4 Things You Need to Know About Terrorism and Religion

By Suzanne Ross 1-14-2015
Cycle of violence, marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com
Cycle of violence, marekuliasz / Shutterstock.com

After my article on the terrorism in Paris last week, readers offered some thoughtful critiques of my position. Their comments zero in on the difficulty inherent in sorting out responsibility for violence without blaming victims or excusing perpetrators. My effort, however flawed, in analyzing this instance of violence had one goal in mind: to discredit our methods for justifying violence. What seems to have elicited the most concern is my use of the image of a dragon to discuss René Girard’s concept of the sacred. I pointed out that the editors at Charles Hebdo unapologetically embraced radical secularism. They believed that sacred structures are not only as dead as a mythical dragon, but that they have no function in modern society. I begged to differ, not because I am a fan of the archaic sacred, as Girard calls it, but because I am extremely concerned that continuing to remain ignorant of the way it functions in modern society is the greatest global threat we face today. Here are four things you need to know about the relationship between the archaic sacred and violence and how that relationship threatens our world:

1. Categorical Confusion

The archaic sacred is also called the false sacred because it generates a world in which false differences appear to be true. We see this dynamic clearly in the actions of terrorists who believe in a false difference between legitimate targets for violence (Western secularists, for example) and victims of violence who must be avenged (their religious and national compatriots). We easily condemn them for justifying their own violence with self-righteous fervor. Trying to expose the difference humans have constructed as categorical lies is the driving force behind our work at the Raven Foundation.

Let me be clear: No human being is a legitimate target for violence, period. To say otherwise is indeed to blame the victim and excuse perpetrators. However, to defend victims of violence by glorifying their deaths or sanctifying the values that apparently got them murdered is to play into the hands of the archaic sacred. Why? Because by explaining why these victims did not deserve to die, we indirectly acknowledge the possibility that some victims might indeed deserve what they get. In other words, the victims of the Paris terrorism are not to be mourned because they were good, noble, or saintly people. It wouldn’t matter if they were liars, cheats, and murderers – no one needs to earn the right to NOT be murdered. To hang on to the difference between those who deserve to die and those who don’t is to hang on in confusion to a false difference that serves only one purpose – to sanctify violence and ensure its continued presence as a plague in our world.

2. Scapegoat Blindness

We should therefore not be afraid to have an honest discussion about the similarities between the victims and the perpetrators in this or in any case of violence. This is the only way to cut through the haze of confused differences generated by the archaic sacred. Here’s the similarity we need to find the courage to acknowledge – everyone who engages in violence thinks of themselves as good people, their enemies as wicked, and their violence as legitimate. If we can be “good” and still use violence without remorse, then we are actively engaged in scapegoating and have become unwitting agents of the archaic sacred.

The archaic sacred generates and is fueled by scapegoats, which is another term for “legitimate target for our violence.” Our scapegoats always appear guilty to us and we consider it a duty, even a sacred duty, to hate, expel, or destroy them. To be clear, scapegoats can be wicked people, guilty of flawed thinking, dangerous beliefs, and remorseless atrocities. But it is not these things that make them our scapegoats: it is the role they play in the construction of our own goodness. When we construct our identities over against some other who we think is as utterly misguided as we are noble, then we become blind to the ways in which we are behaving just like them! We glorify our own violence and condemn theirs while they do the same thing, ensuring that violence will continue in perpetuity without anyone ever acknowledging just how dangerous their goodness has become.

You will rightly protest that the staff at Charlie Hebdo was not engaging in violent behavior. Satire is not the same thing as violence, and I agree. But the editors at Charlie Hebdo had their scapegoats nonetheless: anyone whose beliefs seemed ridiculous to them became a legitimate target for ridicule. They have been called equal opportunity offenders because they satirized any “sacred” belief whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. As I said in the previous article, believers from any religion seem to them to be stupidly clinging to a dead dragon and so by comparison they considered themselves enlightened secularists on a mission to save the world from religious belief. What I hoped to make possible by pointing out that even victims of terrorism can be guilty of scapegoating was to open our eyes to the ways in which we are all scapegoaters without knowing it.

3. Enemy Twins

Scapegoating is the driving mechanism behind an unfortunate outcome of the sacred: enemies become more and more alike while more loudly proclaiming their differences. Girard refers to such adversaries as enemy twins and the war on terror is sadly a very good example. The Charlie Hebdo magazine is part of a larger political-military system that has waged war in Muslim neighborhoods to keep violence out of ours. As President George W. Bush famously explained in 2002, “The best way to keep America safe from terrorism is to go after terrorists where they plan and hide. And that work goes on around the world.”

We should not be surprised that the terrorists agree so completely that they embrace the same strategy – they plan to keep their neighborhoods safe from invading coalition forces by going after us where we plan and live. As one New York Times reporter explained: “In each decade, a familiar pattern has emerged: a radicalized minority of European Muslims — whether they have gone abroad for jihad or not — have been angered and inspired by wars the West has waged in the Arab world, Africa and beyond, and have sought to bring the costs of those conflicts home.” (emphasis mine)

Less than a week after the attacks, millions in Europe gathered in public demonstrations to express their unity over against extremists. Many wore or carried “Je Suis Charlie” signs, a poignant identification with the victims. From heads of state down to the average citizen, all proclaimed their determination not to be cowed by terrorism. Unfortunately, politicians then recommitted themselves to rooting out the wicked, violent people in their midst without any hint that they might disavow their own violence. Until all violence is condemned, especially our own, the archaic sacred will continue to thrive and we will continue to be its puppets.

4. Revelation

Secularists make the mistake of confusing the archaic sacred with revelation: they are not the same thing. I used the image of the dragon to talk about the sacred because that’s an image used in the text of revelation we call the Bible. For Girard, the Bible is a primary source of knowledge about the relationship between violence and the sacred. For example, Chapter 12 of the book of Revelation is rife with dragon imagery, an image of the frenzied escalation of violence that has been unleashed by the revelation of Christ.

The great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world – he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. (Revelation 12:9)

Jesus uses this same imagery, of the sacred dragon being expelled from the heavens: “He said to them, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.’” (Luke 10:18) Please do not make the mistake of reading these passages too metaphorically. What is being unmasked here is the human practice of sacralizing violence and blaming God for it. If we continue to scapegoat the Bible, lumping it in with the archaic sacred, we will leave ourselves bereft of its wisdom that a dragon of our own making is about to devour us. In that case, Jesus’ apocalyptic prophecies will be fulfilled and no amount of satire will be able to save us from ourselves. Recognizing our complicity in sacred violence is the only sure path to peace. As James Alison wrote recently about Jesus’ warning about our reaction to his murder and our complicity in it:

“From now on, those who are scandalized by their involvement in the murder that is to happen and by this teaching about it, will remain scandalized by it; while those who recognize their complicity with the perpetrators of what has gone on and allow themselves to be forgiven will find themselves producing the desired fruit of the vineyard.”

Admitting that we and our enemies are equally complicit in the violence of this world is the only way to end the plague of justified violence. If we can repent and allow ourselves to be forgiven, then the legacy of this tragedy will be a turning point in human history.

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

Image: Cycle of violence,  / Shutterstock.com

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