A Millennial critique of Rene Girard’s thesis on scapegoating

N.B.: The following is an essay I wrote several years ago while working on early Christian millennialism. It’s a critique of René Girard’s work on the subject, in particular, the ideas he delineated in a book with the modest title of Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. I’m posting it here partly because Yaakov of Breath of the Beast is working through some of Girard’s ideas and we have come to similar critiques of this seminal thinker’s provocative work. I also welcome any suggestions or criticisms from readers, even though this is not in the main stream of this blog’s focus. The essay is neither polished, nor fully footnoted; consider it a draft.

According to Girard, the New Testament (NT) stands apart from all previous thinking on sacrifice, with the partial exception of Judaism, because, rather than declare the sacrificial victim guilty, the victim is the very image of purity and innocence. Thus a mythical implosion occurs. This unjust sacrifice of the innocent extinguishes the self-regenerating mentality of sacrificing the guilty, thus putting an end to scapegoating. The notion has problems with handling Jewish materials, something especially evident in the work of Hamerton-Kelly, whose anti-Judaic tendencies flourish under his apologetic pen.

What strikes the millennial scholar here, however, is the depiction of Jesus as innocent. Granted Girard is working with the “myth” of Jesus, – indeed, Girard regularly and, I think, revealingly, refers to not to Jesus but to Christ.1 But the myth is self-consciously embedded in a historical discourse about millennial hopes and apocalyptic expectations which – surely much to amazement of all sides at the time were they to know it but not retrospectively to Girard – continues to flourish to this very day.

From the millennial, that is from the historical rather than mythical point of view, Jesus is not “innocent.” On the contrary, he was wrong about the imminence of the apocalypse and, whatever his intentions, dangerous to those who brought their demotic millennial hopes to the surface in a prime divider society profoundly hostile to such sentiments, in the case of Jesus, during the pax romana, whose peace the Romans nailed down, literally, with crucifixion. The kingdom was not at hand, and he got crucified for simple and predictable reasons by Romans who had no doubt of his guilt. There may well have been Jewish aristocrats who shared this perspective, and even invoked the “safety of the people” (given Roman rule), for their conservative, prime-divider politics. The disciples, those who developed the myth as well as those who wrote it down, needed above all to save their faith in their own salvation. And they chose to do so by denying Jesus’ error and in so doing, denying their own continuing and continuously fruitful error of anticipating the end at any moment.

The sacrificial victim in this process of denial was Judaism, especially Pharisaic (later rabbinic) Judaism. This sacrificial Judaism was judged guilty by Christians for the mere fact that they did not accept the divine, blameless and faultless messiah of the Christians. Thus, far from putting an end to scapegoating, NT narratives actually imbedded a new kind of scapegoating into its very history and salvific myth. For Christians, Christ, Jesus sacralized, was innocent, the Jews guilty of the double crime of killing the man and denying the God.

Thus it cannot be “merely” the Saducees who are guilty of killing Jesus, it must be the Pharisees who are responsible for killing Christ. For the sake of saving themselves from the rocky shores of cognitive dissonance, Christians consigned their religious parent to perpetual guilt, and, as we shall see, when Christians gained power, to oppression, prison and death. Girard, despite his usual acuity in such matters, does not perceive any of this disguised sacrificial activity in the text, partly because it is crucial to his own reading of the Crucifixion, partly because his entire effort aims at showing that this text presents the end of sacrificial constructions. Thus he repeatedly refers to and analyzes the “Gospel” and the “text” as if it only needed direct interpretation, not deconstruction for its silent and disguised sacrificial activity.

Girard accepts the myth because, in his mind, it puts an end to myth. This mimetic desire for a “myth to end all myths” shows up in his claims to have the key exegesis that has escaped everyone before him – or as Blake said of Swedenburg, to think that he “was the only one who broke a net.” Reading him recalls McLuhan’s comment about the works of Freud and Jung as a “laborious translation of the non-literate awareness into literary terms” (p. 72). One would have to imagine a uniformly duped commoner population to imagine that, below the prime divider, there were not many people with an intuitive sense of what Girard argues about sacrifice. And among them, the commoners whose elites remained the most committed to articulating those insights were the Jews.

