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RENÉ GIRARD

Retired Professor, Stanford University And Author
"Religion, Justice and Violence"
November 7, 2003

I am a theoretician of religion. I’m really-- what should I say? —a follower of what one calls today the old anthropology. 1850, late 1875 to 1950, from Frazer to Freud. And these people wanted to define religion and they wanted to do it a scientific way. They were all mostly antireligious except one of the first Robertson Smith. But they all believed in science and they quickly discovered that to go to the center of religion, archaic religion – I am going to talk mostly about archaic religion, and then a little about Christianity—you have to go to sacrifice. And I believe they were right in this and but they failed. You know, they never managed to define sacrifice in religion, and it is a very dangerous enterprise to follow in their footsteps and try to do the same thing. But I have been doing it all my life and I am going to continue.


All I can do with you is to summarize my views. But I think today we live in an evolutionary world so one of the problems this anthropology is it was too humanistic. It was trying to ask the question in a “now” context, which did not include evolutionary theory. Today if we think science, we have to think inside evolutionary theory even if we are religious. I mean that is another problem. I am going to talk to you as a pseudo perhaps, but as a would-be scientist.
In a way, the evolutionary scientists—the neo-Darwinians—today come to the help of the people who want to define religion Because for the old humanist, religion was mostly a story, a narrative, the wrong explanation of the world that some day science would replace. But they had a very telling argument against that; even people like Winston, you know the inventor of sociobiology who says religion is nonsense. But whatever we think of it, it is too old to be useless. If it had been useless, if it had been only some kind of addiction, a harmful addiction, either mankind would have perished or religion would have perished. But the two cannot have evolved together for so long and religion still to be with us without having some fundamental usefulness to humankind.


I think many people who are against the theory of evolution should know about the fact that in a way, the theory of evolution respects religion more than the humanism coming of the enlightenment. There is a great difference between man and the animals. It is very fashionable to say that man is the most aggressive animal and it is true because human beings kill each other. We are in a good position to know that whereas animals normally inside the same species do not kill each other. They fight, you know they fight for females, and they have rivalries, but they do not kill each other. And no one knows why.


So people like Conrad Lorenz, you know him; they used to say that you try to interpret human violence through the concept of aggression. The problem of the concept of aggression is that it is a very aggressive concept. Why? Because it has to divide the world between the aggressors and the aggressed. There are the good people who’re not aggressors like all of us and then there are the bad people who are aggressors. And we have to study them, you know, from a distance because we have nothing to do with them. But that is not true. We know very well that conflict, human conflict, is two sided. When you have a conflict, everybody believes very sincerely that the other one is the aggressor. And therefore the notion of aggression is part of the problem of human aggression and certainly not a solution.
So I had another idea, you know, and this idea of mimetic desire, which was my first book about literature. What is mimetic desire? You know, animals have appetites. We have appetites too and the same as animals, but we have that more problematic yearning which call desire. And we don’t know where it is and in our world we would like to believe that we get our desires from ourselves. But how could that be? When we desire something, we feel we laugh at something because it is not there, it is not in us. So where does desire come from? And I think desire obviously desire comes from other people, the social world. We desire what people tell us is desirable. Absolutely, this is true for everything. But most ancient philosophers beginning with Plato and Aristotle have seen the tremendous importance of imitation or mimesis as they say in Greek.


But they haven’t seen one very important thing, which is if we desire the same desire as our fellow man, as our brother, we are going to desire the same object. And this object will have value because it is desired by our rival. But very soon our own desire is going to reinforce the desire of the models. So the model will become an imitator and we imitators will become the models of our models. Therefore desire is a vicious circle, intensified more and more as we keep the ball rolling. I think mimetic desire is really the source of human violence.
That does not mean you should condemn mimetic desire because obviously imitation is also the power of learning. You know when a teacher is teaching a very good student he is very happy; but if this student is very proud of being admired by his teacher, and enwrapped in it, he will go on to a Ph.D. and then he will do research and maybe very soon he will do better than his teacher. And then maybe the teacher will have a problem with his student, you know. And the relative situation is going to change and there might be born what I call mimetic rivalry. And this mimetic rivalry can be very productive because we can let it loose and we know what marvelous consequences it has in the field of economy and so forth.


But at the same time it is very dangerous because we know it can turn into great and insoluble conflict and the whole problem of politics and managing society is really managing mimetic desire and mimetic rivalries. I think the old societies, you know, with archaic religion; their main attitude was just to prevent rivalry. When societies were divided not even in classes, but in castes like old India, each caste could desire in the superior caste—look above-- but at the same time they could not compete with them so there could not be any fight. There couldn’t be any negative conflict; there couldn’t be any positive rivalry that would be created so there was a tendency for this society to be motionless.
We in the West, we don’t like that; we prefer movement and we feel we have mastered it to a certain extent, which is true, because when we say that our society is very bad, very conflictual, it is true. But there is an enormous number of people in our society who manage to repress their envy and jealousy because there are people around them who succeed better than they do and so forth. So we should see this of course but there is no history of this. There is only a history of the conflicts that are viewed to mimic rivalry. But we usually prefer avoid naming the real source of these conflicts.


