Tribal Bureaucracy

The phrase “All is fair in love and war,” has various attributions, but it certainly has a direct hold on the popular imagination.  But I wonder if those that cite it truly believe in it.  What I think we tend to mean when we say this is, “If the side I’m rooting for does something that helps them win, I generally approve.”  But if the other side does it . . .

War also tends to come with a relentless osmosis.  So the English and French cried “foul” when the Germans started using chemical weapons in W.W. I, and then used them themselves.  The same happened in W.W. II.  First the Nazi’s bombed London and then the Allies retaliated in more than kind.  It is this spiritual cost of war that often gets ignored amidst the loss of life.

These things flitted through my mind as I read the painful and at times darkly comic Guantanamo_diaryGuantanamo Diary by Mohamedou Slahi.  The scars and trauma of 9/11 come through on almost every page of this book, and if his narrative speaks even half-truths, we have much to mourn and much to fear about who we are as a people.

Briefly, Slahi received an excellent education growing up in Mauritania, gaining fluency in French and German along with Arabic (in prison he learned English well enough to write his diary in English).  He traveled a lot as well throughout Europe and also visited Canada.  During the 1990’s he traveled to Afghanistan to fight against the Russians (so he claims) where he certainly met others in the Taliban and Al Queda.  He returned to his native Mauritania.  While there he was arrested and questioned in relationship to the Millennium plot, and then released.  His government, at the request/likely insistence of the United States  then asked him to come in for questioning again after 9/11.  He agreed to come in voluntarily to “clear the air,” so to speak, and from that moment on, disappeared into the bureaucratic abyss.  He has yet to be charged with anything, and yet remains in detention.

Shahi comes off as a very sympathetic figure in his narrative.  Perhaps we should expect this.  We naturally sympathize and accept the point of view of the main character of almost any story.  But surely we might just as naturally wonder to what degree we can trust his account of events.

In a recent podcast interview, Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman discuss Klosterman’s recent GQ article on Tom Brady.  In their remarks both agreed that our culture has a serious problem.  Whatever narrative emerges first (in this case they were discussing the ridiculous nature of “Deflate-gate”) embeds itself deeply in the American consciousness.  Whatever narrative emerges next not only has to fight for space in the national narrative, it has the unfair burden of having to also disprove the first narrative, even though its only “crime” was to be known second and not first.  Perhaps this is not only a modern American problem — perhaps this has always been the case with humanity in general.  But if so the problem seems accentuated in our day by the fact that we have a very short national attention span and will quickly to move from one issue to the next.

Quite possibly, this same problem exists when reading Slahi’s diary.  We should not hold his account to a higher standard than accounts from our own government who initially branded him as a mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, just because this comes from “our side” and it was the story we heard first.  We should treat his account as truthful unless otherwise contradicted by some other source.  Admittedly, this is difficult as contradicting him might reveal classified information.  Such is the dilemma of democracy in the 21st century.*

Briefly the “case” against him:

  • He had been in Afghanistan and fought with Al-Qaida against the Russians.  His own words on this subject — “I fought with Al Qaida, but then we did not wage jihad against America.  They told us to fight against the Communists.  In the mid-90’s they wanted to wage jihad against America, but . . . I didn’t join them in that idea; that’s their problem. . . . I am completely independent of this problem.”
  • His brother-in-law, Abu Safs, was a high-ranking member of Al-Queda.  Alhough interestingly, we have documented transcripts of Safs urging AQ leadership not to proceed with the 9/11 attacks.  In turn, might this have meant that Slahi knew of the impending attacks?
  • He knew different languages and had traveled abroad a great deal.
  • The United States accepted that he had no knowledge of/participation in the Millennium plot.  But it became apparent that Slahi had not told the whole truth about other matters during this questioning, which even Slahi himself admits.  Apparently he denied knowing a man whom he did meet at one point for a short time (although we know nothing about the nature of their relationship). Might then he know other things about terrorists that he has not revealed?
  • In any case, a federal judge reviewed his case and found no basis to detain him any further.  After some outrage from some New York newspapers, the Obama administration appealed the decision, which has yet to come to trial again.  He remains in a bottomless, meaningless detention.