Such reflections bring us to the intellectual tragedy of Girard, one I think shared by many leftist intellectuals. He purchases his radical reading, his egalitarian liberation from the constraints of his elite culture at the price of cutting those insights off from their Jewish origins and social matrix. Thus he needs to have the Pharisees stand not for mankind’s allies, but for mankind’s sinfulness. Their significance lies precisely in the fact that the Pharisees represent the “best” that there is and yet still fall short of what Christ now permits/demands (pp. 158-63). In responding to the “disconcertingly harsh” and vengeful quality of the “curses on the Pharisees” that the Gospels report, he remarks:

There is no contradiction between the choice of the Jews, as it is reaffirmed in the Gospels, and the texts like those of the “curses”. If anywhere in the world a religious or cultural form managed to evade the accusations made against the Pharisees – not excluding those that confess Jesus himself [Christians are also guilty] – then the Gospels would not be the truth about human culture (p. 175).

Girard acknowledges that Judaism has challenged more aggressively than any other extant religion the mechanisms of scapegoating – violence, blaming the sacralized victim, dissembling. But he then makes the shortcoming of the Old Testament (OT) symptomatic of the whole world’s failure, and the Christian “myth” of the innocent sacrifice as the world’s ultimate solution.

His own, supposedly secular, analytic, and undogmatic (indeed he sees himself as a free-thinker) but nonetheless totalizing discourse replicates the theology he supposedly deconstructs. In so doing he creates the necessity of seeing Jesus as divine – the only man who ever, completely broke the chain of mimetic violence – and dispenses with any need to pay attention to a reading that remains within the social framework of those who produced the texts upon which the NT’s discourse is based – Jewish communities. On the contrary, they must be guilty for Christ to be meaningful. Christianity, the religion, he readily admits, fell victim to the logic it was supposed to transcend, but this Girard reads as the result of a failure of exegesis of the texts, not of their composition, a cognitive error of readers, not a social betrayal of composers. He thus replicates the very scapegoating he believes that his “reading” of the Gospels at long last permits us to transcend.

Thus, in a typically brilliant but convoluted manner, Girard chides enlightened, post-Holocaust Christians for their embarrassment before the textual passages that lay the blame on the Jews – indeed the Pharisees – for killing Jesus. We must look them straight in the face, he argues, and realize that we are also as responsible as they for the crucifixion. But rather than apply his own razor sharp acumen, with which he has faulted and deconstructed all other religious traditions, including the remarkable if “incomplete” efforts of OT Judaism, on these NT texts, he treats the NT with unrestrained reverence, much like a Church father.

Thus he does not discuss – nor do his Platonic-style interlocutors bring up – the irony that as they proclaim a Gospel of love these texts scapegoat the Jews – indeed the Pharisees – for killing Jesus, how they betray the presence of the very mimetic rivalry and jealous violence that, Girard has assured us, mark all religions and all cultures and explain their compulsive need to identify and dispatch sacrificial victims. One could do an extensive analysis of how the very texts and rituals that early Christian communities came to embrace as the core of their textual communities, represent the killing of the parent (Judaism), the sacrilizing of the child (a divine Jesus), and the sacrifice of that child as dissembling seal (crucifixion of innocent God-Man commemorated and re-enacted in the salvific Eucharist).

In divinizing Jesus, reshaping this extraordinarily consistent transformative demotic millennial leader who was wrong about the time into a human incarnation of YHVH, early Christians sealed their break with Judaism. Jews would and did view such an account of the past as blasphemy and idolatry. Thus in the same breath with which they spoke about a divine Jesus, Christians cut themselves off from the only communities systematically prepared for a world that renounces unjust sacrifices and the prime divider societies they consecrate. They won their struggle with cognitive dissonance at the price of a social rupture that cut them loose from their demotic millennial roots.

For Girard, apparently, these texts are “true” (presumably as the Gospel truth, but in Girard’s terms, an exegetical truth). He does not think that the mimetic violence and scapegoating that, he readily admits, mark the behavior and writings of later Christians, comes from the imbedded example of the text and the symbolic sacrificial rituals with which the community established and maintained itself. It is due, rather to the “fallacious” readings that these communities give to the text. The Christian misinterpretation makes the text “one last victim.” If we only understand that it applies to Jews, Christians and everyone else, we can transcend the violence that lies at the heart of all culture.

The reading is at once a-historical, and a striking lapse in exegetical sophistication for a deconstructive analyst. It identifies Jesus, the Christ, with his presentation in the Gospels (“enter the Christ of the Gospels”), and has no regard for the impact on a community that does not (cannot?) understand these issues because of how much denial of their acute cognitive dissonance might have effected the very composition of the texts. With no deconstruction of the Gospels, Girard replicates the journey of the theologians – Jewish guilt, innocent and divine Jesus, radical, liberating break with an oppressive past. In a sense, his determination to reduce all desire to mimetic desire, just one of the axiomatic “moves” that makes his soteriology work, resembles nothing so much as Augustine’s determination to project his own psychological dilemmas onto humanity as an “original” – hence universal – sin.2

But this Gospel account of hypocritical and violent Pharisees, whose “truth” is so important to Girard’s account of how we transcend scapegoating, is in fact one of the most powerful examples of scapegoating and projection in the history of religion. It dismisses precisely those who have come closest to the “building blocks” of civil society, and accuses them of killing their prophets, when they alone among nations, all of whom had prophets, did not repudiate them and eliminate them, but rather encouraged them, recorded them, preserved and canonized their radical voice. The Pharisees are the intellectual and spiritual children precisely of these prophets who form a central element of their religiosity, not of those who killed the prophets.

