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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 2 (March 1992)

James Williams, The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. New York: HarperSanFrancisco 1991.

This is an ambitious work. It undertakes to use Girard's "explanatory model", ". . to weave the biblical texts and contexts into a tapestry displaying the full biblical picture that forms the basis and background of the words at tributed to Jesus in the Passion story, 'They hated me without a cause,' and 'He was numbered with trans gressors' . . (and) . . to consider the biblical revelation in relation to contemporary American culture and to ask, What is 'good mimesis' for us -- mimesis that frees us from or drastically diminishes rivalry, conflict, and violen ce?" (p.31). Williams weaves his tapestry by means of a series of studies of selected biblical texts -- the rival brothers in Genesis, the Exodus and Moses, the Cove nant and Sacrifice, Kings and Prophets, Job, and the Gospels. The studies are sandwiched between an in troduction to the theory, and an application of it to a critique of current North American culture. Williams demonstrates that it is fruitful for the interpretation of the texts, and therefore that the texts in turn are warrants for the truth of the theory. This result justifies the use of the theory in the criticism of culture and also justifies the pre-eminent position of the Bible as the standard of that critical truth. Williams gives us a rich and subtle reading of many elements in the text. The book is a major con tribution to the effort to demonstrate the power of Girard's theory to understand the Bible.

One general question raised by the work is whether revelation is the only force operating within Israel or whether there are two generative forces, both a revelatory (demythologizing) and a reactionary (re-mythologizing) one. A corollary question is whether there is a linear progression in the effect of revelation through the Bible. Williams sees the biblical witness as a logical if not chronological progress of revelation, as God is seen more and more to side with the victims (eg. "The ancient Israelite journey of increasing disclosure of the effect of desire, mimesis, and victimization . ." p.98). Another way of stating the question is whether the mythological ele ments are an entirely passive residue that is progressively removed or whether the mythologizing force is alive and active in the biblical traditions. An answer to this question will determine how we view Israel's election and perfor mance as the bearer of revelation.

Turning to the text, we are guided by a helpful summa ry on pp.187-188, which begins with the claim that since we cannot extricate ourselves from the web of mimesis there must be a revelation from without to free us. This revelation occurs gradually as the traditions first attest the old order of the sacred with its sacrificial mechanism and its violent god, then demonstrate the struggle to break free of it under the impulse of revelation. Although Williams says that he has "not attempted an argument for the truth of divine revelation" (187), this work amounts to a demon stration of that truth.

In the first chapter, after a good introduction of the theory, which is especially interesting in the account of the link between language and the "emerging exception," Williams declares that he will proceed pragmatically to justify its use by showing how it illuminates the texts. This is sound method. Then he introduces the matter of the differences amongst the traditions. He compares the J story of Cain and Abel with the P account of the birth of Seth that ignores Cain. The priestly editors start the human race again with the non-violent birth of Seth, and place the non-violent account of the creation at the very beginning of the Torah. These are mythological effacings of violent origins purchased at the price of the sacrificial animal substitutes of the cultus, and the failure to integrate the human condition as set out in the Cain and Abel story. The P tradition is, therefore, a failed response to revelati on.

However, the fact that the Cain and Abel story was preserved by the P editors shows that there is at most an imperfect re-mythification process at work. This situation is typical of the biblical interaction of traditions, and is better described as a dialectic, in this case between J and P, rather than a linear progress of revelation.

The purpose of the Cain and Abel story is to disclose the violent origins of sacred order. The marking of Cain signifies the establishment of a system of sacrificial differentiation that discourages mimetic conflict. It is also the sign of the vengeance of the sacral God. Anyone who kills Cain will suffer the sevenfold vengeance of God. Later, the song of Lamech shows that vengeance continues as the original sanction of order, but now human vengeance, more deadly than God's. "If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold" (Gen 4:23b-24). This is itself a demythologization, an early instance of how the biblical revelation breaks free of the sacred, because it locates vengeance where it actually belongs, in the human rather than the divine realm.

Then, however, we encounter the claim that the fratricide is not "the act that founds the people of Israel or any of its great institutions," but rather that the call of Abraham and his descendants (Gen 12;1-3), founds "the people who emerge out of the peoples as the divinely chosen exception" (p.38). This makes the biblical account perilously like a myth of innocence. Other societies are founded on violence, as the mark of Cain shows, but ours is not! Others may be blamed for violence we may not! Thus we face the delicate question of the truth of a claim that is formally like a myth. Why is this claim true while all other such claims are false? Is there indeed one exception to the plight of all humanity?

It seems to me essential to read the history of the people that claims to be the emerging divinely chosen exception with a great deal of suspicion. A good way to do this is to maintain the link with Cain that the J writer forges, to see this exception as struggling to emerge by a dialectic that takes place not only between it and other peoples, but also within itself. There is a Cain within Israel too. This entails that one read the claims to be generated not by nature (violence) but by grace (call and promise) as expressions of faith and hope, not of ontology. Israel is not ontologically different from the rest of humanity, but distinguished only by its struggle to respond to the revelation that calls from beyond the sacred precincts that enclose us all. In the course of this struggle it sometimes generates its own sacral myths, as the P tradition shows.