There appears to be very little else against him, and ten plus years of detention have yet to produce a single criminal charge.  It appears we have, as Marine prosecutor Col. Morris Davis commented, a case of, “a lot of smoke and no fire.”  Another interesting testimony comes from Lt. Col. Stuart Crouch, a former prosecutor on the case.  He had left the military, but a good friend died in one of the planes on 9/11.  He decided to reenlist to, in his words, “get a crack at the guys who attacked the United States.”  Eventually he had a total change of heart and withdrew from the case.  He recounted in an interview his realization.

Right in the middle of this time . . . I was in church and we had a baptism.  We got to the part of the liturgy where the congregation repeats–I’m paraphrasing here–but the essence is that we respect the dignity of every human being and seek peace and justice on earth.  And when we spoke those words . . . I could have been the only one there.  You can’t come in here on Sunday and as a Christian ascribe to the dignity of every human being and . . . continue with the prosecution using that kind of evidence.

Some may argue that while we do not have enough evidence to charge him with a crime, a very slim chance remains that Slahi is smart enough to pull a huge snow-job on us.  A chance remains that he may possibly know of some person we don’t know about yet that may seek to do us or others harm (though honestly, since he has been detained for so long, it seems he could know nothing about any possible plans).

Are we willing to take that chance?  To me it seems a really safe bet.

Ironically, it appears that his intellect worked against him in a Catch-22 fashion.  Interrogators admitted that they had nothing concrete to pin on him, but “smart people leave no traces.”  If he wasn’t smart, he would obviously be guilty . . .  because he would have left traces.  Being smart, he naturally left no traces of his guilt.

Such bizarre moments pockmarked his narrative.

For example, interrogators revisited one particular conversation he had with his brother in which Slahi urged him to “concentrate on school,” with an extended conversation about “tea and sugar.”  Since this came up in more than one interrogation, U.S. intel must have thought that such statements involved a code of some kind.  Shahi could not convince them otherwise.

Of course some detainees no doubt bear some measure of guilt.  One prisoner sought a plea-bargain with prosectors.  But this detainee wanted to be generous to Slahi, who resided in the cell next to his.  He would only accept a plea-bargain if they gave one to him as well.  Prosecutors would have loved to offer Slahi a deal, but do to so they would have to charge him with something, and despite repeated efforts, they could not come up with anything.

So the end result was no charge and no plea bargain, but instead a renewed insistence that he must be guilty of something, and so renewed interrogations.  After all, Slahi’s next door neighbor thought he was guilty.

A few final reflections . . .

I absolutely hate and abhor attempts to change meaning of words based on the “letter of the law.”  Interrogators subjected him to sexual molestation, sleep deprivation, forced continuous water drinking (to bring about constant urination and sleep deprivation), and the like.  They did not physically pummel him, but no matter.  He was tortured.  I beg us to call a spade a spade.

Shahi does not paint himself a brave resistance hero or a martyr for truth.  He routinely complains of his back pain.  He admits freely that he lied at points during torture and finally even implicated others, something he earlier vowed not to d0, simply to make the torture stop.  He hated certain guards, but liked others and even sympathized with their plight.  He mentioned several times that war brings out the best and worst on both sides.

Surprisingly, when he vented his anger — which was not often — he did so not at the United States but at his home country of Mauritania.  He saw the Mauritanian government as utter cowards for handing him over the U.S. with no specific charges, in direct violation of their constitution and his rights as a Mauritanian citizen.

Eventually he gained the privilege to see movies and watched Black Hawk Down with his interrogators and guards.  He did not enjoy the movie much, but the reaction of the Americans troubled him greatly.  Some soldiers cried bitterly for the Americans that died, no doubt justly.  But Slahi wondered why they shed no tears for the hundreds of Somalis who died, some of them no doubt forced to fight by a warlord dictatorship, some of them civilians.  Americans, Slahi mused, are essentially tribal and care for their own kind not just in preference to others, but to the exclusion of others.  In this we are not exceptional, but just like most anyone else. Ultimately, however, Shahi’s continued detention shows us entirely sacrificing his dignity and freedom on the slim chance that perhaps he knows (or once knew) something or someone.

