rooted in violence. Such violence has a mimetic dimension, which means that men are fated to mimic the behavior of other men. They like what others like, they desire what others desire. Inevitably, the dynamics of reciprocal imitation lead to disputes and social chaos. However, the human being rejects chaos and cries for the restoration of order; but without being able to get rid of the mimetic desire, one single solution remains to overcome the conflict and to restore peace: The Scapegoat. This need to reestablish peace and avoid social disintegration through the sacrifice Girard called the scapegoat mechanism. The mechanism is the natural unfolding of the mimetic desire; one completing the other and forming a cycle of slaughter and violence that has enslaved humanity since the beginning of time.

There is no reason why someone is chosen to be a scapegoat beyond the immediate imperative to restore order. Once the mimetic process pushes a society to the height of the disturbance, the mechanism of bloody pacification begins to work. In the first step, a person is identified as guilty for causing chaos, and all are sure of his guilt. He, then, must be sacrificed to restore social peace, and the mimetic behavior returns in the form of mob action. Once the sacrifice is completed, the social animus returns to normal, and the one – once considered guilty by the crowd – is raised to the plateau of deity. Then the cycle begins once more.

The anthropological experience of mimetism and the scapegoat mechanism, according to Girard, is a constant in every society. There is no social group that, once organized, does not go through the experience of sacred violence. One exemption remains, however. The biblical narrative about the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ represents a rupture of the anthropological structure by which societies seek to maintain their inner stability. In offering himself for sacrifice, Christ effectively destroys the structure of social control that demands human sacrifice.

In I See Satan Fall as a Lightning, Girard achieves one of the greatest advances in the social sciences in our generation by differentiating archaic myths and biblical texts. He compares biblical texts and myths pointing out the similarities between the two and then highlights the main difference between myth and Christianity. In his book, Girard shows that the interpretation of biblical and Christian texts as myths was a mistake of antireligious ethnologists from the turn of the late 19th century who did not have a clear definition of myth.

While both the scriptures and the myths show the working of the cycle of violence, only the biblical account reveals the true nature of the pre-Christian anthropological experience. The mimetic victim, Jesus Christ, is known to be innocent of the crimes for which he is accused and all the characters involved in the report are aware of this. For the first time, a narrative presents one that should reverse social disintegration through the atonement of mutual hatred as innocent.

From Girard’s perspective, the myth is malignant because it reverses the roles of the mimetic victim and her tormentor. The Gospels, on the contrary, represent the truth insofar as they show the victim as a victim and the tormentor as a tormentor. By placing each one in their proper place, Christ’s sacrifice raises the veil and reveals the perverse structure of control played by the mimetic violence, which is to say that Jesus defeats the devil-accuser in the Book of Job and in the Gospel of Saint John.

In the last years of his life, Girard observed how modern culture became increasingly alienated from the anthropological experience of the sacrifice of Christ. To the extent that the Gospels cease to be the ethic-moral basis of Western Civilization, the return of the devil-accuser becomes inevitable. In the Mount of Olives (Gethsemane), Jesus takes upon himself all the evil in the world and accepts death to reveal “things hidden since the creation of the world.” Modern man no longer understands the role of sacrifice and seeks only pleasure in the Epicurus’ Garden of Delights.

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Silvio Simonetti

Silvio Simonetti is a Brazilian lawyer, graduated in international affairs from the Bush School at Texas A & M University. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Silvio loves history and the Catholic Church.