Politics and Love

Rene Girard, Donald Trump, and How I Got My Advent Groove Back

I have a confession: In the past, I haven’t liked the season of Advent very much. This is a bummer because I am Christian, and I feel like I should like Advent. I mean, Advent is the time of the year when we anticipate the birth of the Christ Child—the Christ who takes away the sins of the world. It seems like I should feel really excited about Advent.

But in the past I have definitely struggled. During Advent, it seems like there is a lot of pressure to be excited, hopeful, full of wonder and awe. I feel like I continually need to be like the shepherds up on the hill listening to the angels sing. I have been a teacher my whole professional career, and to be honest, usually around Christmas break I am exhausted from the semester.

What I would really like is an Advent hibernation cave. But instead of hibernating, it seems like I should be baking cookies, sending Christmas cards (which I never do), and reveling in the anticipated birth of Christ. I often feel like my Advent emotional state is radically inadequate.

I also think the season of Advent carries mixed messages. During Advent, we continually hear the injunction, “Remember the reason for the season”. This is a wonderful message, and I think we should remember the reason for the season. But we are also continually surrounded with decorations, presents, more presents, holiday festivities, and holiday goodies.

Who doesn’t look forward to Christmas presents? Who doesn’t look forward to all of the Christmas goodies? I know I do, and perhaps this has filled me with a perpetual sense of Advent anxiety. Advent comes with a calendar, but it doesn’t come with an Advent meter that lets me know when my excitement over Christ’s birth is too low, and my excitement over Christmas presents and goodies is too high.

But there is another reason that Advent has been difficult for me. Advent is often portrayed as a time when we should be grateful because Christ came to the world to save us personally from our sins. Christ’s salvation for me is wonderful news, but I want Christ’s birth to mean the salvation of the whole world. I want Christ’s birth to mean the end of war, the end of abuse and violence, the end of racism and prejudice, and the end of exploitation. And, indeed, I think Christ’s birth does mean these things, but sometimes I struggle to find this message in Advent celebrations.

But this year, I have become excited about Advent again, and I have two people to thank for this: the French philosopher Rene Girard and President-Elect Donald Trump. Now don’t get me wrong. I am no Trump supporter. Like many people in the nation, I was baffled by his meteoric rise in politics, and I was appalled by his unexpected election. After the election, I spent the rest of November in an emotional stew of dark melancholy and anxiety. I was deeply worried about the state of affairs in my country.

Donald Trump’s political campaign was filled with language encouraging racism and violence. His private and political speech also regularly degraded women and seemed to encourage aggression against them. While Trump generally seems surprised that anyone would accuse him of being racist or misogynistic, racist groups across the U.S. heard Trump’s message loud and clear and celebrated his victory by scrawling hateful graffiti in public places and delivering alarmingly xenophobic public speeches.

After the election, the world felt more violent, aggressive, uncaring, and dark to me. It seems really weird, then, that I would suggest that Donald Trump was instrumental in helping me get my Advent groove back. But this is where Rene Girard enters the story.

Image result for scapegoat pictures

This painting by William Holman Hunt is called “The Scapegoat”.

During one of my darkest weeks of post-election melancholy, I happened to pick up Rene Girard’s book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.[1] Girard writes about the causes of violence throughout history, and he developed a theory of scapegoating to explain societal violence. While Girard’s overall theory is complex, I think the main ideas are pretty simple. He argues that the defining characteristic of human society is something he calls mimetic desire (mimesis means imitation): people tend to imitate others by desiring what other people desire.[2]

This object of desire can be resources, power, desirable partners,  public recognition, or other such objects of desire. This mimetic desire often turns into competition and violence. Girard further suggests that history is full of instances in which mimetic desire spread to a whole group of people, much like wildfire raging through forests. He calls this wildfire of desire mimetic contagion.[3] Girard argues that when mimetic contagion breaks out, it propels a group of people into violence and war against one another unless the group can find some kind of communal release for their violent aggression.

