4 – Human Nature & The Origins of Violence

Home Learning Hub 4 – Human Nature & The Origins of Violence
Scapegoating is a complex human issue and it has many parts to it. Our reason for looking at this is to see some of the issues involved in the beginning and in the roots of violence in our human behaviour, so we can understand some of the ways in which people behave today.

First of all, I don’t think that the original basis for this is what Girard calls mimetic desire. As we said, mimetic means to mimic or copy. This is very much a strong part of human behaviour, which, as we noted earlier, is a good thing. Mimesis gives us things in common, and helps us learn from each other, and this helps form us into communities. But it also gives rise to rivalry, when it brings about unhealthy competition among people, for the same items they desire.

Mimicking is part of the human nature, part of the way we are designed, for our learning. A such, it is a positive thing. But the mimesis Girard is describing, the mimesis that is derived from jealousy between people and which brings about competition, this mimesis comes about for a different reason. This isn’t part of our human design, or the way God made humanity. This is part of our fall.



Girard notes this as well. It is derived from our idolatry. There is an emptiness within us, that we try to fill with other things. The idol is ultimately ourselves, and we try to fill our emptiness with selfpraise, which is proven by our status among others, our being on the top, our having the things that other people want. Mimicking others comes about by our desire to fill the void and emptiness in our souls.

This mimicking behaviour then is a religious thing. It comes from our desire to worship. Worship means to believe in goodness. Our sense of goodness has been corrupted and focused upon ourselves. This comes out in competition for position, honour, righteousness and for material things and this produces the rivalry.


Judging Others

When this rivalry takes place, our solution for it is also religious. By pointing the finger at a common victim, and accusing the person, we fulfil our sense of righteousness. There is a sense of right and wrong in all our souls, and accusing someone else makes us feel better about ourselves, especially when we know inside that we have done wrong. Accusing someone restores our conscience and gives us peace.

As a community, we have a sense that we have offended the divinity. In our traditional religions, this often means there is a curse upon our society. We have also believed that it we offer this offended god a sacrifice, then they will be appeased. In this case, the victim/ scapegoat we offer doesn’t have to have done wrong. Their fault may be just a way they are different. They may have a speech impediment, or be twins, or have some different physical feature, or be a foreigner.


Appeasement Killing

Their difference, or frailty, may be seen as an offence to the gods, evidence that the victim has been cursed. If they are cursed, then they are the reason for the problems in the community. They are bringing the curse to the group. If they are killed, then the curse will be appeased and the community will be healed. This is the pagan reasoning.

This is how offering a victim can bring peace to the whole community. It answers our collective conscience and our collective need to appease the gods for the wrong we know inside ourselves that we have all done. Sacrifice brings us inner and collective peace.


Sacrifice is Born

Sacrifice is a human invention. Because of our fallen conscience we think God demands sacrifice, and we transcribe this view to the gods in our idolatry. Sacrifice has its foundation in our human societies. First it was human sacrifice, then animals were substituted for humans. The requirement for blood didn’t start with God.

We have misread God and the scripture in this way. God said he didn’t ask Israel for sacrifice when he brought them out of Egypt (Jeremiah 7:22). The Prophets said God didn’t want sacrifice. We have said God introduced sacrifice, but no text in scripture says this. The Prophets said, “God wants mercy, not sacrifice.” That is, merciful care, not sacrifice, heals memetic rivalry.

Genesis 3:21, for example, doesn’t say anything about a sacrifice. It says God clothed Adam and Eve.

The clothing was woven cloth, always used for priests. It was clothing for their skin, not clothing of animal skin (Exodus 22:27). When we transfer the father of the Prodigal Son into Genesis three, we get an entirely different picture of who God is. This is what Jesus wants us to do.

Nor does it say that Abel killed his animal. They didn’t eat meat then, so killing animals would have been senseless. Nor does it say God asked for offerings. These things came from our conscience, and God was pleased when they came from good will. But the gifts weren’t for God, they were shared among the community. Violence and bloodshed does not originate with God.

God wants to transform our view of sacrifice, from killing, from punishment, from retribution, to restorative actions of peace and care. He doesn’t want us to use satan to cast out satan. “I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” All our religions have misunderstood God. We have read him from our fallen perspectives, from our own image.


Regulating Violence

The ancient people made conflict in their societies religious. When they killed a victim, it was a religious murder. They did this to appease their conscience. They did it to remove the curse they believed in. They also they did it to regulate and to limit the violence.

