Violence and Religion

Violence and Religion

for the working group on Violence, Religion and Terrorism of the Commission on
Social Policy of the Presbyterian Church, January 31, 2003

By Robert Hamerton-Kelly

A week or so ago I saw on deep cable a semi-propaganda movie of the kind we see more and more as the religious violence of Israel becomes more egregious. It is about a Polish village whose inhabitants were all Jews, and about their dreadful fate during the forties of last century. One scene sticks in my mind: an avuncular Rabbi, cross between Santa Claus and the Fiddler on the Roof tells the story of the Exodus to ten or so angelic children aged about six through nine. No scene could be warmer and more engaging, more full of love and beauty, and then the narrative begins. This genial old man asks the children: “Why do we celebrate Passover?” and then answers his own question, “Because God killed the first born children of the Egyptians and told us to mark the doorposts of our houses with the blood of a lamb so that the angel of death might pass us over.” I was appalled and thought immediately of two things, one, that this gave the children permission to kill those who were not like them, and two, that the Apostle Paul had been such a child and then such a Rabbi.

I thought of Galatians 1:13-16, which I give here in Lou Martyn’s magnificent translation, from his magnificent commentary in the
Anchor Bible, which I regard as the most important theological book to have been published in America since WW2 (with the possible exception of a book or two by Girard). “You have already heard some things about my past, the course and nature of my life when I lived in the religion of Judaism. You know that for some time I persecuted the church of God to an extreme degree; I even had it as
my goal to destroy it entirely. And my doing that sprang from the fact that in
regard to matters of the Jewish religion I outstripped many of my fellows, being
far more zealous than they for the traditions handed down from my forefathers.
But all of that came to an end. God had in fact singled me out even before I was
born, and had called me in his grace. So when it pleased him apocalyptically to
reveal his son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I
immediately kept to myself, not asking advice from anyone.”

I cannot say which of these pungent phrases is most
important. The concluding statement seems especially wise; had he consulted
widely he might have been a founder of just another religion, one more
principality among the powers of this world, like the imperial church of
Byzantium or the militant Zionist synagogue. Because Christ came to him not from tradition but from an apocalypse of God Paul discovered the violence of
tradition, the dirty secret of religion, which Girard has enabled us to analyze
in an unparalleled way. Paul had been one of those beautiful children in my
movie scene who had the misfortune to believe what the Rabbi told him, and to
become a religious virtuoso, and thus a virtuoso of violence. For that reason he
found himself on the road to Damascus, going to murder fellow Jews who dared to claim that a man cursed by the Law of Moses is the Messiah of God.

In our COV&R seminar last Friday someone quoted someone
who had said that the story of current theology might be summed up as hoping to
get to Damascus without incident. I then contributed the observation that most
intellectual texts these days might be classified as weapons of mass distraction
(not original with me). If, however, one does not allow oneself to be distracted
one will observe that Paul’s life is all about violence and religion, and that
the most important event in all of human history is that fortunate incident on
the Damascus road.   What is the nature of this event?

We cannot penetrate its divine content but we can map its
sociological form and its psychological dynamic. Briefly stated, Paul realized
that his religious zeal had made him a violent man and therefore he changed
communities, passing from the community of the persecutors to the community of the persecuted, from the religious to the irreligious. Luke captures both these elements in his novelistic accounts of what in Galatians is autobiography. In
Acts 9 (cf.22; 26) the vision responds to Paul’s question, “Who are you
sir?” with the answer, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
Autobiographically all Paul says is that God apocalyptically revealed His son to
him so that he might preach him among the Gentiles, which at first sight seems
to have a less violent context, but that is not so.

In Acts his experience accuses him of violence while in his
autobiography it sends him to the Gentiles. There is, of course, a tart irony in
the fact that this super Jew is made Apostle to the Gentiles, compelled to keep
company with those whom he was accustomed always to refer to as “Gentile
sinners” (Gal 2:15), and therein lies the point. To erase the line between the
holy race and the human race is to erase the fundamental trace laid down by
sacred violence, the demarcation between the Sacred and the Profane. In
novelistic Acts Paul is made to hear a direct accusation of sacred violence, in
his autobiography he is made to transgress the boundary set by violence.

