COV&R-Bulletin No. 1 (Sept. 1991)
Abstracts of the COV&R-Conference in New Orleans November 16, 1990
Paul's violent metaphors describing the law in Romans 7 provide a setting for a conceptual dialogue between René Girard and Gerd Theissen (Gerd Theissen, Psychological Aspects of Pauline Theology. Translated by John P. Galvin. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). Theissen's "psychological hermeneutic" is augmented by Girard's work on mimetic religious violence and the author's work (E.A. Hallsten) on biblical imitative alternatives to violence. This enriched perspective is applied to Theissen's study on Paul with a focus on Paul's understanding of the role of the law in religion and life as set forth in Romans 7 and 8. Some concluding suggestions link the psycho-spiritual violence Paul sees rising out of prohibition with other more external and social mechanisms of human violence.
Michael Hardin, "The Biblical Testaments as A Marriage of Convenience: René Girard and Biblical Interpretation"
Three examples (Hobbes's picture of Moses, his interpretation of the prophecy of the Old Testament, and his interpretation of the book Job) show that Hobbes gives a "mythological" interpretation of the Old Testament. Although he tries to bring this interpretation into accord with the New Testament, his Moses-Jesus-typology, his interpretation of Jesus's prophetic office as well as the proof of his interpretation of Job, which he believes to find in the New Testament, demonstrate that Hobbes creates only a formal unity between his mythological interpretation of the Old Testament and the New Testament. We can also find elements in the above mentioned biblical examples (interpretation of Moses, the prophets, of Job) where Hobbes overcomes mythological thinking. This demythologization may be explained by the term "secularization". Hobbes, however, is not secularizing the true Christianity but a form of mythological thinking (e.g. Hobbes's view on witchcraft).
In some respects the prophet and the king are "twins," doubles of one another. Their traditional functions, as Israelite culture developed, diverged and understandably came to be understood as distinct from one another. The role of the king was more or less determined by his positive relation to the mimetic enactment of popular feeling, symbols, and institutions, and his power resided in his ability to control the mechanism that made him the primary scapegoat. Prophets remain typically closer to the structural origins of being selected through the victimization mechanism in the sense that they are a kind of radical "throwback," recalling and re-enacting some primary aspects of the exception in the process of emerging. The transformation of this status of the scapegoat victim into the basis of the prophet's vocation and of the prophet's understanding of Israel is the chief dynamic of revelation and Scripture.
Following a discussion of the power of the cross to expose the system of domination that had killed Jesus, I present a summary of Girard's theory of mimetic violence and the scapegoat. This is followed by a brief critique of Girard:
1) I do not agree with Girard that all myths are lies masking events of generative violence. I believe that they often tell the truth, and that they are rather straightforward depictions of the actual power relations in a given society.
2) I regard the scapegoat motif as merely a sub-set or variation on the theme of violence (one which does involve attempts to disguise the real injustice of victimage), and see the combat myth of redemptive violence as more generic and common. Squaring off and slugging it out is the norm, and no third-party scapegoat is usually involved. Scapegoating occurs more often in intragroup rivalry rather than between nations. In wars, the more powerful combatant simply wins, and makes the loser subordinate. This pattern is already visible in primates.
3) The idea of the sacrificial, expiatory death of Jesus is far more pervasive in the New Testament than Girard acknowledges. Paul betrays a certain ambivalence toward the sacrifice of Christ. Girard has stressed one side of that ambivalence, his critics the other. Paul has apparently been unable fully to distinguish the insight that Christ is the end of sacrificing from the idea that Christ is the final sacrifice whose death is an atonement to God.
4) I doubt that the scapegoat motif is foundational for all the world's myths, or that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures have a monopoly on the criticism of violence. There are myths that are nonviolent (the Hopi emergence myth, to name only one) and as true as anything ever articulated by Christianity, and Girard's Christian triumphalism does them grave injustice. But (in fairness to Girard) while these traditions do reduce violence by ritual, asceticism, injunction and example, they do not raise the scapegoating mechanism to consciousness.
5) There seems to be little evidence of human sacrifice prior to 4000 B.C.E. So whether the scapegoat goes back to the origins of humanity is far from certain. Girard's attempt to ground mythically the scapegoating mechanism in pre-history is especially ironic, since he regards all myth as untrue.
6) It is risky to build an analytical theory on speculations about pre-historical culture when the evidence is so thin. Universal claims for a single-cause solution to the problem of violence have always proven inflated in the past, and there is no reason to expect anything different here. But the real value of Girard's hypothesis lies not in its theory of origins, but its analytical power to unmask the nature of human violence today. Even if aspects of Girard's overall thesis are proved wrong, his understanding of mimetic rivalry and conflict and of the scapegoat are among the most profound intellectual discoveries of our time, and will remain permanent contributions to our understanding of the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion. (This paper will be published in revised form in my "Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination" Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.)