This is where the scapegoat comes in. Girard suggests that historically, groups of people stricken with mimetic contagion unconsciously select a person or a group of people to be a scapegoat.[4] They convince themselves that the scapegoat is the cause of the violence in the city. They kill the scapegoat, and this scapegoating becomes a medium of catharsis, allowing the people to relieve the mimetic contagion that threatens to destroy them.[5] And then the cycle begins again.  Girard believes that historical persecutions of Jews and events like witch trials are an example of such scapegoating.[6]

As I was reading about the scapegoat mechanism, I couldn’t help think about the racist and violent language that often seemed to dominate Trump’s campaign. His campaign succeeded in large part, I believe, because it stirred up mimetic contagion and suggested a handy scapegoat[7]: Muslims, undocumented immigrants, and other minorities. This is why the campaign felt so dark and violent to many people. Mimetic contagion and scapegoating have been the dark secret of human nature and civilization, and I think Trump tapped into this dark secret. But here is the good news.

Girard suggests that the birth of Christ was a singular event that upended the cyclical pattern of mimetic contagion and scapegoating. The biblical narrative, Girard suggests, exposes scapegoating for what it is by siding with the scapegoat and proclaiming its innocence.[8] In the story of the crucifixion we clearly see the crowds using Christ, the innocent God-man, as a scapegoat for their violence and aggression. But the story doesn’t end there. When Christ conquers death, he defeats scapegoating, violence, and aggression once and for all.[9]

This doesn’t mean that scapegoating and mimetic contagion never break out again. Rather, it means that the scapegoating mechanism is exposed once and for all in its stupidity, futility, and brutality. Furthermore, Christ’s death gives humanity the perfect thing to desire mimetically: the Love, Peace, and Goodness of God towards everyone.[10] That is why Christ came—to save the whole world, individually and politically, from darkness, violence, scapegoating, and diseased desire, which is the very nature of sin. Christ’s death broke the power of this sin over all of us, and we now have the power to see it for what it is. I am reminded of the verse from the Christmas hymn “O Holy Night”.[11]

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love and His gospel is peace

Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,

And in His name all oppression shall cease.

I belong to an online group for people who have struggled deeply with this election. People in the group are increasingly sharing stories about encountering blatant racism and hatred in public…and standing up to it. One woman shared a story of a young woman who confronted a teacher making sexist remarks and tacitly condoning rape. Another woman in the group shared a story of a cashier at a local store who was demeaning someone of a different race.

The woman’s husband demanded that the cashier apologize to the man and treat him with respect, which the cashier did. Every day, I read stories of people, inspired by the love in the group, acting with hope, courage, and care for the oppressed, for the scapegoats. These stories fill me with hope. Advent hope.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Sachio, and I was telling him about Rene Girard. Sachio said, “Wow, Girard sounds like really good Advent reading.” And just like that, I got my Advent groove back.

I remembered what I had already known all along: Christ’s birth is the Light that shines in the darkness and exposes violence and scapegoating for what they are. While this darkness still threatens to break out sometimes, the night Christ was born foretold the end of violence, darkness, and oppression in my life, your life, and society. It is the night that brought the power to heal our darkness and make us whole again: O Holy Night.

Postscript:

If you enjoyed this post, you might enjoy this one, too:
Zombies, Imitation and Apocalypse, and the Resurrection

[1] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. James G. William, trans. Grasset & Fasquelle. Paris, France: 2001.

[2] Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Light Lightning, chapter 2.

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Rene Girard. The Scapegoat. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore: 1986, pgs. 1-8.

[7] I would like to note here that I believe that many people voted for Trump, not because they were stricken with mimetic contagion but because they believed that Trump was the lesser of two evils. So I do not want to imply that everyone who voted for Trump supported the things he said or were participating in scapegoating.

[8] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 9-10.

[9] Ibid, ch. 11

[10] Ibid

[11] “O Holy Night”, Adolphe Adam

12 thoughts on “Rene Girard, Donald Trump, and How I Got My Advent Groove Back”

  1. “That we have a tendency to scapegoat should prompt us to be concerned and vigilant. That’s why I wrote this post. I want to continue to point out the scapegoating mechanism WHEREEVER it occurs” [emphasis added (in caps because I couldn’t figure out how to use italics)].

