René Girard, meet Terry Jones, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and the gang


Avoiding crowds (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

A brief conversation with Martha and René Girard brought forth the startling fact that René had made an unaccustomed appearance in Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog over the weekend.  The subject was, of all things, would-be Koran-burner Terry Jones.

Quietly nestled among his posts on the sex lives and habits of other people is  “What Qu’ran Burning and Crucifixion Have in Common.” Sullivan cites an article by Eric Reitan:

[A]t least one theologian—S. Mark Heim—has taken up Girardian themes to argue that the crucifixion is best understood as a potent repudiation of sacrificial scapegoating… If Heim is right about this, then Jones and Phelps and their respective congregations are symbolically enacting the very thing that the passion stories central to Christianity were intended to repudiate. Where they are called to see the crucified Christ in those who are being symbolically burned at the stake, they instead see a righteous sacrifice to God. Where they are called to identify with the victim of sacrificial scapegoating, they become the practitioners.

Reitan’s article adds:

Some, such as Christopher Hitchens, would see such sacrificial scapegoating as a natural extension of Christian theology—which, after all, has at its heart the doctrine of the vicarious atonement, which Hitchens finds an appalling extension of the idea that wrongs can be righted by sacrificing an innocent scapegoat to God.  But the crucifixion, like book burning, is a complex symbol.

Of course, what Reitan calls Heim’s idea is not Heim’s idea at all.  René Girard himself has written  — for example, in I See Satan Fall Like Lightning — that  “the Gospels are aware of what they are doing. They not only tell the truth about victims unjustly condemned, but they know they are telling it, and they know that in speaking the truth they are taking again the path of the Hebrew Bible.”

But more and more I find myself coming back to the René’s writings about the role of the mob, which seems very apropos  to the discussion at hand:

In a society that has fallen prey to anarchy, the voracious appetite for persecution feeds on victims indiscriminately, as long as they are weak and vulnerable.  The least pretext is enough.  No one really cares about the guilt or innocence of the victim.  These two words, without cause, marvelously describe the behavior of human packs.

W.H. Auden wrote put it this way:

… the crowd rejects no one, joining the crowd is the only thing all men can do.Only because of that can we sayall men are our brothers …

Auden understood

With the inevitable consequences:

All if challenged would reply– ‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I. —

Reitan seems to be haunted by the same theme.  He writes that “the nation has, through extensive media attention, conferred on this tiny congregation an enormous power it otherwise wouldn’t have—a power to make their symbolic violence do more actual harm than it otherwise might have done, to make their vicarious scapegoating less vicarious, and so to more effectively reach their intended targets.”

He concludes:

The media rushes to the next dramatic spectacle because to do so will attract ratings. And why does it attract ratings? A congregation of 50 can hardly be blamed for that. All of us in our own ways play the roles of betrayer, deserter, and denier. And while we should not condone the Dove Center’s desire to burn Muslims in effigy—nor should we fail to repudiate it when it becomes a public spectacle—it is important that our response not re-enact on another symbolic level the very pattern of sacrificial scapegoating that we repudiate.

In others words, societies of hundreds of millions of people have many subsets, niches, and off-the-beaten-track pockets.  The scapegoat-maker in one subset becomes the scapegoat of another.  As Girard writes, “Persecutors think they are doing good, the right thing; they believe they are working for justice and truth; they believe they are saving their community.”

On both sides of a discussion, too.

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5 Responses to “René Girard, meet Terry Jones, Andrew Sullivan, Christopher Hitchens, and the gang”

  1. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    I enjoy the confluence of writers and thinkers whose streams of thought I get to immerse myself briefly in on this blog. Thanks, Cynthia.

  2. Marianne Bacon Says:

    Thank you for the ongoing features about Rene Girard. The depth and scope here is virtually endless – keep it up, please, Cynthia!

    As per your request for a bit of info about my incredible privilege of talking with Prof. Girard at St. Thomas Aquinas after Mass, here goes.
    I asked him about an early passage in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, which blew me away even while I wanted better understanding of what he was saying. The passage talked about the “fallacies” of objectivism and subjectivism being the same: “…both originate in the image which we all have of our own desires. Subjectivisms and objectivisms, romanticisms and realisms, individualisms and scientisms, idealisms and positivisms appear to be in opposition but are secretly in agreement to conceal the presence of the mediator. All these dogmas are the aesthetic or philosophic translation of world views peculiar to internal mediation… They all defend the same illusion of autonomy to which modern man is passionately devoted.”
    As I say, the scope here was just mind-blowing. I had hoped he would spell this out for me, and I was at that time not really understanding the rigorous formalism of his categories- something I have since picked up on a little more. Instead, I followed wherever his remarks led, and some of them were about his feeling relatively unknown in the United States, but having many many readers in Europe. He was surprised to find an ordinary reader to be as captured by his ideas as I clearly showed I was. He was a wonderful listener, but I wanted to listen to him, and not have it stop. He seemed satisfied that I had penciled all over the page in question, did not spend time in explicating the text for me, but instead offered to bring me another book he had just written he thought I should read; alas, I never saw him again, and I cannot remember the title of the book he was going to bring to me. He talked much about how he got into this direction of thinking, and did not hesitate to talk about how a love interest was (how could it not be) grist for the mill (not his image). I wish I could remember more. He said a lot of autobiographical things, not from self-importance (you couldn’t find any), but because I asked – about Avignon, Indiana, … At some point, Martha came and joined us, and I was happy to see her. We had met briefly at Mass some months earlier, right after dear friend Elizabeth Bailie died, and shared a word about this beloved person.

  3. Dave Lull Says:

    Hoover Institution presents
    Uncommon Knowlege
    with Peter Robinson

    To get to the video recordings of an interview of Rene Girard scroll down on this page:

    and click on the permalinks for each chapter:

    FRIDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2009
    Insights with Rene Girard: Chapter 5 of 5
    Rene Girard explains how he makes sense of, “On Earth peace, good will toward men.”

    Insights with Rene Girard: Chapter 4 of 5
    “History . . . is a test of mankind,” says Rene Girard, and “mankind is failing that test.”

    Insights with Rene Girard: Chapter 3 of 5
    What is the connection between myth and Christianity? Rene Girard responds.

    TUESDAY, DECEMBER 08, 2009
    Insights with Rene Girard: Chapter 2 of 5
    Rene Girard describes how conflicts are resolved, and why human society is not marked by total conflict all the time.

    MONDAY, DECEMBER 07, 2009
    Insights with Rene Girard: Chapter 1 of 5
    Rene Girard describes the triangular structure of desire — object, model, and subject.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, Roseanne, as always — and thanks, Marianne, for sharing your memories! I meant to reply earlier, but wanted to give some more thought to what R.G. said — about the “fallacies” of objectivism and subjectivism being the same. Not sure I entirely agree — remember I am a student of Czeslaw Milosz, who thought subjectivity has been the downfall of the modern novel. I think R.G. sometimes overstates his case, which has led many people to reject his claims outright, which is too bad. (I had a exchange with Josh Landy on the Arcade website about this subject — and we had to finish up at the Coupa coffee shop.)

    Dave, I watched this series last year — it’s beautifully produced, and a pretty good introduction to his work. (I could have done without the somewhat theatrical style of the interviewer.) Recommended.

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