If their violence could be religious, if one, or even several victims, could appease a curse, then this would prevent a wider, disorganised, largescale killing. Making murder religious brought a kind of order to the community. The priesthood could make the rules, instead of everyone killing as they saw fit.

This limited violence, was to atone for anger and prevent a wider violence. It would prevent wide range revenge that was common. Whole villages could often be wiped out in retaliation for one murder. So a victim, a scapegoat, a sacrifice, could be presented to appease the wrath of the gods and the wrath of the community. This victim would be dedicated to the gods to regulate and pronounce the crime settled and appeased, thus stopping further bloodshed. This violence of religion would stop further violence.

So man was using violence to cast out violence. It works to an extent, but this violence then is always with us, always part of the human condition, something we can’t get rid of. The scriptures show that God also adopted this form of violence, that was present in human culture, because he knew the vindictive, vengeful and violent nature of man.

In the Old Testament, it is called charam, “dedicated to God for destruction.” Here is the religious act of killing, to atone, to prevent widescale bloodshed. This is common in the Old Testament. It is human. It is not of God. It was necessary until God could bring us to Christ. In Christ violence is to stop. Christ put an end to sacrifice. But if we don’t follow Christ in peace, how will our violence be regulated without sacrifice? This is why we must learn to follow the ways of God’s kingdom.

Therefore, in ancient cultures the priesthood became a way of controlling the community, to prevent rivalry from breaking out into a completely chaotic degree. An empire had to have a priesthood to function, to maintain its cohesion and cooperation between its competitive members.

Otherwise the people could not be governed.


Religion & Anthropology

This shows us that religion and anthropology (human culture) are intertwined. They make sense out of each other. If organised religion and sacrifice come out of our human fallenness and violence, and the bible shows this, not just secular studies, then the gospel must be God’s cure to this human condition, to our social need of new community.

The gospel is not a disconnected concept about our personal spirituality and heavenly salvation. It is to turn us from scapegoating, from sacrifice, to loving obedience. God has come in Christ to take away our violence, to replace sacrifice with service, as our redemptive, reconciling way of life.

God accepted Noah’s sacrifice because that was Noah’s faith. He didn’t command Noah’s sacrifice.

God condescended to Abraham with sacrifice, because this was the culture, or the language Abraham spoke. This way, God could commend the sincerity of his intentions to Abraham’s mind.

God gave Israel sacrifice because they were under the law. They were already under the law, as were all human cultures under law of some kind, because this was our fallen condition. They already had their tabernacles and temples for appeasement of violence, long before Moses came. The law had filled our souls since the fall in Eden, along with its retributive violence filling our nations.

If Israel were under law, they would need sacrifice for the appeasement of that law, until Christ could come. God condescended to and adopted the same cultures of religion and killing, to limit violence, until he could change our hearts and lead us out of that culture.

But the systems were not of God. This is why Jesus said to those who wanted to follow them, that they didn’t know God, and that they didn’t know what spirit was filling them. This system of killing for peace does not come from God. God came in Christ to show us a new way, whereby we don’t cast out satan with satan. We don’t overcome aggression with aggression, but with forgiveness.


God is not Violent

This means we must re-evaluate the way we look at the cross, and at a lot of our other doctrines.

Well, so did the Pharisees have to do this. The cross wasn’t a place where God demanded an offering for sin. It was a place where God, in Christ, gave himself for our violence, as the offering we demanded, and in return for our violence he freely extended to us his forgiveness. This calls us to an entirely different way of life, that we are not used to in our human cultures.

God came to take down our systems of control and manipulation, such as the priesthood, and put in their place a system of forgiveness and service for our neighbour. The priesthood is now a unique people, who follow the way of Jesus in his forgiveness of his enemies, without seeking any retribution or blood in return. This is how we are to answer the competition and violence in our cultures. By neighbourliness, by loving our neighbour as our self. Not by the hierarchical systems of control, but by loving justice and care for all in our societies.

This is the way the kingdom of God casts out satan, and this is the real lesson of the law of Moses: Jubilee care for each other, for the poor, the widow, the foreigner, the one who is different, whom we in our religions said was cursed, like Lazarus at the gate, or like Job in his sufferings. Instead of casting the cursed out, we bring them to our table and seek their healing, and the healing of us all.

This is our new kingdom. Our healing is that we stop following satan. He is no longer our father, as the murderer from the beginning.

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