    I agree wholeheartedly, Shelly. This is why I will rather doggedly persist in questioning your position that “had Hillary won, there would certainly be problems to blog about, but it probably wouldn’t be the problem of scapegoating.” With all due respect, I think there most certainly is a blog post to be written concerning the problem of scapegoating in the Clinton 2016 campaign.

    You said it is “reasonable” for a candidate to decry her opponent as incompetent and point out how his rhetoric reflects a dark side of America. Perhaps this is “fair game” in our political environment; but ad hominem attacks don’t become “reasonable” just by being true. What exactly do we gain in our debates when we permit ad hominem attacks against only-those-people-who-target-the-defenseless?

    In a chapter entitled ‘The Bad News about Revelation’ from S. Mark Heim’s book _Saved from Sacrifice_ (2006), passages from Revelation are read as a warning/description of a new type of scapegoating—a type that can only occur in the aftermath of the cross. For Heim, Revelation paints the horrific depiction of a very particular (and false) resolution to mimetic contagion in which a community unifies in opposition against someone who is guilty of orchestrating scapegoating violence. The empathy for sacrificial victims, which is awakened by the cross, is perverted into to call for vengeance against organizers of victimage. “The victimizers! They shall be our victims!” cries the mob—unaware that they themselves become victimizers as they say it. In so doing, the community adopts a portion of Christian revelation (empathy for victims) and manages to return straight away to pagan behavior and probably concoct new mythologies. They pervert the message of the cross to validate the very thing the cross dismantles: the single victim mechanism.

    Heim offers two historical examples of when communities have employed rhetoric that scapegoats scapegoaters: Christian anti-Semitism and some Communist revolutions. I invite you, when you have time, to re-examine Hillary’s campaign rhetoric and see if it doesn’t fit the apocalyptic mold Heim sees in Revelation.

    At the risk of discrediting my attempts here at a dispassionate analysis, I will add that, when it became apparent that The Donald would be the next president of the United States, I became sick to my stomach and lost sleep for days. It has been incredibly difficult for me to suggest that this individual was targeted as a scapegoat by a candidate I supported. I find the man utterly revolting; I want to scream “He—of all people—does NOT merit empathy! The cross calls for us to come to the defense of pretty-much-everybody-BUT-him! The guy who deliberately targets the defenseless—this is the one we need to chase out of town!”

    And yet, I have come to see how a careful reading of scripture (especially Revelation) leads me to question the disgust I have literally felt rumbling in my stomach. Is DJT really the source of any problems in our society? Is he a pollutant who contributes to the worsening condition of our society? Did the Trump campaign actually inspire numerous instances of scapegoating behavior across the nation?

    Or . . .

    Is DJT a sign of the times? Is his popularity merely a highly visible symptom of a societal illness? As frightful as this may sound, what if Trump’s campaign had absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the scapegoating behavior we see spreading across our nation . . . what if the spread of scapegoating behavior across our nation is what gave life to the Trump campaign?

    Big problems seem fixable so long as we have a scapegoat. Hillary’s campaign tried to present Trump’s-defeat-at-the-polls as an easy fix—when, in reality, the problem is far too big for his his electoral defeat to have had any real effect. I’m not saying that Trump is innocent; I’m saying he isn’t guilty of what Clinton (on many occasions) found it convenient to accuse him of. If this is true—if DJT the politician was a scapegoat used to cover up the real problem (viz. the rise in scapegoating rhetoric)—then defeating him at the polls would have done precisely nothing to stem rise of scapegoating rhetoric. Scapegoating a plague dog offers no lasting relief from a plague; scapegoating a scapegoater offers no lasting relief from scapegoating.

    I would be very interested to know if you think Heim has accurately applied Girard’s theories to the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels and in Revelation. Then, perhaps, we could move on to whether or the Clinton campaign can be added to a list of scapegoaters who scapegoat scapegoaters for being scapegoaters.

    In the meantime, I wanted to share this link:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wimFvlhKQcU

    I found it amusing that both “American presidents” and “Christmas” came up in a conversation with Rene Girard on apocalypse. For readers of this blog post, I’m only suggesting the first 13 minutes. However, I highly recommend that whole 5 part series for anyone looking to for an introduction to Girard’s work—or anyone who finds French accents amusing.