To claim this prophetic inheritance as Christian (“Jesus is the last, the greatest prophet”), and the Pharisees as the inveterate persecutors, was to make a narcissistic claim to purity while projecting onto the Pharisees the very violence for which Christians were preparing themselves as they identified with the aggressor and blamed the victim of the Roman prime divider. Instead of seeing the Pharisees and their rabbinic descendants as representatives of a school dedicated to precisely the transcendence of scapegoating violence that he himself seeks, Girard and his disciples like Robert Hammerton-Kelley view them as the enemy par excellence, dissociate themselves from (later, more grotesque examples of) Christian scapegoating – a sacrificial (mis)reading of the texts – and offer anti-myths that mythify history and recycle the blame-game. But this time, they target the mostly innocent Pharisees as slayers of a sacrifice whose sacralization makes Him purely innocent rather than guilty of the understandable but nonetheless deeply embarrassing and dangerous error of announcing the imminence of the kingdom when it was not imminent.

The story as it played out in the first century was a devastating moral tale that has only in the last century, especially since the holocaust, begun to get attention. As Frances Parkes put it eloquently, “anti-semitism [I would say anti-Judaism] is the original sin of Christianity.” Understandably, Christians who cherish the great wisdom and loving spirituality of their tradition prefer not to look these matters too closely. Girard is braver. He scolds them for such an aversion. Unfortunately, his agenda is not to confront the built-in Christian tendency to scapegoat directly, but to realize that these texts, taken as (anti-)myths, enable us to transcend. Such a paradoxical and cerebral approach (no social dimension to any of this) necessarily cannot handle precisely that which, historically explains both the nature of the sacrifice of Jesus, and its sacralization into the redemptive sacrifice of Christ. It completely ignores – and cannot analyze – apocalyptic expectation and its disappointment, that is the hope of a world without violence (Girard’s avowed dream) and the perdurance of the saeculum as a world governed by violence.

Girard cannot handle the Christian apocalyptic tradition since for him Christ’s deeds and the Gospel texts renounce all vengeance, all need for redemptive violence: the NT God has renounced all of it, even where justifiable (i.e., with the “truly” wicked). Thus the Second Coming has no significance for Girard, and the apocalyptic tradition is “explained away” as a mis-reading of the Gospel texts. There is no room here for Revelation as a Christian text. This may work for him, but obviously did not for early Christians. In a sense, Girard is a demotic millennialist with a transformational apocalyptic scenario made possible by the passage of the two eventful millennia this book tries to examine. But rather than acknowledge such a (Jewish) descendance, and link it to an early, optimistic stage of Jesus’ thinking that could only have arisen in a culture that had pushed the kind of anti-mimetic thought as far as Jewish iconoclastic monotheism had, he prefers to see it as a reflection of Jesus the Christ’s thought, sub specie aeternitatis. In this sense, he is very much like many Christians of the transformational strand: as they reject Nietzsche, they demonstrate Nietzsche’s analysis.

I would not argue that Girard is merely a theologian in the guise of a post-modern culture critic, although I do think that to be the case. I would argue, rather, that Girard saw in the Gospel texts a symbolic solution to the deeply discouraging reading of the historical record of religious discourse that he has articulated around the twin notions of mimetic desire and scapegoating sacrifice. That he became enamored of the symbolic – dare I say mythical – dimension of it, and ceased deconstructing in an enthusiastic rush for exegetical salvation, may reflect his overwhelmingly cerebral approach to his issues.

Once he reaches the Gospel message, the world of social cohesion falls to the wayside and his focus turns entirely upon the individual. And this individual becomes at once a locus of spiritual perfection – he must renounce all violence and love unreservedly without even the agreement of his neighbor – and, if the kingdom is to come, the task of all men. For all Girard’s acuity on the deep-seated structures of violence in human society, we have no treatment of the anxieties, the solitude, the intolerable sense of insufficiency, the paranoia that must threaten anyone who tries to meet such demands while surrounded by people who continue to operate according to the dominating imperative. It is a kind of liberal apocalypse – the “loving” individual reigns supreme and society vanishes. And the Jews, who both theologically and psychologically would predict its failure and avoid its siren call, must be punished for being right.

