Christ is the “forgiving victim,” says James Alison, a Catholic priest, theologian, and author. This idea stems from Alison’s Christian interpretation of philosopher René Girard; his work is peppered with language like “the mimetic nature of desire” and “the scapegoat mechanism.”
Confused yet? Don’t be. At their core, Alison’s ideas are a radical rethinking of the Christian story and what it means to be catholic—or universal. Humans have a history of excluding others, Alison says. Just like the nerds, cheerleaders, and drama club kids sitting at separate tables in the high school lunch room, we create community and figure out our own identities based on who’s “in.”
But Christ changes all that. Jesus came along and volunteered to be the person who was excluded. That self-victimization, according to Alison, is exactly what makes the crucifixion and resurrection—indeed, our whole Judeo-Christian history—so different.
Shifting the story in this way changes not only how we see our faith, but also how we treat each other and understand relationships. “Whenever we encounter the other, we come away fundamentally changed,” says Alison.
In order to truly appreciate how unique Christ was in human history, Alison says, we need to start far before Jesus, the cross, or even the Roman Empire. Instead, the important question to ask is why humans are so good at hurting each other. And this all goes back to desire—our need to obtain what we don’t have.
What is desire and where does it come from?
René Girard was a great French historian and philosopher. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Girard developed an insight into what he called “the mimetic nature of desire.” This means that rather than us desiring something directly—“I want X”—there is actually a model that, by pointing to X, produces in me the desire.
Girard thought about desire in mostly a philosophical way. He was quite adamant that he was not speaking of religion, but, for those of us who are interested in theology, he gave us a fantastic insight from which to develop an understanding of what it means to be a church that is completely orthodox but extraordinarily fresh. His ideas are based on things that are not celestial, but very real human exchanges. And once you start looking at the Bible, for example, through this lens, you start to read both the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures in quite a different way.
Of course, the classic biblical example is when the serpent teaches Eve that the fruit of the forbidden tree is much more desirable than she’d ever imagined. And he makes it even more desirable by suggesting that God is frightened of her discovering it, and that’s why it is forbidden.
Was Eve wrong to want the fruit?
To desire according to the desire of another can be a good thing, as when parents teach their children by example what is good.
But, this desire can also very quickly turn to rivalry. When the serpent tempts Eve in the garden, the fruit becomes even more tempting when he implies that God is envious of Eve. A rivalry is created as Eve tries to differentiate herself from God.
We are much less stable beings than we think. The real me, which I think of as somewhere inside myself, really isn’t. I’m much more malleable by what other people teach me to want and to become. The real me is very much a project at work over time, rather than anything I begin with.
One of the things this means is that we’re all very much inclined to enter into rivalry with each other as we fig-ure out whom we are becoming. Take, for example, office politics—even in the most friendly and collegial of work environments.
This isn’t just a human behavior. You can see the same rivalry in geese and in a variety of other animals. The beginning of rivalry seems to have come to particular splendor among the higher apes, where primatologists agree that you have dominance patterns and an alpha, who prevents any rivalries from becoming too intense.
The difference between animals and humans is that humans have overridden the braking mechanism, introduced by instinct and dominance patterns, that tells them when rivalry has gone too far.
For instance, wolves will fight among themselves, but they will not fight to the death. One wolf will offer its throat, and the other wolf will recognize this as a sign of submission and instinctively not kill it. But humans are not like this; humans can kill defenseless members of our own species—and do.
If this is true, why didn’t our species die out a long time ago?
René Girard proposes a moment or moments over a very long period of time where this braking mechanism started to collapse in the face of the ever-greater capacity for rivalry between individuals.
People (and primates before them) became terribly dangerous to each other. No doubt many groups wiped themselves out. But some didn’t. Actually, from what we can tell from the study of DNA, there was a time when there were only about 2,000 members of our species left in Africa before they came to Europe.
Girard hypothesizes that some groups seemed to have the good luck to preserve their society without really knowing what they were doing. Some animals had the good fortune to stumble into what Girard calls the “mechanism of the random victim” or what other people refer to as the “scapegoat mechanism.”
The scapegoat mechanism is when, in the midst of a violent frenzy, someone manages to point the finger at an individual in the group. The group is united by the fact that everyone is against that person or that member—because person may be too grand a term—and they are thrown out.
At the moment the scapegoat is thrown out, something extraordinary happens. The group is at peace. There is a cadaver or exile, and here is a formerly frenetic group, for a moment, at peace.
As outsiders, our first reaction is to say, “Gosh! The peace is because the group unified!” But their own reaction is, “Wow, the one who we threw out must really have been the guilty one!” They were the one who caused the conflict, and when they were thrown out, peace was obtained.
This is the beginning of symbolism: A person or member starts to stand for something else. The scapegoat symbolizes both the group’s disorder (which it has caused) and its subsequent harmony (which it brings about by being expelled). What ultimately distinguishes us from other animals is our ability to understand symbols, and one of the first universal symbols is that of the victim.
From that point on, humans live in a world in which binaries exist—good/bad, in/out, we/they. And as long as we have that structure, we can maintain civilization as a whole.
Where do we find this binary between good and bad in human history?
Girard studied all the myths of antiquity and what he discovered time and time again were a set of mythologies that were centered around this same foundation of order by casting out the wicked one.
Usually, the gods intervened to do the casting out of the evildoer, and humans watched in amazement as their society was founded. Or, in some accounts, it was the gods who took part in the sacrifice of a human; they dismembered a human and that was the beginning of creation.
These stories are found in places as widespread as pre-Vedic India and Mexico City. These places weren’t communicating, so it seems like there’s a structural reality that is the same in both places. This incredible foundation is the story much of humanity tells about itself.
