“Rene Girard and the Death Penalty”
Feb. 23, 2008
René Girard is a contemporary author who has made significant contributions to our understanding of the psychological roots of violent behavior. He was born in France in 1923. He spent most of his academic career teaching Western intellectual history and comparative literature courses at several universities, including Johns Hopkins and Stanford. His books and articles have addressed topics in literary criticism, anthropology, and religion. His books, including Violence and the Sacred, The Scapegoat, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World, and I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, have presented an ambitious theory that purports to explain why violence is a key element in the formation and maintenance of human culture. His ideas have been very thought-provoking for many scholars. This can be seen in the fact that a scholarly society has been formed to discuss the implications of Girard’s ideas. It is called the Colloquium on Violence and Religion; it holds an annual conference that alternates its meeting sites between Europe and North America each year. Girard has also been elected to the Academie Francaise, which is the highest honor that can be awarded to an intellectual in France.
I will now present a very brief summary of his theory of culture. If you are not impressed by what I have to say, blame that on the inadequacy of my summary, not on Girard himself. The importance of his ideas is beyond question, as evidenced by the hundreds of articles and books that have been written in response to his ideas. Some of these writings agree with his ideas, some disagree, some seek to modify and improve his theories. What is beyond question is the ability of Girard to stimulate fresh thinking. It is noteworthy that the Colloquium on Violence and Religion is a group made up of scholars from a variety of religious traditions, whose perspectives are sometimes “liberal” and sometimes “conservative.” That such a diverse group could be gathered around a single person’s ideas is a powerful testimony to the insightfulness and originality of those ideas.
Girard’s theory begins with the concept of desire. Human beings have basic natural desires. If my stomach sends hunger signals to my brain, then I have a desire for food. But because human beings are highly social creatures, our basic natural desires very quickly become overlaid with complex patterns of social mediation. I may feel hungry, which is an internal, natural desire, but if I see a commercial for Burger King and then decide to satisfy my hunger by eating a Whopper, then my desire has become socially mediated.
Girard uses the phrase “mimetic desire” to describe this bedrock phenomenon of human psychology. We may think that our desires are internally generated, but most of the time we do not know what we should desire until we look around at others and see what they are desiring. We mime, mimic, imitate the desires of others, particularly those others who appear to us as models of successful living. The models strike us as having a greater fullness of being than we have; in order to be like them we must desire to possess the things that they possess.
There are many examples of mimetic desire. If two small children are in a room that has many toys in it, what will happen? One child will start playing with a particular toy and the other child will then want that toy also, and a tug-of-war will ensue. This will happen even if there is an identical or equivalent toy in the room. This is a perfect example of the phenomenon of mimetic desire, which is not predicated on scarcity; the scarcity of objects is not relevant because an artificial scarcity is created by the process of mimicking another person. When children grow into adults, mimetic desire does not fade away; it simply takes more sophisticated forms. I have already referred to advertizing as a key shaper of socially mediated desires. In general, the strategy of advertisers is to present happy, beautiful, successful people who own or use a certain product. You should own the product also if you want to mimic their success in life. In many ways the stock market is a mimetic phenomenon, as is fashion. The concept of ‘fashion’ is not limited only to clothing; it also includes lifestyle items such as iPods, cars, computers, and avid devotion to sports teams or NASCAR drivers. The phenomenon of the romantic triangle, two men fighting over a woman, is a common theme in literature, television, and movies. In his works of literary criticism, Girard traces the roots of romantic rivalry as it is unveiled in the works of key authors such as Shakespeare, Cervantes, Flaubert, and Dostoevsky.
This concept of rivalry is the second major element of Girard’s theory of culture. If human beings are copying the desires of other human beings, the stage is set for envy, rivalry, conflict, and violence. If I am imitating someone else’s desire for an object, then by definition I am setting myself up as a rival and potential enemy of the other person. If mimetic desire is the bedrock of human social psychology, then human society is always a conflictual field of mutual antagonisms which can lead to generalized chaos. If I imitate others then those others are always stumbling blocks for me, impeding my ability to get what I (and they) want. The phenomenon of the stumbling block is designated by a very precise term in the Greek language of the ancient world: skandalon. Mimetic desire and the rivalry to which it leads are inexhaustible sources of scandal, which Girard interprets as our inability to break free from the entangling webs of imitation and the violence to which it leads.
