Sacred Violence

In a 2010 piece in Theology Today, Leslie Goode summarizes some of the challenges posed to post-Girardian Christian apologetics and anthropology by Kathryn McClymond’s Beyond Sacred Violence.

McClymond argues that violence is not a universal feature of sacrifice, and even where it is present it is not necessarily the critical element. The claim that sacred violence is the essence of sacrifice, she argues, ignores much ethnographic evidence to the contrary. 

This disrupts, Goode notes, that any easy contrast of pagan violence with Christian non-violence: “the exclusive emphasis on Christianity as nonviolent is unlikely to
do justice to the distinctiveness of Christianity” (482).

Goode still thinks Girard’s theory makes a valuable contribution: “The particular cogency of Girardian theory is owed to the fact that, for all the shakiness of its ethnographic foundations, its anthropology shares, as its predecessors do not, the most fundamental intuition of social anthropology since Durkheim, namely, that religious rituals and beliefs express social and political realities.13 In the contemporary jargon, sacrifice serves to ‘reproduce’ the structures of society. There is nothing in McClymond to challenge, and everything to support, the idea that sacrifice has such a function. A Christian anthropology should therefore aim to be a ‘social’ anthropology in this sense. It remains to be seen whether the cross of Christ could pose a challenge to the social realities reproduced in nonviolent pagan acts of ritual offering that is as radical as the challenge it offers to violent acts of scapegoating” (482).

Goode is correct on both points – both about the limits of Girard and about the necessity, after Girard, of offering a sociological theory of atonement.

(Leslie Goode, “Beyond Sacred Violence: The Challenge of Kathryn McClymond for Christian Apologetics,” Theology Today 66 (2010) 476-86.)

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