Rene Girard on How to End Violence in the World

Is it possible to end violence in the world?

In our day and age, violence is legitimized and sacralized – as it’s always been. Nations rise and declare war on each other on the grounds that seem perfectly justifiable.

Since times immemorial, people have believed in sacred violence because there seems to be no other way to set things right when you have been wronged. If a member of another tribe kills someone you love, it is impossible to replace this person by finding an equivalent. There is no equivalent.

How do you then compensate for the loss? How do you appease the wrath? What do you do with the pain? What sacrifice is sufficient to restore peace in your soul?

The usual reasoning goes like this: I must make the offending party pay with something they hold dear. They must sacrifice someone they love. It can’t be just anyone. It should be someone pure and perfect, a holy sacrifice. A king, a maid, or a child. There is a strong mythology developed around the sacred victim because it seems to be the only workable solution.

“The victim becomes sacred and the process of sacralization remains a fundamental structure of all archaic religion.” Rene Girard

When the sacrifice is made (usually by violence), peace is restored. Wrath seems to be appeased. Or is it? In any case, it seems to work for a time – at least, it dulls the pain well enough.

What is the theory of Rene Girard?

Rene Girard, a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher, said that people have only two ways of dealing with violence in this world. One is to look for a scapegoat. The other one is to become a scapegoat – willingly.

The first way is pagan. All pagan religions sooner or later come up with the idea of a scapegoat – someone who will bear the guilt of all.

The second one was epitomized by Christ – an innocent scapegoat who willingly takes upon himself the guilt of all the transgressions.

Rene Girard says,

“Christianity must be the religion of the end of sacrifice, because it says that there is only one victim, who is God.”

Pain always pushes us to look for a scapegoat. Until our pain is healed, we will need a sacrifice to appease our own anger. We will lash out. We will demand a sacrifice. We are hurting, so we need to hurt. We can’t just leave it like this. So, we will ALWAYS find a scapegoat – someone who will pay the price.

The trouble with this approach is that it DOES NOT heal the pain that caused the violence in the first place – it only dulls it for a while. By lashing out against our chosen scapegoat, we feel a temporary relief from our pain but the root of it remains. We will be relieved for a while until something else or someone else triggers our pain again.

Girard writes,

“The victims are sacrificed to restore harmony and unite the community, but it is only ever a temporary solution. The peace achieved through the victim is always ephemeral.”

We may even try to restrain our aggression for a while, but it will invariably accumulate over time and explode in another fit of violence.  

In pagan religions, the sacrificial system functions like a drug – the dose of violence needs to be constantly repeated and increased so it would alleviate the pain well enough. When we lash out in anger against a scapegoat, the question is always: “Will this sacrifice be enough?” “If I make this person, or this tribe, pay the price, will it restore my peace?”

In paganism, no sacrifice is sufficient. What may seem sufficient for a time will prove to be insufficient eventually. Why? Because the cause of the pain has not been addressed. It’s only been “medicated” by a drug.

There is only one sufficient sacrifice – a willing sacrifice of someone who is not guilty. When someone innocent agrees to become a scapegoat and bear the price for someone else’s wrongs, it becomes a sacred sacrifice that heals the wounds of the heart.

To quote Girard,

“Christianity proclaims that Christ’s death is the founding event of a new order that breaks definitively with the old sacrificial systems. The crucifixion is not another sacrifice in the long series of bloody rituals but the final, nonviolent, and revelatory sacrifice that exposes the mechanism of all scapegoating.”

The one final sacrifice that does away with all the bloody rituals that fail to stop violence is God’s willing sacrifice of Himself.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of the efficacy of such a sacrifice is Jean Valjean’s redemption story in Les Miserables.

What is the message of Les Miserables?

Having served nineteen years in prison, a convict Jean Valjean is released on parole. He ends up in the house of a bishop of Digne, Bishop Myriel. Valjean is bitter and ready to make the whole world pay for depriving him of the best years of his life. After all, his crime was stealing a loaf of bread.

The bishop knows who he is but still invites him in. In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up, steals the silverware, and flees. He is caught by the police and brought back to the bishop’s house. He claims that the bishop had given him the silver, but, of course, the police don’t believe him.

The bishop looks at him sternly. Valjean’s eyes are full of fear, and he is on the verge of fainting. He knows that the only treatment he deserves is punishment. He will be sent back to the quarries. He is ready for the bishop to take revenge, lash out, restore justice. Instead, the bishop exclaims,

“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean stared at him in amazement with an expression that no human tongue can describe.

The brigadier released him, and the police left.

The Bishop drew near to him, and said in a low voice: “Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man.”

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of ever having promised anything, remained speechless. The Bishop had emphasized the words when he uttered them. He resumed with solemnity: “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God.”

The bishop paid the price of his freedom willingly. Like Christ, he was innocent, and yet he became a willing scapegoat who agreed to bear someone else’s guilt.

The effect of this type of willing sacrifice was astounding. It shook Jean Valjean to the core of his being, and he became a new man. He was redeemed and reborn.

What happened to his pain that was the cause of his aggression in the past? It was gone. His heart healed.

“Crucifixion is not another sacrifice in the long series of bloody rituals but the final, nonviolent, and revelatory sacrifice that exposes the mechanism of all scapegoating.”

When we see eruptions of violence in our world, it’s a call from above to become willing sacrifices in any way we can. It’s the only way to nip violence in the bud. Violence doesn’t stand a chance when we agree to heal someone’s pain by willingly paying for their wrongs.

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