In a sad irony, Girard is unwilling to apply his own analysis to the Gospel texts. In insisting, after the Holocaust, that the Gospels continues to offer us the only solution to the problem of self-perpetuating mimetic desire he sounds much like the FBI agent speaking of the Waco debacle: “We didn’t do anything wrong and we won’t do it again.” Such sentiments, understandable as they may be in people still driven by a mimetic desire to preserve their reputation, still seduced by a brilliant and totalistic solution to all the world’s ills, ill-suit a sincere modern Christian. Perhaps one of the superior officers of a police organization concerned with maintaining public order, and still a carrier of a “prime-divider” mentality, can take such a stand. But surely not people committed to a gospel of unqualified love and forgiveness of all, even one’s enemies, one imploring believers to remove the beam in their own eyes before pointing to the mote in the others’.

It may be a difficult task to really break the net, but at this point, necessary. Without it, the generation of the desert will continue to enter a Promised Land filled with coercion, ressentiment, and hatred, because Christians treat Jews – i.e., those who will not agree with them – as Amalekites. It is time, in other words, for Christianity in both its traditional forms and its post-modern avatars like Girard’s, to grow up.

Footnotes:

1. Love of this kind [complete love of one’s brother than alone escapes the “violent mimesis involved in the relationship of doubles], has been lived to its end only by Jesus himself. On this earth, therefore, only the Christ [italics mine] has ever succeeded in equaling God in the perfection of his love” (Things Hidden, p. 215. After citing the NT version of commandments about loving others as oneself already stated in the Hebrew Bible, Girard then concludes: “If the Son of Man and the Son of God are one and the same, it is because Jesus is the only person to achieve humanity in its perfect form, and so to be one with the deity” (discussion, 215-20).

2. Indeed, one of Augustine’s anecdotal proofs of original sin is that one can see jealousy on the face of an infant. This not only illustrates Girard’s notion of mimetic rivalry, and calls to mind the first murder – Cain’s sibling rivalry over approval from above – but illustrates the role of ADD II (can’t get enough attention). While I do think that ADD II is a universal tendency, I neither think it is the only motivator in the human psyche, nor do I think it is an inescapable urge. Theories to the contrary – like Augustine’s original sin and Girard’s mimetic desire – strike me as projection..

23 Responses to A Millennial critique of Rene Girard’s thesis on scapegoating

  1. Fat Man says:

    French philosopher? Why do those words raise terror in my heart. Democracy will not be safe until the last book by the last French philosopher is composted.

  2. Athos says:

    Sadly, the essayist ignores Girard’s repeated efforts merely to include the Pharisees in the universal problem of mimesis rather to lay blame at their feet as the sole murderers of Jesus, which neither Girard nor the Catholic Church – today – does. It was a bloodthirsty humanity that crucified the Lord.

    Secondly, it is understandable that Landes would not recognize Jesus’ ontological innocence, and would answer His question, “Who do you say that I am?” with a querulous “Just a wrong-headed man,” as one who does not share the presuppositions of the Christian faith. But given Girard’s understanding as a Catholic, his presuppositions do beg to differ.

    But Girard would not see the Pharisees and/or other Jewish authorities as any more culpable for Jesus’ death than the rest of humanity, since all are liable to the funny business of mimetic desire. This is the fallacy of this article. And, perhaps, the refusal to be included with the rest of humanity, which seems in this reader’s opinion to be the mythical element shown in Landes’ writing here.

  3. Richard Landes says:

    to Athos:
    thank you for your comment, although i’m a bit puzzled by it.

    first, i think it’s disingenuous to describe Girard’s efforts to include the Pharisees in the the universal problem as “merely.” they’re not one of a comprehensive list, but the first and the key item in that list. and the passage i quote about Girard’s attitude towards post-holocaust Christians’ embarrassment with the nasty NT passages undermines your effort to have him included in a general statement about how Christians (Catholics) don’t do that any more.

    second, i don’t use the word “just” in describing who Jesus is (again your use of dismissive adjectives, this time to characterize my point of view). my point was that “from a millennial point of view” he was wrong, as have all apocalyptic prophets from the beginning of recorded apocalyptic history. the same is true of Muhammad and many many others. but that hardly defines who they are: what determines “who do i say a given apocalyptic prophet is” has far more to do with what he preached should be our attitude towards the imminent judgment, and how he dealt with the inevitable disappointment… and how his or her disciples handled that disappointment.

