The Need to Blame

Back in December, I had a blog post on the theology of James Alison – utilizing the philosophy of René Girard – in which I talked about the mechanism of victimization and scape-goating that Girard and Alison propose lies at the very center of human culture.  That particular blog post in December focused on the way in which that mechanism affects the way people see God.  Truly, however, the most devastating impact of this mechanism of victimization – the need to identify a scapegoat and then fix blame on that person in order to relieve tension within ourselves and our community – is not on our image of God but on our behavior toward one another.

These days, the operation of the mechanism of victimization is tragically all around us.   Inevitably, those who are experiencing incredible tension seek to relieve that pressure by seeking to fix blame on those whom they perceive to have some vulnerability.   And so we see people lashing out at gays and lesbians, questioning the right of women to have access to contraceptives, attempts in some states to impose previously unimaginable conditions on women considering abortions, and a well-known and powerful radio talk show host feeling the need to verbally attack and denigrate a young college student because she holds an alternative point of view.  Vast hours of news media, from across the political spectrum, are devoted to sustaining the mechanism of victimization by throwing people or groups into the arena of the news cycle as proposed victims.

A number of years ago, I could never have imagined the kind of venom and vitriol that today is directed at certain people and populations in our culture.   What has changed from that time to the present is, I think, the level of fear that seems to possess so many people in our society.  As economic uncertainty has grown, as population demographics shift, as long-held cultural values begin to change, people naturally begin to feel more uncertain and their fear begins to grow.  That fear facilitates the mechanism of victimization that Girard and Alison talk about.  The tension that some people experience becomes so acute, that they need to find some way to relieve it.  As Girard talks about in his books, in a more ancient time, that pressure would have been relieved through the offering of a sacrifice.  These days, sacrificing isn’t allowed.  And so we do the equivalent of a sacrifice:  most of the time, no one gets killed, but we do our best to metaphorically kill people by assassinating their reputations, their character, their personhoods.

For Christians, the image par excellence of this mechanism of victimization is the crucified Jesus.  He, too, was made a victim by a group of people who felt tremendous stress and pressure within an oppressive cultural context in which people longed for some relief in the form of fundamental change.  Those who held the reins of power in Jesus’ time were threatened by the idea of such change, and so they maneuvered to make Jesus the victim, the scape-goat, whose death released the cultural pressure and allowed the community to at least temporarily come to a place of greater peace and unity.

But the victimization of Jesus did not constitute the final word.  The Resurrection marks the appearance of the Risen Christ as what Alison calls the forgiving victim who comes not to begin a new cycle of victimization by seeking revenge on those who killed him, but rather who comes breathing forgiveness.  René Girard believes that one of the unique gifts of the Gospel, and the crucifixion/resurrection dynamic that lays at its heart, is that the mechanism of victimization is exposed for what it is, and that offers the possibility of turning off the mechanism of victimization that Alison identifies as original sin.

Unfortunately, the Christian tradition has not always been able to name this mechanism of victimization for what it is and has thus become a participant in it.  As followers of Jesus, the forgiving victim, we should do better.  Rather than becoming participants in the efforts within our society to victimize others and find a scape-goat to help us deal with our fears and anxieties, we should be speaking in society with a prophetic voice that calls on people to see what we are doing to each other and to choose a different path.   I worry that if we cannot find that different path, then the current working of the mechanism of victimization in our culture will continue to escalate until there is some violent outburst that shocks us into a new awareness.

Let us hope, pray, and work to create the new awareness without some new act of violence.

3 thoughts on “The Need to Blame

  1. Dear Matthew,

    It’s good to see someone benefiting from Rene’s work, but my heart aches to see the way that mimetic theory and it’s teachers have left you hanging like this. After all, Rene has taught, echoing Jesus, that this is all stuff that has to happen. The Cross has destabilized the victimage mechanism (why do all spell-checker’s hate the word “victimage?”) by exposing it, and we can’t ever go back to the murder-bought-stability we once had.

    But Jesus says something else…

    Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
    (Luke 21:28 ESV)

    Our response is joy. We can’t fix things by just saying, “Don’t make victims!” No matter how loudly we say it, that’s just adding a new layer of “prohibition” (one of Girard’s three pillars of culture) to the mix. It makes victims of the victimizers (which has been our agenda for some time now, and it’s starting to reap the backlash that it had to have) and continues the cycle of violence.

    The answer is in preaching Jesus. Not His ethics, His person. People who have had a sufficiently intimate encounter with the person of Jesus (imitating the desire for Jesus that they encounter in us, hopefully) these folks wind up imitating Jesus’ desire for His Father, and that desire is the only one that satisfies the desire for “being” that Girard posits as the base desire AND doesn’t stir rivalry because everyone can have Him. (The “Father.”)

    You’ve put your finger on the mechanism we’re seeing acted out, but I think there’s a better solution.

    In Him,

    Jeff Krantz+

  2. Thank you for these important words, Matthew. I’m amazed at how Girard can go so directly to the heart of the human predicament and do it so simply, powerfully, magisterially. I realize this is a bold statement, but in terms of historical comparisons to his work, I actually think of John the Baptist(!). From what I’ve understood, the answer to the problem he exposes is transformation/healing/enlightenment in the image of Christ, in the context of community. I’m very thankful for Trinity and places like it.

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