Are We in the Midst of Violence Unleashed by Christ?

In René Girard’s reading of history, the time after Christ unleashes an apocalyptic violence, which accords with the apocalyptic portion of the New Testament. The insight which Girard brings is his explanation of how the Cross inaugurates apocalypse. Christ’s sacrifice exposes the fact that human civilization is a result of sacrificial religion (the sacrifice of the scapegoat). Only sacrificial religion has been able to direct and contain the violence which has allowed for the rise of civilization but the life and death of Christ expose this evil and thus the scapegoating mechanism is no longer effective. As a result, as Christ explained, he did not come to bring peace but a sword, as the evil means of suppressing violence (the very violence which put him on a cross) is rendered inoperative. As Girard puts it, “We are aware that the Gospels reject persecution. What we do not realize is that, by doing so, they release its mechanism and demolish the entire human religion and the resulting cultures…”[1] 

The scapegoat mechanism served to direct the violence onto a surrogate victim so that, as Caiaphas put it, one man might die that the nation would be saved. One person is made responsible for everything, and he will be responsible for the cure because he is already responsible for the sickness. The scapegoat is effective in creating the sacred (sacer signifies something is both cursed and blessed, repulsive and attractive, ugly and radiant) as the relationship between persecutors and their victims is reversed, such that the victims achieve peace through their sacrifice and thus are counted among the sacred founding ancestors and divinities. Where belief in the scapegoat (belief in the ancestors, the gods, the sacred myths) is suspended, as regularly happened in primitive societies, the culture would descend into chaotic violence.

In I Corinthians, Paul explains that “none of the rulers of this age understood this (the true nature of wisdom); for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory.” It was precisely their “wisdom,” Paul explains, which obstructed their understanding of the murder they committed. In other words, their wisdom is structured such that it would suppress, as Freud calls it, the founding murder.

The death of Christ can be linked to the logic behind the history of murder, as Jesus himself makes this connection:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (Matthew 23:34-36)

Jesus bookends the history of murder with the first, that of Abel, and the last, that of Zechariah, as it would have appeared in the Hebrew Scriptures of his day. Though he is addressing the scribes and Pharisees, Abel is at the origins of humanity and his murder seems to be directly connected to Cainite culture (predating the Jews). “All the righteous blood shed on earth” or a world history of murder is coming to fruition and exposure with this generation contemporaneous with Jesus.[2]

Jesus, in this discourse, and Paul in his explanation of human wisdom in I Co, both contrast what the “wise” would consider “nothing” (the Temple and the altar in Jesus explanation and the Cross in Paul’s explanation) and what would be considered an absolute something (gold and sacrifice, in the case of the Jews and wisdom, strength, and nobility, in the case of the Corinthians). The Temple and the altar, it would seem, amount to the same thing as Jesus (as true Temple) and the Cross (as true altar), so in both instances, what is considered “nothing” by the wise is precisely what is absolutely substantial. The Temple of Jesus body is a non-entity subject to destruction, so the rulers of this age presume, yet it is precisely this body which will fill all things. On the other hand, those things considered an absolute something by the wise (gold, sacrifice, wisdom, power, and noble blood) are rendered a nullity by Jesus. In Paul’s pithy phrase, “God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are” (I Co 1:28). As he characterizes the idol a “nothing,” so too all that is made an absolute something by the wise is exposed as nothing by Christ. But the question is, how?