    1. Hello There, Andrew: Please pardon my very tardy reply to your interesting post above. Please also pardon my somewhat short reply to your ideas. I really appreciated the way you illuminated Heim’s point about scapegoaters becoming new scapegoats. This is a really interesting point, and it is one I will have to consider more. (I may have addressed some of your concerns on this issue in my post “Meditation from the Belly of the Whale” (consider reading that post).

      I agree with you that there are certainly people who scapegoat Trump or Trump supporters in the classic Girardian sense. Here is the main point of contention I believe we still have: I cannot agree with with you that Hillary’s campaign scapegoated Trump in the classic Girardian sense, and I maintain Trump’s campaign did indeed scapegoat others in that classic sense. Several times throughout his campaign, Trump either consciously or unconsciously encouraged violence through deportation or physical aggression against scapegoat groups.

      I agree with you that Hillary engaged in ad hominem attacks, but she did not encourage violence against Trump (either through aggression or deportation). Ad hominem attacks are bad logic and bad politics, but they are not scapegoating in the classic sense. So I believe you and I still disagree on this point, and I am not sure that we are going to be able to resolve this disagreement. You seem to be defining the term “scapegoating” in a wider, more permissive way than Girard does. You are, of course, welcome to do this, but this wider definition of the term is not the kind of scapegoating I am addressing in this blog post, and I believe that is at the heart of our disagreement. (By the way, I still take this to be a congenial disagreement and appreciate your thoughts).

      Having said all of this, I do agree with you that there are some folks on the left who engage in classic scapegoating behavior insofar as they encourage violence against the right as the symbol of all that is wrong with the world. In addition, I agree with you that scapegoating is a problem of both the right and the left, and it should indeed concern us whenever it appears.

      Lastly, it may help you to know that I am neither a republic nor a democrat, and so I am not trying to push a certain political agenda in this post.

  2. Sean: I really appreciate your close and careful reading of both the post and Andrew’s comments. I apologize that I am responding so late to this comment and also that my rather short reply may not do justice to your ideas above. I think you may be right that Andrew is suggesting that scapegoating is inherent in the democratic/voting process, and I think you are very insightful to note that this is probably a basic disagreement Andrew and I have. (I hope he will correct is if we are wrong). I understand why Andrew or someone else would think that voting often has a scapegoating element to it, but I disagree that voting must be inherently scapegoating in the Girardian sense. It is possible, I believe, to value the ideas and political contributions of another party but to believe that the other party does a better job of supporting human rights, democracy, freedom, the values of the kingdom, etc. If I, for instance, vote with this view in mind, I am not using voting as an act of scapegoating. Rather, I am using voting as a means to support a particular conclusion to a political debate. I view politics hopefully and believe that we can definitely take this latter approach to voting (rather than the former scapegoating approach). I would be interested to hear more about the structural changes you believe are necessary to vote in a non-scapegoating manner.

  3. Scapegoating is scapegoating, but the world we inhabit is changing.

    In a pagan context, scapegoating is “the transference of blame to an innocent victim.” The act of transference, however, always goes unnoticed. A mythological veil covers it up. Pagan tales of human origins also dissemble a second transference, in which a community’s surrogate victim is divinized. Pagans are never made conscious of either the first or the second transference; they merely tell (and are told) mythologies.

    In the Biblical religion of the Israelites, people are made aware of the second transference that archaic religions conceal, i.e. the human capacity to “make” gods. The Israelites call this transference idolatry, and they reject the practice out of hand as ludicrous.[1] As for the first transference, Hebrew scripture (again in contrast to pagan mythologies) makes explicit reference to the practice. This time, however, the practice is not dismissed out of hand as ludicrous; it is validated and ritualized. For the Israelites, a priest really can transfer the sins of the nation to a goat. This would be news to pagans who, even though they participated in such acts regularly, never realized that this is what they and their priests were doing when they honored their gods in sacrificial rituals. Still, for both pagans and Israelites, scapegoating is “the transference of blame to an innocent victim”; the difference lies in whether or not the practitioners are aware of what they have done.