So how do societies prevent themselves from suffering a meltdown into generalized chaos, into a war of all against all? Girard answers this question by pointing to the phenomenon of scapegoating. If the members of a society can single out a victim, they can channel their violent emotions toward that victim and do away with him. This cathartic release of pent up violence serves to give the society a new sense of unanimity and purpose. Instead of hating each other, people can agree to hate a particular victim or perhaps a minority group or class within society. It is easy to find examples that illustrate the scapegoat mechanism. In the Middle Ages in Europe, if the plague were to break out in a certain city, usually what would happen is that a rumor would be started that the plague was caused by the Jews poisoning the drinking water. This rumor would lead to a massacre of local Jews. The fact that the Jews were also dying of the plague and had been drinking from the same water sources as everyone else is irrelevant. Scapegoating violence is irrational and subconscious. The Crusades are another key facet of the Middle Ages in Europe. It is commonly noted by historians that those who were preaching in favor of the Crusades and whipping up public fervor for them, such as Pope Urban II, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Catherine of Siena, would commonly say to the people that European Christians should stop killing each other in petty internal wars. Instead, they should become united, march to the Holy Land, and slaughter the infidel Muslims. This is a clear example of how the scapegoat mechanism serves to unite people and channel their violence toward a scapegoated Other. The lynching of blacks in the United States is another particularly stark example of the scapegoat mechanism at work. The ideology of slaveholding specifically taught that persons of African descent are subhuman and can therefore be killed with impunity to maintain what was claimed to be a superior white civilization. The killing of Jews by the Nazis is another immense example of scapegoating at work, as is the killing of so-called “counter-revolutionaries” in Stalinist Russia. In Japan in 1923 there was a major earthquake that killed thousands of people. False rumors began to circulate that persons of Korean descent living in Japan were taking advantage of the situation by looting, robbing, and raping. Vigilante groups of Japanese men began to massacre anyone they suspected of being Korean. The similarity between this situation and the medieval plague situation is striking and undeniable. It also shows that the phenomenon that Girard is describing is not simply “Western.” He is unveiling the social psychology of human beings as such. Human culture is a lynch mob which has normalized and structured the process by which scapegoats are identified, vilified, and killed. The lynch mob always sees itself as innocent and the victim as a guilty transgressor who must be killed to restore order in the universe.
Notice that Girard’s theory turns a common cliché on its head. Many people these days assume the truth of the statement that “religion causes violence.” But Girard’s analysis shows that the opposite is closer to the truth. Human beings are violent, for reasons that are best understood psychologically, and religion is a cultural institution that arises in the wake of prior acts of scapegoating violence. In the ancient world, the scapegoat was often transformed in the memory of the community into a god, who redemptively brought about a new sense of social peace through his death. In the modern world, the acid of the Judeo-Christian critique of idolatry has made it impossible for human beings to transform the scapegoat in that way. But our addiction to violence is as strong as ever. This leads to a paradoxical situation in modern culture. On the one hand, modern culture is moving in the direction of nonviolence: we no longer have public hangings as spectacles, we no longer approve of wife-beating, anti-Semitism, racism, and so on; we make sure that the handicapped and disadvantaged are accommodated in society to the greatest extent possible. But on the other hand, we all know that the 20th century was by far the bloodiest of all. The human race is becoming more violent, not less, when you tally up all of the horrific events of the modern world. These opposing tendencies are literally tearing the fabric of humanity apart. If we do not change our ways and find a new path we will annihilate each other in a paroxysm of apocalyptic violence. This apocalypse will be caused by human beings, not by God, as human society globally splits into rivalrous blocs of self-righteous avengers of violence. This is Girard’s key insight; violence is a phenomenon of hypocritical reciprocity. Human culture as a lynch mob sees itself as good and those who are killed as evil. But human culture remains blind to the reality that the scapegoat mechanism which it uses to form its institutions is itself evil. The 9/11 hijackers, for example, saw themselves as good and their American enemies as evil; while the Bush administration sees its military responses as what “we good people” must do to attack the terrorist “evildoers.” Girard’s thought enables us to see that the human race is a hall of mirrors in which our reciprocity prevents us from ever becoming aware of our self-righteousness.
What does all of this have to do with the death penalty? It is clear to perceptive observers of American society that the death penalty as it is practiced in the U.S. is an example of what Girard has described as the need for the state to channel human violence toward an object that can serve as a cathartic release valve for pent up anger, confusion, and pain. In some cases, most spectacularly in the case of Jesus Christ, the scapegoat who is killed by the state or by a lynch mob is innocent. But in other cases the scapegoat who is killed is guilty of a crime. Regardless of whether or not the one killed is guilty, society is acting out of the same psychological need to channel its violence toward an object for the purpose of generating a sense of unanimity and “closure.”
