Rene Girard and the paradoxical effect of Christianity

Christianity could be said to be, simultaneously, the most peaceful and violent force ever unleashed on the population of Planet Earth.

The peace of Christianity comes not only from the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, but also from the anthropological knowledge that is disclosed by both the Gospel accounts and the writings of St. Paul: the formal mechanism of Satanic power as the generative principal of human community, the highly contagious and imitative nature of human desire, and the role of sacrifice in the organization of society — “Things hidden since the foundation of the world.”

The violence unleashed by Christianity — “I have come not to bring peace but a sword” — in Western society and then throughout the world is a result of that very same revelation. The political and intersubjective violence precipitated by the Christian vision stems from the slow and steady undermining of all the sacrificial-hierarchical mechanisms that have held society in place through the various “scapegoat” strategies throughout history (slavery, feudalism, and now global capitalism in the 21st century) and the inability of the human subject to cope with the radical implications of the “Kingdom of God” that was announced in Palestine 2000 years ago.

Rene Girard expresses this paradox in the following passage:

“If you look at the Gospel text in the light of what we are talking about, you have texts like, “I bring a sword, not peace,” “I will separate the father from his son, the daughter from her mother, the mother-in law from her daughter-in-law.” It is there in the Gospels, but people forget about it because it is so scary. And it is the announcement of a world which will be no longer protected by sacrificial protections. I would say that today the Christian world is a world where the sacrificial protections collapse more and more … I would say we have to bring these texts back and disagree with the theologians who tell us the apocalypse was a big mistake, that it was borrowed from the Jews and so forth. Not at all. It came from the profound insight that Christianity uproots culture in terms of sacrifice, and therefore delivers the world to the powers of destruction, if it doesn’t choose Christian love.” (1)

What this means for 21st century global society is so profound, but yet so elementary, that it is hard to fully comprehend. We are living through a time period where the damn of human desire — competition, jealously, “keeping up with the Jones,” and both the political and interpersonal violence that always follows the build up of surplus desire — has broken completely open from the combinatory effect of computational power becoming synchronized with global capitalism. When facing our social media feeds what we discover is that there are no longer any cultural or political mechanisms to protect us from each other and ourselves because such protections have been progressively undermined by the Christian revelation of unconditional love, perpetual forgiveness, and the admonition against scapegoating.

We have been left with a situation that the late British writer Mark Fisher has termed “Capitalist Realism,” a progressively Hobbesian world of every man for himself in which all cultural and social protections are undermined for the logic of the market and the technological form that structures it.

  1. Cayley, David. The Ideas of Rene Girard: An Anthropology of Religion and Violence . Kindle Edition.

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