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René Girard and the Roots of Racism

The French philosopher's scapegoat theory is pertinent as the U.S. struggles with its past and current civil strife.

A woman points at a police officer on September 21, 2016 in Charlotte, NC. The North Carolina governor declared a state of emergency in the city of Charlotte after clashes during protests in the city in response to the fatal shooting by police officers of Keith Lamont Scott at an apartment complex near UNC Charlotte. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Not long ago my Republican Senator from South Carolina, Tim Scott, spoke about the racism he experienced as an African American. Although he has been a United States Senator for over five years, and despite wearing a lapel pin identifying him as a Senator, he reported being stopped by Senate security who requested additional identification while his white colleagues were waved through.

I hear the same story when I speak to my parishioners. I am the pastor of a church in a socio-economically challenged part of town. The area around our campus is troubled by gangs, drug deals, high unemployment, broken homes, human trafficking, homelessness and widespread educational and health deficiencies. The racial profile is African American, Hispanic and low income whites. When I listen to the black young men either in the parish or in the high security prison where I minister they tell how they are watched by members of the public, followed by the police and jeered and called out by whites.

While Americans have made great strides over the last one hundred and fifty years to rectify the historic injustices, there is still something wrong. Very wrong. Racism is real and racism is systemic. But what do we mean by “systemic”? That racism is part of the system is undeniable, but to write it off simply as part of our culture is too simplistic.

Racism is far more systemic than that. It is not only part of American culture. It’s part of human culture and part of human nature.

Rivalry and Revenge

From his study of literature, philosophy and anthropology the French thinker René Girard has outlined the scapegoat mechanism, or what might be called “the system of sacrifice.” Put simply, it is an underlying dynamic within human nature to project evil onto another, shift blame, ostracize and then collectively murder the innocent victim.

Girard traces this action through literature and history, analyzing the complex web of deception at the heart of humanity. The process begins with what Girard calls “mimetic desire”. This is the instinct of envy and rivalry within human society. We not only envy what our neighbors have, we envy who they are. I not only want my neighbor’s Mercedes, his McMansion, his trophy wife and his shining success; these are only outward signs of what I really want. I want his life. I want to be him.

The ancient story of Cain and Abel reveals that to get what my brother has and to become who he is I need a final solution. I need to kill him and take his stuff.

This, however, does not make for a peaceful and prosperous society. Therefore, we mask the violence and moderate our bestial behavior in order to maintain the balance and order of the tribe. Nevertheless, the rivalry simmers beneath the surface like a dormant volcano. 

The System of Sacrifice

When the tension increases, members of the tribe reject the idea that anything is wrong with them and project their animus onto the chosen victim. With examples from myth and history, Girard explains how the scapegoat could be any outside individual or group. The victim might be a member of the enemy tribe, a stranger, a vagrant or an eccentric misfit from within the tribe.

Once identified, the victim is first accused, then mocked, isolated, rejected and finally murdered. The murder must be public and committed by the whole tribe. Once the collective violence is completed, the members of the tribe not only breathe a sigh of relief, they rejoice. As the problem seems to have been solved, the unbearable  tension is released and the members of the tribe experience an almost supernatural sense of euphoria. The dancing starts and the group celebrates with a communal feast.

For a time everything seems to be “the summer of love” but before long, further tensions arise. The members of the tribe remember what solved the problem the first time so they repeat the process, finding another victim. Eventually the process becomes regular and then it becomes ritualized. The euphoria the tribe feels is interpreted as the blessing of the gods. The ritual violence therefore becomes a religious ritual, and the final self-deception becomes established as religious truth—the gods themselves are actually pleased by the bloodshed.

The Lynching Tree

This spiral of deception and collective violence echoes through every human society both ancient and modern. It is, of course, perfectly exemplified in the crucifixion of Christ. As theologian James H. Cone has shown in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, it has also been a heart-rending part of the African-American experience. 

Christianity claims that Christ’s death and resurrection broke the cycle of violence from the inside out, and proposes a new way of resolving the curse of rivalry and envy. However, as true Christianity loses potency and is degraded by liberalism into bland therapeutic moralism, the societal unrest begins to come to the boil.

One of Girard’s main points is that the power of the system of scapegoating lies in the fact that the members of the tribe perpetrating the collective violence are blind to the evil of their actions. Indeed, they believe what they are doing is good. 

After all, the gods themselves approve, so after the bloodshed they rejoice, and because of their self-righteous blindness they are powerless to break the evil spell.

The Manifestation

Once this scapegoat mechanism is understood, it becomes clear that the evil of racism is only one manifestation of a deeper, more pervasive problem, and that the poison is a universal reality.

In American society today we can acknowledge the stubborn cancer of racism, but we can also see the same roots of envy and rivalry manifested in the anarchy of Antifa and the mob like behavior at the fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement. The tribes and the victims are different, but the primitive dynamic is the same. For that matter, we can detect the same diabolical dynamic in every violent protest movement.

A historical study of this phenomenon leads to a grim conclusion: there is no human solution to the cycle of resentment, rivalry and revenge. Whether it is the Jacobins, the Rwandans, the Bolsheviks or the Brown Shirts, it always ends in the gas chambers, the guillotine and the gulags.

A Supernatural Solution

History also shows that the only escape from the cycle of violence is a courageous Christian faith. The Christian answer is that through “repentance” (changing one’s mind and heart) one accepts the blame rather than blaming the other, and that one actively supports the vulnerable and pursues forgiveness, reparation and renewal.

Not that the Christian record is spotless when it comes to Girardian scapegoating. Indeed, the wars of religion, the Inquisition, the persecution of fellow Christians, antisemitism and the church’s attacks on freedom show that religious people are just as likely to engage in this tribal behavior as anybody else.

Nevertheless, the Christian answer remains the only real answer. The problem is, the Christian churches in America are hardly prepared for such a challenge. Weakened by sentimentality and fattened by affluence, the mainline Christian churches preach only a bland moralistic, therapeutic deism. With a politically correct leadership and a sclerotic membership, 21st century American Christianity lacks the backbone to stand up to the collective violence and give the example of a different way forward.

The only way to overcome collective violence is by collective forgiveness. Individual Christians from across political, theological and racial divisions need to come together, take risks and proclaim by words and works that there is a different way—a way that is graced with a power beyond human rivalry and revenge—a way that rises above the cycle of collective violence to forge peace, justice and prosperity for all.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest working in Greenville, South Carolina. His book Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness examines the problem of collective violence and its solutions. dwightlongenecker.com

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