Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 30: Animals as Contemporary Scapegoats: Reply to a Question
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 30: Animals as Contemporary Scapegoats: Reply to a Question

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

I appreciate those who have responded to this ongoing series with thoughtful comments and questions. The last two essays on animals as scapegoats prompted one person to wonder whether those who harm and/or kill animals today are really motivated by the scapegoating mechanism. Those who catch fish and hunt, for example, often express such sentiments as an appreciation for nature, a fascination with animal behavior, and the necessity to kill animals to provide food for their families. Intensive confinement systems often seem to derive from economic forces rather than a human inclination towards sacred violence. Those who eat animal flesh generally perceive the meal as nourishing and tasty, and they would generally deny that the food symbolically reflect their domination of nature. There are many possible ways to explain the motives of those who harm and/or kill animals. Is a Girardian perspective superior?

I do not want to repeat material detailed in the first 8 essays of this series, which can be viewed at the below Internet address. In a nutshell, Girard has argued that all human culture derives from the ability of sacred violence to unify people around the victim. Whereas mimetic rivalries constitute a powerful force tending to drive people apart, scapegoating helps resolve their conflicts and brings peace and order. In primal cultures, subsequent to the chaos and ensuing scapegoating violence, “prophets” announce a divinely sanctioned social order, which people believe because intuitively they understand that social order helps reduce mimetic rivalries and conflict. In other words, when the prophets say that the gods decree that certain people, usually defined by family heritage, enjoy power and first choice among sexual partners, people accept this because they intuitively recognize that social order is necessary to protect them against the terrifying chaos of escalating mimetic rivalry. The social order involves identifying differences between groups of people, such as gender, race, family lineage, or other criteria, and defining rules that prohibit competition between the social ranks. This is most evident in the Indian caste system, in which, for example, most Indians would find it unthinkable for an Untouchable to marry a Brahmin.

According to Girard, primal societies maintain the social order by attributing it to their gods. Their sacrificial rituals reenact the lack of differentiation that led to chaos, as well as the differentiating process by which the gods established the social order. Purportedly speaking for the gods, the prophets had defined the categories and declared as taboo actions which violate the now-sacred social order. With the social order divinely sanctioned, primal people have genuinely believed that violating this order (i.e., violating taboos) will cause societal collapse, which helps explain the fervor with which many Whites once defended school segregation.

Differentiation is fundamental to culture. What it means to have culture is to have rules—rules of social conduct, rules about “good” versus “bad,” rules about what is “right” versus “wrong.” These rules about what may or may not be done to members of different tribes, genders, etc. derive from the scapegoating mechanism. Similarly, species differentiation is grounded in the scapegoating mechanism. Of course, there are biological differences between humans and non-humans, but there are biological differences between every living thing, and there are limitless ways in which people may categorize biological entities. Since, according to Girard, the scapegoating mechanism is the process by which differentiation occurs, it follows that defining the role of an individual animal by its species membership, whether it is to be a companion animal or a source of food, similarly derives from the scapegoating mechanism. Unfortunately, neither Girard nor most of Girard’s pupils seem to have made the connection between scapegoating humans and scapegoating animals.

Girard’s principle empirical evidence is the observation that every primal culture either engages in sacred violence or has rituals linked to past sacrifices. This, Girard asserts, is the only thing that can be said about all cultures, and consequently Girard maintains that sacred violence is central to the origin of culture. If it could be proven that a single primal culture were free of sacrifice in both contemporary practice and ritual reenactment, then his theory would collapse.

What about “civilized” cultures? They are not free of sacred violence, but it tends to be more hidden, for at least two reasons. First, courts of law have generated order in “civilized” societies such that there appears to be no need for scapegoating to maintain social order. If someone feels slighted, they may take the issue to a supposedly impartial court, and peaceful resolution is possible in ways that are often not available to primal cultures. The need for sacred violence therefore appears reduced. In truth, judges have become the high priests, rendering judgment and punishing wrongdoers. A Girardian analysis still points to sacred violence at the origin of differentiating “good” from “bad,” from which the law derives.

Second, recalling that the scapegoating mechanism is always hidden, it is hard for us to recognize the ways in which our own culture engages in sacred violence. If we are to recognize our own sacred violence, we must listen to the voice of the victim, because otherwise we (like members of all cultures) will regard our actions as righteous and just rather than violent.

Third, there are situations in which actual necessity, such as the need to put food on the family table, accounts for killing animals. Similarly, defending one’s home against invaders can involve acts of violence for which sacred violence is not a primary motivation. However, few acts of violence are so black-and-white. Few of those in the West who hunt absolutely need to do so, and military acts of “defense” are often not as defensive as claimed.

The failure to recognize the victim as a victim helps explain why so many people who harm and/or kill animals fail to recognize their actions as involving sacred violence. For example, to many hunters, “the deer” are too numerous, and “culling” a proportion of the population is good for “the deer.” But, the very act of calling a group of individuals “the deer” is a kind of differentiation that has its origins in sacred violence.

Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) As we will see, in Christ Jesus, we are all loved by God. The distinctions that have their origins in sacred violence are often attributed to God, but in truth they are human distinctions, not divine ones.

Genesis relates that God cares about all of Creation. Humans were given the sacred task of caring for Creation, a task that humankind has handled poorly. The main reason we have done so badly is that humans have tended towards idolatry—believing in false gods of their own design rather than the true God who is loving, compassionate, and merciful.

Go on to: Part 31: The New Testament: Introduction
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