I read it after I had identified as a UU Christian. Bailie introduced me to the thought of Rene Girard, and by Girard I was inspired to a much larger vision of the work of the Holy Spirit. An expanded view of the Holy Spirit is an important part of how I re-imagine Unitarian Universalism, today.
Let me explain:
Violence Unveiled is an exposition of the thought of Rene Girard. Rene Girard is a living French literary critic, anthropologist, philosopher and Christian apologist. He is probably 90 now and teaches at Stanford. He has influenced a whole school of thinkers in a variety of fields.
How to explain Girardian theory?
There are really two parts to it. One is a theory about human beings, how they relate to each other, and how that shaped human culture.
It means that everyone is both a model and a rival: a model because we are copying what they want, and a rival because now we are competing for the same object of desire.
Mimetic rivalry leads to conflict, because each member of a group wants the same thing.
Conflict leads to scapegoating. Not only do we imitate each others desires, we imitate each others' rejections and condemnation. In a situation of great conflict, suddenly everyone unites against one, who now seems to be the cause of all the conflict in the system.
Scapegoating creates unity, as the group is united, the many against the one. It also creates sacrificial violence, as the scapegoat is expelled or killed.
Up to now, this is not hard to understand, although it is a bleak view of human nature. And it is
more mythic than research based as anthropology. But here is where Girard has his most profound insight.
Sacrificial violence, the killing of the scapegoat, produces myths, or more bluntly, lies. A story must be told that justifies the violence of the many against the one. What emerges is a set of lies about the victim and another set of lies about the group. The victim was extraordinarily evil, and we, well, we were extraordinarily brave when we turned on him or her. You might even say that we were acting for a divine power. We see this at work even today.
That's part one of Girardian theory. It's interesting, but frankly, I didn't need to read another big theory that explains all of human behavior. After all, I've read Marx and Lenin already.
On the other hand, Girard's analysis of the Bible rocked my world.
Girard believes that the ancient Hebrews and the early Christians decoded and deconstructed this process of sacred scapegoating and myth making. For Girard, the Bible is multi-voiced and contradictory, but it wrestles with mimetic rivalry and violence. There are stories on all sides of this: many stories of rivalry and scapegoating violence, but also stories which begin to raise doubts about those narratives. Stories to consider from this point of view are Cain and Abel, the story of Hagar and Ishmael, of Abraham and Isaac, the story of Jacob and Esau, Joseph thrown into a pit by his brothers who envied his coat. The Story of Job; Girard says that the misfortunes of Job are mythic justifications for the crowd turning against this leading man of the community -- and the desperate effort of his friends to make Job understand and accept the lie that somehow he deserved it. It is not resolved in Job, because Job ultimately gives up. But the process is finally resolved in the story of Jesus, according to Girard.
But Girard says that this exposure of the myth of sacred violence is at the heart of the gospel. The heart of the gospel is humanity has a capacity for sacrificial violence, but it has learned to recognize it and to rejects the myth it creates. It is a contested gospel, because the church itself has fallen backwards from its own knowledge and makes Jesus into a sacred scapegoat.
But the real gospel is that the victims are innocent, and that the powerful justify their power with lies about their victims, themselves and the meaning of their violence. Jesus says in the gospel of John that when He has gone, He will send a Holy Spirit who will be the Advocate and the Defender. The Advocate of whom? The Defender of whom? The innocent victims of our human scapegoating.
Rene Girard says that this Holy Spirit is active in the world, and is remaking it, step by step and year by year. Everywhere, in every situation, we are now acutely aware of who is a potential innocent victim, and what are the stories being told to justify their victimization. Watch to see how alert people are to the potential of victimization. Such a Holy Spirit is not confined to the church, nor to the believers, but is everywhere at work. (And when the UUA announces its intention to be an anti-oppressive institution, is it not aligning itself with that spirit?)
This rocked my world; I had reconsider the dichotomy that had been set up between mainstream Unitarian Universalism and Unitarian Universalist Christianity. It was no longer so clear that mainstream UU's had abandoned the gospel to which the UU Christians had remained loyal. When we UU Christians said that we stood on the gospel, did we have a cramped vision of the gospel in mind? Perhaps we had more to do than convince our congregations to observe the Christian year, and to pray together on Sunday, and to study the Bible on occasion.
Perhaps the gospel had broken free of the religion built to contain it, and was free in the world, moving anyone who could see it. How did Unitarian Universalism, with its reflexive antipathy to conventional Christianity fit into a world like that?