Against Girard

Terry Eagleton’s sharp critique of Rene Girard (Radical Sacrifice, 54-58) is worth a look, especially for those (like me) who appreciate Girard.

For starters, Eagleton points to the discrepancy between Girard and “the clear endorsement of sacrifice to be found in Hebrews.” In fact, Girard “issues a stern rebuke” to the writer for a sacrificial view of the cross that unleashes “capricious violence on the part of a jealous God.”

For Eagleton, this isn’t just a problem between Girard and Hebrews. It’s a question of theology proper: Girard “fails to recognise that the god of Calvary is himself a violent transgressor who brings to grief the powers of this world by substituting flesh and blood for their sterile sway.” God’s law “is politically disruptive” while “human edicts . . . are death-dealing.”

Eagleton objects too for political reasons. The gospel “does not simply disown sacrifice in an access to liberal enlightenment” because “in a world that finds justice both offensive and inconvenient, events of this kind are likely to prove tragically unavoidable.”

Eagleton regards Girard’s mimetic understanding of violence as “drastically reductive,” in its avoidance of “the role of material interests, political conflicts or social contradictions.” Girard’s treatment of complex events like World War I ends up “mythological” in that “history is violently elided.”

Eagleton thinks that Girard is correct to “claim that crime and bloodshed lie at the origin of civilisation,” but he denies that “all of these atrocities involve scapegoating, or can be resolved in that ritual fashion.” Besides, harmony and peace are not always goods: “Appeals for unity are issued often enough by those whose selfish interests it may serve. Some contradictions are indispensable, just as some conflicts may be life-yielding.”

As a result, Girard’s condemnation of violence and endorsement of love is “a grand moral gesture bought at the cost of historical specificity.” In Eagleton’s view, “violence may need to be deployed in defence of the innocent” and “in conditions of injustice, love and violence are likely to prove indissociable.” He points to martyrdom as a key case of the convergence of love and violence.

Girard is wrong, he thinks, to view sacrifice as a “moral obscenity.” Eagleton proposes a more radical understanding of the cross: “Jesus’s death reinterprets an atrocious political murder precisely as sacrifice – as a disruptive transitus from death to life, and thus as a sign, promise, and agent of human emancipation.”

In conclusion, Eagleton commends Girard to “placing this unpopular practice squarely back on the intellectual agenda, thus challenging an entrenched modern orthodoxy.” The great flaw of Girard’s work, thought, “is that it serves to confirm those orthodox perceptions of the custom as merely barbaric.”