Rene Girard

The Truth About God, Life, and Death

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“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.

How to Defeat Evil

The author's daughter

Photo courtesy Adam Ericksen

Christians believe that Jesus definitively defeated the forces of evil. For Christians, faith is trusting that the way to defeat evil is the same way that Jesus defeated evil on the cross and in the resurrection. Jesus was no Jedi. He didn’t use “good violence” to protect himself or others from the evil forces that converged against him. Nor did he run from evil. Rather, he defeated evil by entering into it, forgiving it on the cross, and offering peace to it in the resurrection.

Of course, many – even those who profess to follow him – think Jesus is absolutely crazy. As the apostle Paul wrote, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s true that following Jesus by responding to evil with nonviolent love is risky. After all, Christ was killed, as were his disciples. But fighting violence with violence is also risky and only perpetuates a mimetic cycle of violence.

4 Things You Need to Know About Terrorism and Religion

Cycle of violence, marekuliasz /

Cycle of violence, marekuliasz /

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.

Thanksgiving and a Theology of Despair

tomertu /

tomertu /

Are you feeling pressure to be thankful?

We are in the midst of the Thanksgiving season. I’m reminded everywhere I go to “Be thankful!”

Well, call me the Scrooge of Thanksgiving, but I’m just not feeling thankful. The more someone tells me to “Be thankful!” the more I feel a sense of despair.

Be thankful? In the midst of Ferguson, Mo.? Jim Wallis writes that, “Many black families woke up this morning knowing that the lives of their children are worth less than the lives of white children in America.” And what will white America do about it? Nothing new. One side will continue the status quo of racism by denying that it even exists and then they will blame the victims. I firmly stand in the other side that blames America’s deeply embedded structures of racism, economic injustice, and educational inequality. To make matters worse, America is sharply divided over the shooting in Ferguson. Each side of the division blames the other for tragic violence. Sunday’s heated debate on Meet the Press between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Georgetown Professor Michael Eric Dyson is indicative of the deep racial tensions underlying not only Ferguson, but every city in the United States.

My Facebook news feed and the media are telling me how I’m supposed to feel about Ferguson. Outraged. Hurt. Anxious. Guilt. Anger. Bitter. But certainly not thankful.

Islam and the Mother Lode of Bad Ideas: The Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck Debate

Bill Maher (left) and Ben Affleck. s_buckley /

Rene Girard has a prophetic warning in his book Battling to the End about the West’s fight against Islamic jihadists:

The West is going to exhaust itself in its fight against Islamic terrorism, which Western arrogance has undeniably kindled.

That Western arrogance was on display last weekend on Real Time with Bill Maher. The tense debate about Islam between Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Ben Affleck has been shared multiple times over social media and provides a case study in Girard’s mimetic theory.

One element that mimetic theory illuminates in this discussion of Islam is the scapegoat mechanism. Scapegoating is a non-conscious way of reinforcing a group’s relationship by blaming another group of people for our problems. The scapegoating mechanism is non-conscious because we always think that we are innocent and that our scapegoats are guilty. The video below shows a great example of the scapegoating mechanism when it comes to Islam. (Warning: It's an HBO show — there is some foul language.)

The Bible is Not A Myth: God’s Patience with a Tone Deaf People

Bible, Sabphoto/

Bible, Sabphoto/

I don’t know where God gets the patience. We are absolutely the most difficult people to communicate with! As the Letter to the Hebrews begins, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets.” Many and various ways – thank you, God, for trying everything you could think of to get through to us. And then, as Hebrews continues, “in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” And not just any, run-of-the-mill offspring. No! This Son was “appointed heir of all things,” by God, “through whom he also created the worlds.” Sending such a magnificent messenger means nothing less than a passionate desire to be heard: I AM SENDING YOU MY SON, THE ONE THROUGH WHOM I DO MY GREATEST WORK TO SHOW YOU WHO I AM! IS ANYONE LISTENING??

That was two thousand years ago and still God has not abandoned hope. At least I think God hasn’t! Which is so like God. But what is so not like us is that finally, tentatively, it appears that we are beginning to get the message. At least a part of the message that has not gotten through to us before. A Spirit of renewal has been moving through Christianity. New meanings are being discovered in Scripture, meanings that are so strange and unnatural to us that they could only have come from God. Or should I say, that they could only have been coming from God for a long, long time until we finally developed ears to hear.

Envy: Greed's Ugly Cousin

Envy concept, stockphoto-graf /

Envy concept, stockphoto-graf /

I drive a Prius. I wouldn't exactly say it's a sexy car; the word "practical" comes to mind. It gets good mileage, is safe, and fits our family of four just fine in most cases. It's gotten its share of bings and dents over the years, but it has been a very reliable and low maintenance way to get around town.

