Rene Girard and the Vengeance Fantasy

Girard is a philosopher who noted that civilizations tend to organize themselves around theories of cleansing, sacrificial violence directed toward some acceptable victim: the scapegoat.

He eventually returned to his Catholic faith when he saw that Jesus, instead of making somebody else a scapegoat for our lust for violence, makes himself the scapegoat for the sins of the world and, as Paul says, “became sin for us”.

I think of this as I read the savage glee with which Rod Dreher greets the story of a Texas father who beat to death a man he says was molesting his little girl. I don’t mean I think Dreher reaction is somehow peculiarly wicked. I mean I can entirely empathize with his reaction–and it bothers me. Because truth to tell, there is something in me that, well, *likes* the thought of finding somebody I could beat to death without feeling a trace of guilt: somebody I could even congratulate myself for beating to death. Somebody I could savor beating to death.

That is, of course, what horrifies many of Dreher’s readers–and rightly so. Everything they say in rebuke of Dreher’s initial glee over this killing is perfectly true–and Dreher is right to sense the evil in his glee and dial it back.

Some will (rightly) ask how we know the victim was, in fact, guilty. It’s a reasonable question since “I killed him because he was a sexual transgressor” elicits such volcanic revulsion against the victim (see, “Till, Emmet”) that it is no unreasonable to inquire as to whether the victim was really guilty of the thing that the killer claims he was guilty of. However, given that the cops seem to agree that the victim was, in this case, indeed a menace to the little girl, I assume the father *was* acting in her defense and, as a grandfather of Lucy the Cuteness, can only say that had it been my precious little girl, the victim might well not have had a head when I was done with him.

And that’s what interests me about this case: the deep sense of dark joy, not just Rod, but I and many comboxers around the web took in the thought of dispatching that guy to his eternal reward. Here, at last, was somebody upon whom we could lay all of our hatred and loathing without any compunction whatsoever. We could take positive pleasure in smashing his brains in. And when we are done participating in this vicariously through reading the news story, we can tell ourselves that we are… what? Only interested in justice? Not really fantasizing about violence but just heroically interested in that kid? Bunk. The pleasure (and that’s word) of this story is that you get to imagine taking joy in the slaughter of another human being–and feeling the approbation of your conscience when you are done without any scold or check.

People wonder why I’ve spent so much time fretting about torture over the past decade. Many imagine it’s because I consider myself a living saint sent by God to lecture the unwashed on the True Path.

The reality is that I am as tempted as anybody by the allure of violence, particularly violence unhindered by any consideration that the victim is a human being for whom Christ died who deserves any pity. To quote Lewis: “My heart (I need no other) sheweth the wickedness of the ungodly.”

“Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” – Ezekiel 18:23


"The Chair of the Joint Chiefs: Just another tin-foil-hat-wearing idiot: and your ilk will ..."

""....But declaring him to be guilty of 'treason' is a very specific charge. So far ..."

"Still see no actual evidence for a charge of treason."


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chris M

    One can almost sense a link in that impulse with the idea of religiously sanctioned violence. If Allah says it’s perfectly ok to kill these particular folks, then why not turn that dark joy loose with no inhibition? I myself wonder at how I would feel in a different time, given sanction by all the powers that be (society, Church, authorities) to uncork all inhibition against someone or a group of someones. It’s a frightening place, and I hope I’m never tested with that temptation.

    • wineinthewater

      You reveal exactly why we have a just war doctrine. It is not to excuse the horrors of war, but to put limits on the horrors of war .. one of which is the decent into dark pleasure that “the enemy” tempts.

  • Ted Seeber

    I resemble your last three paragraphs. My form of autism, especially for those of us of a certain generation that grew up without diagnoses, contains a LOT of PTSD style anger.

    Which comes bubbling up in completely unexpected ways.

    The last for me was waking up to the last week of my son’s school, to find out that my wife’s printer wasn’t working for the perfectly innocent business cards we wanted him to have to hand out to friends.

    I hadn’t much sleep the night before and I just completely lost it. When I got out of the shower my wife informed me that the printer’s USB cable had become unplugged.

  • Marcus

    Reminds me of the scene in ” True Lies” when Arnold’s wife asks if he’s ever killed anyone & he replies “Yeah, but they were all bad”.
    I personally feel that it’s this glee in seeing the “bad guy” finally get what’s coming to him that keeps the death penalty going, even if we accidentally kill the wrong person every now and then :/.

    • Paladin

      The problem is, we’re all “bad.”