Williams describes this struggle well as he weaves his tapestry of traditions. In the chapter on the enemy brothers he shows the sacral propensities as well as the responses to grace. The Esau-Jacob story alludes to the way the clever Israelites symbolized by Jacob, defraud the dumb Edomites symbolized by Esau (pp.40 & 42). At the end of the story, even after Jacob has gone through the ordeal of self-discovery at the Jabbok -- Williams's treatment of which is one of the best parts of the book -- he still deceives Esau by not going to the agreed meeting place in Seir but off to another venue in Canaan. Nevertheless, the twin brothers had achieved a non-violent differentiation, because Jacob had wrestled with himself and God, and faced the reality of rivalry in himself. This differentiation is part of the story of the emergence of Israel from its "ancestral stock and relationships," and Jacob's limp signifies not his status as an outcast but the fact that "he had been victorious without scapegoating or being scapegoated" (p.54). He won because he wrestled with God and himself and did not blame someone else for his predicament. Other signs of revelation are the offer of Judah to be a substitute for Benjamin in the Joseph story and the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, which recalls the reconciliation of Jacob and Esau. Reconciliation, rather than scapegoating, is the sign of revelation. Furthermore, as Williams deftly points out, the winners in these rivalries do not escape ordeals of their own, so that the contrast between the two figures is not great.

Williams summarizes as follows: "This conflictual mimesis is at the root of culture; it dominates human relations. But from the standpoint of the Torah it has to be placed in the context of the story of Abraham and his descendants. The promises of God to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3,7) become the frame for working out a new human destiny that would witness to the revelation of the God of Israel who is the God of victims. Cain's rivalry with Abel is a paradigm of the human condition, but the outcome of the stories of Jacob and Joseph show the way of a good mimesis that is enacted through the history of the promises" (p.63).

These are signs that the election of Israel is true and not merely a myth of ethnic self-justification, that, in terms that are strange to current biblical studies, there really is a God who called Israel from beyond the confines of the sacred, and to whom Israel responded more or less faithfully from time to time. This theological affirmation is the only antidote to the myth of chosenness. The God who calls Israel out and promises to make him a blessing to the world must be the true divine ground of all the nations. The whole truth of Israel's self-presentation rests on the truth of God, and that is only accessible to faith.

The criterion of siding with the victims, by which Girard identifies revelation, is tricky because one can always use the status of victim to claim the moral high ground. The willingness to include oneself amongst the sinners, precisely not to set oneself apart from the rest of the human race, is therefore an essential supplement to that criterion, and that is why the link to the Cain and Abel story must be strong. Williams' repeated assertions that Israel's destiny is generated by faith and promise and not by the sacred are so strong that they risk giving the impression that Israel's exceptional status is ontological rather than by grace.

The result of this misunderstanding is to turn revelation into an ideology by grounding it ontologically rather than by faith. The danger of ideologizing was seen by Thomas Mann. Williams criticizes him for not paying sufficient attention to victims and for making "the supreme feature of the God of Israel his invisibilty and mobility, not his will to eliminate the difference of slavery and establish a community of peace and righteousness" (p.102). Here is the nub of my discontent with the tenor and thrust of Williams' work. Despite all the qualifications, all the acknowledgement of Israel's realistic sense of its own shortcomings, he treats the divine project as a social program for victims whose flag bearer is righteous Israel. An early criticism of Girard by Hayden White (Ethnological "Lie" and Mythical "Truth," Diacritics [Fall 1982] 2-13) said that he wanted to prove the truth of Christianity scientifically. There is some truth in this accusation because there are times when Girard, and Williams, seem to imply that a reading of the Bible must convince the unbiased reader of its truth. This might be so if all its truth were the disclosure of the mechanism, but that is only part of it. The full truth includes the offer of faith in the unseen God, and that faith delivers us from making Christianity an ideology, turning it into a witch hunt for witch hunters.

Subsequent chapters weave the tapestry of the conflict between revelation and the sacred through various high points of the text. The Exodus story tells how the law and covenant are a step forward because they are a substitute for sacrifice, but are nevertheless still instruments of sacral exclusion "tied to a theology of divine anger" (187). The kings and prophets are sacred victims, chosen by the same lottery by which the victims are traditionally chosen, and the prophets are able to use this position of sacral marginality to uncover the violence of the center. Job is the failed scapegoat who reveals the scapegoating tendencies of his communities and, by his refusal to accept the role, causes the mechanism to fail and thus to reveal itself.

These chapters are well done, full of the kind of insight that shows the power of the theory and compels the reader's attention. The three concluding chapters, on the gospels and the contemporary American scene are less satisfying. I found the treatment of the gospels on the whole cursory, although not without gems of insight from an acute eye. The chapter on the American scene, however, is so sweeping in its generalizations about our social problems and so bold in its range, from international security, to addiction, to abortion, that it might cast doubt on what has gone before in the eyes of the general reader. These are questions for systematic and philosophical analysis.

Footnotes in chapter one have been transposed as follows: 27-30, 28-31, 29-32. This is a minor solecism in an otherwise well-produced book.

Williams has given us a profound meditation on the Bible, which shows the subtle interaction of grace and the sacred in its pages, a richly textured tapestry of sin and salvation which describes the struggle of the divine mercy to manifest itself in the midst of human mendacity, in the real world beyond the text, where we all live and search for truth . . .

Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly