not mystical hocuspocus
January 25, 2010, 3:38 am
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

Following is a curious interpretation of violence from the book Violence and the Sacred by the French philosopher Rene Girard.  It’s curious in that it claims that hope and social stability come through violence and not through peace.  The author says a sacrifice culture diverts and diffuses the animosity a brother holds against his brother.   The practice of killing animals keeps us from killing one another.   His daring claim:  that we are murderers if we don’t make use of ritual sacrifice.  How are we murderers?  By not diverting our impulses toward something extra human, we, by our very natures, perpetuate a human cycle of killing each other.

Here is the excerpt —

Violence is not to be denied, but it can be diverted to another object, something it can sink its teeth into.  Such, perhaps, is one of the meanings of the story of Cain and Abel.  The Bible offers us no background on the two brothers except the bare fact that Cain is a tiller of the soil who gives the fruits of his labour to God, whereas Abel is a shepherd who regularly sacrifices the firstborn of his herds.  One of the brothers kills the other, and the murderer is the one who does not have the violence-outlet of animal sacrifice at his disposal.  This difference between sacrificial and non sacrificial cults determines, in effect, God’s judgement in favour of Abel.  To say that God accedes to Abel’s sacrificial offerings but rejects the offerings of Cain is simply another way of saying – from the viewpoint of the divinity – that Cain is a murder whereas his brother is not.

A frequent motif in the Old Testament, as well as in Greek myth, is that of brothers at odds with one another.  Their fatal penchant for violence can only be diverted by the intervention of a third party, the sacrificial victim or victims.  Cain’s ‘jealousy’ of his brother is only another term for his one characteristic trait:  his lack of a sacrificial outlet.

According to Muslim tradition, God delivered to Abraham the lamb previously sacrificed by Abel.  This ram was to take the place of Abraham’s son Isaac; having already saved one human life, the same animal would now save another.  What we have here is no mystical hocuspocus, but an intuitive insight into the essential function of sacrifice, gleaned exclusively from the scant references in the Bible.

Violence and the Sacred, Rene Girard


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