Rene Girard, the anthropologist and social critic, died shortly before last month's Paris bombings. Today Religion Dispatches reflects on his life and legacy. A key paragraph on the relationship between religion and violence:
For over three decades, scholars of religion have drawn on Girard to inform their work. Christian theologians and New Testament scholars have found Girard’s insights on the scapegoat mechanism of special salience. Girard has argued that myths attest to the scapegoat mechanism from the perspective of persecutors: the victim of mob violence is guilty. By contrast, the Gospels break with myth to present the victim as innocent. Living at a time of social crisis, Jesus is the victim of mob action; but his innocence, attested to by the Gospels, breaks apart the scapegoat mechanism, forever shaking the foundations of a culture built on sacrifice. Even scholars who disagree with Girard about his insights attest to his influence on their work; as a consequence, Girard has had a pervasive impact, especially on scholars who want to understand the dynamics of ritual, the meaning of myth, the origins and history of violence, and the relationship between violence and religion.
For my part, I've always appreciated Giard's ability to interpret and translate the anthropological substance of religious ideas in creative and socially constructive ways. His work has also be extremely useful to me in understanding and interpreting the idea of the atonement in Christian theology. He will be missed.