Christianity: The Founding Murder in Reverse

I talked about what René Girard calls the “scapegoat mechanism” that’s alive and well in human beings last time. This insidious desire is at the bottom of what poisons everything. This time I would like to look at what he said about Christianity and how the Cross of Christ exposes scapegoating and reverses the founding murder

I would also suggest you read, “Religion, politics, and scapegoating” parts one and two for more background on this subject.

Mimetic Desire and the Founding Murder

The following lengthy quote from an article titled, René Girard: Who is This Guy Anyway?explains what Girard means by mimetic desire and founding murder.

“All desire, teaches Girard, is mimetic. That is, one does not develop a desire for an object unless he first sees another person desiring that same object. But when two people desire the same object, they inevitably fall into a rivalry. In the intensity of the rivalry, the two forget the object and focus entirely on their rivalry. Of course, this process is not limited to only two individuals, and eventually, it will infect an entire society. Society at that point becomes a mob and suddenly fixates on one particular individual as the source of the entire problem of unstoppable mimetic rivalry. That person is then murdered, and his murder brings peace and reconciliation. He is then sacralized as both the cause of societal chaos and the solution to that chaos. From this “founding murder” proceeds all human culture. Girard sees examples in the story of Cain and Abel (after murdering his brother, Cain founds a city, and his offspring invent music and metallurgy) and Romulus and Remus (Romulus murders his brother so that he can found Rome).”

The Founding Murder exposed on the Cross

This is from the same article: “Only in the Gospels do we find the full revelation of the founding murder. In that revelation is its condemnation: for the murder to work, everyone must agree to believe that the victim was guilty. When it is shown conclusively that the victim was innocent, then the foundation of culture is put in jeopardy. The “founding mechanism” no longer works” (ibid *)

Girard himself put it this way:

Christianity is a founding murder in reverse, which illuminates what has to remain hidden to produce ritual, sacrificial religions.”  (Girard, “Battling to the End: Conversations with Benoit Chantre” *)

As I alluded to last time, culturally, we’re still deeply entrenched in scapegoating, although it’s more nuanced than in ancient times. However, when we carefully examine Christ’s death on the cross we find the cultural and religious and political scapegoating ritual exposed for what it is for all to see, thereby disabling it forever.

The Passion story is central in the New Testament, and it is the complete reversal of traditional myth’s structure. Amidst a huge social crisis, a victim (Jesus) is persecuted, blamed of some fault, and executed. Even the apostles succumb to the collective pressure and abandon Jesus, tacitly becoming part of the scapegoating crowd. This is emblematic in the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus.

“Nevertheless, the evangelists never succumb to the collective pressure of the scapegoating mob. The evangelists adhere to Jesus’ innocence throughout the whole story. Alas, Jesus is finally recognized as what he really is: an innocent scapegoat, the Lamb of God that was taken to the slaughterhouse, although no fault was in him. According to Girard, this is the completion of a slow process begun in the Hebrew Bible. Once and for all, the New Testament reverses the violent psychosocial mechanism upon which human culture has been founded.” 

“Aside from that, Jesus’ ethical message is complementary. Under Girard’s interpretation, humanity has achieved social peace by performing violent acts of scapegoating. Jesus’ solution is much more radical and efficient: to turn the other cheek, to abstain from violent retribution. Scapegoating is not an efficient means to bring about peace, as it always depends on the periodic repetition of the mechanism. The real solution is in the total withdrawal from violence, and that is the bulk of Jesus’ message.” (René Girard: Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy*.)

I wrote about this in my post: “Does Jesus poison everything?” I believe that when we go beyond a superficial reading of the Gospel story, and move away from our deeply entrenched scapegoat paradigm, we will find something gloriously revealed to us.  Again, Girard speaks to this:

“Christ is the only man to overcome the barrier erected by Satan. He dies in order to avoid participating in the system of scapegoats, which is to say the satanic principle. After his resurrection, a bridge that did not exist before is established between God and the world; Christ gets a foothold in the world through his own death, and destroys Satan’s ramparts. His death therefore converts satanic disorder into order and opens up a new path on which human beings may now travel. In other words, God resumes his place in the world, not because he has violated the autonomy of man and of Satan, but because Christ has resisted, triumphed over Satan’s obstacle.” (Girard, “The One by Whom Scandal Comes” *)

I believe the previous quote helps explain the nature of Jesus’ accusation against the religious Pharisees who were deeply entrenched in this scapegoating mechanism:

44 You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. (John 8:44 NKJV *)

Here’s a short video interview where Girard talks about mythology, culture, contrasting that with what Christ has accomplished on the Cross.

