The Satanic and the Theomimetic: Distinguishing and Reconciling "Sacrifice" in René Girard and Gregory the Great

Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 27 (1):177-214 (2020)
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Compelling voices charge that the theological notion of “sacrifice” valorizes suffering and fosters a culture of violence by the claim that Christ’s death on the Cross paid for human sins. Beneath the ‘sacred’ violence of sacrifice, René Girard discerns a concealed scapegoat-murder driven by a distortion of human desire that itself must lead to human self-annihilation. I here ask: can one speak safely of sacrifice; and can human beings somehow cease to practice the sacrifice that must otherwise destroy them? Drawing on Gregory the Great (ca. 540–604), I propose an understanding of sacrifice that both distinguishes Christian sacrifice from sacred violence and accounts for how to overcome the roots of the sacred violence identified by Girard. I make four claims: First, Girard recognizes two kinds of sacrifice—one, the scapegoat murder, overcomes community rivalries by unanimous imitation of an accuser, shifting blame onto a third party who is collectively murdered; the other sort of sacrifice practices renunciation and forgiveness in imitation of God. These I respectively designate the “Satanic” (Girard’s term) and the “theomimetic” (mine). Second, I analyze the intrinsic instability that keeps the Satanic from sustaining the societal order and unity that it promises. Third, by a constructive reading of Gregory the Great, I posit that satanic sacrifice overlooks and indeed exacerbates the root of human covetousness—a failure to love. Fourth, Gregory’s teaching on the imitation of Christ enables us to expand on Girard’s account of the theo¬mimetic sacrifice of renunciation, to clarify how this latter might not only oppose but also systematically subvert the Satanic by healing the disorder out of which mimetic rivalry and scapegoating first take their rise.

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Jordan Joseph Wales
Hillsdale College


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