Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral

Article | October 8, 2023

Sermon: René Girard and the Violence of Being Human 

Blog|The Very Rev. Dr. Malcolm Clemens Young

Watch the sermon on YouTube.

“Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead I press on toward the goal of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3). 

1. What Jesus will we believe in? I need to warn you ahead of time that we will struggle with some difficult ideas. Today we will talk about an old pop song, the thought of the Stanford philosopher René Girard (1923-2015) and the enigmatic gospel message in the parable of the tenant farmers. 

Fifty-two years ago today, during the Vietnam War, the former Beatle John Lennon released his second solo album Imagine. The title track was the best-selling song of his solo career. He sings, “Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man.” Many regarded it as anti-religious (it has the line “imagine… no religion too”).1 But John Lennon insistently objected to this criticism. In fact, he said that someone had given Yoko Ono and him a prayer book and that this inspired him to write the song as a kind of “positive prayer.” 

John Lennon said, “If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true.”2 Today as a new war erupts in the Middle East we are talking about how this kind of peace can be true. 

What would happen if instead of seeing human flourishing as the result of producing ever more consumer goods, our goal became true peace among all people and creatures of the earth? How would we even do this? The twentieth century French thinker Simone Weil suggests that, “the Gospels are a theory of humankind even before they are a theory of God.”3 This philosophy of humanity has its root in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Let me begin with Richard Compean’s old joke. Moses comes down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and the people of Israel ask how it went. Moses says, well the good news is that I got Him down to only ten commandments. The bad news is that adultery is still on the list. 

The joke expresses a popular way of understanding the Ten Commandments as if they are a kind of burden, a restriction of our freedom and autonomy, as if God were trying to stop us from having fun. My friend Matt Boulton says that instead these are not arbitrary prohibitions but, “loving limits that guide us toward justice, grace and dignity.”4 Through the law Israel’s relation to God becomes tangible. It makes ethical behavior a kind of calling. 

2. The twentieth century Stanford philosophy professor René Girard also regards the Ten Commandments as a central statement about the truth of human life. As complicated beings so much happens in our subconscious and we do not fully understand ourselves. We do not know what we want so we look at what others desire and then imitate them. He calls this “mimetic” (or imitative) desire. 

I was thinking about this at yoga yesterday. I love the beauty of so many different bodies doing the same thing at once. The instructor says, “keeping your right foot back, move your left foot to the top of the mat, put your left hand inside your left ankle, extending your right hand, rotate your trunk toward the right.” Naturally enough we all look at each other to see if we are doing it right. 

Girard says our desire is like this. We learn from others. But he points out that desire through imitation frequently leads to violence. Conflict arises from rivalry, from wanting what other people have. In contrast to ancient myths which justify sacrifice and view the world from the standpoint of the crowd, the Bible helps reveal this uncomfortable truth about human nature. It shows us the world from the perspective of the victim. This “concern for the victim becomes the absolute value in all societies molded… by the spread of Christianity.”5 

This is where the Ten Commandments come in. According to René Girard these are more than just a guide to living a holy life. They are entirely devoted to one ideal – prohibiting violence against our neighbor. You shall not kill, commit adultery, steal, bear false witness. He says that the tenth commandment (“you shall not covet”) is the most important of all. It is also the most unique. All the other commandments come down to this one. Instead of prohibiting an action, “it forbids a desire.”6 You shall not desire the house of your neighbor, the wife of your neighbor… nor anything else that belongs to him. 

Because human beings are naturally inclined to want what another person has, there is an inherent instability in all human groups and families. If left unchecked this rivalry would permanently endanger the survival of all human communities. 

Girard points out that this view is in opposition to the one assumed by the social sciences. The social sciences most often regard peace and mental health as normal and conflict as something accidental. Girard believes that conflict is the normal state. And that at every level when a human society struggles with scarcity or tension there is a tendency to resolve this stress by scapegoating individuals and groups. We feel better when we solve our problems by blaming someone else. This is a deep part of who we are as human beings. 