* All emphasis added.

About Mel Wild

God's favorite (and so are you), a son and a father, happily married to the same beautiful woman for 40 years. We have three incredible adult children. My passion is pursuing the Father's heart in Christ and giving it away to others. My favorite pastime is being iconoclastic and trailblazing the depths of God's grace. I'm also senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in Wisconsin.
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4 Responses to Christianity: The Founding Murder in Reverse

  1. Very interesting stuff, Mel. I too observe scapegoating, the blame game that started so long ago and how that plays out in the bible, in our faith.

    What you are calling “mimetic rivalry,” I call Tom Sawering. It can be somewhat comical to see that principle in action. Tom Sawyer is simply painting a fence, but by the time he is done he has them all envying his job and willing to pay for the chance to have it themselves.

    My girls once had a good fight over sand….at the beach, who is hogging all the sand. Sand for miles and miles, but the sand I want is her sand. We in the world tend to operate on a scarcity mentality, whereas the Lord is always pointing us towards abundance. There is more than enough.

    • Mel Wild says:

      “Tom Sawyering” is a good term for it. It is crazy that as soon as someone wants something, a particular part of an endless beach in this case, then everyone fights over it! That makes total sense. Ha!

      What I think is fascinating about Girard’s take on the what happened on the Cross (among many other reasons for the Cross) is how it includes our societal dysfunction and the cultural paradigm itself. No matter how much you think you know about the Cross, there’s always more!

  2. Anthony Paul says:

    On the topic of scapegoating, Jung tells us that when we fail to confront our shadow — that which we most seek to hide from others and even from ourselves — we then project these shadows on to others and force others to live out what we subconsciously hate most about ourselves… this must then lead to victimization and violence. As believers in the efficacy of the Cross, which is to say the work of the Incarnate Christ, we are aware of what God has done and continues to do “out there” in the world as one who is in a continuous state of being and creation until one day the cosmos will be redeemed into newness. Unfortunately, we neglect to to do the more mystical work of uniting our “selves” (souls) to God’s Spirit as He calls us to partner with Him in this continuously unfolding act of creation. In short, when God is little more than the subject matter of religion, regardless of how emotionally uplifted we may feel… that is only informational and it doesn’t do much to change our lives — something so many churches have done so well but have failed to grow beyond; but to join our spirit to that of God through a growing awareness of the majesty of our own soul, that is truly transformational. When we learn to see and love ourselves as God sees us and loves us, then we can also love others as God loves them leaving no room for playing the blame game.

    Finally (and this does not exhaust the conversation, it is only the start of it) how does one begin to do the soul work required of us? For that we must look to the pre-Easter Jesus who had a great deal to say about such matters as “death and re-birth”, that “any man who would save his life will lose it…..” and about sharing the glory of God by becoming one with Christ as He is one with the Father. This takes a good deal of literal “soul searching” and prayer that comes not so much from our lips but from the Holy Spirit that groans within each of us. We must allow that Spirit to pray through us and for us…. and then She will lead us to where we need to be in order to accomplish the work She has prepared for us as we journey forward.

    • Mel Wild says:

      Very well said, Anthony. What Jesus exposed about ourselves on the cross is only the beginning of the journey. We are to follow Him and learn from Him (Matt.11:28-30) by “participating in the divine nature” (2 Pet.1:4). This is what Jesus was talking about in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and His last discourse in John (John 14-17). The process of coming into wholeness, fully human, getting the log out of our own eye, and learning to be loved by God and walk in that same other-centered, self-giving love, which is the culmination of all commandments from Genesis to Revelation. The “soul searching” prayer you’re talking about is this cooperative process of communion in the trinitarian life of God.

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