Now, where does religion come from, you know? I think religion comes from mimetic desire but how does it come from mimetic desire? If you look at myth, you know great myth like the Oedipus myth, you will see that they usually have the shape of a great Pisces, which is followed by a single victim: drama. For since there is the plague in Thebes in Oedipus the King, which is in there. And one discovers that the king Oedipus, who has quite a history behind him, is responsible for the plague. Why is he responsible for the plague? Well because he has violated the greatest laws of human association: he has married his mother, and he has killed his father. In addition, he is responsible for the plague. So how could you be more guilty than that man? And we have to expel him. And the myth believes that it is true. Today we have repeated the myth, we have reinforced the myth. Mr. Freud has come and has persuaded that we are all Oedipus’; that we are all guilty of patricide and incest exactly like Oedipus. I call this a reinforcement of the myth.


Before continuing with the myth, I am going to shock you by saying let’s go to the Christian gospels? Look at this departure. We are in the Judea, just before the end of the Jewish state. Therefore we have a big crisis and in a way the presence of Jesus and the crucifixion of Jesus is going to be a consequence of that crisis. As the High Priest Kaifa says, “it is better that one man die and the whole people do not perish.” And we must face the fact that it is not the words of a criminal, it is the words of an excellent politician. If you are in danger and you have only to give up one victim, you know, you are doing pretty well—much better than most states and so forth. But in another way, this I think is what sacrifice is.


From the first century A.D., there was a man named Celsus who said, “but look this Christianity is very much like our myths. And they claimed they are absolutely unique, nothing like it before and so forth. But look at the way it is built. “ And Celsus in the first century A.D. was saying exactly what I am saying now. The profile of the gospels, the great Pisces, then the single victim drama who is the victim of the whole community, this profile is there. Just as it is there, in an enormous quantity of myth, you will be able to quote me myth but I am not that way, but myth can be changed practically at will. The thing which is amazing is that this is so true. In other words, the violence in mythology and religion is usually collective.


And there is one man who discovered that and I think it is his greatest discovery. People think he has made much greater discoveries than that but I don’t believe it. It is Freud. You know, I think the one true thing that Freud said in his whole career is an anthropological truth. He said that behind mythology there is lynching, some kind lynching, a collective death. So most people today there have been so many failures about finding the meaning and structure of religion that they don’t believe in the possibility of defining religion. They love to say that these facts are purely fiction though. That they affect us like fiction affects a little child and so forth but nothing more.


But I am going to tell you some arguments why I don’t believe that it is. In many myths, the lynchers sound terrified by their prospective victim that they see like a monster. But ultimately look at every myth, the lynchers remain alive and they are well and all alike and the victim is dead. The victim is turned into a god later on but the victim always died. Two, many of the crimes attributed to the single victims are obviously stereotypes, like parasite and incest. When a mob is in a lynching mood, they say parasite and incest. It was true in the old South when they were lynching blacks you know. You still had parasite and incest, rape and bestiality as the main crimes. And they keep coming back and coming back in such a monotonous way in mythology that to call them poetry or something makes no sense to me. It is much closer to the spirit of the mode.


Another sign I think that the lynching mode is there is the physical clues of mythical heroes or archaic gods. There are some Greek gods that are hunchback. Votan, you know the great dramatic god, is blind in one eye. Why do they have all these physical defects? You know predators, when the are looking for a victim, if they see one in a flock of zebras or something like that, if they see one that has a physical defect that doesn’t run quite the same, that’s the one they go after. I think human beings in a mob are just the same way. Another sign still, which is so interesting, is how many foreigners there are? Which is the place where the apostles during the Passion, when the servant in the courtyard says to Peter, “You have a Galilean accent”? He becomes terrified. As a matter of fact, Oedipus is also a foreigner because he was really born in Thebes but he was raised outside, so to his subjects he is a foreigner.


So all these things together I think designate the type of victim that is selected by a mob on a rampage that has no real reason to pick this rather than that victim. The only reason is the mob itself. And what is happening to the mob, you know? What is happening to the mob? Why is the mob looking for a victim? I think that their descriptions of the gospels are absolutely superior. Since the victim is innocent, what is the force that unites each time a large group of violent men against an innocent victim? If not innocent in absolute terms like Jesus, irrelevant victim. The answer is imitation once again.


