The French literary critic, anthropologist, and philosopher René Girard offers a way of looking at human history that gives a compelling view of how Christ's death on the cross saves us. Girard proffers the theory that all human history can be viewed as a process of competition and violence rooted in mimetic desire, and that inevitably there is a scapegoat whose death brings about the resolution of conflict.
Mimetic desire is that primal urge to have what the next person has. It's the "grass is always greener on the other side" impulse, the wail of the toddler who is happy right up until the moment when another toddler takes a toy that the first toddler suddenly must have. At the level of culture, mimesis is the tendency for people to squabble over common objects of desire—wealth, commodities like gold or oil, sexual objects, and so on.
Over history, mimesis gives rise to violence, and the violence escalates until there is a scapegoat whose death restores peace to the community. Girard suggests that primitive religions are always rooted in quelling the violence that emerges as the fruit of this competitive urge:
In archaic society religion and culture are absolutely one, even when they don't seem to be. Religion, therefore, is a way that human beings learn, without realizing it, how to deal with violence in their midst. Here, sacrifice comes in as the killing of substitute victims.
One way of thinking about religions, then, is that they function to quell violence, and are therefore necessary for culture. Many ancient myths have death and resurrection as their theme: Girard mentions the Greeks Dionysus, Adonis, and Attis, and the Egyptian Osiris; to which we might add the Aztec Quetzalcoatl, the Japanese Izanami, the Norse Baldr, the Near Eastern Baal, and others.
This same pattern has continued in modernity. Joseph Bottum observes that modern cultures have similarly been founded on violence directed toward scapegoats:
Hitler sacrificed millions of Jews to found what turned out to be a twelve-year reich, Stalin made scapegoats of millions of "counterrevolutionaries" to preserve a regime with only fifty more years of life, and every little dictator since has slaughtered his own victims to create or maintain an ephemeral authority.
What Girard discovered in the course of his investigations, though, was that Christianity upends this mimetic structure by telling the story of Christ's death:
In a way, Christianity is the end of archaic religions because it reveals that the victim is innocent. When you understand Christianity correctly in its closeness and distance from archaic religion it is the same structure, the scapegoat phenomenon, that Jesus is victim of.
The Nicene Creed offers the idea that Christ's death was for our sake. What might this mean? For Girard, the answer is that it unmasked the cycle of mimetic violence. Christ, the blameless victim, the one without sin, the "lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world," exposes the very nature of the violence, as well as the roots of violence in disordered desire. The pattern looks something like this:
I desire things—I see others who have them and feel jealous—I seek those things—I compete with others to have them—a grand game of musical chairs ensues—the poorest are marginalized—some react violently—all the marginalized are blamed—they are scapegoated—the enfranchised rally around slogans and bumper stickers—the marginalized are demonized—can war be far behind?