    In our modern context, too, scapegoating refers to “the transference of blame to an innocent victim.” We stand squarely within Hebraic religious heritage, because we are most capable precisely where pagans were most incapable: we can make explicit reference to the practice of scapegoating when it occurs. However, in modern worlds (unlike the prescribed religious practice of the Pentateuch), scapegoating can never be validated under any circumstances. Today, scapegoating is categorically immoral. No one believes that the blame for internecine strife can be successfully transferred from community members to a goat. The scapegoating of Leviticus 16 is just as absurd as to us as idolatry was to the ancient Israelites. In this respect, we stand squarely outside the traditions of our Hebraic cultural predecessors. Ask any Levitical priest if blame can be transferred to an innocent victim, and he’ll say “Most assuredly, that is a large part of how we reconcile the nation of Israel to YHWH every year on the Day of Atonement.” Ask anyone today the same question and she’ll say “People certainly try it all the time. The thing is . . . those folks delude themselves. They pervert justice when they scapegoat, and they always come away looking foolish.”

    In all three contexts, “the transference of blame to an innocent victim” is one and the same social phenomenon. The difference between the modern and archaic usage of the term is a matter of human understanding—not a matter of human behavior, which has been consistent throughout. What we have is the unveiling of truth. At each stage, something was uncovered. Israelites saw, with clarity, a transference that pagan mythologies obfuscated. Christian revelation (which spread through the world like yeast working its way through a lump of dough) exposes the injustice of blame transference. The Torah was not, in any way, wrong to prescribe ceremonies that purposely drew practitioners attention to blame transference; this was the only way to get to the truth of what humans were actually doing in a world that was ordered by the surrogate victim mechanism. In Christ, however, a new world has arrived. The cosmos is no longer ordered like it once was. Heaven (human understanding of what ought to be) and earth (human understanding of what is) have both passed away. A new heaven and earth arrive. This doesn’t mean that Torah has been abolished; it means Torah has been brought to its moment of completion in the inauguration of the kingdom of God by the work of a truly faithful Israelite. The old is gone, a new manner of being human is here.

    Shelly, in our discussion regarding the difference between the archaic and modern notions of scapegoating, you have distinguished the two by using the same boundary that runs between ‘brazen physical aggression’ and ‘subtle psychological manipulation’. I hope my comments to this point make clear that I readily concede, in principle, an archaic/modern distinction when defining the term; but I disagree with your chosen line of demarcation—and I believe I am following Girard in my disagreement.

    When, in the third paragraph of your March 14 comment, you write, “. . . let us grant that scapegoating occurs in both parties. Let us also grant that both types of scapegoating are a serious problem we must address. Having granted both of these points, here are my two concerns . . .” I feel the need to interrupt. I simply cannot “grant the serious of all types of scapegoating” just so we can then move on to focus on those particular forms of scapegoating that are supposedly more destructive than others. I can only “grant the seriousness of all types of scapegoating” because that is the Gospel truth.[2] In your second paragraph, you refer to an “expanded definition of scapegoating.” I would prefer to talk about a fully unveiled definition of scapegoating.

    Refresher of Shelly’s first concern by way of a snippet: “First, it strikes me that while all forms of scapegoating are a serious problem, archaic violent scapegoating presents a more serious, immediate threat. Subtle, psychological scapegoating is no doubt destructive, but it does not usually kill or maim people, all things being equal. Therefore, if President Trump’s brand of scapegoating raises the specter of archaic violent scapegoating (and I believe it already has and still does), there is good reason to be especially concerned about it because its consequences are irrevocable.”

