Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 7: Myth, Ritual, and Taboo; The Scapegoating Mechanism as the Foundation of Culture
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 7: Myth, Ritual, and Taboo; The Scapegoating Mechanism as the Foundation of Culture

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

(This is the longest part in the series, covering some important topics.)

The ongoing discussion shows how Girard’s mimetic theory, I think far better than any other, explains why every primal (“primitive”) culture engages in ritual sacrifices and has myths that recall one or more killings that were central to the foundation of their worlds. We will eventually see how Christianity exposed sacred violence as perpetrated by humans and not the will of God.

Last week, we discussed how scapegoating restores peace and stability to communities whose cohesiveness has been threatened by hostilities generated by mimetic rivalry. To community members, the transformation seems miraculous. Initially, people were feeling angry and hostile. After the community finds and exiles or kills the scapegoat, everyone feels much better, convinced that the cause of their troubles has been eradicated. Invariably, they believe that their god(s) demanded the sacrifice to eradicate evil.

In an attempt to avoid repeating the crisis that necessitated finding a scapegoat, communities develop myths. These myths describe how their god(s) want sacrifices. Indeed, the “truth” of these myths seems evident precisely because sacrifices do restore peace and tranquility, “proving” that sacrifices please the god(s). The myths include instructions for sacrificial rituals. These rituals aim to re-enact the circumstances of the original sacred violence. This is a complex topic, and I refer readers to Violence and the Sacred by Rene Girard (1972) for numerous examples and a more complete discussion. For our purposes, it’s important to note that ritual sacrifice renews the sense of camaraderie that the original sacrifice engendered.

Taboos are linked to sacrifice. Those activities that seem to have generated the destructive mimetic rivalries become taboos. For example, nearly all cultures have taboos involving castes, classes, gender, or other socially prescribed roles. More specifically, many cultures prohibit marriage between castes. Such taboos reduce mimetic rivalries, because fewer people compete for the scarce resources of power, privilege, “attractive” mates, and material well-being. In Ancient Egyptian society, one’s entire life role was dictated by one’s class. There was virtually no personal freedom, and there was also little mimetic rivalry. Many people, including myself, applaud dismantling of unjust racist, sexist, and other exploitative institutions, which themselves survive only by using violence or threat of violence to maintain social roles. But, an unintended and potentially divisive consequence can be increased [within] mimetic rivalry. And, as discussed previously, mimetic rivalries lead to resentment, anger, and potential violence.

As more people violate the taboos that help maintain social order, there is a risk of what Girard calls a “sacrificial crisis.” In a “sacrificial crisis,” social hierarchies break down and mimetic rivalry leads to an “all-against-all” environment of chaos and potential destructiveness. The answer, again, is the “all-against-one” scapegoating mechanism, which unifies the community.

The memory of the terrifying chaos of the “sacrificial crisis,” which is easy for later generations to forget, is preserved in myth, and the preventive medicine against a new “sacrificial crisis” is ritual and taboo. Myths tell people that taboos are ordained by the god(s), giving taboos an aura of sacredness. People do not need to understand why there are taboos or even the circumstances around their genesis. If people believe that violating taboos will anger the god(s), this will usually ensure compliance and help maintain communal peace. The sacredness of taboos explains the vigor with which ethnic, gender, and other differences in communities are defended, even today. Contemporary social reformers often contend that taboos maintaining oppression of women, people of color, etc. are sinister attempts to selfishly exclude some people from the community’s bounty. However, there is genuine terror that, if the “sacred order” were undermined and women assumed traditionally male social positions, or if people of a traditionally subservient group were put in a dominant position, a “sacrificial crisis” would ensue that would result in chaos. This helps explain the vigor with which many Southern Whites once defended the subservient position of African-Americans. The notion of a Black foreman telling a White laborer what to do was terrifying to many Whites. Whites often said, “Everyone gets along with each other down here.” But, “getting along” included a violent response to African-Americans who “didn’t know their place.”

One frequent cause of a sacrificial crisis is a natural disaster. Because people have traditionally interpreted earthquakes, draughts, etc. as signs from the god(s), natural disasters often prompt people to lose faith in the power of the myths, rituals, and taboos that have held their community together. They seek a scapegoat to blame for the crisis, which is usually a “witch” who has cast spells, violated the social order, and precipitated disaster. After the witch (or witches) have been exiled or killed, new myths, rituals, and taboos arise. Specifically, the myths, rituals, and taboos reflect the community’s beliefs about what caused the sacrificial crisis in the first place.

And so it goes—every time there is a sacrificial crisis a new scapegoat is found, and myths, rituals, and taboos are created and/or modified. When Girard asserts that all cultures are founded on sacred violence, he does not see culture founded as a single event in the remote past. Rather, culture is an ongoing entity that repeatedly gets broken down and renewed—always with the scapegoating mechanism as central to the story.

Some might wonder what all this discussion of primal culture has to do with our technologically advanced, intellectually sophisticated cultures. As future discussions will reveal, we are not at all immune to becoming embroiled in the scapegoating mechanism ourselves.

I hope you have been able to stay with me this long. We will soon be ready to look at the Bible from a Girardian perspective.

Go on to: Part 8: The Bible Reveals Sacred Violence
Return to: Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence Table of Contents
Return to: Christian Living Table of Contents