Many scholars have claimed that René Girard’s mimetic theory is one of the most important insights into human nature of the 20th century. Last week brought the news that René has passed away at age 91. “Girardians,” as those of us highly influenced by the scholar call ourselves, have been on social media sharing our sorrow at his passing, but also our profound sense of gratitude for this giant among human beings. We all stand on his shoulders. And our vision is clearer for it.
In reflecting upon the news, I am struck by the fact that Girard taught us so much about death. Specifically, about the scapegoat mechanism. Girard confronted us with the truth about being human. We all have a propensity to manage our conflicts by blaming them on someone else. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community. But it is only temporary — for the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.
But if Girard taught us about death, he also taught us about life. The solution to our natural inclination toward scapegoating is found in the Christian tradition, specifically in the gospel portrayal of Jesus’ death.
“Christ agrees to die so that mankind will live,” wrote Girard in his book Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.
Many progressive Christians who do not know Girard’s work will bristle at that statement. Indeed, without reading his books, it could sound like a form of penal substitutionary atonement theory that claims Jesus allows humanity to live by saving us from the violent wrath of God.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth that Girard revealed throughout his career is that wrath doesn’t belong to God. It belongs solely to humans. In anthropological terms, what was revealed by the death of Jesus was the human scapegoat mechanism. Once you read Girard’s works, you realize how obvious it is that the violence at the cross had nothing to do with God, but everything to do with the human propensity to scapegoat.
If Girard taught us anything, it’s that humans have been projecting our own violence onto God since the foundation of the world. We justify our violence and hatred against our scapegoats in the name of God or peace or justice, or whatever we deem to be important to our well-being.
Girard taught us that to truly live is to stop scapegoating our enemies, and to stop justifying it in the name of God.
Once, at a conference, the writer was asked what would happen if mimetic theory became wildly successful.
He answered, “There would be no more scapegoating.”
To end scapegoating and to truly live, we need to follow Jesus by turning away from violence and turning toward our neighbors — including those we call our enemies — in the spirit of love and nonviolence.
Girard not only taught us that truth, he lived into it. I met him once at a conference for young Girardian scholars. I was struck by the fact that he wasn’t interested in teaching us, or making sure we had his theory “right.” What he wanted more than anything was to talk with us. He wanted to learn about our lives and what interested us. He had a special humility about him — instead of taking glory for himself, he gave glory to others.
I remember sitting across the table from him. He smiled as he looked me in the eyes and said, “I’ve watched your Mimetic Theory 101 videos. They’re good.”
That’s the way he was. He affirmed all of us and encouraged us to follow the truth, no matter where it led.
Girard always gave the last word to the gospels. It’s where he found the truth about life and death. So it’s only fitting that I end with this quote, one that sums up his theory about God, violence, and love:
The following is the basic text … that shows us a God who is alien to all violence and who wishes in consequence to see humanity abandon violence:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45, Things Hidden, 183)
May René Girard rest in peace, and rise in the glorious love of God.