Guest Post#8: Violence and Christian Holy Writ, Girard, Sacrifice, and Eucharist

The post below by Tony Lusvardi SJ, who blogs regularly at Whosoever Desires.  Tony studied English and philosophy at Notre Dame before spending two years teaching English for the Peace Corps in Sarkand, Kazakhstan.  When he returned from the Peace Corps, he directed volunteer programs for St. John’s University in Minnesota before entering the Jesuits.  He taught for a semester at Marquette High in novitiate, took vows in 2008, spent last summer on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, and has been otherwise occupied studying philosophy.Adoration Of The Lamb JvanEyck

I want to thank everyone who has participated in this series!  It has been both informative and challenging, and I have so appreciated the way each engagement has unfolded, including the comment exchanges.  The one regret I have is that I’ve had to decide against posting one very interesting submission that I had originally accepted.  The submission is very provocative but has a high potential for misunderstanding. I encourage you to read it should you be so inclined, as the author, Dan O. has posted it on his blog.  Given my institutional responsibilities and the high likelihood of someone (including one of my students) misreading Dan’s post, I had to make the difficult decision  not to post his piece.  Do visit his blog and give it a read, as I know he’d appreciate the interaction.


Girard, Sacrifice, and Eucharist by Tony Lusvardi SJ

René Girard’s contributions to the study of religion and violence over the past half-century have been both original and profound.  Though he denies being a theologian, Girard describes his 1999 book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning as an “apology” for Christianity written on anthropological grounds.  Girard’s work, furthermore, takes seriously two notions that other literary and cultural critics would shy away from:  the religious foundation of civilizations and Christianity’s claim to uniqueness among world religions.

But even though Girard describes himself as an ordinary and orthodox Catholic, his theory poses potential challenges to the traditional Catholic characterization of the Eucharist as “sacrifice.”  In the end, I believe Girard’s work is consistent with this traditional understanding, though he forces us to wrestle with what sacrifice means in a Christian context.  After giving a brief overview of Girard’s unique “apology,” I’ll turn to the implications of his work for Eucharistic theology.

Mimesis, scapegoating, and Christianity. Girard claims that what he calls the “mimetic cycle of violence” is at the root of human culture.  To explain what he means by this term he gives a unique interpretation of the Ten Commandments, focusing especially on the prohibition of “coveting.”  Girard equates “coveting” with what he terms “mimetic desire” and sees the concept as the key to understanding the Decalogue.

A conventional reading of the coveting prohibitions might see them applying only to extreme cases of envy, lust, or jealousy, but for Girard the term applies to desire as such.  Desire is problematic for Girard because of its “mimetic” character.  Aside from a few biological basics, human beings come with no pre-set list of desires, so we learn what to desire by watching others.  We see others with certain goods, intuit that those things must be desirable, and then start wanting them ourselves—we begin to covet.

Fads, as well as most advertising, demonstrate the way mimetic desire functions.  Toys that are “must-haves” at Christmas time are often forgotten by January.  I can recall news reports about violence breaking out in Toys-R-Us stores one year over the last “Tickle Me Elmo.”  Such incidents demonstrate, in a mundane way, the consequences of mimetic desire:  rivalry and violence.

By its nature, Girard says, mimetic rivalry tends to spin out of control, feeding viciously upon itself, undermining and threatening to destroy community.  But, Girard argues, at the point where rivalry boils over and communities become divided against themselves, a new phenomenon emerges which brings them together:  the sacrifice of a scapegoat.  When communities reach a point of “mimetic crisis,” the point of all-against-all, the entire community unites against a scapegoat, and all-against-all becomes all-against-one.  The community’s destructive tensions are released, and unity and peace are (temporarily) restored.

The unity and peace established by the sacrifice of a scapegoat seem like divine gifts and become the basis for the development of communities, institutions, and, ultimately, civilizations.  Girard sees the phenomenon of the “founding murder” embedded in pagan mythology and ritualized in rites of sacrifice, with animals often substituting for human victims.

Because the scapegoat is usually innocent, the phenomenon of cathartic sacrifice requires a certain amount of self-deception among those who participate.  The unanimity of the crowd—which Girard calls “mimetic contagion”—allows such deception to persist.  No one questions what is happening because all are caught up in the same passions and actions.  Girard identifies Satan with mimetic contagion.

The similarities between the archetypal pattern of conflict and sacrifice described by Girard and Christ’s Passion are striking.  The Gospels depict a pattern of growing rivalry and tension, followed by the nearly unanimous rejection of Jesus by the crowd, and his sacrificial death, described by Caiaphas in almost explicitly Girardian terms:  “it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people” (John 11:50).

