Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 8: The Bible Reveals Sacred Violence
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 8: The Bible Reveals Sacred Violence

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Rene Girard argues that all culture is founded on sacred violence. While this may be true on theoretical grounds, what is empirical evidence? A remarkable observation is that all primal cultures either engage in blood sacrifice or have myths that relate back to blood sacrifice. There are some traditions that reject the human desire to participate in mimetic rivalry or to engage in vengeance, most notably Buddhism. However, as Brit Johnson argues, this reflects a conscious effort to expunge the human desire to participate in mimetic rivalries and does not necessarily refute the claim that the larger culture was founded on sacred violence.

Girard and his students have looked at a wide range of myths and found that they consistently both reveal and conceal the scapegoating mechanism. They reveal the mechanism in that they recall a person or “monster” who created chaos who was killed by the god(s) or the community. They conceal the mechanism by asserting that the god(s) killed the victim or demanded the victim’s death for evil deeds. In other words, what they conceal is the victim’s innocence and the fact that their culture was founded on murder.

For example, The Nawatl Aztec’s ritual for the renewal of fire (recorded circa 1500) recreated the communal killing of a victim as the origin of culture. First, all blankets were burned and pottery destroyed (to re-enact an original, pre-civilization state). Then, the sacrificial victim was placed atop a pyramid and had his chest cavity opened up and his heart ripped out. A bowl of tinder was placed in the chest cavity and a fire was started by rubbing sticks. The new fire lit a torch that was passed from torch to torch throughout the community.

In a given culture, there is no reason to doubt the truthfulness of the myths. The myths offer an explanation for the origins of the Universe in general and the given culture in particular. The myths recall the collective, “sacred” violence, but the scapegoating mechanism makes it impossible for the killers to realize that they have engaged in collective murder. That is, they don’t recognize that the victim, while not always totally innocent of all wrongdoing, is not nearly as guilty as accused, and therefore not nearly as deserving of punishment as the mob believes. The myth that evolves from the event, then, invariably describes the victim as guilty and deserving to die, and this lie becomes the foundation for the culture. This lie also tells people how they are central to the designs of the god(s), in part because they have carried out divinely ordained sacrifice. Their ancestors were unified after destroying forces of evil and chaos—forces that they attributed to the victim of sacred violence but were in fact a manifestation of the divisive nature of their own mimetic desire (see Parts 2 & 5). Therefore, the lie about the victim’s guilt forms the foundation for their convictions about what is right and wrong; meaningful and irrelevant; and true and false about the mysterious universe in which we live. This is the lie that has been “hidden since the foundation of the world” (Matthew 13:35)—the lie that Jesus will expose.

Because the lie forms the foundation for all knowledge and all values, it should be impossible for the given culture to recognize its foundational story as hiding the truth of the victim’s innocence. Even scientists would be incapable of exposing the lie. Scientists like to think of themselves as objective, but in truth science is a cultural enterprise that reflects the values, biases, and beliefs of a given culture. What questions scientists pursue, how they design and execute experiments, and how they interpret results are all culture-laden choices. This is not to say that the sciences tell us nothing meaningful about the world, but humans determine what is it means to be “meaningful.”

Therefore, anyone who might question the guilt of the original victim (and later sacrificial victims deemed to resemble the original victim) would be seen as insane and/or satanic; it would challenge the beliefs, held by everyone enmeshed in that culture, about what is good, meaningful, and true.

How, then, did Girard come to recognize the scapegoating mechanism? After all, he’s a product of his culture as much as the rest of us. The answer, he says, is that we have the Bible. The Bible is distinctive in that it reveals the innocence of victims, from Abel to the prophets to Jesus to St. Stephen. And, only because of the biblical revelation can the modern sciences assist in our understanding of sacred violence. Regardless of whether a given scientist is Christian, or even believes in God, all scientists now grow up in a culture that has a strong tradition of recognizing the innocence of victims, thanks to the Bible.

What has science shown? The branch of the social sciences known as cultural anthropology has demonstrated that sacred violence is universal. It is with this knowledge that we may recognize our own scapegoating. Without the Bible, we might regard scapegoating by other cultures with contempt, but we would not recognize our own scapegoating. As we will see in the next several weeks, the Bible has revealed the scapegoating mechanism, which can easily ensnare anyone. Since the Bible's revelation cannot derive from human culture (which always hides the truth of the victim's innocence) it follows that the Bible must have had influence from outside human culture—a divine influence, if you will. Next week, we’ll start to look at our foundation story--the Book of Genesis.

Go on to: Part 9: Mimesis in the Garden of Eden
Return to: Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence Table of Contents
Return to: Christian Living Table of Contents