In recent history nothing reminded me of this Paul as much
as the failed apocalypse of Baruch Goldstein. He like Paul was a Diaspora Jew,
from the US, who went to live as a religious settler in Hebron. One morning in
1991 he woke up took an automatic rifle and walked to the mosque/synagogue at
the tombs of the Patriarchs and murdered twenty plus Muslim worshipers. He was subdued and beaten to death by the survivors, and revered as a saint by his
fellow settlers, who to this day venerate his grave, with the protection of the
IDF. I called his experience a failed apocalypse because on his way to the
mosque that morning nothing happened to reveal to him the violence of his
religion and to dissuade him from it. He made it to Damascus as it were, without
incident. Perhaps he already knew the violence of his religion and affirmed it
in the name of Yahweh God of Battles, Israel’s divine champion and licenser of

In order to understand this violence of religion better we
have to consult Girard. He has shown, I believe, that violence is the “heart
and secret soul of the Sacred.” Let me attempt a brief summary of his
position. Some call it a theory, but the longer I have worked with it the less
theoretical and the more matter-of-fact it has seemed. One might as well say
that gravity is only a theory as one steps out of the 12th story window. Here in
its bare bones is an account of religion as a structure of violence, or more
precisely, religion as the one and original structuring of all human society and
culture by means of violence.

Human desire is the starting point of the description and
we note that desire imitates desire helplessly; desire is mimetic. This mimetic
nature of desire leads to rivalry because we are infected by the desire of the
other, we catch desire as we catch a cold; e.g. only the tree that God
prohibited was desirable to Eve, because, since God withheld it, it must be the
one that He desired, – the ones He gave away could not have been desirable like
the one He retained for Himself alone. That illusion of divine desire infected
human desire; we imitated our misprision of the divine desire and thus became
the rivals of our creator.

In the hominid bands teetering in illo tempore on
the brink of hominization, chaos compounded because of this contagion and
community became impossible, except that, at the moment of crisis, the mimetic
system of desire, being self-regulating and self-correcting, automatically threw
out a stabilizer, the surrogate victim. The war of all against all suddenly
became the war of all against one. The first social moment was the fellowship of
the lynch mob, the camaraderie of cowards.

Staring in stupefaction at the corpse, that fortunate first
band experienced a moment of blissful respite, which we have never forgotten. It
might be the ongoing paradigm of heaven in the human soul. In any case in that
moment of presumed euphoria we made the tragic misinterpretation that has
mangled social  consciousness ever since: we concluded that since there was
violence when s/he was alive and peace when s/he is dead the victim must be the
cause of both states. Thus we invented the fantastic omnipotent victim and set
him/her in the sacred place. Thus the victim became the God, the tribal idol and
the source of all culture.

At this point it is worth reminding ourselves that the
first commandment in the Decalogue is the prohibition on idolatry and the last
commandment the prohibition on covetousness, which is mimetic desire. Thus the Decalogue is bracketed by prohibitions of the two foundational fallacies of
culture-creating religious violence, mimetic desire and idolatry. They belong
together in the phenomenology as in the biblical revelation.
I remind you too that the first appearance of monotheism as distinct from
henotheism in the Bible occurs along with the most savage attacks on idolatry in
2 Isaiah and the emergence of the suffering servant. I take this to indicate
that the one true God emerges by bearing himself the violence of the Sacred and
thus emptying the idols of their power. 2 Isaiah in this regard is the great
prophecy of Paul’s truth on the Damascus road. The mark of the idols is sacred
violence, the mark of the one true God is the bearing of violence and the
bearing it away.