    in the annals of apocalyptic prophecy, Jesus is one of the most extraordinary figures. as opposed to Muhammad, who dealt with disappointment at Allah’s not coming to punish the mockers by arming himself and his followers and punishing them himself, Jesus offers quite a contrast.

    finally, i don’t think that jews — any jew, or the jews as a people — are free of mimetic desire, a trait they share with the rest of humanity. i just think — and girard concedes this at several points — that jews as a group have struggled against the gravitational pull of mimetic desire more than most groups, indeed, made it a principle to do so (“do not go after the multitude in doing evil” Ex 23:2, e.g., the story of Tamar and Judah, Gen 37). so my gripe with Girard, as i said, is that rather than present the jews as allies of mankind in trying to get off the wheel of mimetic desire and sacred violence, he makes them, paradoxically, the paragon and embodiment of that complex.

    i prefer to think of my criticism as historical rather than mythical precisely because i don’t try to make the jews into some kind of perfect entity, but rather an imperfect people struggling with a permanent problem… i just think that, even if they fail many/most of the time, they still have a very high batting average, and that i wouldn’t pick on a contender for the batting title to illustrate what’s wrong with hitters.

  4. Lynne T says:

    Professor Landes:

    If the origins of Christian anti-semetism are of interest and you have the time, you may want to have a look at Professor Barrie Wilson’s recently published “How Jesus Became Christian”. I’m only about half way through it (270 pages), and no great scholar, but find Wilson’s explanations and arguments that what is called Christianity today is in fact more truly “Paulism”, and hardly the set of beliefs and practices espoused by Jesus and his followers, during Jesus’s lifetime and a period thereafter.

  5. Lynne T says:

    I meant to say I find Wilson’s presentation of facts and arguments compelling. I admit, however, that I lack the scholarship to pick holes, if there are any, in his book.

  6. There is a considerable tradition on the role of mimesis or imitation in social psychology, and that tradition is derived in no small measure of from Darwin’s The Expression of Emotions in Men and Animals. Among Social psychologists we have many notable figures including M. Gabriel Tarde, George Herbert Mead who ought to be tied into any serious attempt to understand the role of Mimesis in human development and social life. It seems to me that Girard simply over looked the history of this tradition, although he must have known it existed. Thus the title “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World”, suggests no small measure of egotism, or perhaps narcissism is a better word, on Girard’s part. Originality is to be admired, but Girard was far less original than he an his followers have maintained.

  7. Rich Rostrom says:

    This analysis overlooks one key fact: in traditional Christian doctrine, the Passion took place by the will of God: “Not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” It was a necessary precursor to the Resurrection, and was the means of Redemption. The Pharisees (and the Romans) may have been the physical instruments of the Passion, but they had no real agency. To punish the Jews or Romans for events which were necessary for Salvation would be absurd. In the Christian scheme of things, they are not really important.

    Christianity defined itself in separation from Judaism, but not in opposition to it.

    Furthermore, the narrative of the Gospels clearly identifies the enemies of Jesus as a faction among the Jews, not “the Jews” as a whole – since Jesus himself and his followers were all Jews as well.

    • Historian146 says:

      “Christianity defined itself in separation from Judaism, but not in opposition to it.” From where does the commenter derive this notion? In fact, the church very early and often defined itself quite precisely as opposed to Jewish tradition. Chrysostom (“golden mouth”), in the 300’s C.E. joined other early Christian authorities in banning Christians from associating with Jews or Jewish observances in the strongest and most degrading language possible. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome (4th century CE), laws against Jews as individuals and against Jewish observances, as well as against Christians’ social interactions with Jews, set the stage for roughly 2,000 years of official and unofficial persecution that continues today. If you’re resting on the Christian notion that Jesus “fulfilled” Jewish prophecy, there are volumes written to debunk this notion, which is at its core an effort to supplant Jewish tradition, not merely to stand separately from it.