In both Mathew and Corinthians, it is death, and specifically the death of Christ as the culmination of power (the power to kill) which is at the center of blind wisdom. The Pharisees are like “white washed tombs,” giving the appearance of cleanness but containing nothing but death. The scribes and Pharisees presume to “build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous,” and by so doing maintain, “If we had been living in the days of our fathers, we would not have been partners with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (Mt 23:29–30). They disassociate themselves from the murders committed by their forefathers and by so doing, Jesus explains, they remain blind to their own murderous intent which they share with their forefathers. “So you testify against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the guilt of your fathers” (Mt 23:31–32). By disclaiming their murderous intent (evident at the end of this conversation as recorded by Luke, who says they “became hostile and began to plot against him” (11:54)) they repeat the acts of their ancestors. In refusing to acknowledge their own violence and by casting it off onto their fathers they demonstrate they are controlled by the same logic.[3]

The same sort of break is demonstrated by the early Christians who called the Jews “Christ killers.” They repeated the sin of those who killed Christ by murdering the Jews. By not recognizing themselves in the accusations of Jesus, the Pharisees killed him, and so too all who do not recognize their own participation in the logic/wisdom which killed the Lord of glory. The Hebrew Scriptures trace the history of this epidemic which has gripped all of mankind.

Human wisdom, what Jesus and Paul will refer to as the foundation of the world constituted by humans (see below), is traced from Genesis 3 with the Fall which is inclusive of an alternative knowing. This knowing through oppositional difference (the knowledge of good and evil) pits Adam against Eve and it results in the murder of Cain. Lamech, the murder poet, seems to be representative of the murderous generation of Noah. Their obliteration points to a final violence (the rainbow is both promise and reminder of future apocalyptic destruction). The Babelites presumed to be able to storm the heavens on the basis of their technical knowledge – and Babel marks not only the divisions of people but the rise of tribal gods and idolatrous religion or organized violence (perhaps preferable to the all-out psychopathic violence of the generation of Noah). As Paul sums it up, human wisdom unleashes human violence which culminates in killing the Son of God.

It is this logic traced and indicated in the Old Testament which Jesus calls upon: “They hated me for no reason” (Jn. 15:25; Ps. 35:19) and in so doing they “fulfill the word that is written in their Law.”  “These words of Scripture have to be fulfilled in me ‘He let himself be taken for a criminal’” (Luke 22:37; Mark 15:28). Though Pilate declares, “I find no fault against this man,” he too, along with Peter (Mk. 14:66-72), will be swept along by the crowd (not even his wife can stop him – see Acts 4:25-28). All of this is carried out without “reason” or “cause” as the perpetrators of murder, throughout history, are driven by a logic they cannot access: “Father forgive them they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Peter confirms that a failure of knowledge was behind Jesus’ murder, “Now I know, brothers, that neither you nor your leaders had any idea what you were really doing” (Acts 3:17). In the language of Girard, persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality, they hate without cause – they do not know what they are doing.

While it is obviously a good thing to expose this lie which bound humanity, at the same time this lie served to organize society in such a way that the dissension, rivalries, jealousies, and quarrels within the community were suppressed long enough that the crops were planted and society survived. Certainly, the survival is on the basis of a manipulated and controlled violence which, apart from this regulation, would be all-consuming. That is, as Jesus explains, this world exists by dint of a foundation of suppressed evil.  Jesus connects “the blood shed” with “the foundation of the world” in such a way that apo kataboles kosmou seems to refer, as with the dark cosmos in John, with the world of human order shut off from God. This is not the foundation of Christ but the alternative foundation, the alternative world, with its alternative knowledge and identity. As Girard writes, it “seems to imply the foundation of the world in so far as it results from a violent crisis; it denotes order in so far as it comes out of disorder. The term has a medical use to mean the onslaught of a disease, the attack that provokes a resolution.”[4] Attack by a death dealing lie giving rise to a violent crisis? Jesus, in John, clarifies who might be behind the murderous lie at the foundation of this ungodly kingdom:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:43-44)

Satan, whose native tongue is lying is credited with the original homicide, which connects deception and death with the “the ruler of this world” (Jn 12:31) Satan exercises his rule through proliferating murderous desire. The founding lie, “You will not die,” gives rise to the presumption that life and death are subject to human power (as Lamech explains to his wives, he will avenge himself 70 times more than God would avenge Cain). As Girard puts it, the lie is a double homicide as one murder requires another. “To be a son of Satan is the same thing as being the son of those whose have killed their prophets since the foundation of the world.”[5] Just as the Jews must, of necessity, kill Jesus to disassociate themselves from his accusation, so too every murder is a cover up which will require another murder.