Some years ago I went as part of my work for CISAC to the
most violent district in Zululand, South Africa, the Msinga district. Girard has
received a mysterious letter from a white woman who lived in the district whose
husband had been murdered by one of the warring Zulu clans. She who wrote
telling of how a chance finding of his “Violence and the Sacred” in the
University library in Pietermaritzburg renewed her will to live, because she
realized that there was a way to understand what she had been experiencing and
to make sense out of the horror of their situation. But that’s another story.
I went there because I was lecturing at the University of Zululand and Rene
asked me to check it out, and also because I was writing at the time about
ethnic violence. My guide was a huge Zulu policeman whom I remember as Mr.
Shange. I asked him why there was so much faction fighting and he said that the
young men no longer accepted the authority of the chiefs (a sign of what we
Girardians would call a sacrificial crisis). I asked him if he ever spoke to the
young men and he said often. He would go in search of them in the hills and when he found them would actually preach to them. Thus I discovered that he was a fervent evangelical Christian of an indigenous kind. “What do you tell
them?” I asked. He said, “I tell them of the two bloods.” What are
they?” I asked. “The blood of Abel, which cries out from the ground for
vengeance, and the blood of Jesus, which whispers, ‘Peace to you,’” he
answered. I said I thought Mr. Shange had captured the whole Christian faith in
that one sentence, and what I meant by that is that the non-vengeful nature of
God is the heart of our revelation. God bears violence away, God does not
inflict violence. The one true God only comes upon the scene along with the
suffering servant and then ensues the twilight of the idols.

Out of the victim came law as the prohibition of mimetic
activity, and myth that spins the whole story so as to present us as innocent
and the victim as guilty,  and ritual sacrifice as the re-enactment of the killing that brought peace so as to renew its power every day. This ritual continues apace long after most official sites of sacrifice have closed, in the scapegoating that goes on everywhere. Of course, we ourselves are never scapegoaters, because we do not intend to be scapegaoters, but let me remind you that the surrogate victim was not in the beginning chosen, nor was the sacrificial ruse invented, they emerged spontaneously from the self-regulating system of contagious desire. In the same way sacrificial activity goes on everywhere spontaneously and unintended. This of course means that we would never become aware of it as such, only of its baleful outcomes, were it not for revelation, and the only revelation I know of that sets the innocent victim at the center of the disclosure of the nature of God and humanity is the one Paul experienced on the road to Damascus.

You no doubt see that I have been trying to use Girard to
give an account of the nature of the principalities and powers from which Paul
believed God has liberated us through the Cross. For him it was liberation from
a covenant with violence and death in the Judaism of the second temple,
celebrating its God in a holocaust of animal flesh in the temple, and pursuing
dissenters at home and abroad. This is religion as usual, present in all the
world’s religion, including Christianity, against which the Cross of Christ,
as Paul grasps it, is a judgment and an opportunity. Paul was uniquely qualified
to understand the violence of religion because he was a virtuoso of that
violence. He was one of those about whom the Gospel of John says, “The time
will come when those who kill you will think that they are doing divine service

This reference to John brings me back to the salient fact
that the whole system of sacred violence, or human religion as a system of
violent repression, is based on what I politely called a misinterpretation. John
is more eloquent, He says, ‘ The devil is a liar from the beginning.’ Thus
the gospel shows that it knows who Satan is, what the demonic is, and what Sin
is, namely the structure of Sacred violence coded as religion. or what I prefer
to call myth, because it enables the cute neologism, mythinterpretation, which
in turn indicates that religion, and of course culture too, functions to occlude
the fact that the violence stems not from a god but from our own contaminated
and contagious desire.

