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Scripture’s Reversal: Recognizing the Scapegoat with René Girard and Flannery ... - page 4 / 8





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in their sacks, although they do not realize this. The brothers come back to Jacob, but after the grain has run out they return to Egypt a second time. However, Joseph had warned them earlier that they must return with their youngest brother Benjamin.

What happens next is the completion of the story, though not necessarily the end. Girard explains that “we see the hero himself engineer a scapegoat mise en scene in order to test the possibility of a change of heart in his brothers” (1996, 17). Joseph does this by planting his own silver chalice in the bag of Benjamin, the youngest and now Jacob’s most-favored son. Joseph feigns anger and orders that Benjamin be imprisoned. Judah then steps forward and confesses to the crime. However, neither he nor Benjamin took Joseph’s chalice. Nevertheless, Judah confesses to the crime and implores Joseph to allow him to become his slave instead of Benjamin.

Girard’s explanation of this act by Judah and its motivation is intriguing. He writes, “This dedication of Judah stands in symmetrical opposition to the original deed of collective violence which it cancels out and reveals. As he hears Judah, Joseph is moved to tears and identifies himself ” (1996, 18). Judah’s act is intimately related to the earlier act of selling Joseph into slavery. This new way of acting reveals the root cause of rivalry, of envy, and of the violence that had motivated them to try to kill him. Further, Girard sees the test that was endured by Judah and his brothers as being similar to the one that they failed in the case of Joseph. In that case, they abandoned their youngest and weakest brother. The question is whether they will do this again, but the brothers have been brought to a realization of their earlier guilt and are now taking responsibility for it.

For Girard, then, the crucial difference between a myth and scripture is that the myth does not oppose mimetic rivalry. The fate of Oedipus is sealed from the beginning and there is no way to escape it. Yet, the story of Joseph does. The scripture expresses “an antimythological inspiration,” an opposition to scapegoating (2001, 110). The scriptural text, as exemplified in the story of Joseph and his brothers, performs a reversal of mimesis and presents a notion of conversion in the substitutionary act of Judah, which is part of Girard’s hope for salvation. The scriptural text represents mimesis and shows that it can be subverted into healing. Girard’s own words express this idea well:

Without ever leaving its narrative framework, the Biblical account pursues a reflection on violence whose radicalism is revealed at the point where pardon replaces obligatory vengeance. It is only this pardon, this forgiveness, that is capable of stopping once and for all the spiral of reprisals, which of course are sometimes interrupted by unanimous expulsions, but violently and only temporarily (2001,111).

While this story from the Hebrew Scriptures simultaneously reveals and rejects the scapegoat mechanism and its resulting violence, Girard thinks that the New Testament does this even better.

The Gospels, in particular, illustrate that scapegoating “comes from a cultural mechanism and is not approved by God” (1996, 267). Such texts replace the violent God of the past “with a nonviolent one whose demand is for nonviolence rather than sacrifice” (1996, 267). Girard is convinced that it is a mistake to interpret Jesus’ death as a perpetuation of the scapegoat mechanism. It is not a sacrifice designed to perpetuate mimetic rivalry. Rather, “The Christ of the Gospels dies against sacrifice, and through his death, he reveals its nature and origin by making sacrifice unworkable, at least in the long run, and bringing sacrificial culture to an end” (1996, 18). Through his death, Jesus shows how violence is finally comprehended by nonviolence. As Girard rather plainly puts it: if everyone offered the other cheek then it would be impossible for anyone ever to be struck (1996, 267).

Girard’s work has not been without its critics. Richard Kearney criticizes him for focusing only on Western narratives, such as scripture, to the exclusion of stories from the East, such as are found in the teachings of the Buddha. Kearney is surely right to emphasize that other texts do offer


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