  8. Stephen says:

    Professor Landes

    Thank you for posting this. I read ‘The Scapegoat’ about ten years ago, and came to very much the same conclusion as I think you have here, namely that Girard brilliantly dismantles the sacred-ness of Jesus, only to resurrect it in a last minute turnaround which I couldn’t really understand. From the sublime to the ridiculous, it is a little reminiscent of Frodo arriving finally at the Crack of Doom only to refuse to throw the Ring away. Perhaps a better analogy is Einstein refusing to accept quantum physics, even though his own reasoning led him towards it.
    I certainly found Girard’s work convincing and powerful, especially his analyses of episodes like the death of John the Baptist, and the killing of Baldur. It seems to me that the revelation of scapegoating as sacrifice, and the endless conflict of mimetic rivalry led directly to modern movements like activism for human rights, anti-racism, communism, and anti-sexism. All those movements needed to throw off their dependence on the figure of Jesus in order to become what they did, but are not the events of his life and death their source nonetheless, in a way that, as you point out, could never be the case with the life of Mohammed?
    I also think though that while the direct sacralization of Jesus plays little part in these currents of politics, there still hangs about them some element of the holy. Try remarking at a dinner party that a society free of violence, inequality and racism is unachievable. People will usually not merely disagree. They get angry, in a way that shows you have committed a sacrilege, or ‘thoughtcrime’.
    I cannot believe sacrifice is not fundamental to our social structure. Yet we have modified it greatly, both by legal and cultural structures of suppression, and by sublimation. When we watch a detective thriller, it is clear that we suffer death at the hands of the murderer, and resolve the crime in the person of the detective. I suspect some part of most of us also commits the murder too. In any case, each murder mystery is a sacrificial episode, resolved by the detective as a Vedic priest purifies the act of sacrifice. To consume this as entertainment may be some kind of prophylactic that enables us to avoid actually carrying out sacrifice. It may be that we generate great power, but also store up complex trouble for ourselves, such as wars, for example. This is my understanding of Roberto Calasso’s ‘The Ruin of Kasch’, which also concerns sacrifice.
    I have rather gone off wandering here, since I am not qualified to criticise your account of the relation of Christianity to Judaism. You did say you would like our responses! At any rate, I welcome the digression from the normal course of your work, fascinating though it is.

  9. Eliyahu says:

    actually, as Joel Carmichael points out, the NT provides sufficient evidence that the historical Jesus advocated violence [I come not to bring peace but the sword] and was surrounded by disciples quite inovlved in violence. Consider Simon the Zealot, the Boanerges [Bney Regesh], Rocky [Kepha/Peter], etc.

    Another phenomenon in the NT and its interpretation is the identity of Barabbas, called Jesus Barabbas in early manuscripts. Were Jesus and Barabbas one and the same historical person, with the Gospels dividing the personage conveniently in two?? Hayim Maccoby held this view, as did the American psychoanalyst/psychohistorian Bronson Feldman [in American Imago]. In the Gospels as used today, Barabbas is allegedly freed by cruel Pilate at the demand of the Jewish crowd which instead wanted Jesus to be crucified. I think that Maccoby’s works are quite important in understanding the NT.

  10. Eliyahu says:

    Stephen is right that some notions/slogans become sacred fetishes, adored objects. Just carefully study Obama’s campaign for president. And in some circles, the folk do get very angry when one questions the fetish’s validity.

    A problem in some forms of Christianity is that Jesus must be seen as totally innocent and innocuous [despite the NT text which gainsays this view of Jesus], whereas Jews must be seen as cruel, unforgiving, violent — and sometimes are seen as incapable of reason. These views of Jews also existed in the thought of Kant, less so of Hegel, I believe.

  11. Michelle Schatzman says:

    Funny that one should list René Girard as a “french philosopher” : he is born in France 1923, got the first part of his higher education in France, being a student at the very selective “Ecole des Chartes”, and has developed his career in the United States since 1947. He got his Ph. D. in medieval history at U. of Indiana in 1950. He was one of the people who made “french theory” known in the USA, by inviting such people as Derrida, Barthes and Lacan. He finished his professional life in Stanford U. of which he is an emeritus, and he still lives there.

    I do not know whether he acquired US citizenship, but the evidence is that Girard is an american philosopher… since he developed his theories while living mostly in the USA for the last 61 years.

    I had no opportunity to seriously read Girard, who is way out of my main scholarly interests, since I am a professional mathematician.

    However, I had the dubious privilege of listening to his student Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who graced the french radio station “France-Culture” with an interview a few months ago. I thought he spoke total gobbledygook, mixing together the thery of complexity and everything else, including violence, technology and global warming, if my memory is correct. I even wrote a message to the host of the emission, and he kindly answered that unfortunately, he did not have the necessary scientific background to recognize this kind of hot air balloons. My main argument against Dupuy’s utterances was that there is no such thing as a theory of complexity. There are only disparate attempts to try to understand complexity.

    Dupuy’s interview reminded me of Bricmont and Sokal’s pamphlet against the uncontrolled use of scientific metaphors among social scientists and philosophers, in the USA, France and a few other countries. Now, Dupuy is professor in Stanford, and one should not judge Girard by the silliness of one of his students.

    Nevertheless, “on juge l’arbre à ses fruits”, (one judges a tree from its fruit), and I wonder whether, in a more subtle way, Girard somehow mixed his serious scientific knowledge in medieval history together with some other stuff.

