Rene Girard’s Mimetic Desire and the Scapegoat Mechanism
I have never learned a theory that has transformed everything I know about the Bible as the theory of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism by René Girard. Below is a summary by Hamerton-Kelly and a 5-hour long interview with Girard.
“The basic components of the Girardian hermeneutical theory are mimetic rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism. Human desire is essentially imitative. It copies the other in his desire; objects become desirable because somebody else desires them. Eventually desire becomes competitive and loses sight of the object because of concentration on the rival. The rivalry becomes violent, one tries to kill the other, and such violence makes community impossible, until the group spontaneously discovers the scape-goat mechanism, which transforms random violence into unanimous violence by directing it against one victim. Violence then unites rather than divides the group, making community and culture possible. The scapegoat victim is sacralized by the process, he/she embodies the sacred which has the two valencies of violence as destructive and as unifying. The process of killing the victim is re-enacted ritually in sacrifice, a good and life-giving activity, thereby concealing from us the originary and persisting violence and giving us a false estimate of human nature and society, as essentially benign. The scapegoat, therefore, is the generator of all culture” (p. 67, Hamerton-Kelly, “A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivarly, Mimesis, and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence,” Semiea 33).
“Girard argues that the New Testament is consistently anti-sacrificial, by which he means that it never claims that God desired or required the death of Christ, that the murder of Jesus is seen for what it is, the killing of a hapless victim by the human mob, albeit tricked out in the costumes of state and religious legitimacy. Jesus went the way of the many casualties of the Roman/Sadducean establishment, an instance of mob violence against another innocent victim. It is never claimed that God required this death to satisfy some violent need in Himself; rather Paul appeals to the Cross as the basis of communal unity, because by the imaginative identification with the victim, called faith, mimetic rivalry is stilled. The cross is necessary because of human mimetic rivalry and violence, not because of a divine need for sacrificail appeasement. (Schwager: 215 note: “Jesus must die, if only so that men may transfer their hatred of God to the Son of God and of mankind to the Son of Man.”) The Cross is a scandal because it reveals what we would conceal by our human wisdom, namely, the scapegoat mechanism, and by revealing it renders it no longer effectual” (p. 68, Hamerton-Kelly, “A Girardian Interpretation of Paul: Rivarly, Mimesis, and Victimage in the Corinthian Correspondence,” Semiea 33).
Read Hamerton-Kelly’s introduction to Girard’s theory of mimesis and the scapegoat mechanism.
- Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard
- Violence and the Sacred by René Girard
- I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by René Girard
- Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by Mark S. Heim
- Discovering Girard by Michael Kirwan
- The Genesis of Desire (Studies in Violence, Mimesis, and Culture) by Jean-Michael Oughourlian
Other Works by René Girard
- The Scapegoat
- The Girard Reader
- Deceit, Desire, and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure
- Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism, 1953-2005 (Cultural Memory in the Present)
- Oedipus Unbound: Selected Writings on Rivalry and Desire
- Job: The Victim of His People
- Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoît Chantre
- To Double Business Bound: Essays on Literature, Mimesis and Anthropology