“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Humans are mimetic creatures: we learn by images and imitation. This is nothing new. Aristotle identified it, Saint Thomas Aquinas built from it, and René Girard pioneered his grand theory of violence and the sacred from it. As Christianity declines, the human impulse for transcendence and the yearning for unity, solidarity, and community remain, but we are now seeing a full-throated return of thyia in all its (un)holy horror and terror.
In his magnum opus, Violence and the Sacred, René Girard undertook a breathtaking analysis of human nature, religion, politics, and psychology. As do most scholars both secular and religious, Giraud argued that religion is one of the primary vehicles for communal and political unity. However, Girard argued that the rifts that divide humans were never truly healed in the false unity offered by ancient religious rites and practices. The unanimity created in religious ritual is epiphenomenal. It is a mere byproduct of collective frenzy through mimesis—imitation of the rage that united most against the scapegoat. “Unity” was temporarily achieved when all participated in acts of collective violence against the scapegoat in order to bring some degree of (false) healing and unity to the community. Rinse and repeat.
Girard also argued that Jesus of Nazareth and the new religion of Christianity truly did bring about a transvaluation (but in a good way, contra Nietzsche). Jesus forgives his killers, thus opening us to “the better angels of our nature” as we imitate the sacrificial victim in forgiveness. Reconciliation through forgiveness heals, not the act of collectively participating in violence.
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Thyia is the Greek word that is translated into English as sacrifice. Unlike in English, the Greek origin of the word is far darker than the English word conveys (where renunciation in the English understanding of sacrifice is often perceived as something good). Thyia, in Greek, means “to make smoke.” Literally, Thyia—“sacrifice”—means immolation, to burn, to destroy. There is no implication of renunciation in Thyia. Thyia makes clear that sacrifice means to burn and to destroy.
America is up in flames despite certain media monopolies suggesting “mostly peaceful” protests as fire reaches up to the heavens. It seems odd, for many, that such carnage and violence have exploded as if from nowhere.
For Girard, however, the sudden explosion of violence would not be altogether surprising. The genius of Christianity is that it overturned the old values of (false) unanimity through acts of violence which reached up to the gods. Christianity pacified the violent impetus in the transcendent desire for remaking the present order. Through imitating forgiveness, instead of violence, real reconciliation and unity through love—rather than ecstatic rage—is possible. The height of sin was the confused belief that an act of sacred violence was the most holy activity humans could be engaged in; Jesus revealed the horrifying falsity of this belief.
Even as Christianity in the West loses its footing, the human yearning for transcendence and community remains. If Girard is right, the corollary becomes inescapable.
Until the advent of Christianity, the human impulse for communal dwelling and peace was brought forth by acts of violence. Violence and the sacred are intimately bound together. (Let us not forget that in Christianity the ecstasy of Lent culminates in the Passion of Christ, with the notable exception of sympathizing and imitating the victim instead of imitating the crucifiers.) So as Christianity declines, and with it the pacification of the human impulse for cathartic transcendent violence, people turn to violence for the spirit of unanimity and the thrill of the sacred that has eluded them. It is equally unsurprising that so many college-aged, college-educated, and collegiate grad students are fueling this rage. They have walked away from Christianity’s transcendence—its sorrow and sympathy, its truth and its beauty. In searching for transcendence once more, have found it in mimetic violence masked (pun intended)—in the language of sorrow and sympathy.
It is also unsurprising that the most violent revolutions of the past two and a half centuries have also been some of the most virulently anti-Christian. From the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution, the violence of socialist millenarianism targeted Christianity for extinction in order to create paradise on earth. At the heart of revolution, as the historian Norman Cohn argued in Pursuit of the Millennium, is a transcendent yearning for doing away with the “evils” of the world and “remaking” a new world of community, unity, and justice. Ironically, according to Cohn, this is a simultaneous inheritance of Christian millenarianism mixed with the ultimate rejection of the rest of Christian doctrine and dogma. Only the millennium of pure justice and eternal peace matter. (And we might add here the language of sorrow and sympathy to disguise more base and violent animating impulses.)
The nihilistic age, paradoxically, brings a return to the darkest but also most transcendent core in human beings. Humans cannot destroy their yearning for something more than themselves. Thus there is a tragic irony in nihilistic anarchists and revolutionaries—the victims of the vicissitudes of atomization and Christian retraction—being hyper-individualists yet trying to find false solidarity in acts of collective destruction and even murder. We are witnessing a return of thyein, the active violence at the heart of this new sacerdotal mimesis where all individuals are priests of the sacred rites of violent purgation.
This now brings us to the role of Satan in Girardian analysis (brought out fullest in I See Satan Fall like Lightning). Satan is the animating force who silences the victim of violence from telling “his side of the story,” as it were. Satan, of course, is the Great Accuser. Satan was also the greatest of the angels. Satan, therefore, represents the inverted reality of humanity’s deep divine impulse. But that divine impulse is turned on its head by focusing on the self instead of others (what Saint Augustine called the “incurvatus in se”). For Satan’s great crime is not merely disobedience to God, but his refusal to have fellowship with mankind. What preceded Satan’s disobedience and fall was self-conceit, which cut him off from all relational ties.
To be caught up in the killing mob, to partake in mimetic violence, is to succumb to the satanic temptation, i.e., to believe that an act of violence is, in fact, sacred and justified. The spread of Satan is the universalization of “sacred violence,” where false unity and community are found in the act of violence. Anyone who objects to mimetic violence is silenced forever (as we regularly see today). There can be no opposition from unanimity being sought through sacred violence. This would reveal the fraud of the entire system of mimetic violence. Thus it is necessary for Satan to silence any and all opposition.
Substitute “Western civilization” or “whiteness” for the target of mimetic violence, and we begin to see the mimetic system returning in full force. Deracinated and atomized individuals seeking solidarity, community, and a transcendent communion are united in acts of mimetic violence that sweep people away in ecstatic frenzy as they unite in their rage at anyone and anything. Anyone who opposes them is shouted down and silenced—oftentimes by brute force and physical violence, just like in the ancient rites of sacred violence.
Yet in this spirit of mimetic violence and the sacred there is no possibility for real community and fellowship. Reconciliation is not the goal of mimetic violence. As Girard points out, only a fleeting unity is created in that moment of anger, rage, and violence. Thus, “if you’re not angry with me you’re not for me.” Over and over again we hear the calls of needing to be united in rage. Unity in rage is no unity at all—for unity can only be sustained if rage is perpetuated indefinitely.
Because imitation and participating in the passionate frenzy are the (false) solidarity offered in transcendent violence, there is only destruction in the wake of this process. For, as Girard highlights, it is only in the act of thyein that people are united. They are united in the act of accusation leading to violence, but the thrill of violence and of the act of killing eventually dissipates. Thus the cycle must repeat itself. (Hence the ritualization of thyein that all participate in and the continuation of our rioting and violence today.)
So, as the religion that curbed mimetic violence and exposed its hollowness declines, we ironically enter a new religious age grounded in transcendent violence common to the pre-Christian age. There are, in fact, new prayers and chants (so to speak) for our moment. There are new creeds. There are new initiation rites. There are new sacred places to learn the initiation rites. And there is a new altar of mimetic violence where the target of rage is tied up and placed to be killed. But when that moment of ecstatic unanimity subsides, mimetic violence must come again for that experience of a community united in unholy violence. And we all know that there is only one path out of this pit of bloodshed and demonic violence.
[Photo credit: David Ryder/Getty Images News]