    Indeed, the thought of attempting to reinstate archaic violence in a modern context is especially frightful. We agree here, but not—I think—for the same reason. The special danger of archaic violence today is that it doesn’t work in the modern world like it did in archaic cultures. People used to be able to hold sacred violence distinct from profane violence. Now, the two have been rendered indistinguishable by the Gospel. Even if certain individuals can still manage the bifurcation in their own minds, it won’t be accepted across the wider population—western culture now takes for granted the dictum that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

    So, for example, if Trump managed to implement a campaign of deportations, which he then publicized to rally support for his presidency, this would be truly scary. Not simply because it would certainly split families and lead to unnecessary injuries/loss of life—but scary because this campaign could never be perceived as sacred (reconciliatory) in our modern context. Supporters of such a campaign would never attain a cathartic resolution and would, therefore, persistently call for more and more deportations; whereas opponents of such a deportation campaign would be led to take it as a call to arms and reciprocate in kind. The primary threat of the archaic sacred in the modern world is not that it entails more bloody exclusions than bloodless exclusions; the special danger owes to the tottering instability of any attempt at a modern sacred—every violent [3] act (bloody or not) opens two new channels of violence (one for supports, one for opponents). So long as reconciliation is sought through sacred violence, escalation is unavoidable in the modern world.

    Refresher of Shelly’s second concern by way of another snippet: “All things being equal, it is essential to address issues of scapegoating with the ascendant political power (especially when the power controls both houses in our country) because their scapegoating can translate into policies, which crush people’s ability to live.”

    Mimetic theory warns us against “pushing back” against rivals merely because they are rivals; this is precisely the type of reciprocity that leads to crises.

    I have to assume that there is—somewhere—a school of political science that affirms the ability of opposing forces to push one another toward progress. I haven’t actually read any philosophical works on this idea, and I honestly can’t even name drop a single significant figure in the field. Let me confess my ignorance, and say that I am merely reacting to my informal encounters with this school of thought. For example, in an interview, Noam Chomsky might say something along these lines: “When I’m in Ramallah I critique the Palestinian Authority; the next day, speaking in Tel Aviv, of course, I’ll be criticizing the Israeli government.”

    Now, Chomsky doesn’t seem to think that the governing powers directing Israel and Palestine can serve each other as dialectical partners in a back and forth shuffle toward justice; and yet he does seem to privilege himself with just such a position. He wants to affirm that, as an academic, he can push back against abuses of power in what amounts to the promotion justice.

    Do you see the bind I’m in?

    On the one hand, I want to believe in the work of academic social critics like Chomsky. (There are probably better examples of what I’m getting at, but I’m just a dude who pokes around youtube—so I’m going with Noam as my example. I hope it is clear what I’m getting at.) On the other hand, Girard’s analysis of human nature gravely cautions against activity that is purely adversarial.

    So, we must ask ourselves if political ascendancy, by itself, can be taken as a reason to make someone a special target of our criticism—lest our “criticism” become a mask for transference of blame to someone who is innocent of the very problems we claim to be addressing. We cannot merely assume that rulers, by virtue of being “in power”, deserve extra push-pack. We must honestly ask these questions: which societal ills are our leaders’ rhetoric and policies really contributing to, and which societal ills are our “leaders” merely blabbering and floundering in the face of? If we merely assume that the powerful deserve rebuke because things are bad . . . if we, through a collective transference, transform a spectacularly emblematic instantiation of a problem into the source of our problem, then our critical push-back becomes nothing more than an effort to thwart an arbitrarily selected rival . . . and we fail to follow the Gospel’s example of a fully human, fully divine model of desire. Once we descend into conflictive mimesis, we are no long capable of contributing to the corrective forces that bend the arch of history in King’s vision toward justice. If we allow ourselves be scandalized by Trump (or any other “leader”), our efforts to thwart “damnable oppressors” will blind us to the true nature of our problems, and we will proceed blindly contributing to the spread mimetic contagion.

    We now live in world where accusations of scapegoating can themselves be used to scapegoat. As Gil Bailie puts it in _Violence Unveiled _, we bombard our enemies with their victims. “You marginalize these people!” “Oh yea, well you marginalize those people!” To find the narrow entryway into the kingdom of God one must, at every moment, scrupulously avoid participating in every form of scapegoating. Letting “lesser” forms of scapegoating pass so as to directly combat the more “egregious” forms is precisely the manner of redirection that scapegoaters always employ. Let’s say several bands of witch-hunters are terrorizing innocent people in our village. If we get caught up in an attempt to round up the worst of the witch-hunters, we can slip into a witch-hunt of our own making. This is how wide and spacious the road to destruction is; it will funnel in even those who come to destroy it.