    After all, the scheme described by Sokal and Bricmont could also work between the more scientific parts of history and some much less scientific parts of history, sociology and philosophy, and it would not be as obvious as, say, the kidnapping of Goedel’s theorem by the french philosopher Alain Badiou to justify his continued devotion to the thought of Mao-Tse Tung (aka Mao Ze Dong).

    What do you think, Professor Landes, of looking at Girard from the Sokal-Bricmont point of view, i.e. the criticism of this current, which enlists metaphors from serious science to support some not very serious endeavors.

    Another question, which has to do with history of modern thought, is why justification by “hard” science looks so good to so many people?

    Being a professional, the mathematics I know do not sound to me like gobbledygook *if* they are used to state or solve mathematical questions, or in a relevant model of reality. But they would undoubtedly become gobbledygook, if they were used to explain, who knows, scapegoating? After all, I did study equations whose limiting state was concentrated at a certain point of space, and this would be a very nice analogy of scapegoating. However, I doubt that the mechanism for scapegoating admits a mathematical model.

    That there is an underlying current of antijewish attitude in the thought of Girard is fairly obvious. I motion that the behavior of Girard is worth scientific exploration – why isn’t he conscious of this blind spot in his vision of the world? Do we all have blind spots? How can we deal with our respective blind spots? Is discussion the main remedy that points our blind spots?

    What do you think, dear readers of this blog?

  12. oao says:

    what is called Christianity today is in fact more truly “Paulism”, and hardly the set of beliefs and practices espoused by Jesus and his followers, during Jesus’s lifetime and a period thereafter.

    christianity is a hijacking of judaism by paul. jesus’ religion was judaism and he was trying to get jews to the roots of their religion and away from cooperation with the roman occupation and paganization.

    paul simply invented a new religion that had nothing to do with jesus and what he preached.

    the best scholarly on this is the brillian “THE MYTHMAKER” by Maccobby.

  13. Eliyahu says:

    oao, check out The Crucifixion of Jesus by Joel Carmichael.

  14. To Charles Barton – the title “Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World” is a quote from bible. Indeed Girard does not proclaim to discover these hidden things he only records the original discovery by Christianity. Just to set the record straight :) On the other hand choosing such a misleading title might also be a subject of analysis.

  15. B.L. McGuire says:

    Thank you Mr. Landes for your critique of Girard’s writing. I just finished reading his book “je vois satan tomber comme éclair”, which in English is i believe “i see satan fall like lightning”.

    Thanks also to the other commenters, and for their links to various writers.

    Girard definitely has ‘blind spots’, or should i say ‘blinders’, for example he notes that Christianity has spread all over the world and the ‘archaic religions’ have disappeared, but he doesn’t note the obvious: the ‘archaic religions’ did not disappear, they were eradicated through quite concious christian violence, that’s a historical fact and Girad simply ignores it. For example the genocide in the USA of the native americans is one of the main reasons christianity replaced the ‘archaic religions’ of north america. And the ‘archaic relgions’ of that continent have not yet been entirely destroyed. Girard also makes a causal link between Nietsche and the Nazis, which has been disproven by many writers (for example by Kaufmann, the best translator of Niesche into english), but is a lie still spread because of Nietsche’s opposition to christianity. However Girard doesn’t mention the fact that christians were quite the majority when hitler came to power! in some ways he simply ignores ‘christians’ when writing about the ‘story’ of christianity. he also ignores the story of the death of socrates, where clearly an ‘innocent’ was killed by the ‘mob’, and the effect that story had on the ancient world preceded the story of jesus, which girard claims is the first story where the victim was considered innocent…..in addition he ignores the non jewish victims of the old testament.

    anyway, thanks again! it’s odd that, given the influence of girard, there are not more critiques such as what you have written….

  16. This is a rather tedious analysis. Girard’s objective was not to provide a comprehensive multicultural list of those responsible for the Crucifixion but to demonstrate that the uniqueness of the Crucifixion attributed by most Christians leads to the interpretation of parables and narratives like the vineyard story as specifically anti-Jewish, so the fact that the Crucifixion is a universal pattern undermines such antisemitic error.

    Secondly, while I know that some interpret Jesus as suggesting that the apocalypse is “at hand” that is, again, a particularistic reading of the Gospel that has very little to do with genuine eschatology. That simply isn’t what Jesus means. Nor does His message rest on the presumption of His complete ontological innocence. He even says that His intent is to become a Scandal, and that He brings “war, not peace.” This is basically Nietzsche’s indictment as well. But undermining the absolute domination of the surrogate mechanism which manages the consequences of desire doesn’t require the definitive acceptance of Jesus’ innocence. Rather, in profound distinction from Plato’s self-serving version of Socrates, the the objective is to reveal the guilt of the community in its utter thrall with mimetic desire. Clearly had Jesus been anywhere else he would have suffered the same fate, and in fact this is demonstrated by his widely traveled and analogously persecuted and murdered Apostles. Thus, the “theory” enter the human lexicon but remains mostly hidden for the next 2000 years, with occasional but significant literary exceptions.

