Monday, April 18, 2011

RENÉ GIRARD AND THE SCAPEGOAT

DOROTHEUS OF GAZA
505-565
The root of all disturbance, if one will go to its source, is that no one will blame himself.
--Dorotheus of Gaza, 6th c. monk

In a recent post, I observed how, when we read the Passion story in church on Palm Sunday and Good Friday, we say CRUCIFY him!, when if my black heart work is any indication, we should be putting the emphasis on the second word, as in Crucify HIM, Crucify HER, Crucify anyone but me. Let someone else suffer, let someone else bear the tension, the brunt, the burden, the scourge, the spitting, the nails. 

Then I had another thought: that this phenomenon began in the Garden of Eden. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and we've all been blaming each other since. Then Christ came along: the one person who had no sin, who bore no blame, and yet consented to take the blame and let it stop with him. Who did not return violence with violence. Who disrupted for all time the paradigm of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. 

As often happens, I have some scrap of an intuition or thought and then I stumble upon someone who had the same thought and has spent his or her entire life developing it. Of course in one way all of Christianity is about this "thought." But French anthropological philosopher René Girard has made a particular study of the phenonemenon of scapegoating.

His theories (courtesy of wikipedia), are basically:

1. mimetic desire: imitation is an aspect of behaviour that not only affects learning but also desire, and imitated desire is a cause of conflict,
2. the scapegoat mechanism is the origin of sacrifice and the foundation of human culture, and religion was necessary in human evolution to control the violence that can come from mimetic rivalry,
3. the Bible reveals the two previous ideas and denounces the scapegoat mechanism.

Here are a few excerpts from The Scapegoat:

"[H]uman culture is predisposed to the permanent concealment of its origins in collective violence."

"Persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without a cause...The Old Testament provides an inexhaustible source of legitimate references to this extraordinary work of the Gospels, which is an account of persecution that has been abrogated, broken, and revoked."

"Without using our terminology, yet omitting none of the knowledge necessary to protect us from its insidious effects, the Gospels reveal the scapegoat mechanism everywhere, even within us. If I am right in this, then we should be able to trace in the Gospels everything that we have identified about the mechanism in the preceding pages, especially in its unconscious nature. The persecutors would not allow themselves to be restricted to their accounts of persecution were it not for this unconsciousness which is identical with their sincere belief in the culpability of their victim...
     The sentence that defines the unconscious persecutor lies at the very heart of the Passion story in the Gospel of Luke: "Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). Christians insist here on the goodness of Jesus...[but i]f we are to restore to this sentence its true savor we must recognize its almost technical role in the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. It says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing. That is why they must be pardoned...
     The considerable interest of this sentence lies in the fact that it once more draws our attention to the two categories of forces, the crowd and the leaders, both of whom are equally unconscious. It is an implicit rejection of the falsely Christian idea that made the Passion a unique event because of its evil dimension  since its uniqueness lies in its dimension of revelation. If we accept the first idea we are making a fetish of violence and reverting to a variation of mythological paganism.

"Jesus intervenes when the time has come or, in other words, when violence can no longer cast out violence and internal division has reaches its crisis....Thus we come to understand what is involved in the Kingdom of God and why it does not represent for men an unmitigated blessing. It has nothing to do with a flock of sheep grazing in an eternally green pasture. It brings men face to face with their hardest task in history.” 

“There is only one transcendence in the Gospels, the transcendence of divine love that triumphs over all manifestations of violence and the sacred by revealing their nothingness," Girard observes.

“To adore Satan is to aspire to world domination. It involves reciprocal relationships of idolatry and hate which an only end in false gods of violence and the sacred as long as men maintain the illusion. When that illusion is no longer possible, total disaster will follow:

Now, taking him to a very high mountain, the devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. “I will give you all these,” he said, “if you fall at my feet and worship me.” Then Jesus replied, “Be off, Satan! For scripture says:
     You must worship the Lord your God;
     and serve him alone. (Matt. 4: 8-10)”

There were times when I lost him, but anyone who gets across that Christ was not some bland, meek figure we can appropriate to our own ends, nor was he on a par with any other mythological or spiritual figure, gets my vote. Anyone who insists that the root of our problems goes way beyond the political or the economic or the social gets my vote. Anyone who talks about the fact that our culture comprises one huge psychic, emotional and spiritual idol gets my vote. Anyone who gets across that Christ blew everything apart gets my vote.


This is the real stuff, the heart of the cross. To recognize that we are complicit in the suffering of the world and therefore to beg forgiveness for OURSELVES when we are the victim of hatred, AND to beg forgiveness for the perpetrator is so radical, so goes against our ego-based notion of justice, that we want to somehow water the message down. Make it blander,  more palatable, more in keeping with the earthly realm. Blander and at the same time more seemingly effective, productive, worthy of notice, results-geared. What kind of loser would pray for his enemy? What possible good could that do? The world doesn't give points for prayer, for the long, hard spiritual warfare we wage silently, hidden from the eyes of the world, in our hearts. The work from which all real peace springs...can only spring.. The work that leads us to see that the problem is not "out there." The problem, as Dorotheus of Gaza knew centuries ago, is in us...

1 comment:

  1. There's a book about the Trappists of Tibhirine called How Far to Follow?, written by the (current? former?) Superior General of the Trappist order, Dom Bernardo Olivera, OCSO. It contains Dom Christian's Testament, and other information about the final days of the monks. A harrowing but necessary read.

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