  • Renee

    I like this quote from Duke theologian Stanley Hauerwas:

    “I say I’m a pacifist because I’m a violent son of a bitch. I’m a Texan. I can feel it in every bone I’ve got. And I hate the language of pacifism because it’s too passive. But by avowing it, I create expectations in others that hopefully will help me live faithfully to what I know is true but that I have no confidence in my own ability to live it at all. That’s part of what nonviolence is–the attempt to make our lives vulnerable to others in a way that we need one another. To be against war–which is clearly violent–is a good place to start. But you never know where the violence is in your own life. To say you’re nonviolent is not some position of self-righteousness–you kill and I don’t. It’s rather to make your life available to others in a way that they can help you discover ways you’re implicated in violence that you hadn’t even noticed.”

    • MattyD

      Great quote, Renee. Thanks for sharing.

  • Causus Omnium Danorum

    Props to you Mark, for not only recognizing it, but coming clean about it. There are plenty of people out there who feel that somehow they are specifically commissioned to cleanse the Temple…

  • Christ let it all focus on Him. Who but God could bear the weight of it? Something to try to be aware of when looking at a crucifix.

  • Last year I read about the torment unto death of a small child by his own family. Before he died he smiled at his tormenters. The police couldn’t get there in time.

    Whenever I thought about that child I felt liking dashing my head against the wall. I thought about the line in Gulliver’s Travels, where someone hears Gulliver describe the habits of mankind, and then calls us the most pernicious race of vermin ever to infest the earth.

    It came to me last week that if my life could be a vicarious atonement for that one child, if I could try to follow Jesus in patience and love just for the sake of that one child, my life might be worth something.

  • SecretAgentMan

    Can anyone tell me where to find Girard’s works in English?

    • jcb

      I know his _I See Satan Fall Like Lightning_ is available in English. I stumbled across my copy in a college bookstore, but I assume it’s available at fine gigantic internet booksellers everywhere.

      • B.E. Ward

        Indeed, there’s lots of Girard available in English. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is probably his most accessible work, and a good start.

  • Mark S (not for Shea)

    Our sense of rage and justice at this horror is natural because of what the guy was doing to that little girl. In a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. To love the innocence in a child and react with rage when that is violated … well, that’s just natural.

    Be we always have to remember: Monsters are made, not born. The man who was abusing that little girl was once himself an innocent child, and we should mourn just as much at his loss of innocence. We can hate and rage at the sin and still love the sinner.

    And above all, we need to pray for that dad and his little girl.

    • That’s definitely true, Mark S, and there’s another aspect: we live in an age that likes to use the word “justice” but often forgets what it means. A really just society would not keep releasing those who abuse and molest children from prison so they can abuse and molest again, until they finally kill a child. I think that some of the misplaced approval of this incident stems from our recognition that if this father had heard his child’s screams, run to see what was happening, caught the abuser in the very act of molesting his four-year-old daughter (as he did), and then called 911 while holding the man down until the police got there instead of punching the man to death, there would unfortunately have been a terribly high chance that the abuser would have served very little time in prison before being let go to become a menace to other people’s four-year-olds.

      It’s worth noting, too, that the father says he had no intention to kill the abuser and was horrified at the man’s death, which if true makes this seem more like an act of immediate and just defense of an innocent child which went terribly wrong when the force used became disproportionate (not, given the adrenaline involved, likely to have been a premeditated or intended escalation).

      I’m curious, though: is the dark impulse toward almost wishing one could legitimately beat someone to death a “guy” thing? I’ve never really felt that way. Sure, as a mother I’d probably lash out at someone directly and intentionally threatening my child (and would probably proceed to get myself killed as I’m small and flabby and uncoordinated). But I wouldn’t enjoy it, and tend to find even cinematic violence pretty ugly and sickening (e.g., explosions can be neat in the right context, but explosions which include close-ups of severed limbs spattering a nearby wall, not so much). Is this one of those inherent differences between men and women, or am I just squeamish?

      • Mark S. (not for Shea)

        Erin Manning wrote: I’m curious, though: is the dark impulse toward almost wishing one could legitimately beat someone to death a “guy” thing? I’ve never really felt that way. Sure, as a mother I’d probably lash out at someone directly and intentionally threatening my child (and would probably proceed to get myself killed as I’m small and flabby and uncoordinated). But I wouldn’t enjoy it, and tend to find even cinematic violence pretty ugly and sickening (e.g., explosions can be neat in the right context, but explosions which include close-ups of severed limbs spattering a nearby wall, not so much). Is this one of those inherent differences between men and women, or am I just squeamish?

        I respond:

        No, you’re not just being squeamish. I think you’re right. It is a “guy thing.” I know very few women who enjoy boxing, the Three Stooges, and kung fu movies. But I know very few guys who don’t. Men, for the most part, are just more prone to physical violence, whereas women tend more toward emotional violence.

