Every Wednesday during Lent, I’m going to explore an alternatives to the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, the dominant theory of the atonement in my part of the (theological and geographical) world. You can read all of the posts, and my past posts on this topic, here. I’ve got an ebook on the subject as well.
The most recent major player on the scene of atonement theories is one developed by an anthropologist/literary critic who is still alive: René Girard and the scapegoat theory. But before getting to the atonement, we need a little background on Girard’s thought.
René Girard is a professor emeritus at Stanford University and one of only 40 members, or immortels, of the Académie Française, France’s highest intellectual honor. Girard’s breakthrough, according to James Alison, is this:
Professor Girard has made what he takes to be an authentic anthropological discovery…, to wit: that human desire is triangular and mimetic. It is mimetic in that it is to do with imitation; it is triangular in that the transaction is three-cornered: the source (model) which stimulates the desire, the respondent (disciple) in whom the desire is implanted, and the thing (object) then desired.
Girard came to his understanding of mimetic desire by studying literary texts and looking for structural similarities across genres, cultures, and time periods. What he found was that the greater the writer, and the greater the novel, the closer the characters hew to this triangular transaction.
(In fact, Girard has said that his own conversion to Christianity came as a result of reading great fiction. He came to understand that both the characters in the novel, and the novelist, go through a conversion during the story. And that conversion, Girard says, started with Augustine’s Confessions.)
Mimetic desire is this: Human beings want what they see that other human beings have. This is not bad; it is a deep, anthropological truth, rooted in our evolutionary history. But it does lead to Girard’s second great hypothesis: Because human beings want what they see that others have (aka, mimetic desire), that leads to violence. Exhibit A: Cain and Abel.
As human society grew, desire of what the other had grew and snowballed, rivalries developed, and violence increased. Societies needed a release valve to let off the pressure of increasing rivalry and violence, and so the scapegoat mechanism was developed: an innocent, sacred victim is chosen, everyone’s sin is piled on that victim, and that victim is sacrificed, thus relieving the pressure of violence.
According to Girard, this is the foundation of all archaic religion. In Alison’s words,
That is to say, an act of collective fratricide against a victim is foundational to all human cultures, with its being absolutely vital for the cultures so founded that they believe in the culpability of the rejected one (or group), and continue to bolster up this belief by forging prohibitions, myths and rituals.
What the death of Jesus does is reverse this process. The subversion of scapegoating begins in the Hebrew scriptures and finally culminates with Christ’s death, which Girard intriguingly calls a “non-sacrificial atonement.” Here’s Girard, in his own words:
What I have called “bad sacrifice” is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.
But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been “deified,” he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).
But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate “scapegoat”—precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.
In Christ, God becomes the one who is rejected and expelled. That is, the scapegoat is not one us us who is sacrificed to appease an angry deity. Instead, the deity himself enters our society, becomes the scapegoat, and thereby eliminates the need for any future scapegoats or sacrifices. In an excellent article, James Alison sums up the Girardian understanding of the atonement thusly:
Christianity is a priestly religion which understands that it is God’s overcoming of our violence by substituting himself for the victim of our typical sacrifices that opens up our being able to enjoy the fullness of creation as if death were not.
Sounds pretty good to me. How about you?