Persistent Modern Sacrifice

Do you agree with Dick Cheney that somehow Barack Obama is responsible for the disintegration of Iraq? Or do you side with New York Times Columnist Charles Blow who protests against "the gall" of this accusation and concludes that Cheney's "record is written in blood?"

In this troubling and complex world it still feels good to have simple answers, to place all the blame on particular individuals whom we have learned to despise and fear. When ancient societies felt pressures similar to this they commonly engaged in the practice of human sacrifice.

René Girard (1923-), former professor of French language and culture at Stanford University and one of the most prominent Christian intellectuals of our generation, believes that the dynamic of sacrifice still exerts a powerful force at every level of scale in our social life.

In this context the word "sacrifice" does not mean giving up one thing to get a something either later or for someone else. This is not taking one for the team or abstaining from your daily $5 coffee to save money for a future down payment. Girard refers to a more subtle phenomenon, a misunderstood irrationality and violence that lies at the heart of human culture.

Social scientists regard violence as accidental, a departure from the norm of rational behavior. They assume that people live at peace until an unforeseen occurrence upsets the equilibrium. In short, violence surprises them.

Girard on the other hand expects conflict. For him, the most important of the Ten Commandments is, "Thou shalt not covet." This desire for what our neighbor has lies at the heart of all human conflict.

We want even intangible things like security, power or admiration. This desire, this dissatisfaction is contagious. Crowds catch this disease and seeking relief they blame others or simply eliminate them. He calls this form of sacrifice the power of Satan, a name that literally means "adversary" or "the accuser." Social tensions build and find their relief when the group assigns the blame to people who can be eliminated.

This dynamic lies behind much of what we read in the newspaper. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, believes that establishing a caliphate will heal their wounded pride and magically make their problems disappear. In order to become a nation, to assert the superiority of their religious vision, they will kill.

Any time you see massive and complex problems blamed on a single individual you can guess that the scapegoat mechanism is in effect.

The recent news about low public approval for Barack Obama's foreign policy illustrates this. Scapegoating happens on a massive scale in our criminal justice system and in business. A Harvard Magazine article this month suggested that some attribute the collapse of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) to CEO Ken Olsen. In education you see it in recent conversations about teacher tenure. Scapegoating happens in your church, family and among your friends too.

Girard believes that over history nearly every religious myth reinforces this idea of sacrifice (as a way to heal the tensions arising out of human desire for what others have). For him, the New Testament gospels are "more transparent than myths."

The gospels encourage us to identify with Jesus as the sacrificial victim and thus to put an end to all sacrifice. In Girard's words, Christ's suffering demystifies our attempts to get what we want through sacrificing others. He makes it possible for us to reject our own mythic view of ourselves as innocent.

On the basis of this radically new way of being human, Christ is transforming the world. Humanity began by abolishing slavery and serfdom, then we collectively enacted laws to protect women and children. Anti-colonialism and civil rights movements raised our consciousness about the value of different cultures. Today we share a belief that we should work together to eradicate poverty, that every space should be accessible to people with disabilities, that everyone should have access to some form of healthcare.

Last week in a lecture at Singularity University X Prize founder Peter Diamandis projected that despite our vast global population and environmental problems we are not too far from providing for the basic needs of every human on earth.

René Girard firmly believes that these advances in civilization and democracy arise directly from a new attitude toward sacrifice. The ever-present power of the scapegoat mechanism which he describes as Satanic has a looser hold on us. We participate in this progress when we recognize the humanity of every person and refrain from simple-minded blame.