        Two men can get into a bloody brawl, and when it’s over, they’ll shake hands and go have a beer together. Women just don’t do that. Men are not “tame lions,” as Lewis wrote.

      • Mike Blackadder

        Erin I don’t think that you’re being squeamish. I imagine that it’s a pretty gruesome thing to beat someone to death. I understand the anger, hatred, a justified impulse to protect a child even through violence, but I don’t understand the notion that it would be joyful to beat someone to death, or that one would view the raping of a child as a convenient excuse to live out this kind of violent fantasy.

        I think that you are correct in your argument about why many people see the father’s actions as justified. It’s partly a dissatisfaction with the justice system, or the argument that he was only trying to remove his daughter from harm, and killed the man accidentally or was overwhelmed by adrenaline. I think that some people justify his actions because they believe he was morally right despite breaking the law – a notion that doesn’t necessarily take into consideration ones personal views of the justice system. Some of us like the idea of living in a society where it is generally understood that when a man is caught raping a child that he’s got a slim chance of getting out of there alive.

        The question of whether a father is justified to kill in this situation isn’t so much on the level of the ten commandments, but rather pivots on the question of whether his actions are legal and conform to acceptable behavior given the society that we live in. In our society the father has a right to protect his daughter, but he doesn’t have the right to take someone’s life (unless necessary for his safety or safety of his daughter). This is why it is morally wrong. If there was no police force to arrest the man, if there were no corrections facilities, no legal system in which we all abide and benefit from, then the legitimacy of his actions would be considered differently.

        The corollary argument is that it’s easy for one to say that they are against the death penalty, against war and against enhanced interrogations for moral reasons when they know it isn’t their responsibility to make these decisions, when it isn’t their responsibility to implement justice. These same people live under the protection of a system of justice where they know other people will do what is required to keep them safe. How do our opinions differ when that is no longer the case? For example, Jesus walks in on a man raping a child (and this is 2000 years ago). What do you think is going to happen? I don’t think Jesus would kill him (on purpose), but Jesus wasn’t no pacifist.

      • enness

        From what I read, the father was actually quite anxious for emergency personnel to get there when he began to suspect the man might die. It’s not the father who frightens me, it’s other people. And actually, I do not think it is just a “guy thing” at all. Look at most comboxes on a story like this. I’ll admit, when I think of someone harming my family it’s pretty easy to go Dirty Harry, even if just in the imagination. But when there seems to be a positive delight in dreaming up inventive ways to administer “justice,” I pray I won’t live to see a day in which the prohibition of cruel & unusual punishment is repealed.

  • DTMcCameron

    This is bitter medicine.

  • Observer

    First, original sin is a fact (each person is born with the inherit weakness towards sinning.) Perhaps, more importantly, God permits original sin as a sense for humility and salvation. God’s love, by the action of his son’s faithfulness and love, moves towards the most afflicted of people (through the Gospel when Christ is afflicted, his father is much more closer as he demonstrated full fidelity and Christ trusted in his father – “Not as I will; but as you will.”) Because, he knows and see’s evil quickly enabled to do harm and is willing to work with men’s denial even to the point of the Cross (St. Peter’s denial, St. Thomas’s doubting of the resurrection, and disciples walking on their way the Emmaus) through patience (as St. Paul exhibited in his letter to the Church in Corinth on love and the nature of God – which of course ties with St. John’s Gospel – “God is love.”)

  • The vast majority of people, including Catholics, are all in the same boat. A few months ago, a woman I know fairly well from my parish said, ‘This is why we need the death penalty. When someone commits a crime like that (child molestation, rape, serial killing) they deserve to die. They have lost their right to life and are no longer human beings. I know the Church opposes the death penalty, but the Church leaders don’t know how evil these people are.”
    I was somewhat speechless, and someone else responded before I had a chance. I have struggled less with this issue over the years, because one of my favorite musicals, Sweeney Todd, puts into clear relief that revenge, even against the most evil person imaginable, is never justifiable and leads to Hell. The film Dead Man Walking also shows that even the most repulsive criminal is a still a human being loved by God, and we should extend that same love.

    • Mark S. (not for Shea)

      Well, to be fair, the lady was right. A person who does such things does deserve to die. But the part she’s leaving out: We all deserve to die. There is no one righteous. Not even one. Remember the great exchange from Unforgiven?

      “I killed him. But I guess he had it comin, huh?”

      “We all got it comin, kid.”

      Or Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery. You’ll notice He did NOT say that she didn’t deserve to die. He actually agreed with the Pharisees. His point was not that the deed deserved to be done, but who was worthy to do it. And in that crowd there was really only one person there worthy: Jesus Himself. And He didn’t just let her off the hook. He told her to go and sin no more.