I will pass over his experiences with guards who knew very little about Christianity trying to evangelize him amidst torture and illegal detention. Shahi, for his part, seemed to enjoy picking apart their arguments. But a few other comments on his opinions about Americans are amusing if not instructive:

Americans are just big babies.  In my country it’s not appropriate for somebody my age to sit in front of a console and waste his time.  And Americans worship their bodies.  They eat well.  [Name redacted] was like anyone else.  He bought more food than he needed, worked out even during duty, talked constantly [about sex], played computer games, and was very confused when it came to his religion.


Many young men and women join the U.S. forces under the misleading propaganda . . . which makes people believe that the Armed Forces are nothing but a big Battle of Honor.   . . . But the reality is a little bit different.  To go directly to the bottom line, the rest of the world thinks of Americans as revengeful barbarians.  That may be harsh, and I don’t believe the dead average American is a revengeful barbarian.  But the U.S. government bets its last penny on violence as the magic solution for every problem.

A few brief comments on the blurbs on the jacket cover and other such comments made about the book.  Those that read it, like myself, emerge fairly convinced of at least Shahi’s legal innocence as well as liking him.  I believe that we have done a grave injustice to Slahi and his family that nothing can erase.  But some commentators fall into the tribalism that Slahi denounced, that Slahi himself avoids.  For some, the U.S. gets no sympathy at all.  They make no attempt to understand the serious intel dilemmas after the trauma of 9/11 we faced, no attempt to understand the gravity of our situation.  For them, the U.S. is a kind of “evil empire.”**

I think rather that we acted, and do still act, the way many frightened and confused people act when they have very little to comfort them.  I agree that we sometimes act foolishly and wrongly, but probably no more so than most other major powers.  We had a few strands of intel that might mean something . . . and we felt forced to act because not acting might possibly result in catastrophe.  It is a terrible situation, and it appears that we have done terrible things in its midst.

But I do not mean to let ourselves off the hook.  We no doubt  felt forced.  But in reality, we are simply selfish*** and will remain so as long as Slahi stays in the legal Neverland of Guantanamo.



*There is the added question of whether or not the various tortures he underwent may have altered his perception of the past.

**John le Carre must have been only too delighted to write a blurb for this book, as he been roasting the west in general, and the U.S. in particular, for years.  Alas for the bygone days of his great spy fiction from the 1960’s and 70’s.

***Via Marginal Revolution came this quote related to the Syrian refugee crisis.

Even 4-year-old Syrian orphans are too dangerous to welcome to the United States, says New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. What sort of man turns away desperate orphans out of fear? Christie’s words and actions are shameful and unbecoming of a great nation—as are those of 25 other governors who said they will work to keep Syrian refugees from moving to their state. Is America no longer the home of the brave?





Fun with Lists

A colleague of mine who also teaches history recently asked me to play an enjoyable game of “Name your Top Five Historical Events between the Roman Empire and the Reformation in western Europe.”

With some brief banter back and forth we came to an agreement fairly quickly on four and I inserted a fifth.  They are, in order of when they occurred,

  1. The conversion of Constantine, ca. 313 A.D.
  2. Charlemagne named Holy Roman Emperor, 800 A.D.
  3. The first Crusade, 1097 A.D.^
  4. The Black Plague ca. 1348 A.D.
  5. Columbus, 1492

As we considered these five, I rejoiced at our selections.  For, while the list is quite prosaic and hardly original, it reflects a shared worldview between us, and a shared philosophy of history.

For you see, the list has no technological innovations.  Not even the printing press!  I had to pat ourselves in the back in a moment of self-satisfaction.

Some context . . .

I like James Burke’s old show from the 1970’s Connections.  In a typical episode Burke will start with some everyday modern phenomena and then ask, “How did this come to be?”  He will then, by a serious of ingenious jumps and skips back in time, declare that, “If it were not for the discovery of the wood grouse in 1756 B.C., the modern computer would never have come to be.”

Or something like that.

I exaggerate, but sometimes Burke gets carried away.

In the first episode, Burke travels from a power outage in NYC to the invention of the plow in ancient Egypt (it actually makes some sense).  But implicit in Burke’s theme lies the idea that technology creates and then drives civilization.  I don’t buy it.  Yes, the plow probably helped ancient people produce more crops, but what brought people together in the first place?  Ok, people would gather by rivers for sure, but what would make them organize themselves into communities?

