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

From the last post...

Civilization is built atop a scapegoating mechanism. But this harmonizing and cathartic murder is obscured by religious myth, giving ultimate sanction to 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.

But more than blood, our sin is also implicated in the silencing of the victim. The Mythic Cover Up, hiding the evidence. The sacrificed--those marginalized and powerless persons--have no voice. Thus, the One killed for the Many is lost to history. Many times over. Our lies, called religion, silence the blood crying out from the ground.

But the blood begins to cry out.

In the Old Testament...

We continue on with Part 3 in this series working through the ideas of Rene Girard and S. Mark Heim's recent book Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. In this post we finally turn the the biblical text. We start with the blood-filled 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 could 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. And, curiously Girard notes, the Old Testament doesn't read like any religious myth before or since. Atheists 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.

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 for that, for refusing to go along with the pagan mythic coverup, it gets criticized! 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, to be honest, we must start with a bloody God. That is the start of religion. You can't make moral progress until that fact is owned and recongnized: God has been used (and is still used!) as a coverup for violence. And 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. That 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 vanage, we look back on the moral journey begun in the Old Testament and find its documenation embarrassing. But without that journey and its documentation--full of bloody and brutal truth-telling--we don't get to those noble Christian 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. Oh yes, the Old Testament does more, much more.

For in the Old Testament not only is the blood not hidden but the scapegoat begins to find a voice...

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9 thoughts on “The Voice of the Scapegoat, Part 3: The Bloody Antimyth”

  1. Richard,
    Great thoughts! For the past 10 years I have struggled with this view of the cross (I've come to believe the most interesting and challenging way to view it is through a relational model).

    I haven't read Heim's book yet, but after reading this blog it sounds like he (you?) is saying that the scapegoat mechanism began with humans and was subsequently attributed to the divine. That makes for an interesting reading of the text. Wouldn't that imply that much of the OT text is a product of scribes writing to cover up the true source of violence (humans) by attributing it to God? I agree that the OT text bears witness to a moral journey. But, is it a witness to the human journey or the divine? Isn't it possible that God is the source of violence? Afterall, the first act of violence in scripture was done by God (the killing of animals for clothing). What if God used violence as a means to mitigate the extreme violence and chaos that would certainly follow the fall? It would only be a temporary solution (like the law)to stop the complete destruction of mankind, but it would be a beginning point from which human nature could evolve (this would go along well with the evolution from "an eye for an eye..." to "turn the other cheek"). Just as Jesus later spoke against such violence, God could use the cross event to propose a better way than the scapegoat mechanism. Just wanted to say thanks for your thoughts and share a few of my own. Keep it up. I hope all is well with you and your family. Tell Mark Love "hello" for me.

    Brian England

  2. 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.

    ... justice?

  3. Brian,
    Good to hear from you! I miss our Acquire games.

    I think, as these posts continue, you'll find a convergence of perspectives between Girard's and your own. Let me know at the end of the series.

    The point being that we must have rationalizations for our violence. Stories we tell ourselves to allow us to shed blood (literally or metaphorically). In modern societies we don't much use the rationale of "sacrifice." We are more "sophisticated" than that. Our big rationale for violence is a claim of "justice." Justice as in "They deserve this." For example, we don't see capital punishment or war as murder. Nor do we see the murder going on in capitalistic systems. That is, when we see people failing to thrive in our economic systems we see their failure as their "fault" (e.g., No one thinks that that little old lady who will die this winter due to the cold is a "murder" because she couldn't pay her heating bill...). I take Heim's point to be that whenever we inflict harm (individually, collectively, actively, or passively) we must "justify" it to ourselves. We don't, ever, call ourselves "murderers." Yet we are. Or at least we benefit from the murders. America exists because of tens of thousands of murders (slaves, American Indians). America thrives on top of our economic murders (our poor, the Third World, ecosystems). In the end, our collective mythology hides our crime. The OT is an antimyth in that it clearly shows that violence is self-interested.

  4. Our big rationale for violence is a claim of "justice." Justice as in "They deserve this." For example, we don't see capital punishment or war as murder.

    Nod. Although I think I was trying to make a slightly larger claim: that the idea of "justice" itself is violence-masking.

  5. Matthew,
    Okay, I see. Yes, in fact, a justice that stands WITH the victim is JUSTICE. In Heim's sentence above he's speaking of "justice," a rationalization to create more victims. Basically, he's talking about psuedo-justice.

  6. I used to wonder why ancient people, and the Jews are only one example, spent their time and money killing their animals. It doesn't make sense to me, raised as I am this side of Thomas Reid's ivention of common sense. The writings of Joseph Campbell helped to clear that up somewhat for me. I learned that human sacrifice was pervasive and that often a retinue of servants/slaves/wives etc were killed when a king or pharoah died. This was true from Egypt to China, meaning it was fairly universal to human beings. It had something to do with the discovery of agriculture and the finding that death produces life. There is more to it than that of course. We'll have to check out what Girard and Heim have to say and how they continue to elaborate this theme. Thanks for this thread. Say, are you and Kevin brothers?

  7. Yes, in fact, a justice that stands WITH the victim is JUSTICE.

    Although this seems to assume that the perpetrator isn't also a victim.

  8. Steve (& Kevin),
    Kevin and I are not brothers. My family hails from PA. Kevin, where are your Becks from?

    I love the work of Campbell. I think I recall seeing some of his books on your profile.

    There is actually a passage in Saved from Sacrifice from Campbell's The Power of Myth. In the passage Heim is concerned that, as Campbell recounts the myths (like the ones you cite), the victims in these stories are voiceless. Campbell doesn't even seem to register them as murders. As a fan of Campbell this passage gave me pause.

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