In his crucifixion, Christ exposed the origins of this murderous chain – what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world.” In John’s Gospel, devoid otherwise of demon possession and exorcism, Christ’s crucifixion is cosmic exorcism: “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (Jn 12:31-32). The death of Christ exposed the foundational lie (or the founding murder) upon which ritual sacrifice is dependent.  Dealing in death held out the hope of achieving deity (“You will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Ge 3:5)). In reality, the lie produced enslavement to the fear of death and to the one who wielded this fear (most pervasively through sacrificial religion). Christ, through his death, rendered “powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil,” and by this means freed “those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14–15). The inherent universalism contained in the Cross (all men are drawn to it) must refer to the manner in which the death of Jesus frees us from dealing in death. The death of Christ has unshackled our fetters and exposed sacred violence – freeing us for holiness, but as the final book of the Bible reveals, also opening up the possibility of freedom for universal violence.

In destroying the capacity for suppression (the ignorance and superstition required for sacrificial religion), unimaginable advances were made possible (e.g. in science and technology) but at the same time an unimaginable potential for destruction has been unleashed; not just the logistical possibility of Mutually Assured Destruction but the imaginative possibility of re-founding the world order. The Utopian dreams of communism, socialism, fascism, and liberal democracy, are a by-product of a misconstrued and perverted Christian millennialism. The possibility of taking control of the basic mechanisms which order society was not a possibility in primitive society as those mechanisms were hidden. Christ freed the human mind of the constraints of the primitive order and at the same destroyed, as Girard puts it, the “safety rails of archaic religion.”[6]

The past century, the bloodiest on record, is testimony to the perversion of Christ’s power to reorder the world. With two world wars, the destruction by atomic bomb of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the fire-bombing and napalming of civilian populations, with an estimated 123 million deaths, the looming possibility of total destruction is clearly in process. Depending on how one estimates, nearly as many people died in war in the 20th century as existed in the first century. Apocalyptic disaster is well underway as unprecedented violence has been unleashed: “By getting closer to Alpha, we are going toward Omega; by better understanding the origin, we can see every day a little better that the origin is coming closer.”[7] The apocalypse is unleashed, in Christ’s own estimation, through his coming (“I have not come to bring peace but a sword”).

As Kierkegaard recognized, the demonic is unleashed through a perverse Christianity in a two-fold sense: the truth perverted is more powerful than an outright lie and the truth which would save is rendered ineffective. Christ exposed the lie of retaliation – the notion that sacrificing the “demonic other” will save. Those who kill, demonize, and oppress in the name of Jesus (the great Whore of Babylon?) seem to constitute a majority (ever willing to kill the Christ killers). As in Revelation the good news of a new cosmic order is linked to this nearly unbearable and unbelievable reality. The mystery hidden since the foundation of the world, the truth of human identity has been spoken, and the truth is refused for the lie.

[1] Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, 101.

[2] See Rene Girard, ““On War and Apocalypse.” in First Things, August 2009 accessed on 10/10/18 at https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/08/on-war-and-apocalypse.

[3] What Girard will call the “founding murder.”

[4] Girard, “On War and Apocalypse.”

[5] Girard, “On War and Apocalypse.”

[6] Girard, “On War and Apocalypse.”.

[7] Girard, “On War and Apocalypse.”

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Are We in the Midst of Violence Unleashed by Christ?”

  1. Paul,

    Allow me to pass this thought by you. I know that historically Christianity persecuted the Jews as Christ-killers. But wouldn’t it be more appropriate for us to say that, in a sense, all of humanity is guilty of being Christ-killers in the sense that it is our sin that put Him on the cross?

    Paradoxically, it is through His death that we have the way to die to self, that is, take up our Cross and follow Him. Does this make any sense?

    Thanks