    This is not complicated stuff. Quite the contrary, it is a threat because it is so straightforward and uncomplicated.

  17. Richard Landes says:

    Scott, i may not understand you, but what do you mean by the “uniqueness of the Crucifixion”? there were literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people crucified by the Romans. are you making a theological claim? if so, maybe that explains why an historical analysis strikes you as tedious – there’s not a thing in it that connects to your perspective.

    as for your dismissal of the “historical Jesus” (particularistic reading of the Gospel [sic]” and “simply isn’t what Jesus means…”), it’s not really a form of argument, or even an engagement in discussion.

    finally, apparently you were so bored that you didn’t bother to read the comments in which i responded to your criticisms, already expressed by an earlier commenter. the issue, it seems to me, is making the jews the epitome of mimetic violence when, of all people, they were (and i’d argue still are) the least prone to that particular failing. the romans crucified jesus as they did countless others they felt represented a threat to the pax romana. the other apostles’ deaths at the hands of the romans replicates a specific pattern of behavior from imperial authorities.

    it may be all very simple to you, but i think it’s simplistic, and has no room for understanding that the jesus narrative is neither the first, nor the only narrative that takes on the problem of mimesis and its corollary violence.

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  19. Erik says:

    I’d like to take a closer look at some Gospel texts.

    Matthew 16:15-18

    “What about you?” Jesus asked Simon. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.

    [still, in the same chapter – 21-23]

    From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

    In other words, Peter – “the rock” – reasons from mimetic rivalry. He tempts Jesus, tries to awaken his desire to become a “king of this (or the) world” (see Matthew 4). Jesus, however, doesn’t want a “civil war” – he believes in a God who “desires mercy, not sacrifice.” Obeying to that love, Jesus – in the end – cannot defend himself by starting a (mimetic) war with bloodshed and sacrifice. The sacrifice of Jesus (and of people like Martin Luther King) is, paradoxically, “against sacrifice.” Jesus is no masochist who wants to die (indeed, the Gospels make it clear that he flees from his enemies when they want to murder him), and the love he obeys is not sadist as if it all of a sudden “desires sacrifice.” The kingdom of Jesus in this sense is “not of this world,” and his peace is “not as the world gives to you” (it’s not the peace of the “pax romana,” built on sacrifice – that’s why Jesus says “I did not come to bring peace;” indeed there is a peace that is built on violence, on sacrifice).

    But actually I wanted to take the tradition of the disciples into account. The Gospels testify to the stories the disciples told about themselves, and that’s not a pretty picture. The Gospels not only critique the Pharisees, Sadducees etc. but also the founders of Christianity themselves (of course those first “Christians” were Jews).

    Matthew 26:56 – Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.

    Isn’t it true that “Christians” should identify themselves with “the disciples of Jesus” in these texts? And that they are responsible for his death as much as anyone else?

    If we’re blaming the Gospels for anti-Judaism and even the holocaust, aren’t we looking for scapegoats once again? Blaming Christians and Christianity?

    Whose voice is it, that we might hear but don’t listen to? If we identify ourselves, not with Jesus the victim, but with Peter, Paul, other Jews and people in general Jesus dealt with, we will discover that becoming a follower of Christ has a lot to do with discovering that we ourselves tend to look for scapegoats and sacrifices…

  20. Tim H says:

    Despite (or, really, as a consequence of) being by now a fairly dyed-in-the-wool Girardian, I found this piece insightful. It is a helpful reminder not to be too quick to explain away the scapegoating in the foundational Christian texts.

    Dr. Landes, if you see this, I’m curious about your thoughts on Margaret Barker’s take on early Christianity. I’ve only read summaries of her work at this point, but my understanding is that she argues that early Christian theology was largely shaped by an older Jewish tradition, the “First Temple” priestly religion, which was suppressed by Josiah’s reforms. This adds complexity to–though it is still consistent with–your portrayal of early Christianity defined in opposition to the form of Judaism prevalent at the time. It also has interesting implications for the interpretation of apocalyptic language in early Christian writing attributed to Jesus. The preface of her title on the Book of Revelation is here: http://www.margaretbarker.com/Publications/Extracts/Revelationpreface.htm

  21. yah says:

    landes, you’re delusional

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