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The Mystery of Sin

Rene Girard's insights into Christianity - Part 2:
By attempting to understand the mechanism of the scapegoat and the mysterious nature of sin, Bailie seeks expose what exactly Christ did by dying on the Cross.

By Gil Bailie  
Now let us retrace our steps, this time paying special attention to the soteriological details. In place of the Old Testament concept of "scapegoat," the New Testament speaks of "the Lamb of God" a synonym for scapegoat, but one which emphasizes both the innocence of the victim and (more subtly) the sacrificial reversal that is taking place: it being humanity (not God) who demands a victim and the God of suffering love (not the sin ridden, smelly he-goat) who dies at the hands of the victimizers. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the one who will be led to the sacrificial altar. The mythic and gospel homologies are striking.

In John's Gospel, when John the Baptist sees Jesus, he says: "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World" (Jn 1:29). This same theme has a prominent place in the Eucharistic liturgy. At the Gloria, our doxology includes praise for the Lamb of God, "you who take away the sin of the world." And yet, at the most solemn moment, when the Eucharist is elevated, we recite: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.... " There is, then, a very slight discrepancy between these two liturgical formulations. The first, like the ]ohannine text, refers to sin, singular, while the second refers to sins, plural. The scriptures are filled with such minor inconsistencies, and the point I am trying to make about this one is not exegetical in nature. Rather, I simply want to exploit this discrepancy for the purpose of raising anthropological issues which I feel are central to the gospel revelation, and which Girard's work makes it possible for us to appreciate.

Was it the "sins" of the world that Jesus took away? Or was it the "sin" of the world? To make the contrast typographically clearer, let us render the singular and plural nouns in lower case and upper case respectively: "sins" and SIN.

The emergence of "sin" into the consciousness of humanity is a momentous event, the prefiguration of the vision Jesus had of Satan falling like lightning. This is so for the simple reason that sin destroys the consciousness of sin, and when that consciousness reemerges it means that something is at work that is weakening the self-veiling power of sin. But what is this "power of sin?" Whatever else it is, it is synonymous with "the power of Satan" and with what Origen called "the mystery of sin." In order to understand the centrality of the Cross, we have to understand the way sin works, not just morally but religiously. We have to understand its mysterious machinations. We have to reckon, not just with sin as a moral problem, but with the power and mystery of sin as an autonomous anthropological fact.
In order to understand the centrality of the Cross, we have to understand the way sin works, not just morally but religiously. Sin, of course, is hamartia, missing the mark. Girard brings Augustine's understanding of sin into sharper focus. It is turning one's desire in the wrong direction; it is imitating the wrong model, or imitating only enviously and rivalrously. Surely the ultimate religious admonition is to do the will of God, which is to take God's will as the model for one's own, to desire what God desires. However fraught with uncertainty and clumsiness our effort to do so, it is that effort that gives our lives both dignity and ontological substantiation. If, on the other hand, one's neighbour's desire becomes the model for one's own, then one desires something that he and his model cannot both possess, whether it be his neighbour's wife, his house, his field, his servants, his ox or his ass, his professional renown or political prestige, his social preeminence, or his apparent success at having renounced desire.
The failure to desire what God desires, the theme of the first commandment, is therefore the theological summation of the human predicament.

The failure to desire what God desires, the theme of the first commandment, is therefore the theological summation of the human predicament. The irresistible impulse to desire what our fellow fallen creatures desire, the theme of the last commandment, is the anthropological summation of that same predicament. Sin is the turning of our imitative desire from God, and, for Christians, from Christ who is the icon of the invisible God, to material objects or amulets of social prestige made desirable by the desires of others with whom we must compete in trying to acquire them. As Virgil instructed Dante:

For when your longings center on things such
that sharing them apportions less to each,
then envy stirs the bellows of your sighs.
But if the love within the Highest Sphere
should turn your longings heavenward, the fear
inhabiting your breast would disappear;
For there, the more there are who would say "ours,"
so much the greater is the good possessed by each....

(Purgatorio, canto 15: 49-47; trans. Allen Mendalbaum
(Berkeley, California: university of California Press, 1982),130.)