But in the gospels it is very visible. If you read a description of the Passion the synoptic gospel will make it obvious that all witnesses of the crucifixion behaved magically. Peter’s denial is a spectacular example. How does a mob get into existence? It gets into existence because as soon as you join the mob you have to behave like the mob. Exactly the same way. That is what happened to Peter. People are looking for all sorts of psychological explanations for Peter. They are totally uninteresting. They all mean, “If I had been in Peter’s place, I would not have betrayed Christ.”
But Peter was weak, he was humanly weak, he was well known for that. He is not a very firm character. He is the best of the apostles. He does not betray Christ in the gospels because he is the worst of the apostles after Judas but because he is the best and therefore his case is more significant. It means that we, human beings, when we are surrounded by people who think in a certain way, we have to think the same way. No one ultimately is able to resist the pressure of the crowd, which is the pressure of society itself you know.


So another example, which is probably the most striking in the gospels and always has tremendous affect of imitation, is Pilot. Why is Pilot presented as having a preference for saving Jesus? Not because the gospels are anti-Semitic and so forth. It is modernization of the gospel; I think it doesn’t make any sense. They want to show that a partition never really leads the crowd, but follows the crowd.


But the most caricature example of imitation is still something else in the crucifixion stories, which are magnificent things. It is two thieves crucified with Jesus. Only one in Luke I know, but in Mark and Matthew everybody is against Jesus. It is especially true in Mark, which is a relentless gospel and probably the oldest. And they are crucified. Therefore you feel some solidarity with the man who was crucified with them. But what if their deepest desire is not to be crucified but to go back to the crowd. Therefore they imitate the crowd in the last hope of belonging to the crowd and they shout insults against Jesus just like the crowd. So the crucifixion story is the most amazing, description of what a mob does, how a mob behaves, how a mob is formed and what finally it does, which is to kill a single victim.
And once the mob is totally unified against that victim, what happens? All resentments, hatred, and so forth are shifted to that victim, artificially. Why does it happen? Because I told you first that this mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry divides people. It fragments the society, the community; it makes it fall apart, disintegrates. The more it intensifies, the more the objects people are fighting about tend to disappear, to be eaten, to be devoured, to be forgotten because the hatred becomes too intense. And then of course the hatred refocuses not on object but the antagonist. And something strange happens; people who desire the same object will never be reconciled. We know this but people will hate the same individual.


Hate is the best substitute for love, mysteriously, when it comes to being reconciled. It is a very bad substitute but it is the only substitute so when people regroup against enemies they focus against fewer and fewer enemies until finally they are all united against the same one because they imitate each other. So the mimesis that was dispersion, fragmentation, and so forth suddenly polarizes against a victim. And then everybody is reconciled. When the people thus reconcile are very grateful to their victim they see it as a miracle, they start worshipping that victim and they think it is over for ever. And that is not true. Human nature being what it is, mimetic rivalries are going to reappear pretty soon.


So what do people do? They try to divide the antagonist. They separate brothers. They force one brother to marry this girl, another brother to marry that girl. We call that ‘systems of kinship.’ In other words, in anthropological terms, taboos: what is forbidden. Religions are not stories. Religions are about what is forbidden and what you cannot do and what you must do and what you must do is the opposite. What you cannot do is fighting. Therefore, we separate the people who are likely to fight. But very often it does not work. The fight never rests.


So what are you going to do: you are going to do the opposite. These people they remember that they had a first great crisis and that it was resolved. What through? A victim. So they say, “why not try a victim of the same type. Exactly like the first time.” And this is, I think the first human invention that really takes humanity out of animal life. When they invent ritual sacrifice. They stop sacrificing ritual victims. It is pretty horrendous view of the beginning of human culture. That is the reason I think the old systems of the world are all systems of eternal return. They are really the eternal return of religion. If you read the great pre-Socratic philosophers of Greece you will see that the circle that they describe is the circle of what I call ‘the single victim.’


So what is religion? The question that people ask today is “Is religion responsible for violence?” It is a type of question that a culture likes to ask. Is tobacco dangerous for your health? Does this or that cause high blood pressure? Is religion bad for you? This would mean that we are totally out of religion, looking at it from outside as a creation which has nothing to do with you. What I’m trying to show to you is that religion is inherent to human right. If you have a very big crisis you come out of it in a more religious way than you went into it. Therefore we can never talk about religion and violence in terms of a religion being non-violent and a religion being violent because the violence that Christianity destroys is sacrificial violence, the sacrifice that prevents us from being violent. Therefore when you prevent sacrificial violence like Christianity does, you in a way invite more violence. It doesn’t mean you are doing bad things. And the reverse is true.


Therefore, violence and non-violence, because of the sacrificial super-infrastructure of our society, is always around. And it is still with us; we cannot do without. We have the American army, we have the American flag, we have political power, we couldn’t do without the police. These are sacrificial institutions. We cannot condemn them. It would be hypocritical. If we condemn them in the name of pacifism we are inviting more violence. So the whole battle today between right and left is about this. But the questions are never honestly posed. You cannot be for one side against the other because the relationship between violence and non-violence in the human world is so complex and ambiguous that it cannot be defined in an immediate, easy way which would be good forever and for all people.


Thank you very much.

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