Scattering the Proud – Chapter V

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The Crucifixion and the Key of Knowledge

Although contemporary secular intellectuals are generally sceptical about Christianity and the notion of divine inspiration of the bible, cultural anthropologists associated with the academic Rene Girard are quite convinced that the biblical record is, after all, of a different order from all other ancient texts, and entirely capable of throwing new light on the predicament in which we now find ourselves.

For Girard, we humans are primarily mimetic creatures, that is to say we learn and grow by imitation at an unconscious level. Children imitate their parents intuitively, simply as a means of learning as rapidly as possible. There is no problem with this until someone takes or ‘appropriates’ something – the child a toy, or the man a tool, say. ‘Mimetic’ desire then dictates that there will often be an imitative act of appropriation by someone else of the same object – and conflict may begin. And when one blow is struck, mimesis also dictates that others may follow. In a society dissolving in mimetic conflict, there is a growing irrationality and terror. A mechanism is required – especially by those with most to lose – which will break the cycle of mimetic violence, for otherwise all will perish.

This mechanism is the accusation of an individual in some way isolated from the rest, e.g. by the fact that he or she is a stranger, or disfigured. This individual’s isolation means that his death will not provoke the reciprocal vengeance of any sizeable faction. So he is accused of being somehow the source of the evil that now afflicts his society, and either put to death by the entire community, or expelled. Reciprocal violence threatening to destroy a society is thus replaced by a focused violence which reunites the same society around the body of an expendable individual. One person dies to ‘save’ the rest.

The Origin of Myth

However, the unity thus created is precarious because of its origins in murder. So there begins a process of concealment of the truth in a founding myth, supported by a commemorative sacrificial ritual. A familiar example is the Oedipus legend, the story of the lamed stranger found to be the source of the plague affecting Thebes, and then blinded and driven out. Oedipus is at once the source of the plague (a metaphor for the crisis of mimetic violence), and the foundational figure of the religion designed to maintain the unity of the city. A regular ritual sacrifice replaces the original violent event. At some stage the victim typically becomes a God — far too late to enjoy the experience. Girard believes that all religions and foundation myths can be deconstructed to reveal the original scapegoating event, and provides many examples.

For Girard, however, the biblical texts are unique in one vital respect. From first to last they introduce a moral dimension, an ongoing and overt critique of the scapegoating process, a refusal to conceal it by distorting the essential innocence of the scapegoat. Abel’s blood ‘cries out from the ground’ to accuse Cain (Gen 4:10), where (in the Roman equivalent) Remus is accused of provoking Romulus’ attack upon him. The prophets consistently reveal the evil of scapegoating violence, and themselves fall victim to it. This makes them unique in the history of ancient cultures, in which intellectuals generally complied in mythologising murder into heroic defence of the culture against monstrousness. Where the legend of Oedipus insists that he had murdered his father and committed incest with his mother, the story of Joseph (Gen 37) reveals the latter to have been victimised by his brothers out of jealousy. In the bible, uniquely and consistently, the victim’s innocence is emphasised rather than concealed.

‘Despised and Rejected by Men’

In the Old Testament this exposé of the scapegoating process reaches its greatest intensity in Isaiah’s suffering servant.

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces,
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

(Is 53:2-3)

The passage describes someone who is the antithesis of the typical hero of the ancient world – someone like Hercules who has divine connections and great physical strength and beauty. This therefore is someone who lacks esteem, someone in fact rejected, which means that his death will not provoke retaliation. He is the ideal scapegoat.

By oppression and judgement he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off from out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

(Is 53:8-9)

Here again the text explicitly denies that any significant charge can be laid against the victim – his only crimes are pacifism and honesty, the specific virtues his accusers lack, for they will both lie about him and kill him.

Direct Accusation before the Event

In the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, there comes a moment when Jesus recapitulates the Old Testament, for the benefit of those who will soon turn upon him for precisely the same reasons.

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation.
(Mt 23:34-36)

Significant here is the universal dimension of the attack. Abel was for the Jewish people the ancestor not simply of the Jews but of all humans, while Zechariah was the last murdered prophet of the bible as Jesus knew it. So Jesus is attacking not just his immediate listeners but religious leaders of all cultures, and not just for the murders of Abel and Zechariah, but for all similar murders since the beginning. The statement ‘I send you prophets’ implies also that Jesus is revealing this phenomenon on behalf of an observing presence which precedes his earthly life.

‘Things Hidden’

The gospel of John is equally explicit in its denunciations:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.’ (Jn 8:43-44)

‘He was a murderer from the beginning’ is clearly a reference to Cain’s murder of Abel. The lie is the concealment of the truth about the ritual murder that has just taken place — Cain had asked ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ The purpose of ancient religion – according to René Girard1Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Athlone press, 1987 was the concealment of the truth that it had been founded upon murder, so those whom religion empowers are party to this lie. And to conceal it they are prepared to murder those who point it out. But Jesus is unremitting:

Woe to you lawyers! for you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves and you hindered those who were entering. (Lk 11:52)

It follows that Jesus is revealing ‘things hidden since the beginning of the world’ (Mt 13:35) — specifically the foundation of human culture upon the concealment of murder. For Girard it is this that is the key of knowledge, revealing the role of violence in founding religion and culture. But Jesus is to reveal this not simply by stating it verbally. He himself will fall victim to the same process, through the anger his words cause:

As he went away from there, the scribes and the pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say. (Lk 11:53)

They are determined again to take away the key of knowledge, but can think of only one means to do so, the old means used throughout history – to repeat the original murder. The crucifixion of this particular victim, clearly free of mimetic desire and of all personal ambition, will reveal the injustice of all scapegoating.

Stephen the Deacon

The proof of the success of this revelation comes in the story of Stephen, who recapitulates precisely the same process by simply pointing out what has happened.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, who you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.’ Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
(Acts 7:51-58)

Here again the reaction to Stephen’s accusation is to repeat the very process of which he reminds his murderers. The turning of the key of knowledge triggers a reaction designed to bury it, which confirms its revelatory power. However, Stephen’s death also reveals that Christ’s death will not in itself prevent further recurrences, because we humans will always be free to repeat the same scapegoating processes. Freedom to repent implies also freedom to conceal the key of knowledge, to bury it again by further murders.

Girard’s conviction that all ancient cultures were founded on scapegoating violence is accepted by many experts in his field who would not share his belief that the bible is categorically different from all other ancient texts. Yet, once seen, the specifically biblical revelation of, and intolerance for, scapegoating violence is striking. Here we have another compelling explanation, standing apart from conventional Christian theology, of the downward journey and crucifixion of Jesus: it was a revelation of the origin of all ancient cultures in concealed murder, and therefore an attempt to found culture on something else — the spirit in which he died — of total love and forgiveness, and recognition of those who suffer. On the cross forever they are, with him, exalted. This divine recognition of the pain of humanity is the only cultural resource humankind possesses that can carry us through the utter injustice of the world of the upward journey. Without that unique downward journey we are condemned to scapegoating violence forever.


  1. Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Athlone Press, 1987