Jesus offers us a different possibility. Rather than merely shifting the power so that a different group subjugates the others, God becomes the victim. The kingdom of God strives to create a community in which no one is de-humanized or left out. One notable thing about Jesus is that he does not seem to be in the business of prohibition, of “thou shalt nots.” Instead he cares about offering a model for us to imitate. He promises that we can be like him – in our relation to each other and to God. 

Jesus’ teaching and the way he lives focuses on God’s plan to establish a community of love and joy, the kingdom of God, which overturns our ordinary imitated desires for power, prestige and possessions. 

3. Huge crowds greet Jesus as he comes to Jerusalem for the last time. Teaching in the Temple, the religious authorities feel threatened by Jesus’ popularity. Because of the crowds they are afraid to directly confront him. As human beings we are hard to reach. When we are confronted by our shortcomings almost all of us have a tendency to make excuses or respond defensively. For this reason Jesus uses the same rhetorical strategy that the priest Nathan did when he confronted King David. 

David had had an affair with Beersheba, the wife of one of his soldiers. He then arranged for the man’s death in battle at the front. Later Nathan told David the story of a poor man who only had one little lamb that he loved as a member of his family. A rich man with many flocks took and slaughtered his neighbor’s lamb. Hearing the story the King exclaims that this rich man deserves to die! And Nathan points out, “you are that man.” 

Jesus refers to Isaiah 5 in which the house of Israel is a vineyard that God planted but which bears no fruit. In Jesus’ story similarly the owner plants the vineyard, puts in a fence, digs a wine press, builds a tower. A few years later at the time of the first harvest he sends his slaves to collect the rent. They beat one, kill another and stone the last to death. He sends even more slaves with the same result. The New Testament scholar Herman Waetjen regards these as symbolic of the former and latter prophets.7 

Then the owner says surely they will respect my son. But they covet his inheritance and in their greed they cast him out of the vineyard and murder him. Uncharacteristically rather than explaining, Jesus asks the religious leaders what they think the vineyard owner will do. And as is the case with Nathan and David, their answer is a judgment on themselves. “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time” (Mt. 21). 

The irony is that Jesus tells a story about greed-based violence and the religious leaders hate the story so much that they respond with the same kind of violence. They are the ones that say God will ruthlessly punish his enemies. But in Jesus’ story, God keeps sending more servants until he sends even his son. For the temple leaders either we subjugate our enemies or they do the same to us. But in Jesus’ story God’s longing for us never ceases and always finds a new way to bring peace and reconciliation. Human beings deny, torment and kill God’s child and yet in the end God forgives them. 

What Jesus will we believe in? The my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God who only loves our tribe and promises that we will just replace our enemies at the top of the pyramid? Or will we trust in the surprising reversal of the crucified god who dies so that all people might be free and live in peace? 

When we look around at the world we should not be surprised by conflict at all levels from the family to nations. It arises out of a desire for what other people have. We should also expect the normal human response which is to try to reduce tension by scapegoating an individual or group. The Bible reveals this truth about the world and helps us to see it from the perspective of a victim. 

Jesus offers the promise of another way. By imitating him we become free of the desires that ruin us. We become part of and help to create a community of love and joy. Wherever we go God we bring the freedom of love and share the good news that no one is beyond the reach of God’s forgiveness. 

These days I keep thinking of that utterly idealistic song by John Lennon, of him imagining “no possessions” and singing “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one / I hope someday you will join us / And the world will live as one.” Through God may this become true. 

1 John Lennon, Lyrics to “Imagine.” Performed by John Lennon, Ascot Sound Studios, 1971.

2 Matthew Boulton, “The Theologian’s Almanac for the Week of October 8,” SALT, 2 October 2023.

3 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning tr. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001) 182.

4 Matthew Boulton, “Amazing Grace: SALT’s Commentary for the Nineteenth Week after Pentecost,” SALT, 2 October 2023.

5 James G. Williams, “Forward,” in René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning tr. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001) xix.

6 René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning tr. James G. Williams (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001) 7.

7 Herman Waetjen, Matthew’s Theology of Fulfillment, Its Universality and Its Ethnicity: God’s New Israel as the Pioneer of God’s New Humanity (NY: Bloomsbury, 2017) 224.

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