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March 29, 2024   5 mins

Last year, I attended a Good Friday service for the first time in more than 20 years. I was a little nervous to find myself back in the pews: as a young man, I had rejected the Midwestern Catholicism of my childhood, and instead embraced the agnosticism that seemed to be the spirit of the age.

In recent years, though, I’d grown disillusioned with the modern secular worldview and had started attending Mass again. Still, my scepticism of Christianity lingered, and I sure didn’t feel like I belonged in this place on this day. In the Catholic church and many others, the holy day is “celebrated” with the Stations of the Cross and the Passion Play, both re-enactments of the horrific events leading up to Christ’s death on the cross.

It was the Passion Play that got me. I had forgotten how the congregation is expected to participate in the drama. At key moments, we were asked to play the role of the murderous mob, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
How utterly bizarre this is, I thought. And heart-breaking. The Christian tradition asks us to imagine that the son of God was tortured and murdered by a bloodthirsty horde, while the apostle Peter cowered out of sight. And then it asks us to identify not with the suffering Christ, but with the vicious mob that cheers his death.

If you were a mad scientist designing a world religion in a lab, hoping that it might appeal to the masses and spread across the world, I think it’s unlikely you would have constructed it this way. What is this strange story doing?

In my search for an answer, I looked to RenĂ© Girard, the French polymath who spent the last 15 years of his life at Stanford in the French Department, presumably because they couldn’t figure out where else to put him. Girard is known primarily for his theory of “mimetic desire”, the idea that human beings come to want certain things because we see other people wanting them. This is a powerful idea, and Girard uses it to develop a provocative theory of culture and violence. But it is another aspect of his thinking that got my attention.

Girard defied the reigning spirit of agnostic Jungianism in the humanities. It was fashionable, in his day, to look for the similarities between different world cultures. Joseph Campbell, for example, sought to prove that myths from around the world all tapped into the same archetypes, participating in the one great “monomyth” that shapes all of us. George Lucas used these ideas to create Star Wars, a mythology that has overtaken the world in the past 40 years. It was the perfect theology for a non-judgmental, multicultural age.

But Girard says, no, all these myths are not the same. In paganism and other archaic religions, mythology is used to uphold the existing social order, justifying whatever violent acts brought it into being. Indeed, for Girard, every social order — not just every government, but every human culture throughout all of space and time — is founded on violence. It is only Judaism and Christianity that expose this violence as unjustified or sinful. For this reason, he believed that there is something fundamentally different — even subversive — about the Judeo-Christian worldview. It represented a revolutionary break from the past.

You can see this in Genesis. The story of Cain and Abel, in Girard’s view, depicts the murder of an innocent victim as the founding act of human civilisation. After killing his brother in cold blood, Cain goes on to found a city. It is the first example of “scapegoating”, the process by which we identify and then expel or kill an individual victim, cementing the bonds that tie us together as a community.

The story also illustrates Girard’s theory of “mimetic desire”. It is, after all, Cain’s desire for the approval of God — a desire which he shares with Abel — that is thwarted, sparking his jealous, murderous rage. Girard traces these patterns throughout the Hebrew Bible in the stories of Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau, the Hebrew prophets, and the Suffering Servant. Indeed, the crucifixion of Christ echoes the murder of Abel — though in this case, the church says that all of us are complicit in the death of Jesus.

“I’ve come to believe that an individual’s capacity for evil should never be underestimated.”

As a younger man, I was always sceptical of the doctrine of Original Sin. Why are these people trying to convince me that I harbour evil in my heart? All things considered, I’m a pretty good person, aren’t I? Yet as the years have passed, I’ve come to believe that an individual’s capacity for evil should never be underestimated, and that includes my own.

But Girard’s interpretation of Original Sin is more complex. Simply by participating in our culture, by being a member of a human society, we are all partaking in the violence upon which that society or culture was built. Judaism and Christianity work to expose the scapegoating mechanism by revealing the victim to be innocent. But that doesn’t mean the danger is gone.

Girard would be the first to admit that Jews and Christians are not immune from scapegoating, despite the subversive nature of their stories. What’s more, by showing the victim to be blameless and the crowd to be guilty, the Judeo-Christian tradition weakens the very mechanism which had previously been used to safeguard public order. In recent years, it seems that Judeo-Christian ideals have been used to undermine all forms of social bonds, including Judaism and Christianity themselves. Myths and customs that have been passed on for thousands of years have been discarded as superstitious, judgmental, and chauvinistic. But, if Girard is right, these ancient stories and rituals served to help us process our most murderous instincts. In their absence, can we keep those instincts at bay?

Though he died in 2015, I doubt Girard would be surprised by the cruelty of today’s political climate. On both the Right and the Left, there are efforts to demonise the opposition and to expel or eliminate those who pose a threat to a particular worldview. Girard even predicted the emergence of a “super-Christianity” , which reduces everything to oppression and victimisation. “This, I think, is the totalitarianism of the future,” he told Canadian journalist David Cayley. “Marxism was its most primitive form probably.”

For a civilisation rooted in Christianity like ours, the current rise in antisemitism is a special cause for concern, for it can be an early warning sign that we are entering a potentially dangerous phase of scapegoating. It is always tempting for the Christian (or perhaps even the post-Christian) to believe that it was the Jews who killed Christ, and we had nothing to do with it.

Girard is fascinating to me, but I confess that I don’t find much comfort or cover in his ideas. There are forces at work in the world that we can only perceive dimly, if at all. And Girard gives me all the more reason to quail at the thought of Christ’s Passion. Saying “Crucify him!” out loud in a church full of believers only serves to remind me that I, too, am complicit in the sins of mankind.

Tim DeRoche is the author of The Ballad of Huck & Miguel.