The Voice of the Scapegoat: Part 3, The Bloody Antimyth

Summarizing from the last post, René Girard argues that civilization is built atop a scapegoating mechanism and that this harmonizing and cathartic murder is obscured by religious myth which sanctions our violence. The murder is reframed as divine sacrifice.

Thus, our sin is both the blood on our hands and the blood shed to support our civilizations. Humanity truly has a multitude of skeletons in its collective closet.

And again, more than blood our sin is also implicated in the silencing of the victim. This, according to Girard, is the Mythic Cover Up, our collective hiding the evidence. Throughout human history the sacrificed--those marginalized and powerless persons--have had no voice. The One killed for the Many has been lost to history. Many times over. Our lies--religious myth--silence the blood crying out from the ground.

But the blood begins to cry out in the Old Testament.

The Old Testament is bloody and scandalous to modern sensibilities. To intelligent critics of Christianity how could we in good conscience claim those blood-filled, violent texts as a part of our guide for moral life and practice?

To this question Girard has a startling response: Your scandal at the Old Testament is Exhibit A that you are a child of these texts. For without the Old Testament your scandal--the very moral code you use to indict the Old Testament--would not exist.

How does Girard make such a claim?

Recall, ancient myth obfuscated the scapegoating mechanism. Ancient myths hid the blood and the murder. Ancient myth denied the victim its voice. This was the milieu to which the Old Testament spoke. But Girard notes something curious about the Old Testament: the Old Testament doesn't read like any religious myth before or since.

Some might try to equate the two--pagan myth and the Old Testament--but a student of myth quickly sees the difference. The Old Testament claims to read as history, with real people, with real failings, in real locations. The stage of the Old Testament is humble and workaday. There are no frolicking gods, no mythic serpents, no grand quests into the heavens or underworld. No, the Old Testament is earthy, sweaty, and, offensively, bloody.

And the blood in the Old Testament is a key to its proper reading. The Old Testament is not attempting to hide the blood. The blood is right there, out in front of the story. Thus, we quickly know that this story is different. It is not in the mythic mold of obfuscation and coverup. Rather, the Old Testament is making a claim on reality. It is not a myth. It is an antimyth. Heim helps us see this:
What is violence doing in the Bible? It is telling us the truth, the truth about our human condition, about the fundamental dynamics that lead to human bloodshed, and most particularly, the truth about the integral connection between religion and violence. There is no way to be truthful without exhibiting these things. If we complain that the tales of Genesis and the bloody sacrifices of Leviticus, and the fire for revenge in the Psalms, are too sordidly, familiarly human to have any place in religious revelation, we make an interesting admission that they reveal our humanity all too well. We always knew this was the way things were, we claim. We don't need a religious text to tell us so. We need cures, not diagnoses. But is that true? What if our cures need diagnosing?

...A simple way to put it would be to say that our reconciling violence is not evident to us, but always goes under another name: Revenge, purification, divine sacrifice. If that is a basic fact of human life, then where violence is not being faced it is being justified. Where it is not being explicitly described, it is not absent, but invisible. To exhibit violence is to run the risk of enflaming people's appetite for it. But to veil it under euphemism and mythology, to be piously silent before its sacred power, it is to make its rule absolute. (pp. 101, 102)
But the Old Testament has the courage to tell the truth, to expose the blood. And the irony here is that for refusing to go along with the pagan mythic coverup the Old Testament gets criticized by modern readers. Heim continues:
Critics of Christianity attack the 'violent God of the Old Testament' as the sociopathic cousin in an extended family of much better adjusted deities. But the offense of the Bible might be put the other way around. It suggests that the better adjusted deities are (literally) a myth. (p. 102)
The point for both Girard and Heim is that if the bible wants to extract God from the mythology of violence it has to start at the beginning, with a bloody God. You can't make moral progress until that fact is owned and recognized: God has been used (and is still used!) as a coverup for violence. The Old Testament has the courage to both recognize that fact and start us on a moral journey. For the God of Leviticus is different from the God of the prophets. And that suggests that something deep and profound is being worked out in the Old Testament. God is slowly being disentangled from the bloodshed. Heim continues:
The God described in the Bible appears in a variety of characterizations. The God represented in the passage about collective stoning in Leviticus looks different from the God presented in Amos or Isaiah, for instance. Such diversity is a cue for valuable critical-historical investigation. (p. 102)
Yes, from our Christian vantage, we look back on the moral journey begun in the Old Testament and find its documentation embarrassing. But without that journey and its documentation--full of bloody and brutal truth-telling--we don't get to those noble sensibilities we so pridefully use to indict the Old Testament.

In the end, the Old Testament, steeped in blood, seeks to tell the truth:
The Old Testament is an antimyth. It is thick with bodies, the voices of victims and threatened victims...This is not mere background material. It unveils a truth without which Christians would be incapable of formulating their own faith... (p. 103)
But more is going on in the Old Testament than its refusal to hide the bloodshed.

As we'll discuss in the next post, it's in the Old Testament where the scapegoat begins to find a voice.

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