It would not be the plow.  Before the plow, some kind of common bond must have drawn people together — almost certainly a religious bond.*  Of course, it is this shared belief that still holds civilizations together today, not technology.

Admittedly not everything on that list involves a directly spiritual concern, so a brief defense of the selections seems in order:

Neither one of us thought Charlemagne’s title purely political.  It represented a hope of reorganizing society spiritually and culturally (yes, political as well) along more unified lines.  Some argue that the Holy Roman Empire never amounted to much, but it had a long run as a political and organizing force in Europe.

Whether or not the Crusades had justification in 1097, the conduct of the Crusaders and the ultimate failure of the enterprise seriously weakened the Church as an organizing force in European society.  From around 1200 A.D. on, the state had much more say than previously vis a vis the Church. Whether an improvement or not, certainly this represented a new means of how people interacted with one another.

The Black Plague killed millions, and in the process effectively ended the feudal system, which had governed Europe arguably since the time of Charlemagne.  In time a new middle class would arise with a new way of relating to one another

Columbus is in some ways a stand-in for Renaissance-era exploration as a whole.  As Felipe Fernandez-Armesto argues in his excellent book Pathfinders, exploration did not start based on new technological discoveries.  Exploration began because the way people viewed their place in the world had changed.  In that sense, Columbus is a stand-in for an entirely new way of thinking.

The printing press certainly had significance.  Probably it makes our top 10?  But the printing press has little effect without there first existing a desire to read, a desire to interact with the world in a different way through the printed page.  We should not imagine a world always hungry for books, just begging someone to invent a machine that could make them more accessible.

I am reminded, for example, of a story about Elizabeth I and toilets.  Apparently indoor plumbing was created in her day, and some enterprising inventors offered her the chance to use it. Who among us would refuse indoor plumbing?

She refused.  Having to go to the bathroom offended her sense of royal dignity.  The bathroom, in the form of the chamber pot, would come to her.  What good is being Queen if you can’t order the bathroom around anyway?

The story illustrates the point about the printing press.  It’s not about the invention, but the culture surrounding the invention that matters.  Culture and belief drive technology, and not vice-versa.


^In the interest of fairness, this represents my choice more so than an absolute unified agreement between the two of us.  As I mentioned, we were lock-step on the other four.

*Not surprisingly, armed with his materialistic view of history, Burke essentially reduces all of the religion and mysticism of Egypt down to applied science.

“I See Satan Fall like Lightning”

I repost these feeble thoughts on Rene Girard, in honor of his passing yesterday.  I also include a brief excerpt from an interview with him 10 years ago, where he does not pull punches, at the end of the post.

The original is below.


I’ve said before that for the most part, I can’t stand the modern British historian, or at least, the modern British type of historian. This is the type that Toynbee rebelled against and patiently denounced for years.  This model calls for exacting discipline to attempt to focus only on the “what” and never the “why.”  Leave that to the metaphysicians.  Historians should tell you what happened and keep their noses clean of any other venture.

This approach has flaws from top to bottom.  First of all, it’s dreadfully boring, and second, it’s a lie. We simply can’t avoid metaphysics — we will always worship and point to something, though they seek to drive ourselves and others away from such a fate.

The Abbot Suger of the Abbey St. Denis once declared, “The English are destined by moral and natural law to be subjected to the French, and not contrariwise.”  Leave it to the French to say crazy things!  And with historians anyway, I agree.  French historians to the rescue!   They have their share of great ones, from Einhard to De Tocqueville, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch,  Regine Pernoud, and so on.  Historians should not forget that they too are made in the image of God, and that history has no meaning or purpose without us seeking to “sub-create” and give meaning and purpose to the world around us.*

Rene Girard fits into this mold with his great I See Satan Fall like Lightning, a brief, but dense and thought provoking book that challenges how we read the gospels, mythology, and all of human history.  A magnificent premise, and he delivers (mostly) — all in 200 pages.

To understand Girard’s argument, we first need to understand two main lines of thought regarding civilization.  The first and overwhelmingly dominant view sees civilization as a great blessing in human affairs. Civilization allows for creativity and cooperation.  It fosters a rule of law that prevents a cycle of violence from overwhelming all.  Civilizations give the stability that, paradoxically, gives us space and time to challenge existing ideas and move forward.

