You have advocated what is seen as a “non-sacrificial” reading of the death of Christ that is significantly at odds with the usual understanding of that death as a “hilasterion” that satisfies the wrath and justice of God. Could you describe that view and how your study of the formation and maintenance of human cultures has led you to it?
RG:Oh, this is a question that will require a long answer! It is not quite true that I take what you have called a “non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ.” We must establish first of all that there are two kinds of sacrifice.
Both forms are shown together (and I am not sure anywhere else) in the story of Solomon’s judgment in the third chapter of 1 Kings. Two prostitutes bring a baby. They are doubles engaging in a rivalry over what is apparently a surviving child. When Solomon offers to split the child, the one woman says “yes,” because she wishes to triumph over her rival. The other woman then says, “No, she may have the child,” because she seeks only its life. On the basis of this love, the king declares that “she is the mother.”
Note that it does not matter who is the biological mother. The one who was willing to sacrifice herself for the child’s life is in fact the mother. The first woman is willing to sacrifice a child to the needs of rivalry. Sacrifice is the solution to mimetic rivalry and the foundation of it. The second woman is willing to sacrifice everything she wants for the sake of the child’s life. This is sacrifice in the sense of the gospel. It is in this sense that Christ is a sacrifice since he gave himself “for the life of the world.”
What I have called “bad sacrifice” is the kind of sacrificial religion that prevailed before Christ. It originates because mimetic rivalry threatens the very survival of a community. But through a spontaneous process that also involves mimesis, the community unites against a victim in an act of spontaneous killing. This act unites rivals and restores peace and leaves a powerful impression that results in the establishment of sacrificial religion.
But in this kind of religion, the community is regarded as innocent and the victim is guilty. Even after the victim has been “deified,” he is still a criminal in the eyes of the community (note the criminal nature of the gods in pagan mythology).
But something happens that begins in the Old Testament. There are many stories that reverse this scapegoat process. In the story of Cain and Abel, the story of Joseph, the book of Job, and many of the psalms, the persecuting community is pictured as guilty and the victim is innocent. But Christ, the son of God, is the ultimate “scapegoat”—precisely because he is the son of God, and since he is innocent, he exposes all the myths of scapegoating and shows that the victims were innocent and the communities guilty.
If you are not familiar with Rene Girard, you can read a simple introduction to his thought and the rest of the interview here.