The Passion and Rene Girard: the sacred violence of the crucifixion
By John Laughland
Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ has been attacked for its anti-Semitism as well as for its violence. Sometimes these two charges are blended into one: It has been alleged that the film will even encourage acts of retaliatory violence to be committed against Jews. A generation of fashionable critics , such as the heroin-chic wunderkind Will Self, who regard the meaningless Sadism of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill as cool, and who dismiss as absurd the idea that violent movies encourage violent behavior, have suddenly developed a rather prudish and old-fashioned liberal disdain for blood and gore. Another version of the same criticism has come from liberal voices within the Catholic Church, who have alleged that the film's violence distract from what is important about Christianity, the "teaching" of Jesus himself.
The French anthropologist Rene Girard has analyzed the relationship between "violence and the sacred" (to use the title of one of his books) and he has written at length on the concept of sacrifice. Girard argues that ritual sacrifice has a specific social function, namely to remove real violence from society by acting as a substitute for it. Girard argues that sacrifice achieves social cohesion by projecting a society's rivalries and inner tensions onto a victim, and then destroying the victim. This is the mechanism known as the scapegoat. Girard tells us that by dissipating violence and vengeance onto victims whose death does not need to be avenged, societies can avoid contracting the microbe of violence, which otherwise would cause them to collapse in a spiral of interminable reprisals. Girard, therefore, would tell us that the criticisms of The Passion leveled above are wrong, and that they are wrong for the same reason: they fail to understand that the violence depicted in the film has a specifically Christian meaning.
Girard is not original in comparing Christ's sacrifice to the sacrificial rites of pagan religions. But he is innovatory in emphasising the crucial difference that, in pagan traditions, sacrificial victims were believed to be guilty of the evils projected onto them. The template for his claim is the myth of Oedipus, who killed his father and slept with his mother. But in modern times, it is not difficult to see the same mechanism operating in witch-hunts, pogroms, lynch-mobs, and even modern televisual hate-ins of foreign bogeymen like Slobodan Milosevic or Saddam Hussein. Christianity inverts this pagan paradigm by showing the victim to be supremely innocent. If pagan societies repeatedly performed real blood sacrifices, be they of of animals or of humans, because they operated within the old framework of behaving as if the victim were truly the bearer of evil, the Christian story seeks to put an end to violence by showing the social unity which comes from a lynching to be a terrible destructive force. Unlike pagan rites, the Christian sacrifice was supposed to be practised in its bloody form once - and never again.
It is not only in his death that Christ shows the dangers of the kind of unity which is promoted by real acts of violence. In one of the most famous events in the Gospels, when the Pharisees bring before Christ a woman taken in adultery, Christ the anthropologist acts precisely by defusing the unanimity of the crowd. When the Pharisees ask Christ what should be done with the woman, they are not differentiated. The evangelist describes them speaking as one. Yet Christ responds by saying, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."
By attracting the focus of the crowd onto the first stone, and on to the individual who would cast it, Christ destroys the crowd's nature as a crowd, and, with it, its unified desire for violence and condemnation. Such violence and condemnation, like many collective acts, is committed mimetically: when people imitate others, especially in their desires. Everyone looks around to see what everyone else will do, and who will act first. The consequence is that the crowd disperses, as the evangelist tells us, "one by one."
In this episode, as in his own death, Christ of course teaches that the response to sin or injustice is not condemnation or revenge, but forgiveness. Common parlance describes precisely this attitude as "Christian." He says to the woman, "No one has condemned you, neither do I condemn you," and he says of his tormentors on the cross, "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do." Such frenzies of collective violence are precisely irrational and non-reflective. If Mel Gibson's Christian film provokes hateful or vengeful violence (as many critics have suggested it might), those acts will and can only be anti-Christian in themselves.
At its deepest and most mysteriously paradoxical level, moreover, the Christian story precisely shows Jews and Gentiles united - in a sinful act of collective violence. Christ, of course, specifically taught that the message communicated to God's chosen people was, in fact, intended for the whole of humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike.
Girard's anthropological framework also helps to overcome the bogus division between Jews and Gentiles and, more specifically, between the old law and the new. The Old Testament figure of the innocent Joseph, for instance, who is "sacrificed" by his brothers only to be later "reborn" as their overlord in Egypt, is the polar opposite of the Oedipus myth, where the victim is evil. Girard argues that the Ten Commandments handed to Moses can be read in exactly the same anthropological way as Christ's sacrifice: as a prescription against outbreaks of the cycle of mimetic violence. He argues that the last six commandments - Thou shalt not kill; thou shalt not commit adultery; thou shalt not steal; thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor; thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's goods - are a list, in descending temporal order, and in interdictory form, of the stages of a cycle of mimetic violence. The cycle starts with disordered desire, for another man's goods or for his wife, and leads, through calumny, to actual acts of theft and sexual predatoriness, to culminate in murder. Christ's plea for forgiveness for his tormentors on the cross, and his injunction in the Sermon on the Mount to love one's enemies are, Girard says, nothing but the fulfilment of the meaning of this ancient Jewish law.
If we read Girard, we see that reproaching the film for its bloodiness is as complete a misunderstanding of Christ's self-sacrifice as the accusation of anti-Semitism. The Old Testament had its " teaching," of the kind liberal critics say is the essence of Christianity, but Christianity's true essence lies in the terribly real way in which that teaching was fulfilled. The word made flesh is, as flesh, most cruelly destroyed. The blood and gore of the supreme sacrifice is not a distraction from the Christian message. It is the message itself.
John Laughland teaches politics and philosophy in Paris