The distinct minority believes that civilization can do no better than aspire to a lesser evil than barbarism.  It at times descends below barbarism because it enacts great cruelties under the comforting cloak of “civilization.”  At least the abject barbarian harbors no illusions.  The very organizing principle of civilization concentrates the worst human impulses to impose their will on others and count themselves innocent in the process.  Before we dismiss this uncomfortable thought, we should note that in Genesis 4 the “arts of civilization” are attributed to Cain and his lineage, with violence as the hallmark of their work.  God confuses language at the Tower of Babel because collectivized human potential is simply too dangerous.  In his The City of God Augustine seems at least sympathetic to this view, as his memorable anecdote regarding Alexander the Great makes clear:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, What you mean by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor.

I used to associate this negative view of civilization exclusively with French post-modernists like Foucoult (not that I’ve actually read him:) and therefore dismissed it.  But, there it is, in Genesis 4, in Augustine, and likely other places I’m not aware of.  So, when Girard asks us to accept this view, he does so with connection to the Biblical tradition and some aspects of historical theology (Girard accepts the necessity of government and order of some kind but never fleshes out just how he wants government to function).

With this groundwork we can proceed to his argument.

Scripture tells us that Satan is “the Prince of this world,” but in what sense is this case, and how does he maintain his power?  Where he wields influence, he sows discord internally in the hearts and minds of individuals and in society in general.  Hence, the more influence he has, the more dissension, and thus, two things might happen:

  • He risks losing control of his kingdom, as no kingdom can withstand such division for very long.
  • The chaos might incline people to seek something beyond this world for comfort, which might mean that people meet God.

How to maintain control in such a situation?  Girard believes that mythology and Scripture both point to the same answer: Satan rules via a ritual murder rooted in what he calls “mimetic desire.”  The war of “all against all” fostered by Satanic selfishness must be stopped or he risks losing all.  Mimetic desire heightens and gets transformed into the war of “all against one.”  The people’s twin desires for violence and harmony merge in an unjust sacrifice.  This restores order because we have find the enemy collectively, and find that the enemy is not us — it’s he, or she, or possibly they — but never “us.”  Satan’s triumph consists of

  • His control restored
  • His control rooted in violence
  • A moral blindness on our parts
  • A reaffirmation of our faith in the ruling authorities to bring about order

“Mimetic desire” has a simple meaning: we seek to imitate the desires of others, and by doing so take them into ourselves, into the community.  Girard speaks at some length about the 10th commandment which prohibits coveting. While this prohibition is not unique to the Old Testament, it places greater emphasis on the problem of desire than other cultures. Desire in itself is good, but Satan, the “ape of God” gives us his desires, desires for power, for more.  Once these desires spread they turn into a contagion, or a plague that infects people everywhere (Girard believes that many ancient stories that talk of a “plague” may not refer to something strictly biological).  Once begun, resistance is nearly futile.

To understand this we might think of two armies opposing one another.  Neither wants to fight, but both fear that the other might want to fight, so both show up armed.  Once the first shot is fired, be it accidental or otherwise, all “must” participate. All will fire their weapons, and you would not necessarily blame a soldier for doing so.  It just “happened,” and with no one to blame, there can be no justice — another victory for Satan.

He references Peter’s denial of Jesus just before his trial.  Often our interpretations focus on the psychological aspects of Peter’s personality — his impulsiveness, and so on.  Girard won’t let us off the hook so easily.  Such psychological interpretations distance ourselves too comfortably.  In reality, Peter fell prey to the desires of the crowd in ways that ensnare most everyone.  Peter is everyman, in this case, and perhaps its more telling that he extracts himself from that situation.

Pilate too succumbs, in a way typical of politicians everywhere.  Pilate needs order — his cannot afford that Justice be his primary concern.  To maintain order he has no other choice but to give in.  Girard would argue, I think, that this is nothing less than the bargain all rulers must make from time to time.  Politics, then, get revealed as more than a “dirty business,” but one with indelible roots in the City of Man.