Yet the high priest’s bluntness hints at one of the factors that mark the death of Jesus as a decisive break from pagan mythology.  For, Girard argues, Christianity exposes the cycle of mimetic violence as unjust, breaking Satan’s spell over human nature.  After Christ’s death, instead of a new social consensus emerging, the Church—“a small group of dissidents that separates from the collective violence of the crowd”—springs up in order to testify to the Resurrection of Jesus.

The testimony of the Church exposes the cycle of violence as a cycle of futility.  It demonstrates the innocence of Jesus and, by extension, other victims of mimetic contagion, and shows that God identifies with innocent victims.  It makes a bold claim over and against pagan mythology:  resurrection—ultimate peace, ultimate communion—cannot be achieved through sacrificial violence but can only be granted by God.

The Resurrection is the first part of the Passion narrative that cannot be explained in terms of the cycle of contagion and sacrifice and, therefore, not in terms of anthropology.  Instead, the Resurrection “is a spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion.”

The acknowledgment of divine power is a surprising place for an anthropological study to end, but such an endpoint marks I See Satan as a prelude to theology.  Because he does not start with an a priori assumption that Christianity is fundamentally the same as any other mythical system but instead takes seriously Christianity’s claim to uniqueness, Girard is able to shed light onto the profound differences that emerge in the way Christianity and paganism respond to violence.

However, for Christians—especially Catholics—inclined to accept Girard’s account, a problem arises:  how to explain the traditional idea of the Eucharist as “sacrifice.”

Eucharistic sacrifice. Such language as the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” might make some of our contemporaries a bit squeamish to begin with, and a few theologians have even called for the elimination of the language of sacrifice from our post-Vatican II Eucharistic vocabulary.  Patrick T. McCormick writes that, in light of Girard, the Eucharist can only be thought of as an “un-sacrifice” (A Banqueter’s Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Kingdom of God, 2004).

I find such a position untenable, however, not least because Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s document on the liturgy, itself refers to the Mass as “sacrifice” nine times (more even than it uses the term “supper,” 5 times, or “meal,” none).

Here I think we need to take seriously Girard’s insistence that his anthropology only brings us to the threshold of theology and look for a theological perspective that begins where he leaves off—at the Resurrection—to complement his account.

If the function of sacrifice were limited only to its role in bringing about a false and unjust resolution to mimetic crisis, then McCormick’s conclusion might be justified.  But Christ’s Passion is best understood as a transformation of sacrifice rather than a negation of the concept.  The Resurrection, after all, does not negate or destroy the world; it transforms it.

Perhaps the key concept that must be added to sacrifice in order for us to grasp this transformation is self-giving.  Understanding the Passion—and by extension the Eucharist—as divine self-gift helps us also to recognize it as an act of love.

The key difference between Christ’s sacrifice and those of pagan religions is that Jesus offers himself, while pagan religions offer scapegoats.  The perspective we gain from the Resurrection helps us to see the treatment of sacrifice in the Old Testament in a new light as well.  The sacrifice of Abraham, for example, cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing its self-sacrificial elements; in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, Abraham offers God his future and his hope.

Nor can the general trajectory of the prophets be read as a simple movement away from ritual sacrifice, for doing so ignores the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi with their call to rebuild the Temple and restore ritual sacrifice and worship.  Instead, the prophetic trajectory is toward a more holistic notion of sacrifice that includes right ethical conduct as a necessary prerequisite for Temple worship.

Such a movement is beautifully illustrated, for example, in Psalm 51, the great prayer of a repentant sinner who says to the Lord, “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit.”  Taken alone these lines seem to devalue ritual sacrifice.  The psalm ends, however, with a return to Temple worship, now understood in relation to right conduct and proper spiritual disposition:  “Then you will be pleased with lawful sacrifice, holocausts offered on your altar.”

What we see then, even in the Old Testament, is a movement away from sacrifice as substitution and toward sacrifice as a total self-gift, a gift encompassing all aspects of one’s life.  Girard’s analysis, even if it doesn’t provide this final step itself, allows us to see just how remarkable this movement is against a background of scapegoating and perpetual violence—and how even more remarkable is the final, complete, and holy sacrifice of the Eucharist.

On American Mythologies and Thanksgiving

Destruction of Pequot IndiansBelow are excerpts from a post on  I find the reflections both provocative and worthy of serious consideration.