    [1] In chapter one of an abridged translation of Yehezkel Kaufmann’s multivolume _The Religion of Israel_ (trans. Greenburg 1972), Hebrew scripture is shown to be lacking in its criticism of pagan deities. Biblical authors seem to think that pagans actually worship the idols themselves, as if they were practicing some form of fetishism. The ubiquitous line of attack throughout scripture is that “the gods of the nations” are pathetic because they are wood and stone. Clearly, polytheism is no small issue in the Bible. Why, then, would Biblical authors restrict themselves exclusively to rhetoric that amounts to little more than a cheap shot at a straw man? Kaufmann sees only two possibilities. (i) The Biblical authors so adamantly disbelieved in pagan gods that they chose to express it with blatant dismissal. (ii) The Biblical authors were truly ignorant of paganism. If it were (i), argues Kaufmann, then the authors of scripture failed at their presumed objective, viz. to present a cogent case that undermines the belief of people who actually did believe in pagan gods and sincerely employed idols in their worship of such deities. In other words, it would mean Biblical authors deliberately chose to write texts that expounded an anti-polytheism bravado, and they were only ever intended for audiences of incurious monotheists. So, Kaufmann prefers (ii). The ham-fisted treatment of polytheistic religion in the Bible owes to a true ignorance on the part of its authors. They could not thoroughly dismantle paganism, because they didn’t understand how it worked—they had far too little exposure to paganism to posses any nuanced comprehension of it. At this point, it should be noted that one of Kaufmann’s expressed goals was to argue against the view (first put forward by Wellhausen) that, until the exile, there was little, if any, difference between Israelite folk religion and paganism (see the Introduction of Kaufmann1972). Kaufmann’s response to Wellhausen’s students is this: if you are right . . . if nearly everybody in Israel (except the religious elite) was inclined toward polytheism, how exactly could a priestly cast get away with compiling scriptures that included such an impoverished argument against the very thing everyone else in Israel already believed?

    I think Girard gives us a third explanation of the Biblical treatment of idolatry. The motif that idols are (laughably) handmade, along with the Biblical insistence not to budge one step beyond this single point of criticism, is a laser focused synecdoche. It is a rhetorical move that allows the entirety of paganism (in all its variations) to be roundly rebutted by focusing on the single component they all have in common: all pagan deities are manmade (by means of communal transference) just as all pagan idols are manmade (with chisels and whittling knives).

    [2] In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches that a meeting of the Sanhedrin is appropriate for a man who calls his brother a fool (Matthew 5.21ff). No doubt, this is an exaggeration; Jesus doesn’t want his followers traveling to Jerusalem to convene with religious officials every time someone loses his temper. All the same, it would appear that Jesus employs this exaggeration (within his exposition on how to fully understand the commandment not to kill) with the express intent of blurring—if not eradicating—the line between rivalry that leads to bodily damages and rivalry that leads to soured interpersonal relationships.

    During the wedding celebration in Cana, Mary comes to Jesus and says, “They have no wine.” (John 2.3). If we take “his hour” to be a reference to the Passion, Jesus’ response to his mother might strike us as overly serious: “They have no wine.” But Jesus answered her, “Ma’am, what has this concern of yours to do with me? My hour has not come.” Is Jesus actually comparing Mary’s concern over beverages with is gruesome death? Students of John’s Gospel might answer Jesus’ question with one of their own: “But sir, what has Cana to do with Golgotha?” Raymond Brown mentions the possibility that the supply of wine for a Jewish wedding ceremony in those days might well have been dependent on the gifts brought by the guests (Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 29, p. 102). If this were indeed the case, Jesus and his disciples, because of their poverty, may have appeared—at least in the eyes of some—to have failed in their responsibilities as wedding attendees by drinking more wine than they brought. Could Mary have felt the need to draw attention to her son’s faux pas? Might there not have been more than a hint of accusation in her statement: “They have no wine.” All three synoptic Gospels recount an episode in which Jesus gives unequivocal preference to a crowd of disciples over and above his own mother (Mark 3.31-35). Such an encounter is at least consist with the hypothesis I am pursuing here: that Jesus had a mother who was less than impressed with her son’s “ministry”—at least at the start—, and she felt no compunction to suppress her exasperation: “Do you really want me to tell you what my concern has to do with you? Do I have to spell out the implications of what is means when your tacky behavior says to the whole wide world that you ain’t had no upbringing?” There is, of course, absolutely no reason to suspect that anyone involved in this episode saw any physical aggression on the horizon; and yet, when Jesus refuses to own the fault implicit in his mother’s statement, what is her response? She gathers the wait staff and focuses their attention directly at her son. Some who’ve preached at my church would have us believe that this is an act of faith on Mary’s part. The evangelist, however, makes no such comment, and the text is just as open to the opposite reading: Mary was uniting a crowd against Jesus. Her line “Do whatever he tells you,” is not actually directed to the servants, and it certainly doesn’t mean “Y’all just wait and see what miracle my boy does next!” Rather, the line is a passive-aggressive attempt to make Jesus uncomfortable, “Ok, son, if you won’t answer me—you see how all these fellas are glaring at you right now? Why don’t you tell them why they can’t do their job! It’s your fault, isn’t it? You’re the reason the wedding feast is over early! Everybody can see it—clear as day—except for you!” This is a reading of the dialog at Cana that allos for the events of Cana to parallels the Passion. Jesus is well aware that he will, one day, become a scapegoat, but this is neither the time nor place. Jesus doesn’t rebuke his mother and tell how wrong she is to accuse him. He doesn’t fault her for uniting mistrust against him. He doesn’t tell her to just get over it already. He doesn’t pass the blame on to somebody else. He senses a looming mimetic crisis from the very moment of its conception and he makes a way out so that no one is left taking the blame. In other words, he performs a miracle . . . a sign of the coming kingdom of God . . . an indication of how people will live in the coming age.

    In Mark, the plotting of the scribes and Pharisees (14.1-2) and Judas’ decision to betray Jesus (14.10-11) sandwich the account of a nameless woman who anoints Jesus with perfume during dinner (14.3-9). This ABA structure is a repeated feature in Mark. Impending violence drenches the bookends, but what happens in the middle? We are shown a woman who is perceived to be out of place by disciples who quickly become indignant toward her. Although there is certainly no threat of bloodshed at the dinner in Bethany, Jesus is depicted as a savior who protects someone from a scandalized collective ready to vent its frustration on the most defenseless victim available. I’m not so sure that Jesus himself wasn’t a little nonplused at first; nevertheless, he found gracious prophetic words which derailed the grumbling of his disciples. Judas, however, carried the grumbling with him. Turning from the woman to Jesus, he demonstrates how fickle substitutions can be. Judas, along with his peers, had wanted to talk bad about a woman who was doing something rather odd. Jesus stops them gently but firmly, and Judas takes offense at Jesus stopping their grumbling—and he turns on Jesus. Could something so incredibly petty really have been the final straw in Judas’ decision to betray Jesus? It seems incredible, but perhaps the passage is teaching us something that is, in fact, very very hard to believe. Could a narrative explain any more clearly than Mark 14 just how insignificant of a provocation can trigger someone to turn on a loved one?

    In Matthew, we find explicit instruction from Jesus not to bother distinguishing instances when rivalry leads to murder from instances when rivalry leads to aggressive speech. In John, the narrator employs the motif of Jesus’ hour to connect the story of a rash, momentarily spiteful accusation from an otherwise loving mother to the roaring, bloodthirsty mob who condemn Jesus to death. In Mark, a story of conflictive—yet bloodless—mimesis serves as the core of the larger story about those who plotted to co-opt a mimetic crisis in order to assassinate Jesus.

    [3] I do not mean violence to necessarily imply physical aggression. Violence is any act a scandalized human being makes in the effort to differentiate herself from her rival. Due to the work of Christ, sacred violence is no longer capable of ordering societies. In the aftermath of the cross, sacred violence fails because it bolsters states of undifferentiation.

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