Many ancient stories show forth the nature of mimetic violence, but the Cross itself stands as the example par excellence. The people in general have no hostility to Jesus, but once they become aware that the religious authorities are divided, and the Romans start to weigh in, the plague of mimetic desire settles in.  They turn on Jesus, and believe that His death will solve their problems.  It looks like a repeat of other events and another victory for Satan.  But this victim not only possessed legal innocence, He actually had true and complete innocence.  Now Satan’s methodology gets fully exposed, for “truly this was the Son of God.”  His resurrection and ascension vindicate Jesus and establishes His lordship and His reign over a kingdom of innocent victims.**  This “exposure” has its hints in the Old Testament at least in the Book of Job.  His troubles must be deserved in some way, so say Job’s friends.  If he follows his wife’s advice to “curse God and die,” he will bring peace to the community by vindicating their perception of the world.  He resists, and God vindicates him in the end.

Girard argues that Jesus does not give commands so much as introduce a new principle, that of imitation.  He counters our mimetic desires not by squashing them, but by redirection.  Jesus asks that we imitate Him, as He imitates the Father.  The epistles carry this forward.  Paul tells us to imitate him, as he imitates Christ, who imitates the Father.  Well, Jesus did give commands, but his commands about love in John, at least, invoke this pattern of imitation.  “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).  What makes this commandment new is not the injunction to love each other, but perhaps the principle on which it is based.

So far I buy Girard entirely.  His link of mimetic desire with the crucifixion, and his analysis of the nature and extent of Satan’s influence I find profound.  He started to lose me a bit when talking about how so many myths follow this pattern of mass confusion, scapegoat, death, and then, deification of the victim — or barring deification of of the process itself.  I.e., because it restored order, it must be from God/the gods.  I could think of a few myths, but I’m not sure how many follow this pattern (though I have a weak knowledge of mythology).

When speaking of the founding of certain civilizations, however, he seems once again right on target.  In Egypt and Babylon the violence occurs between the gods.  Girard suggests that some stories may have actually occurred, and then the victims like Osiris and Tiamat became gods.  But in Rome at least, the violence takes place between the twins Romulus and Remus, an instructive case study for Girard’s thesis.  The twins set out to found a kingdom but cannot agree on which spot the gods blessed.  But the brothers cannot co-exist peacefully.  Their rivalry heightens until Romulus kills Remus and assumes kingship of Rome.  Livy, at least, passes no judgment on any party.  This is the way it “had to be.”  The Aeneid also have a similar perspective on the founding of Aeneas’ line.  Violence just “happened.”  Such was the founding of Rome, and in later stories Romulus is deified as a personification of the Roman people.  Not that everything about Rome would be evil, but the foundational principle of “sacred violence” to establish civic order has no business with the gospel.

This story is instructive for Girard, but not entirely.  The deification of the aggressor fits squarely within Girard’s framework. But what of those that deify or exalt the victim?  Many myths fall into this category, Persephone, Psyche, Hercules, and so on.  These myths seem to prepare the way for Christ, who fulfills the stories in the flesh made real before our eyes.  Girard sees mythology in general rooted entirely in “City of Man,” but I cannot share this view.

At the end of it all, however, we have a great and thought-provoking book.  We should have more like them even if it means more French influence in our lives.  Below is a brief interview excerpt with him.



Rene Girard, a prominent Roman Catholic conservative and author of the seminal book “Violence and the Sacred,” is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Stanford University. His more recent books include “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” and “I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.” This interview was conducted by Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels earlier this year. It is particularly relevant in shining some light on the controversial comments by Pope Benedict on violence and Islam in Germany last week.

By Rene Girard

Global Viewpoint: When Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said a few years ago that Christianity was a superior religion, he caused controversy. In 1990, in the encyclical “Redemptoris Missio,” Pope John Paul II said the same thing.

It should not be surprising that believers would affirm their faith as the true one. Perhaps it is a mark of the very relativist dominance Pope Benedict condemns that this is somehow controversial?

Girard: Why would you be a Christian if you didn’t believe in Christ? Paradoxically, we have become so ethnocentric in our relativism that we feel it is only OK for others — not us — to think their religion is superior! We are the only ones with no centrism.

GV: Is Christianity superior to other religions?