The nature of the misinterpretation that underlies human
society and culture is simple: we elude responsibility for violence by
transferring it to the victim-become-god. Instead of saying, we had better not
behave in ways that encourage mimetic rivalry, we said that mimetically
provocative behavior makes the god angry, so we should refrain from it so as not
to bring his wrath upon us. Thus we alienate ourselves from the proper source of
law in our own responsible prudence. Likewise with myth; instead of owning the
fact that we purchased peace at the price of an innocent victim we tell
ourselves that the victim him/herself invited persecution and death because of
crimes and perversions, or died by accident. Emphatically, we did not kill and
innocent victim. Finally, with ritual killing we undertake to maintain the
pacifying power of the first time. This ritual we used to call sacrifice, but
more politically correct anthropology recently claims that such a category is a
Christian hangover and should not be used. In any case it functions to let
violence out of the system on a regular basis by deflecting it onto the victim.
The mythinterpretation of sacrifice holds that the gods need to be fed or they
will turn grumpy as hungry people often do.

An important variant of the sacrificial ruse is what we
inelegantly call scapegoating. Sacrifice drains violence out of society by
deflecting it onto a substitute victim, “the war of all against all” is
managed by ritually becoming on a regular basis the war of all against one.
Today we see scapegoating everywhere. As a parish pastor I recognize that one of
my professional roles is scapegoat. From this point of view the election of a
president in this country is a way of conducting a periodic attack on the
scapegoat, a ritualized driving out of the leader who by now has too much
violence attached to him/her and has got to go. 

Imagine then a world, this world, founded on the victim
from whom culture comes, held in order by human sacrifice, and controlled by the mythunderstanding of everything, and you have a world created by religion, by Paul’s principalities and powers. The Enlightenment more or less dismissed
religion as an imaginary nothing; Girard shows that religion is empirically
everything, and spiritually nothing. The only real thing is the revelation in
the Cross.  What I have elsewhere
called “the structure of sacred violence” I believe, with due deference of
course, is the very thing that the Apostle calls “the principalities and
powers of this world.” Therefore, we can in the first four verses of Galatians
read his whole theology, and in my opinion, the whole Christian truth about the
subject of your workshop.

In Gal 1:1-4 Paul writes: “Paul an Apostle- that is to
say a person sent on a mission; sent, however, not by a group of other human
beings, nor even by an individual human being, but rather by Jesus Christ and
God the Father, who raised him from the realm of those who have died…May grace and peace come to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, “who gave up his life for our sins,” so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age, thus acting in accordance with the intention of God our
Father.”  Paul is emphatically not
carrying on a tradition but representing the living Christ himself, and the
purpose of Christ’s death was to snatch us out of the grasp of “this present
evil age.” The words, “gave up his life for our sins” occur in quotes in
Martyn’s translation because it is a cliché of the Jewish Christians that
Paul intends to trump by the words that follow, about liberation from the
powers. Another instance of Paul’s quoting Jewish Christian sources is when he
uses sins (pl); in his own voice he always speaks of Sin, and means thereby the
world of sacred violence. This is the world from which the faithful death of
Christ liberates us. As Martyn says, for Paul’s opponents the correlations
are, old covenant/new covenant; transgression /forgiveness, but for Paul the
comparable correlations are old covenant /new creation, oppression/ liberation.
The former are the antitheses of the old world and the latter are the antinomies
of the new creation. The opponent Teachers in Galatia remain within the
antitheses of religion, for Paul God has broken into the world of the powers and
replaced the antitheses of religions with the antinomy of two worlds, to replace
the antithesis between the Sacred and the Profane with the apocalyptic antinomy
between the old and the new world.

An essential part of this advent of the new is the
disclosure of the old as a structure of sacred violence, built on murder and
shrouded in lies. As John’s gospel says to Jewish Christians, who must have
been like in many ways to the Christian Jews who drove Paul out of his Galatian
churches, and let us not forget that Paul lost this argument and was run out of
town, first in Antioch as Gal 2 tells us, and then in Galatia, eventually
becoming what Martyn calls a “lone wolf evangelist.”
John’s Jesus says to these Christian Jews, “If God were your Father,
you would love me, for I proceeded and came forth from God; I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and you will do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing
to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks
according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But,
because I tell the truth, you do not believe me  (8:42-45 RSV).”

