COV&R-Bulletin No. 10 (March 1995)
Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads. New York: Crossroad, 1995, 293 pp.; $24.95.
Most of us in COV&R know Gil Bailie, and many of us have enjoyed the tape recordings of his seminar sessions in Sonoma. We thus know something of his shining personality and speaking ability. This book, however, is a stunning achievement for which, in my view, Gil's prior accomplishments could not have prepared us. Combining a wide reading of biblical, classical, and modern sources with an extraordinary sensitivity to popular culture, especially in the United States, it is the most accessible work of profound cultural criticism from a Christian standpoint that I have read in many years.
Drawing upon myth, poetry, and the daily newspaper, sometimes tending toward the homiletical without being "preachy," Bailie devotes most of the first six chapters to explicating the work of René Girard. He clarifies Girard's thesis that sacred violence is at the center of traditional cultures. Mimetic desire, the acquisitive desire for objects desired by others, is the reason why rivalry and violence occur; these are typically resolved by victimization or scapegoating, which is in turn sacralized. The primary means of controlling violence has therefore traditionally been achieved through rituals of scapegoating and sacrifice: the victim immolated or expelled is the subsitute for all.
The Jewish and Christian scriptures, especially the Gospels with their witness to the exposure of sacred violence through the crucified Christ, have brought about the demystication of sacred violence, which has lost its moral legitimacy wherever the gospel has spread (often in spite of institutional Christianity). Accordingly, chapters seven through twelve focus on biblical texts. The last two chapters bring the book to a climax through developing two of the prior motifs: the concealment of sacred violence in Western philosophy ("Where Are the Philosophers Now?") and the voice of the victim ("The Voice from La Cruz"). This latter chapter is just as moving as the prior one, on the blindness of philosophy, is convincing. Bailie concludes his epilogue by quoting Girard: "... the truth of the victim that we at last possess is the greatest, most fortunate event in the history of religion and the whole of humanity" (p. 276; quoted from Girard, Job: The Victim of His People. Stanford, 1987, p. 108).
The greatest and most obvious contribution of this book is its acute, often poetic explication of Girard and its Girardian reading of the Bible, religion, and culture. Bailie demonstrates the crisis that the gospel exposure of sacred violence has brought about, but he also articulates with great power the gospel's message of liberation from sanctioned violence.
Another contribution is the author's critique of the philosophical tradition. Particularly telling is his demonstration of the sacred violence that lies at the heart of Heidegger's notion of Being. This sacred violence is not apparent only in Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics, which was orginally given as a set of lectures at the University of Freiburg in 1935. Many of Heidegger's defenders have tried to rationalize this book as an anomaly (like his Nazi party membership from 1933 to 1945) which is unrelated to his earlier Being and Time or to his subsequent "turn" to mythopoesis. Bailie argues that even the "later" Heidegger, in articulating the object and subject of thought which withdraws, yet pulls thought toward it, was so close and yet so far from the foot of the Cross. What withdraws, what is "hidden since the foundation of the world," is the violence done to the victim that was formerly managed through sacrificial ritual, concealed in myth, and hedged about by cultural prohibitions. Philosophy began by demythologizing, and Nietzsche, Ortega, and Heidegger achieved what seemed to be radical demythologization. But without the gospel philosophy has always remythologized.
"Where are the philosophers now?" Certainly not on the hill called La Cruz during the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. On La Cruz there was an evangelical Christian girl who kept singing after she had been raped and shot and the blood was flowing from her chest. The government soldiers had to cut off her neck with machetes to still her. From La Cruz--"the cross"--the girl's voice has survived. When this voice is heard, then "Where is the sage? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?" Bailie concludes this chapter with telling force by quoting Girard: "In reality, no purely intellectual process and no experience of a purely philosophical nature can secure the individual the slightest victory over mimetic desire and its victimage delusions...For there to be even the slightest degree of progress, the victimage delusion must be vanquished on the most intimate level of experience" (p. 272; Girard, Things Hidden, p. 399).
It is certainly possible to quibble with Bailie here and there. e.g., with respect to his biblical exegesis at points or with his deciphering of certain contemporary events. But I think the statement on the dust jacket will be true for most of the readers who become engaged with this book: "Those who have read Violence Unveiled claim that they will never read the Bible or study history or watch the evening news the same way again."
James G. Williams