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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. And then the cycle begins again. Girard believes that historical persecutions of Jews and events like witch trials are an example of such scapegoating.
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: 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. 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.
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. 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”.
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.
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Zombies, Imitation and Apocalypse, and the Resurrection
 Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. James G. William, trans. Grasset & Fasquelle. Paris, France: 2001.
 Rene Girard, I See Satan Fall Light Lightning, chapter 2.
 Rene Girard. The Scapegoat. The Johns Hopkins University Press. Baltimore: 1986, pgs. 1-8.
 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.
 Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, ch. 9-10.
 Ibid, ch. 11
 “O Holy Night”, Adolphe Adam