Let me move now from the biblical and theoretical to the
practical and try to tell you where I find the facts that persuade me that Paul
and Girard speak the truth. There is no doubt in my mind that our pathetic
little species is in the hands of forces its does not understand, let alone
control, and that the religious prescription of sins and atonement, the schema
of the religious opponents of Paul, is merely swabbing the decks of the Titanic.
Our self-delusion in this religious world is monstrously mythical. I recommend
here Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell,” America and the age of Genocide
(New York: Basic Books, 2002). She canvasses the genocides from the Armenian
Massacres in 1915 to the Kosovo massacres of the late 90’s. I’ll not depress
you with a list of extreme atrocities, but merely say that in every single case
national powers that could have intervened to stop the killing never did. They
stood by with full knowledge and the means to stop it and did not. Callousness
is bad enough, but what can one do but choke in disgust when after the fact we
Christian powers for humanity’s sake pick up the broken remains of people and
succor them for virtue’s sake? Our cold indifference stuns me, but our warm
concern chokes me with disgust, and as his biographer Porphyry once said of
Plotlines, I feel ashamed to be a human being. Power writes, “But time and
again, decent men and women chose to look away. We have all been bystanders to genocide. The crucial question is why?” (xvi-xvii). The answer is simple, we
don’t really give a damn, and let’s not pretend that we do. We are in the
maw of sacred violence, under the control of powers we cannot and do not want
even to imagine, prisoners in the world of primitive religion.

How do we know this about the principalities? Because God
revealed it to us in the death of Jesus, says Paul, whom the one true religion,
the Mosaic Law, cursed. In 1 Cor. 2:7-8 Paul speaks of the hidden wisdom of God,
“…none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if the had they would
not have crucified the Lord of glory (RSV),” he says. By that crucifixion the
nature of sacred violence was disclosed; we saw the victim slain since the
foundation of the world, and we saw that he is innocent. Thus the veil of myth
was lifted and the truth that Jesus speaks became evident.
The crucified Jesus died a victim of religion, not just any religion, but
in this case the true religion that Paul had served with all his strength. (This
of course does not make the Jews the only Christ killers; we all murdered him,
that is, this primitive religion that structures society by means of violence
present in Paul’s specific instance of religion did the damage). Historically
he was the victim of a coalition of the Jewish and Roman establishment.
Paul served this establishment as an enforcer for the Hugh Priest, for
reasons of religious conviction. The Cross invaded his consciousness and broke
open a bridgehead for grace to enter and for Paul to see  that this crucified victim is innocent.

I could go on and on but courtesy compels me to stop. As I
do I must raise the question, “Does any of this make sense to anyone?” The
older I get the more desperate I get about the deep cruelty of our species, and
about the possibility that there might not be any alternative to sacred
violence. Remember the Grand Inquisitor; he recognized that Jesus had brought a
freedom from the powers, but claimed that that freedom was more than we could bear and so the church had given us back our comfortable bondage. Shall we give a cheer for the Grand Inquisitor and his heavy burden? I wonder if we and all other earnest groups trying to understand the present threat of violence will not give a grand inquisitorial answer to religious violence and thus remain
snugly within the religious myth. Theology is for the most part a prisoner of
the powers, concerned chiefly with getting to Damascus without incident. Our
books and papers that remain mostly unread are like weapons of mass distraction; we cannot avoid arguments about whose religion is the best, antitheses of sacred violence rather than antinomies of liberation. “All I know,” Paul says, “is that circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, all that matters is new creation (Gal.6:15)” and that new creation is “faith working through love (Gal.5:6).”

Finally, this primitive religion of sacred violence is on
all fours with politics. It is politics, and for that reason it is probably the
most fruitful source in the world of contention, contempt and confusion. All
politics is local said Tip O’Neil, all politics is religious say I, exercises
in sacred violence cloaked in mythic mendacity. Maranatha!