      • It wasn’t “they deserve to die” that had me shocked, because you’re absolutely right. We do all deserve to die. What shocked and saddened me was her assertion that ruthless criminals are “no longer human beings” and we are “not required to forgive them even if they repent.”

        • Mark S (not for Shea)

          Yeah, you’re right: That’s messed up.

    • Ted Seeber

      I agree with her to some extent, except I substitute life for sanity.

      Weld him into a small steel box. Toss food in the top, hook the bottom up to a sewer, let him rot there with occasional taunting visits from his victims should THEY desire revenge. And if they don’t- just leave him there in case they one day do.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    A prominent exponent of Rene Girard’s thought is Gil Bailie, founder of the Cornerstone Forum. Have you met him, Mark?

    • caroline

      Right on Jacqueline.

    • Mark Shea

      Nope. Have heard of him though.

  • caroline

    May I recommend also the work of Gil Bailie, a student of Rene Girard. Just google and google too for Rene Girard and his various “disciples” as I call them. Discovering Girard was great light in my Catholic head especially in regard to atonement theory. After almost 75 years I found a Catholic who made big time sense to me.

  • RobJ

    The *professed* urge for vengeance is really a form of narcissism. When people brag that they would kill a molester if the pervert was hurting one of their children, those people are making the issue of child abuse all about them. I’m a father of several young daughters. If one of them was hurt by an adult, I would feel devastated, but I wouldn’t try to take the law into my own hands. What if I went to prison? How could I help my child to heal if I’m not there for her, just because I wanted to look like a really tough SOB?

    When people discuss child sexual abuse and threaten imaginary violence against an imaginary person who does that to their (in some cases imaginary) children, it feels like a cliche.

    In this case from Texas, it sounds like the dad killed the man before even thinking about it, he probably isn’t one of those chest-beating bleaters.

    • Mike Blackadder

      I’m with you Rob. Well said.

  • Nerdwoman, ofs

    My sister was just 5′ 3″ tall. She and her husband allowed a young man who was a neighbor to stay the night at their house on the couch because he had been at their table talking half the night.

    The next morning, her six year old son told her that “daddy” had done something bad to him, however, the younger brother, who was nearly five, piped in and said, no, it was the friend. The guy tried to molest the younger one first, but he bit the guy and so the older one got molested instead.

    My sister went next door, and asked the guy (who was 18, by the way) if he did what the boys said he did, and he said yes, and he laughed at my sister when she threatened him. He’d done this before and served no time. He was in the Pennsylvania juvie system and was going to be there until he was (I think) 23. Laughing, he said even if he did time it would all be expunged when he was out of the system and there was nothing she could do about it. That was really the last straw.

    My tiny little sister (once a gymnast) reached up, grabbed the guy by the ears and jerked his head down so forcefully that he hit the concrete hard. She got on his back and began beating his face off the concrete holding his head by his ears. She had fingernails and she dug them into his ears and the side of his face. She was SCREAMING at the top of her lungs, telling everyone in the neighborhood his name and what he did to her sons. No one – not even her husband – could get her off his back, although as her husband told the story I don’t think anyone tried all that hard. I’m thinking they were a little frightened of her.

    When the police arrived she was still screaming that she was going to kill him for what he did and he was still struggling to get away from her. She would have likely beat him to death or started choking him, too, had there not been two officers to physically pull her off and calm her down.

    The kid’s face and ears were a mess and he had a concussion. He wanted to press charges. One officer said, “I will be forced to testify that that was the clearest case of temporary insanity I have ever witnessed.” I think the officer was a little frightened of what he saw. She was still raving, my brother in law said, for hours.

    If a little thing like my sister was able to inflict so much damage to her son’s molester the day AFTER, I can just imagine the fury in the father seeing it happen before his eyes.

    The guy served 18 months and only that long because his girlfriend called my sister and threatened her if she showed up in court. My sister called the police, who set up a device on the phone that recorded the next three threatening calls. And yes, when he was out of the ‘system’ he got a job as a school bus driver. My sister reported him when she saw him behind the wheel of a school bus, but because he had no criminal record, there was nothing the bus company could do but assign him to a bus with older kids.

  • Mark,

    In psychiatry, that most religious of sciences, the term ‘algolagnia’ is used to describe both the desire to hurt and the desire to see hurt done.

  • enness

    Shea, when you hit the nail on the head, you really hit it spectacularly. If I share this — which I’d really like to do — I know I’ll need to put on a helmet and hunker down in the trench.

  • Louise

    Mark, I often disagree with your points but I just wanted to say that I very much appreciated this column. I think it is one of your better ones; thank you for writing it.

    God bless,