  The deviation of desire is the biblical equivalent of Pandora's box. The "sins" of the world are a catalogue of the predictable behaviors of those swept up into mimetic intrigue and the soap opera it eventually produces. These sins include envy, lust, pride, greed, jealousy, avarice, and covetousness, each one famishing further a craving it cannot satisfy and swirling the sinner ever deeper into a vortex of luring, lying, swindling, pandering, betrayal, and violence. To sin is to succumb to the entangled nexus of rivalistic desires and thereby to fall ever more inextricably under the power of sin. As the sinful social melodrama grows more vertiginous, the accusations that remain latent at its outset become overt, one of which inevitably becomes the rallying cry in unison with which the social crisis enters its climactic stage. If left to run its course, this process will eventually culminate in a scapegoating episode of one kind or another, on the basis of which archaic societies were able to cure themselves of the ravages of rivalistic desire and establish a modicum of cultural stability.
We begin to understand the meaning of the Cross when we realize that it is the "power of Satan" that keeps fallen humanity from receiving forgiveness. With the passage of time, the withering of ritual vigor, and the accumulation of the inevitable mimetic aggravations, a culture grows vulnerable again to the abrasions of conflictual mimesis and the social passions it unleashes. These tensions eventually overwhelm the system of ritual power and religious mystification which the culture enshrined in the aftermath of its last full-blown crisis, and a new mimetic crisis erupts and runs its predictable course. Its predictability is attested to by countless myths, as well as by Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, innumerable Old Testament narratives, and, most especially and most emblematically, of course, by the New Testament story of the passion.

The power and mystery of sin remain occluded, as do the "satanic" machinations of conventional culture, until the seductive power that keeps them so is broken. It was at the very moment of his conversion, therefore, that Paul was first able to see the power of Satan. On the road to Damascus he is commissioned to be an instrument of the very conversion he himself experienced there, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins . . . (Acts 26:18).
The need for forgiveness is both especially urgent and finally possible because of the Cross. Why? So much is encapsulated in this one verse. Paul's conversion is synonymous with his call to become an instrument for the conversion of others. The gospel revelation, literally the revelation of the Cross, breaks in on the zealous persecutor of Christians like a flash of illumination. Only in that light can he recognize his own complicity with "the power of Satan."

Even more important for our purposes here, however, is the explicit connection between being released from "the power of Satan" and being able to receive "forgiveness of sins." We have generally failed to reckon with the historical specificity of this emphasis on forgiveness. It has to be understood, as does everything else in the Christian worldview, in relationship to the Cross and its effects. We begin to understand the meaning of the Cross when we realize that it is the "power of Satan" that keeps fallen humanity from receiving forgiveness. Neither the terrors of crucifixion nor the tireless efforts of Paul's ministry would have been necessary if we fallen creatures were able to "receive forgiveness of sins" without the Cross. Of course fallen and sinful humanity stands constantly in need of forgiveness, but the urgency with which Jesus takes up the task of forgiveness needs to be understood in historical relationship to the Cross and its far flung anthropological effects. The need for forgiveness is both especially urgent and finally possible because of the Cross. Why?
By infecting the whole community and swirling it into the most profound kind of madness, sin magically transforms itself into righteousness, rectitude, peace and social camaraderie. One of the striking things that comes to light when the similarities between myth and gospel are recognized is that archaic religion, and all subsequent attenuated forms of it, exist to take away the sins of the world. Save for the fact that only in the biblical world is the issue of "sin" as we understand it made this explicit, it is nevertheless true to say that taking away of the sins of the world is what all religions have always done. Nor is this feat incidental to their cultural efficacy and human meaning, for taking away these "sins" is precisely what makes the "peace that the world knows" possible. Again, the gospel purports to do what religions have always done, another troubling indication that Christianity is just another religion.

