No more scapegoats

The Bruce Hamill blog post I linked in my previous post mentioned the theologian James Alison, who I’ve since been reading with some fascination (even if he writes some things that are hard to understand…).

Dr Alison bases much of his theology on the philosophy/anthropology of René Girard, with whom I was similarly unfamiliar. In his essay Girard’s breakthrough, Alison describes Girard’s analysis of the “scapegoat mechanism” (or “surrogate victimage”). This is the idea that societies shore up their sense of unity and order by singling out scapegoats who can be blamed for social disorder and expelled:

That is to say, human desire, as we live it (and thus the formation from within of our “self” and our consciousness) derives, as a cultural fact, from desire becoming distorted by rivalry, until there is a point where there is so much group violence that unanimity (and thus peace and the avoidance of the collapse of the group) can only be restored when, apparently mysteriously, all become fixated on someone who can be held responsible for the collapse of unity and order within the group and then expelled, permitting the establishment of a new social unity over against the expelled one.

Hence “an act of collective fratricide against a victim is foundational to all human cultures”, with each culture having to maintain its belief in the culpability of the victim “by forging prohibitions, myths and rituals”.

What’s fascinating about Girard from a Christian perspective is his return to the Roman Catholic Church as a result of applying his theories to the Bible. As Alison writes:

Professor Girard had assumed that the Jewish and Christian sacred texts would show exactly the same thing as all other ancient texts and myths – the threat of collapsing social unity leading to violence and the emergence of a new peace around the cadaver of the victim.

He did indeed find this – that the biblical texts are “structured around sacralised violence”. However, “there was a unique and astonishing difference”, one found from earliest parts of the Bible (with the story of Cain and Abel) but coming to full fruition in the New Testament, where:

God is entirely set free from participation in our violence – the victim is entirely innocent, and hated without cause – and indeed God is revealed not as the one who expels us, but the One whom we expel, and who allowed himself to be expelled so as to make of his expulsion a revelation of what he is really like, and of what we really, typically do to each other, so that we can begin to learn to get beyond this.

As Dr Alison puts it in another essay, Being saved and being wrong:

The apostolic witnesses began to be able to perceive that God has nothing at all to do with human violence, or the human social order that is based on human violence. Rather, God is so entirely outside that order that he is able to subvert it from within, by taking a typical human act of violence, a lynch-death, a coming together of all against one who is considered especially guilty and troublesome, and making this into the showing, the revelation of who God really is.

He continues:

God’s goodness is shown, not in his accepting a particular human sacrifice to blot out our violence, but rather in his subversion from within of the whole of our mendacious sacrificial order by himself giving us a sacrifice, so that we need never construct our order sacrificially again.

Hence we are enabled by Jesus’ death “to recognise our complicity in the old story”, and instead “begin to forge a story in creative imitation of Jesus’ story” – freed from the necessity to play the old game of scapegoating and expulsion.

Why am I posting this today? Because the UK news media are currently whipping up a mob frenzy over Jon Venables, who (at the age of 10) was one of the two boys who killed the toddler James Bulger in 1993. He was released on licence in 2001, but has now been put back into prison after breaching the terms of his licence.

The government are refusing to give the reason for re-imprisoning Venables, though a cursory search on Google will locate news reports providing more details (and a search on Twitter will give an idea of the levels of anger and hatred towards Venables among the general public). No doubt by the weekend the full story – including details of Venables’ new identity, given to him on his release – will have emerged.

Now there is no suggestion at all here that Venables is an innocent victim. The Bulger killing was a terrible crime. But the sheer fury of the media and public response to his re-imprisonment is surely an example of the scapegoating mechanism in process.

There is a deep anxiety in our society about our children: the way we raise them, the world into which they are growing. The anger, fear and hatred directed towards paedophiles, or child killers such as Venables – a response which goes far beyond a simple desire to see justice done against wrongdoers – are an outlet for that anxiety: in Girardian terms, “decent society” seeks to establish a sense of unity and order by fixating on such figures and “expelling” them.

Jon Venables will no doubt be dealt with according to the law, and will receive whatever punishment he deserves. But what René Girard and James Alison are telling us is that this will do nothing to reduce the fears and anxieties of society or to establish “unity and order”, and that as Christians we are called (and indeed enabled) to escape from “this tedious story of the way in which this world shores up its security and peace at the expense of victims”.

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7 Responses to No more scapegoats

  1. Matt J. says:

    In my opinion, Girard is easily the most underrated Christian thinker of the last century. His theory doesn’t explain everything, but when you start to look at how much it DOES explain, it’s really quite staggering. Allison is one of the (few) guys who has discovered his work and expanded on it. Hopefully we’ll see more to come.

  2. John H says:

    Matt: yes, I’m clearly going to have to check Girard himself out, once I’ve finished gorging on his disciple…

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  5. John D says:

    The Ellul Forum has a whole issue devoted to Girard and Ellul (Issue 35, Spring 2005), which may be fun for you.

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