The Voice of The Scapegoat, Part 2: Sacred Violence, Scapegoats, and Myth

Before turning to those bloody, sacrificial Old Testament texts it will be necessary to understand the setting to which those texts spoke. It was a time of sacred violence, scapegoats, and myth. This post will abstract the argument of Rene Girard's book Violence and the Sacred and parts of Chapter Two of S. Mark Heim's Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross

Human culture is built atop our imitative abilities, our ability to serve as and learn from social models. Culture is contagious, with information, behavioral norms, and innovations propagating quickly through a population. This capability greatly enhanced our ability to cope with changing environs and circumstance. But this adaptive flexibility came with a price. Just as the "good things" in life can propagate through a group so can the bad things. Rumors, gossip, stigma, and hate are also radically contagious. Like a wildfire, groups can quickly be aroused to paranoia, hysteria, panic and, ultimately, violence. In short, the imitative engine that makes social life possible also makes it volatile and unstable.

This instability and proneness to violence typically manifests itself when the group is placed under stress (e.g., famine, epidemic). During these times of fear, people grow more anxious, fearful, distrustful, and paranoid. And this fear, via the contagion of culture, propagates until the entire group is facing massive outbreaks of violence. At this juncture, one of two things will occur. If the group doesn't find a way to vet its paranoia and aggression, violence will break out and, given the imitative nature of human culture, the violence will escalate in reciprocal bouts of revenge killing. Eventually, due to the unchecked violence, the society will disintegrate and be lost to history. We have no knowledge of the many fledgeling societies that chose this route. Simply, they did not survive.

At the height of communal violence other cultures took the other route. A tragic but effective route. For some reason, different in different times and places, the ire of the group fell upon a certain person or subgroup. This person, typically a marginal person, a person of no account and with no voice, is blamed for the crisis. At first only a few make this attribution. But like gossip and rumor, this blame also propagates. Eventually, the community reaches the unanimous conclusion, "This person is to blame! They have displeased the gods! They must be punished for bringing this crisis upon us!" And in this moment the solidarity of the group, miraculously, reappears. Once fractured individuals now stand together against the scapegoat. The violence of the group is brought to bear upon the One to save the Many. And the sacrifice occurs. And in the wake of the sacrifice the blood lust of the group, now unified, is sated. Peace returns.

This this the theory of primitive religion offered by Girard in Violence and the Sacred. Girard contends that scapegoating sacrifice emerged in human history as the solution to a very real problem, the management of communal violence. Human societies are like dry kindling, ready, at a moment's notice, to burst into flames of violence. Sacrifice was the cultural innovation that aided humans in managing this violence. Further, the scapegoat united the once divided group. Thus, after the sacrifice of the scapegoat, a violent mob is both pacified and united. This communal catharsis appeared "magical" and, thus, became associated with supernatural power and significance. Over time the scapegoat and the sacrifice became incorporated into the mythic structures of the group's metaphysical worldview. The sacrifice becomes necessary, eternal, and sanctioned by the gods. Heim summarizes:

The sad good in this bad thing is that it actually works. In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all. The sacrifice of one person as a scapegoat discharges the pending acts of retribution between members of the group. It 'clears the air.' The contagion of reciprocal violence is suspended, a circuit breaker has been thrown. The collective violence is reconciling because it reestablishes peace. This benefit seems a startling, even magical result, an outcome much greater than could be expected from a simple mob execution...The one mobbed as the most reprehensible criminal now is revered as the bringer of peace, one with a divine vocation to die and restore order for the people. So the victim becomes a god, memorialized in myth, and the killing becomes a feature of a foreordained plan, a pattern and a model. In the face of future threats, similar response will be required. Rituals of sacrifice originated in this way, tools to fend off social crisis. And in varied forms they are with us still. (pp. 43-44)
But Girard goes on to note that this "solution" to communal violence--a simple murder--must be, to remain effective, "hidden." Heim continues:
In other words, in perfectly good faith both the nature of the crisis and the kind of behavior responsible for it are described in mistaken terms. This misunderstanding serves to increase the effectiveness of the sacrificial process. It works more smoothly when we 'know not what we do.' If it were obvious to all that sacrifice was a ploy in the ordinary round of rivalry and violence, a bone thrown to satisfy everyone's lust for revenge, it would be much less effective...Without a canopy of sacred awe and the conviction of unspeakable crimes, suspicions might arise about whether the victim was chosen arbitrarily, about the interests of those who picked the victim. (p. 51)
Religious myth, therefore, is fundamentally about obfuscation, about hiding a truth. What truth? That human society has been built atop and is still built atop murder:
Myth is an account of a murder that routinely obscures the fact that it was a murder at all. It describes a collective killing that was completely justified, entirely necessary, divinely approved, and powerfully beneficent. (p. 52)
All this might seem like an interesting anthropological analysis if Girard did not go on to suggest that this sanctioned scapegoating is still with us. Heim continues:
If sacrifice was simply failed science, and accomplished nothing, it would have no importance for us now. But it does work, and continues to work, whether the community is question is a clique of middle school girls or a country in the grip of economic collapse...The same scapegoating dynamic is alive in our setting. (p. 61)
We can now step back and try to summarize Girard's theory:
1. Sacrifice was a real solution to communal violence.

2. But for that "solution" to work the truth about its mechanics had to be systematically obscured.

3. Religion, via its mythical structure, provided this obfuscation.

4. The obfuscation was this: The voice of the scapegoat, the very personal cries of the one being murdered, had to be silenced. Thus, scapegoats were chosen (and are still chosen) from marginalized groups, powerless people. Further, the murder of the scapegoat must not be seen for what it is (i.e., a murder). It must be a divinely sanctioned "sacrifice."

5. This scapegoating mechanism--rationalized, sanctioned, "religious" violence--still defines the human condition. Our collective Sin is this machinery of violence.

6. Thus, in order to save us, the scapegoating mechanism must be exposed.
But how will this mechanism be exposed for what it is? How will our violence be unmasked? How can we be saved from this blindness and violence?

Here's how. By allowing the scapegoat, for the first time in human history, to speak. To pull aside the religious myth that has hidden the victims from our eyes and hushed those we have killed in the name of God. To hear the voice of the victim. The voice of the scapegoat.

Enter the Old Testament...

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