Girard: Yes. All of my work has been an effort to show that Christianity is superior and not just another mythology. In mythology, a furious mob mobilizes against scapegoats held responsible for some huge crisis. The sacrifice of the guilty victim through collective violence ends the crisis and founds a new order ordained by the divine. Violence and scapegoating are always present in the mythological definition of the divine itself.

It is true that the structure of the Gospels is similar to that of mythology, in which a crisis is resolved through a single victim who unites everybody against him, thus reconciling the community. As the Greeks thought, the shock of death of the victim brings about a catharsis that reconciles. It extinguishes the appetite for violence. For the Greeks, the tragic death of the hero enabled ordinary people to go back to their peaceful lives.

However, in this case, the victim is innocent and the victimizers are guilty. Collective violence against the scapegoat as a sacred, founding act is revealed as a lie. Christ redeems the victimizers through enduring his suffering, imploring God to “forgive them for they know not what they do.” He refuses to plead to God to avenge his victimhood with reciprocal violence. Rather, he turns the other cheek.

The victory of the Cross is a victory of love against the scapegoating cycle of violence. It punctures the idea that hatred is a sacred duty.

The Gospels do everything that the (Old Testament) Bible had done before, rehabilitating a victimized prophet, a wrongly accused victim. But they also universalize this rehabilitation. They show that, since the foundation of the world, the victims of all Passion-like murders have been victims of the same mob contagion as Jesus. The Gospels make this revelation complete because they give to the biblical denunciation of idolatry a concrete demonstration of how false gods and their violent cultural systems are generated.

This is the truth missing from mythology, the truth that subverts the violent system of this world. This revelation of collective violence as a lie is the earmark of Christianity. This is what is unique about Christianity. And this uniqueness is true.


*Ok, I overstated the case.  The British have many great historians, Henry of Huntington, Toynbee, and recently Niall Ferguson (British Isles), and countless others who all attempt to have the humility stick out their neck, say something intelligible, and make people think.

**In an intriguing aside, Girard points out that Christianity helped establish concern for victims for the first time in history, a great victory for Justice and the human heart.  But Satan has learned to pervert this as well.  Now our “victimization” culture has left off concern for justice, and instead has become a quest for power over others.  I.e., “because ‘x’ happened to me, now you must do ‘y.'”  We see this happen in the ancient world also, perhaps most notably with Julius Caesar’s murder and its relationship to the founding of the Roman Empire with Octavian/Augustus.  Girard writes,

The Antichrist boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance Christianity promised but failed to deliver.  Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victomology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games without the victims, etc.

A Proud Death

Exposing oneself to older ideas has many benefits.  Such a statement is almost a cliche for someone in my line of work, but then every so often the reality of this truth hits one afresh.  The old world had much wisdom that we have lost.

One idea that struck me with particular force recently has to do with the early Church’s link between the reality of sin as it relates to fact of death.  For Adam and Eve, sin brought death, and their progeny inherit bodies of death.  After the Fall, sin now results from death.  That is, we sin because we know we will die.  Sin often originates in our rebellion against death.

We do this unfortunately, in a variety of ways.  We distract ourselves endlessly with extended consumption.*  When men reach my age they buy sports cars and get trophy wives in an attempt to feel young and powerful again.  All of us feel the need for self-preservation, so when we see a chance to “extend ourselves” and grow our kingdom we seize it, whether that means invading another country or cutting someone off in traffic.

The futility of such actions is obvious on a biological level — we will die.  But such actions do more than merely delay the inevitable.  By making death more distant, we lose our dominion over it and thereby give it more power over our lives.

This is the main theme of Philippe Aries’ book The Hour of our Death, which stands as a greatly expanded version of his Western Attitudes toward Death.  In that book he talks about the idea of a “tame” death in a more thematic manner. In this work, in minute and at times fascinating detail Aries gives the reader a multi-faceted look at how western man has died since the early Middle Ages.

I will try not to repeat myself too much from the review linked above.  He begins his study under the heading “The Tame Death.”   Essentially from the early Middle Ages, our approach to death consisted of . . .

  • A belief that death “politely” let one know of its imminent arrival.  This blessed those about to die, for it gave them a chance to say goodbye and reconcile with friends and family.
  • Rituals that governed the process of death for the dying, which included last rites
  • The rituals having the effect of “taming” death*

Aries concludes his first chapter by writing,

The fact that we keep meeting instances of the same general attitude toward death from Homer to Tolstoy does not mean we should assign a historical permanence exempt from variation.  .  . . But for 2000 years it resisted pressures in a world subject to change . . . this attitude toward death is like a bulwark of inertia and continuity.