How does archaic religion and its institutional offspring take away the sins of the world? We have just seen how. Sin destroys the consciousness of sin, first by dulling the moral acuity of sinners by enveloping them in mimetic conflict and scandal, and then more adroitly, by sweeping the scandalized into a vortex of madness that runs a perfectly predictable course, finally resolving itself at the expense of the community's scapegoat, whose death or expulsion magically transforms all the sinfulness into righteous rectitude without arousing in any participant the least twinge of conscience. It is difficult not to be impressed by this marvelous feat. If anything merits the phrase "the mystery of sin," this is it. By infecting the whole community and swirling it into the most profound kind of madness, sin magically transforms itself into righteousness, rectitude, peace and social camaraderie. No wonder our ancestors revered the sacred systems that enshrined this mechanism, greased its gears, and blessed its outcome. Indeed, it is not altogether surprising that not a few of those living in the Christian era, including Hobbes, Nietzsche, Heideggerand, in less sophisticated ways, every populist politician in historyhave thought it prudent to keep a remnant of this mechanism in reserve for emergencies.
Where does humanity go to take away the sins of the world? It goes to the Cross. Fallen human cultures come into being, and restore order in a subsequent crisis by "taking away the sins of the world," by venting all the vengeance and violence born of sin on one hapless victim. Once we see this, we can bring the mythic world and the world of the gospel together by simply asking: Where do the sins of the world go to transform themselves into righteous rectitude, idolatry, superstition and the intense forms of esprit de corps on which the kind of peace the world knows is based? They go to the killing fields, to the place of stoning, to the brow of the hill, to the gas ovens, to the lynching tree, to the show trials, to the sun god's altar, to the firing squad, to the guillotine, to the headsman's ax; the litany is almost endless. But the essential locale is always the same. Where does humanity go to take away the sins of the world? It goes to the Cross.

Speaking anthropologically, the "Cross" is where sin ridden humanity has always gone to take away its "sins," and the Cross is where Jesus went to take away humanity's sinful mechanism for converting its own sins into righteousness. That mechanism is the SIN of the world, for it is what made the worldthe cultural world of fallen humanitypossible. This SIN is a deeper and graver moral calamity than ordinary "sins," both because it is fueled by collective self-delusion and accompanied by a sense of righteous rectitude and because it makes forgiveness impossible by annihilating our consciousness of sin. It is the sin against the Holy Spirit, its unforgivability as much a product of its intrinsic epistemological defects as its moral iniquities. It is unforgivable because its ruse for taking away the sins of the world prevents the recognition of the need for forgiveness.

Christians do say, however, that Jesus took away the "sins" of the world. How? By exposing the SINful stratagem for "taking away the sins of the world," the Lamb slain makes it both possible and necessary that we become conscious of our own fallen condition, our moral and spiritual neediness. In making us conscious of our sins, Christ on the Cross fulfills the Law by doing what the Law could never do.
A world gradually being deprived of its age-old method of ridding itself of "sins" is a world desperately in need of another way of dealing with the problem of sin. But as Paul knew more keenly than anyone else, sin took advantage of Law. The Law encouraged the attempt to achieve righteousness by adhering to proscriptions and precepts on the strength of mere moral exertion. But in doing so it predisposed the scruple-ridden veterans of this doomed project to use a violation (or perceived violation) of the Law to justify the persecution of the one who violated it. The Law encouraged those it was attempting to liberate from the delusions of cult religion to treat law breakers in ways that were destined to reinforce the delusions of cult religion. It is no coincidence that Paul's paradigmatic conversion occurred while he was in the process of using the Law, or being used by it, in precisely this way. Paul's life and writings can be read, therefore, as the inaugural treatise on the symbiotic relationship between the SIN of the world and the Law.

At the Cross the truth about the system of scapegoating, sacrifice and sacred violence, the truth hidden by myth and obscured and deflected by human cultures everywhere, is revealed. By exposing the SIN of the world, the revelation of the Cross makes facing the "sins" of the world an urgent and pressing necessity. A world gradually being deprived of its age-old method of ridding itself of "sins" is a world desperately in need of another way of dealing with the problem of sin. It is against this anthropological backdrop that we can best understand the fact that forgiveness was such a conspicuous feature of Jesus' ministry. So much so, in fact, that at the Last Supper he told his disciples that the reason his blood would be shed was "so that sins may be forgiven."

"Why the Cross, if God forgives in any case?" writes Balthasar in an essay in which he both recognizes Girard's accomplishment and misconstrues one of its most salient features.(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-drama, vol. 4 (San Francisco: lgnatius Press, 1994), 313.)

"The answer given hitherto is unsatisfactory," Balthasar concludes. One cannot be quite certain whether that "hitherto" refers to the two volumes of Girard's work with which Balthasar was familiar or to the whole history of Christian soteriology; it fits the latter better than it does the former. Balthasar, however, was perfectly clear about the very thing that has haunted soteriology from its inception: "God's forgiveness and the Cross cannot be left in mutual isolation." The history of trying to relate these two things is by and large the history of Christian thought. All atonement theories are rooted in this relationship between the Cross and forgiveness, but none of them has resolved it in a way that holds evangelical promise for the twenty-first century. Relating the Cross and forgiveness more coherently than they have hitherto been related is the precondition for meeting the apologetic and evangelical challenges we now face. This is where Girard's work becomes most fruitful.