Of course, what I really want is a Tesla. My son wants one too. There is a showcase for them in a local storefront, and he begs me to go by for a visit every time we are nearby. Though he is only 10, he already makes a pretty strong case to my wife, explaining how much of the cost of the car will be offset by the savings in gas, and he was elated to find out it was recently rated the safest car on the road.

So far it hasn't worked in our favor. But we keep trying.

This, of course, is not envy; it is simply good old-fashioned greed. The thing I have is sufficient, only until something newer, edgier, shinier comes along (which, in America, is a daily occurrence). Then suddenly, perfectly good car in our driveway has shortcomings and liabilities that were, hereto for, invisible to us.

Envy is different, and I would argue that it actually is worse than greed. While the latter is simply our desire off of its proverbial chain, envy gets personal. It is the easy but unattractive marriage of greed and judgment. Yes, we desire what someone else has, but there is more to it. When we are envious, we gain nearly as much pleasure from the idea of the other person not having the thing we want as we do from the idea of having it ourselves.

NBC’s 'Parenthood:' When the Winning Strategy is Losing

Members of the cast of NBC's Parenthood, DFree /

Members of the cast of NBC's Parenthood, DFree /

The writers of Parenthood, the popular NBC family drama, use an interesting device to dramatize conflict. When two characters have a difference of opinion their exchange begins in measured, even tones. One person talks, while the other listens. Then the second person talks, while the first one listens. But as their disagreement heats up, the exchange gets faster and faster until no one is listening and both characters are talking over each other so loud and fast that it’s difficult to understand exactly what they are saying. This clip is typical. It’s an argument between Sarah and her boyfriend, Mark, over whether or not she will be able to keep her promise to attend a weekend getaway with him.

David Brooks and Religious Hostility: Tasting Goodness

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/

Boundary illustration, Bohbeh/

In his New York Times column, Alone, Yet Not Alone,” David Brooks laments the “strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers in America today, especially among the young.” Even more disturbing for Brooks is that in his experience, the opinion of young people is too often justified. He observes that religious believers can be “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned,” and “out of touch,” and he wonders why that’s so. Brooks, who is Jewish, knows that the Judeo-Christian tradition reveals a God who desires mercy and not sacrifice, who calls us toward a radical love that includes our enemies. As evidence of the core of orthodox belief, he offers two giants of the Judeo-Christian tradition, Rabbi Abraham Heschel and Augustine, who give testimony to lives of compassion and love inspired by devotion to the biblical God. Lives that tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty as essential components rather than disqualifiers of faith.

So what gives? Why do religious believers spend so much energy reinforcing their (our – I’m one of those orthodox believers) borders, building thicker and higher dividing walls designed to keep out the underserving, the sinners whom not even God can love? Just who is kept out varies widely, but it seems religious people are utterly convinced that they are on the inside with God. No doubt about it. Musing on this sad fact, Brooks comments:

There must be something legalistic in the human makeup, because cold, rigid, unambiguous, unparadoxical belief is common, especially considering how fervently the Scriptures oppose it.

Brooks is on to something here – there is something rooted in our “human makeup” that the Scriptures fervently oppose, but it is not legalism per se.

Surviving Chiberea: On Scapegoating the Weather


Snow provides a common enemy Littleny/Shutterstock

Last Thursday, as I carefully navigated my way home from work on the slippery streets of a few Chicago suburbs, I was listening to a talk radio program. The host reminded his listeners that he broadcasts from sunny Arizona, and then he said, “I know that many of you have had large amounts of snowfall. I recommend that you sit back and enjoy the beauty of the snow.”

At which point I yelled some expletives about what he could do with his recommendation and promptly changed the station.

It’s been a brutal winter. Indeed, we’ve already had “large amounts of snowfall.” Yesterday in Chiberea (that’s an amalgamation of Chicago and Siberia, for those keeping score), the high was negative 13 and today the high will be positive 3. Yay for staying positive, Chicago.

Staying positive about the weather is becoming more difficult. The snow, while pretty, will be here from late November to early March. It. Gets. OId. And schools have been canceled for two days in a row. Listen, I love my kids, but they’ve been stuck inside for the past five days. We are all experiencing cabin fever.

But there’s one thing about Chicago winters that I can appreciate. The relentless snow and the extreme cold provide an opportunity to build a sense of community. Neighbors suffer through this weather together. We check in on one another to make sure people are surviving and staying warm. And, of course, we create a sense of community by uniting against the weather. The snow and the cold become our common enemy. Or, as René Girard’s mimetic theory puts it, the weather has become our scapegoat.