Thanksgiving in the united states is a holiday observed by pious Christians without much thought. What could be more Christian than thanking God for the blessings God has given us? The reality of this “secular” feast day is, of course, much less innocent and much more monstrous than we assume.  […]

…aside from the holi-day’s idolatrous core, there remains much to be concerned about. One is the obviously troubling history of the holiday and its relation to Native peoples. The story that is celebrated by mainstream white america is a lie, and indeed is not the story remembered by those who originally inhabited this land, which is a white supremacist story of extermination. And we Christians should not forget and should not fail to repent the fact that Christians and Christianity were complicit with this genocide, explicitly providing the theo-ideological justification for it.Secondly, the “blessings” that “we” (white, middle and upper class americans) celebrate are simply not shared by significant portions of the american population, let alone much of the rest of the world. Indeed, the poverty and misery experienced by many both inside and outside of the united states is not an accident of history, but is rather the dark underside of the “blessings” we feel so inspired to celebrate here in the so-called First World.

Third, in its “secular” form, this holi-day’s concept of “giving thanks” has become virtually unintelligible when God is taken out of the picture. This should make Christians concerned about who exactly we are thanking on such a holiday. In the absence of the Creator, what fills the “empty shrine” (in the words of Bill Cavanaugh) of the american empire on this holiday? Who or what are “we” thanking for “our blessings?” The fact is, the holi-day is delightfully vague, and this vagueness is precisely part of what makes american civil religion work.

Fourth, in the absence of any intelligible sense of true “thanksgiving,” we are left with a holiday that tends to be reduced to “being with family and loved ones,” something that is, of course, nice to do, but which can quickly become an opportunity for the virtual worship of family and blood ties, another important aspect of american civil religion. Jesus, despite what the Religious Right has done to him, could hardly be called a “family values guy,” and resisted such notions of blood ties in his own day. […]

Pro-life Christians who choose to be thoughtful about such things should be deeply troubled by the reality of Thanksgiving. Indeed, it is perhaps the holi-day par excellence of the culture of death [e.g. the slaughter of Native Americans]. Of course, the best option for Christians would be simply not celebrating Thanksgiving at all. After all, Christians have their own thanksgiving, only we use its Greek name, eucharist. It is a celebration of liberation and resurrection, not invasion and extermination. It is a celebration that embodies new familial relationships not based on blood or nationality but our common life in Christ. It is a celebration whose purpose is not to say “thank you for all the stuff we have when others are not so fortunate,” but rather “thank you for inviting all of us to this table.” And of course, the one we thank is the Author of Life, the One who is not to be replaced by sentimentalism or the idols of state, of “freedom,” of “choice” and the like. No wonder Jesus made the eucharist a vegetarian feast, a true foretaste of the banquet of the Kingdom of God.

Sokolowski on the Eucharist, Death and Questioning Time

As Robert Sokolowski explains in his book, Eucharistic Presence:  A Study in the Theology of Disclosure, in the Eucharist past and future are made present.  That is, past events of salvation history such as the Jewish Passover, but especially the Christ-event and future eschatological realities are brought together.  Sokolowski then offers a beautiful reflection on our union with Christ in death.Eucharist Icon

[W]e in the Eucharist anticipate our own death as to be joined to the death of Jesus.  Our death becomes part of the divine mystery, part of the great saving actions of God, because it can be identified with the sacrificial death of Christ.  […]  The celebrations of the Eucharist at which we assist are like so many rehearsals of the one transition, the one exodus that is reserved for each of us, the one offering in which we no longer sacramentally but bodily participate in the death of the Lord.  As Jesus acted toward the Father in his death, so we are enabled to make our death an act before God, an act in which life is changed, not taken away. […] Our death, which is the horizon marking off the edge of our life, becomes a particular image of the final restoration of all things in Christ, an image of the death of things that is now to be understood as a transition into the kingdom of God.  The Eucharist thus presents a double future to each of us as we participate in it:  it presents our own entrance into the death and Resurrection of Jesus, and it presents the more remote setting in which everything will be restored in the kingdom of God.

These enactments of past are future are all woven into the Eucharist we celebrate in the present.  The celebration of the Eucharist is surrounded by temporal ripples through which past and future things are refracted.  The Eucharist does not give us merely images or signs of what is past and future; it presents these things as past and as future to us now. The Eucharist involves memory and anticipation, but it does not involve them as mere psychological states; rather, it reenacts and preenacts things God has done and will do  (104-5).

Sokolowski, a few pages later, says that the Eucharist is from one perspective something that takes place in time.  That is, it takes time to celebrate it; yet, “it also overcomes time as it reenacts an event that took place at another time.  In doing this, the Eucharist calls time into question.  It claims to go beyond time and thereby indicates that time and its succession are not ultimate.  It makes time to be an image; it makes succession to be a representation.  Thus the Eucharist, in its reenactment of the past and anticipation of the future, also enacts for us the context that encloses past, future, and present:  it enacts the eternal life of the God who could be all that he is, in undiminished goodness and greatness, even if the world and its time were not [!].  The Eucharist engages, and perpetually reminds us of, the Christian distinction between the world and God” (107).