Christian forgiveness is as far from the pagan ruse for "taking away the sins of the world" as myth is from gospel. Forgiving sins stands in sharp contrast to draining away their most destructive social repercussions by means of scapegoating frenzy or ritual catharsis. Like the invisibility of Satan, the ignorance of sin and the way it works"the power of sin"is the sine qua non of pagan "redemption." The death and resurrection myths exist only because that ignorance prevailed in the aftermath of the violence that these myths elide. To use a New Testament idiom, the one thing the mythic system could not tolerate, the one thing it had to silence, was the sound of the cock crowing, which is the key to the mystery of Christian forgiveness.

There is an existential, and even a logical, interconnection between the experiences of contrition, forgiveness and Christian conversion as such. The chronological order in which these things occur in a person's life will vary, but the existential linkage between them remains. What is important is not their chronological arrangement, but their fundamental inseparability. The crowing of the cock is the New Testament trope for the moment of their convergence. The sound that is the universal symbol for the dawning of a new day is the sound associated with Peter's awakening from his subtle complicity in the contagious consensus of the accusatory crowd surrounding Jesus. At the crowing of the cock Peter steps out of the old world of myth, whose efficacy depended precisely on keeping people from having Peter's experience.

If the grip of sin is to be broken without vitiating human freedom and the dignity implied by it, then forgiveness cannot occur without the sinner's desire for it, and for that to happen the sinner has to have become conscious of sin. He has to have heard the cock crow. Since the beginning of human culture, however, sin itself has deprived us of this consciousness by turning sin into righteousness at the expense of the victim slain or expelled. So the blood of Christ was shed "so that sins may be forgiven."

So sure was Paul that the power of the entire gospel was expressed by the Cross that he could tell the Corinthian Community: I did not come proclaiming God's testimony with any particular eloquence or "wisdom." No, I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).

This is either an irresponsible act of intellectual asceticism or the Cross is the supreme instrument of intelligibility and the source of all real knowledge. Paul's whole ministry is based on the latter premise, but it is one for which we have lacked corroborative evidence until Rene Girard provided it. The Cross is the source of real knowledge precisely because the gestalt of mob madness, ritual catharsis, and mythological misrecognition that the Cross exposes and deconstructs is the source of all human delusion, idolatry, superstition and religious mystification. When Jesus looked down from the Cross and said: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do," he was revealing, not something peculiar to the crowd outside the walls of Jerusalem, but the obfuscating power of the spectacles of collective violence by which humanity has generated and regenerated its systems of social solidarity since the beginning of human culture.

"If the modern mind fails to recognize the strongly functional nature of the scapegoat operation and all its sacrificial surrogates," writes Girard, "the most basic phenomena of human culture will remain misunderstood and unresolved."

(Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans.Patrick Gregory (Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 276)

This is nothing more and nothing less than Paul's insistence on the centrality of the Cross expressed anthropologically. It is hardly coincidental that Girard's wide-ranging intellectual itinerary led him in the end to the same insistence on the historical centrality of the Cross reached by Christianity's founding evangelist. Nor is it insignificant that Girard declares as unequivocally as Paul that his insight into the meaning of the Cross is itself the product, not of one man's scholarship and perspicacity, but of the epistemological vista and anthropological illumination which the Cross itself makes possible. Girard's work gives us the tools for rediscovering the universality and singularity of the gospel, for revitalizing our apologetics and catechesis, and for re-evangelizing ourselves and our world. What has been presented here is the barest sketch of a very few aspects of Girard's work. It does no justice to the depth and range of his thought, nor to its subtlety and nuance. It is offered simply as an invitation.


Gil Bailie is the president and founder of The Florilegia Institute, in the U.S., where he teaches a variety of courses.

Cf. René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977)

Gil Bailie, Violence Unveiled Humanity at the Crossroads, Crossroad, New York, 1995. Hb$24.95. ISBN 0-8245-1464-5

This is the conclusion of a two-part article, that first appeared as "René Girard's Contribution to the Church of the 21st Century" in Communio: International Catholic Review, 26 No. 1 (Spring 1999) p134-153. Contact: P.O.Box 4557, Washington D.C. 20017, USA. E-mail: Republished with permission.

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