René Girard’s Understanding of Violence

René Girard’s understanding of violence – focusing on the dynamics of mimesis, on the role of scategoating in resolving the unbearable escalation of social and societal violence, and on the importance of christology (Jesus the Christ submitting as the innocent lamb to violence, unmasking it and subverting it definitively) – is very attractive to many theologians, as for example Wolfgang Palaver and James Alison. After an interesting conversation this afternoon, I would like to formulate some thoughts and questions. Undoubtedly, some of these reflections will be the result of my lack of knowledge of René Girard’s thought, and I apologize for that. Any answers or further reflections are welcome, of course.

(1) René Girard’s understanding and analysis of the genesis of violence is very interesting and challenging – as is the fact that he intimately connects violence and religion -, but is it the only possible analysis? Mimesis obviously is a key feature of human existence – and in theology one could argue that, to understand creation and christology properly, it will be crucial to mark the difference between “mimesis” and “following Christ” (or “being made in the image and likeness of the Creator”). Certainly, mimesis can also generate competition, conflict and even violence … is this always the case, however? I am not sure, moreover, whether a too one-sided focus on mimesis would not over emphasize (socio-)psychological dynamics … What about the violence of injustice as deadly uneven distributions of wealth, means, and power? What about the increasing violence that arises from our abusive relationships with our environment? I do not want to say that there would not be a way to connect these forms to processes of “mimesis” – in fact, I think that can probably be done -, but I fear that by doing so one might narrow down our understanding of (in)justice and (un)sustainability. I also feel a strong need to remain very sensitive to structural forms of violence that are not mere interpersonal categories. Mimesis surely is a form of structural violence, in the sense that we are caught up in its dynamism, while at the same time we maintain it and, thus, also bear responsibility. But, development that forgets to take into account its cost to be paid by others, defines a different form of structural violence.

(2) If – and I would venture to make this claim – violence, as part of original sin, is an unavoidable part in our life-together without being an ultimate defining feature of our existence, then the example of Jesus or the commitment of God in Jesus’ life up to the cross and the resurrection, may only be part of the answer christians give to violence – the “eschatological” part. Christians trust that it is God who, finally, unravels our skin of violence where we are unable to skin ourselves of it. But this eschatological resolution of violent conflicts cannot be a cheap grace (if we want to get rid of violence, we should just wait for God to do this job for us …). God’s commitment to overcoming violence is very concrete and practical, feet and hands on in Jesus amidst messy human reality. Jesus’ life is God’s gift and promise, it is also a praxis that we can attempt to follow (to imitate … imitatio Christi), even if all of our practices of following Jesus have to pay the tribute of an eschatological proviso. Practices of forgiveness and reconciliation may be good examples of such human practices, “feasible” for human beings in their commitment to resolving and transforming violent conflicts, although never “full” if disconnected from the graceful relationship with God in Christ. Therefore, the question has to be asked how exactly the tension between “grace” and “nature” builds up the choice and willingness of the innocent (Christ: God and human being) to become the lamb that undoes the violent mechanism of scapegoating by subverting it, so to say, from the inside out. How can human beings, concretely in the struggle against violence, follow Jesus of Nazareth in a commitment that, ultimately, can only be God’s?

(3) In a very interesting 1940 review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, George Orwell, the well-known author of Animal Farm and 1984, illustrates the perversion of victimization that can arise when someone like Adolf Hitler draws his appeal from being and embodying the suffering victim, seemingly similar to the Saviour Jesus Christ. This is profound misunderstanding and a perversion of deep Christian faith, but a very attractive perversion it is. Also Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the members of the Confessional Church understood this (pseudo-)religious features of Nazi ideology and denounced them, e.g. in the Barmen Erklärung. (Recent authors, such as Michael Burleigh, show great sensitivity to the “religious” features of Nazi-Germany; I also recommend one of the best – at least in my opinion – books on Hitler: Sebastian Haffner’s Anmerkungen zu Hitler). This means that a human perversion – victimization or a calimero-attitude – of God’s dismantling of the scapegoat violence in Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, can become a powerful weapon to initiate and justify violence on quasi-religious grounds. Victimization as a response to victimhood is a cunning but perverse political strategy banking on resentment – it is not the christian way of dealing with “being a victim”. How to be a victim or to take on the suffering of the victim, without entering into the self-serving powergame of victimization? This question is at the core of a correct understanding of René Girard’s thought, at least I think so. Whereas there is, in the process of scapegoating, a tendency to divinisation of the scapegoat (who takes on the societal violence and so defuses its destructive character), the suffering and cross of Jesus represent a dark night in which God is present by being explicitly absent: the focus, here, is not on the suffering as such but on the suffering in the perspective of the resurrection as a gift of God.

(4) And this leads me to a last reflection: to what kind of understanding of the unicity of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ does René Girard’s thought lead? Is Christianity the only religion that allows for the dismantling of the scapegoat mechnanism to control social and societal violence? How can we frame and state the contribution of Christianity to the transformation of violent conflicts? Does this contribution of Christianity also explain its emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation?

These are questions that I want to raise, discussions I want to initiate. In my opinion, here, we touch some of the core elements of the Christian faith and praxes. Here also, we touch the deep nerve of Friedrich Nietzsche’s criticism of Christianity.

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One response to “René Girard’s Understanding of Violence

  1. Pingback: Sacrifice, Unity, Victimhood, Compassion? « Beyond Rivalry

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