Take the Romulus and Remus story and the founding of Rome. The two brothers know they’re going to found the city, but they are in rivalry with each other as to which one gets to found it. So they await an auger from the gods. Remus is sitting somewhere and sees seven mighty birds flying southward. He says, “Aha! That is the sign from the gods!”
But then, a little bit later on, Romulus sees 12 mighty birds flying westward, and so he says, “Aha! This is the sign from the gods! Remus’ sign was false.”
Of course, it’s undecidable, as all signs from the gods are. But they fight. Romulus starts founding a city and draws the city limits. But Remus jumps over the boundary, showing that he doesn’t respect the order Romulus is setting up. So Romulus kills him.
The gods turn up and pat Romulus on the back, saying, “Well, well, splendid. That sacrifice was necessary to found the city. Just what we needed, really.” In other words, what was a fraternal murder, the gods bless as a necessary sacrifice.
That same kind of story is told throughout the myths of antiquity.
Do we find the same kinds of stories in scripture?
By the 19th century, people had realized that all the stories in the Bible are the same as the stories in the rest of the world. There are equivalents of the Noah’s ark story, the story of Cain and Abel, etc. in different myths all over the world.
But what was the great shock to Girard was the fact that the Bible puts into evidence what the other stories cover up.
The Cain and Abel story in Genesis, for example, is pretty identical to that of Romulus and Remus. Both have twins or closely born brothers who are going to be the founders of civilization and who are pretty much indistinguishable from each other. And the effects are the same as well: They fight. The jealousy of one is made explicit in the story—Cain kills Abel out of jealousy.
However, the reaction of the gods—or God, in this case—is completely different. God turns up and says, “Where is your brother? His blood cries to me from the ground.” In other words, God calls murder what humans would like to call sacrifice.
Then God has to protect Cain. We think of the mark of Cain as a kind of curse, but it was a protective device put on Cain so that other people didn’t take vengeance against him for murdering Abel. It is what enables Cain to start the foundation of all culture.
The result is that the foundation of all culture is understood to be a very ambivalent project, unlike the story of Romulus and Remus.
So, while the Bible tells the same stories as most other civilizations, it tells them from the perspective of the scapegoat, the one who is thrown out, the victim. The stories may be structurally identical—all against one and the cultures in both result from that conflict—but the results are different.
The necessity of preventing vengeance that leads to death is everywhere in the Bible. In Genesis, we have people killing each other sevenfold; for each death in our family, we’ll kill seven of your family. Then, it’s promised to be 70 deaths. That’s why Peter asks our Lord, “How often must I forgive someone, seven times or 70 times?”
Of course, Jesus’ answer is, “You’ve got to undo all of vengeance, back to the beginning of creation.” And then we have a God who sacrificed himself to us out of love, instead of human society causing God to sacrifice himself out of a need to pay a debt or whatever. That’s what stunned Girard: the fact that the Bible subverted the idea of a scapegoat in this way.
What does all this mean for how Catholics live out their lives?
It’s easy to create unity by being against something or someone—by assigning a scapegoat. It’s difficult to create unity by being prepared to be the person who the others are going to throw out.
The challenge, then, is for us to become the sort of people who can let each other in. No matter how strong the temptation is for us to behave as if we can solve our problems by all agreeing on who the bad guy is and banding against him.
There’s no shortcut to reaching this place. There’s no decree from on-high that everyone’s in. Catholicity, which of course means “according to the whole,” has to be created. It’s universal, but what is it that creates catholicity?
We have to undo all the different forms of othering or creating identity over and against someone else. Everything that is good and beautiful about difference must become a distinction rather than a reason for rejection.
For instance, race or color or gender or sexuality, rather than being the sort of things that might cause someone to be excluded, are the sort of things that add beauty. It’s a different way of being together. But that kind of change never happens by decree.
American Catholics know this from the civil rights movement in the United States. We have all these laws and decrees from the 1960s, but we’re eight years into an Obama presidency and still wrestling with the same issues of racism. In other words, it’s quite a different matter for people to find themselves genuinely and spontaneously not othering people and celebrating difference.
And this is frightening. As Christians, we are always clutching onto texts and books to help give us our identity. We behave idolatrously and try to rebuild the temple rather than allow ourselves to be turned into the new temple. But God is constantly undoing our forms of attachment to those books and texts, even when we’re frightened of letting God do God’s work. I think that’s true of all of us.
How, then, does change happen, despite our fear?
The beauty of catholicity is that we, as a church, hope and pray that this works by sign rather than by decree. Our human bodies are sacraments, and we are learning how to stretch toward each other and make this change come into being.
It is difficult to do this sometimes. To receive and welcome someone who is, after all, usually a repugnant or difficult other in our lives involves letting go of our own identity. It’s not about winning brownie points for having been so tolerant and kind to someone; we actually become someone else.
We are changed when we refuse to other someone else. We become a new sort of “we” with the person who would have been excluded. We take on part of them, they become part of us, whether we want that to happen or not.
That’s the frightening thing about catholicity; the reception of the other doesn’t mean a whole lot of different groups of separate people who all happen to get along. It means we.
Prepare not to know whom you’re becoming. Surely that’s what being a son or daughter of God means. We only discover it as it happens. And that’s difficult.
A sign or two is worth a thousand pages of text—something I think Pope Francis understands particularly well. When he washes the feet of some Muslim women, people start to realize, “Gosh, yes, that was the right thing to do.” Other people start to do similar things, and the signs can start to be multiplied.
Catholic identity is continuously shifting. We are in a completely different place as a church than we were 15 or 20 years ago. If not, it wouldn’t be catholic. And that’s an amazing thing.
This article also appears in the September 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 9, pages 22–25).
Image: Courtesy of James Alison