It has by now been so obliterated from our culture that it is hard for us to imagine or understand it.

Thus, when we call this “familiar” death the tame death, we do not mean to say that it was once wild and is now domesticated.  On the contrary, we mean that it has become wild today when it used to be tame.

This “wild” state of death came about in distinct stages.

  1. Perhaps because of the plague, the later Middle Ages depicted the gruesomeness of death and the reality of death much more frequently in their artwork.  Death was far from “put aside,” but assumed a more terrible aspect.
  2. The late Renaissance made death more about the Last Judgment than redemption in their art.  Perhaps this happened as Renaissance culture knew that it had drifted from its medieval roots and sought through a kind of force — like shaking a patient — to regain some ground.
  3. Many Protestants abandoned this Catholic practice, but as is typical in such cases, swung the other way entirely.  Death no longer brought terror, but neither could it allow for mourning.  Some Puritans, for example, had encouragement to remarry within a month or two of the decease of their spouse.  Rather than fix the “problem” of death, this approach attempts to give death an unreality, which makes it ultimately abstract and impossible to tame.
  4. The scientific age believed that cemeteries were unhealthy places.  Burials stopped happening in or beside churches (located within the town) and got moved outside town limits.  Now, too, rituals involving the dying were in jeopardy, because of the risk of disease, infection, etc.  In suffering “medicalization,” death left the field of the Church and entered the field of science.
  5. The Romantic era of the “beautiful death” attempted to correct the Enlightenment approach.  But like the Puritans before them, they unintentionally swung unhelpfully in the other direction in two main ways: 1) The “beautiful death” imposed a burden on the dying to “get it right” — be tranquil, be composed, be “natural,” etc., and 2) In returning death to the provence of nature they believed they entered a beneficent realm.  But nature in truth (at least according to Aries) is arbitrary, and cannot be “tamed” on its own terms.  Thus, the impossibility of taming death in nature.
  6. The modern era has abandoned rituals of almost every kind that guide cultural practice.  Our societies do not pause in any way for death, unless it is perhaps the death of a statesmen or our military.  Other deaths in society do not register.  As the “ends” of our communal life have secularized, so too has death been secularized.  The whole notion of a “communion of saints,” or a “cloud of witnesses” has disappeared utterly from nearly all Protestant churches.  Without this sense of continuity or ritual, death has free reign, no controls, and again, becomes more terrible in aspect.

Aries published his book in 1981, perhaps the height of the modern medicalization of death.  With the advent of hospice care and other less invasive end of life medical practices we begin to move back in a more positive direction.  But we have a long way to go.

One key way back to a more proper understanding of death will involve a theological shift, as I hinted above.  If we persist in the idea that God resides “up there” while we remain “down here,” we will never understand death.  The same holds true for the departed.  Without the communion of saints, death will continue its lordship.  I quote extensively from Stephen Freeman’s Everywhere Present below to illustrate the point and show us the way forward.

At the time of my visit [to the St. Saba monastery] one of the brotherhood had “fallen asleep” two weeks earlier.  “We never say that a monk has died, ” our guide told us, and I suddenly imagined the unspokenness of death I knew so well [from living in America].  He continued, “We always say, in the words of Scripture, that they have “fallen asleep.”  But most we say this because we see them so often.

Now I knew I was in a different place.

“You see them?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said.  “They appear to monks all the time.  It’s nothing to see St. Saba on the stairs or elsewhere.”  The witness of the monk (who happened to be from San Francisco) was not a tale of the unexpected.  These were not ghostly visits he described, but the living presence of the saints who inhabit the same space as ourselves.  It is a one-storey universe.  Such stories . . . can be duplicated all over the monastic world.

The doctrine of the ancient Church is quite clear in this matter.  Those who have died are separated from us in the body, but the Church remains One.  There is not one church in heaven and another on Earth.




*Who doesn’t love Amazon Prime?  But my countenance fell upon reading a recent ad of theirs for same day shipping — “Patience no longer required.”