The truly intriguing implication of Girard’s thought, with regard to the death penalty, lies in his idea that the institution of the state, as a channeler of violence, actually has quasi-religious roots. In the modern world, it is the state, rather than religion, that has taken over the role of managing human culture as a sacrificial economy. The state tells us what we should be willing to kill for and die for, namely, the state. The idea that “religion causes violence” is a mystification not only because it gets the causal relationship backwards, but also because that idea reinforces our blindness to what is actually going on. In the modern world, the number of people killed for ostensibly religious reasons is small in comparison with the number of people who have been killed in the name of nationalism or political ideologies. Our thinking in the so-called modern West is confused because we have the notion that the state is secular, as opposed to religion, which is religious. But we are blind to the phenomenon of civil or political religion, which is at the core of our actual behavior as human beings. If Jehovah’s Witness parents do not want their child to say the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, we consider that to be an odd religious preference. But the reality that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is itself a religious act within our civil religion does not occur to us. Our blindness to the essentially religious nature of the state allows us to persist in the mistaken idea that the state’s (secular) violence is good, while a criminal’s (psycho-pathological) violence or a terrorist’s (religious) violence is evil. If we were to consciously and openly admit that the death penalty is being used by us as a quasi-religious sacrificial ritual for venting our psychologically immature emotions, then its effectiveness as a mechanism would disappear. The scapegoat mechanism, according to its own logic, must operate just below the level of conscious awareness of motivations.
Let me paint a picture of an imaginary religious group. As a matter of considered and explicit theological doctrine, this group does not accept the legitimacy of the death penalty. It teaches that those who commit first-degree murder should be incarcerated for life. It ministers to those who are in prison for murder with a dual purpose in mind. One purpose is that it is hoped that the prisoner will repent of his wrongdoing and come to accept the redemptive grace of God at some point during the remaining years of his natural life. The other purpose is that if such repentance and transformation takes place, the prisoner may gain the ability to speak articulately for the first time about the wrong decisions that he made earlier in life that led him into the psychologically malformed condition which resulted in his crime. These insights can then be communicated to members of the religious group and of the wider society, resulting in a higher level of self-knowledge and emotional literacy that could possibly reduce the number of persons who develop the type of psychological malformations that can lead to murder. In this way, good can be drawn out of the evil events that have occurred.
Let us consider the relationship between this imaginary group and the practice of the death penalty in the United States. The First Amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” When we reflect for a moment, it becomes apparent that for the state to execute a murderer who is a member of that religious group is a double violation. The execution prohibits the free exercise of religion by not allowing the group to minister to one of its members in the way it feels called to minister to him, and it establishes the civil religion of the state by exploiting the execution of the prisoner as a drama of sacralized substitutionary violence that has alleged beneficial effects on the psyche of the populace. If we were actually serious about the separation of church and state, we would have to declare the death penalty to be unconstitutional because it is an act of sacred violence, carried out for reasons of social formation that are irrelevant to factual guilt or innocence of the condemned person.
When I say that I am describing an imaginary religious group, I am speaking a bit disingenuously. I am actually describing the teachings and practices of many religious bodies with which we are familiar: Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and so forth. Of course, there are many adherents of these bodies who disagree with their denomination’s official teachings on this topic, but that is a situation that is likely to change in the long run, as the higher level of social understanding that is made possible by Girard’s ideas permeates wider and wider circles. But I do not mean to suggest that Girard is some sort of messiah. If he could speak for himself at this moment, I know that he would say that he is merely a witness to the true Messiah, the man who died as a result of a state lynching two thousand years ago.
Cavanaugh, William T. “Does Religion Cause Violence?: Behind the Common Question Lies a Morass of Unclear Thinking.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin 35, no. 2 (2007)
Girard, Rene. “The First Stone.” Renascence 52, no. 1 (1999): 5-17.
_____. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Marynoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001.
_____. “Violence and Religion: Cause or Effect?” The Hedgehog Review 6, no. 1 (2004): 8-20.
McBride, James. “Capital Punishment as the Unconstitutional Establishment of Religion: A Girardian Reading of the Death Penalty.” Journal of Church and State 37, no. 2 (1995): 263-87.
Niewiadomski, Jozef. “’Denial of the Apocalypse’ versus ‘Fascination with the Final Days’: Current Theological Discussion of Apocalyptic Thinking in the Perspective of Mimetic Theory.” In Politics and Apocalypse, edited by Robert Hamerton-Kelly, 51-68.