Our friend Levi introduced me to Rene Girard, whose writings on the way that crowds become mad, set in the context of the Christian message, certainly have something to say about the present experience of cancellation, censorship, and a lot more.
I don’t want to unpack his overall thesis here, and in any case it’s too complex to do so. Suffice it to say that in its entirety it is one of those all-embracing theories, and because of that necessarily generates controversy. I’m not sure how convinced I am by it as a “theory of everything,” but it contains some profound insights that should set any serious Christian thinking.
Having come across one particularly astute observation towards the end of his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, I hope Levi will forgive me for leading up to it with an inadequate generalisation of those strands of Girard’s approach that I think may make that observation helpful to all.
Girard’s case builds from the claim that one explanation of mass-evil in our world (he would assert it is the principal one) is the scapegoating of innocent individuals at times of societal distress caused by all our competing interests. Girard suggests – no doubt correctly – that if a mob can be induced to focus its stress on a weak victim, the lynching produces a catharsis that, for a while, leads to social stability.
Crucial to his argument is that the mob fails to notice any injustice in its actions, and indeed regards the human sacrifice (sometimes literal) as a virtuous act to propitiate the gods. Hence, historically, societies have had no regard for the marginalised – the captured enemy is flayed to death, the innocent pauper is stoned in the street, the Jewish shopkeeper is defenestrated, the negro lynched and so on. Girard attributes this scapegoating strategy to Satan, though he equivocates over whether the devil is a real spiritual individual or simply a product of this mass-psychology. He says it is the way that Satan, as the usurper of the world’s kingdoms, maintains his order from crisis to crisis.
Judaeo-Christian revelation challenges this mob-mentality from the start. Israel, in slavery, is preferentially made victorious over their powerful Egyptian enslavers. The Law of Moses, and the prophets, expressly call for kindness to the widows, the orphans and the foreigners. Provision is made for the Israelite who becomes poor in a way that costs the whole of society (the Jubilee regulations), and the whole process of slavery and indented labour is regulated in favour of the weaker individual. Furthermore, the scapegoating of a counter-cultural prophet like Jeremiah is treated as an injustice hastening Judah’s collapse, rather than as the necessity of “one man dying for the people.”
Girard asserts that the life, death and resurrection of Christ irrevocably subverts the scapegoating mechanism because Jesus is the ultimate innocent victim, even the Son of God. He is vindicated by the resurrection, but from the point of view of the High Priest, Herod or Pilate, his death successfully, and in the accustomed way, removes the risk of a Passover riot, whilst disposing of a dissident who exposed their corruption.
But one seldom-noticed aspect of the post-Passion period is that a significant proportion of the crowd – the disciples – refuses to go along with the “return to normality,” and publicly accuses the crowd, and the leaders, of the murder of God’s anointed, whilst offering individual salvation through faith in his atoning death and submission to his Lordship. The “contagion” of individual repentance and faith spreads like wildfire, much to the consternation of the religious and civil authorities, as we read in Acts. Satan’s most effective way of controlling, and damning, humanity is thereby defeated, and as Jesus puts it, he consequently falls from heaven. His eventual end is now certain.
I’m sure this will makes sense to all Christians, because as Girard documents, compassion for the poor and the outsider grows from that moment on wherever Christianity spreads. Slavery soon becomes suspect, and (after too long a period, admittedly) outlawed. Freedom of conscience develops to the point reached after the Reformation in Christian countries. The sick are treated and loved in religious hospitals, not excluded. Even back in Patristic times, the pagan Romans despair that the Christians help disadvantaged pagans, as well as their own people, more than the pagans themselves do. These things are historically verifiable, despite the romantic idea of modern secularists that Christianity spoiled a democratic and just social order. It did no such thing.
But at least part of the objection to Christianity has always been disgust at this very concern for the innocent victim. Muslims, like some of the early heretics whose teaching influenced them, famously reject the divinity of Christ on the grounds that God must rule, not suffer. By that same token, defeated Jews and Christians were reduced to dhimmi status, and Islam has no theological objection to the enslavement of non-Muslims. In more recent times Nietzsche philosophised on the craven nature of Christianity, and gave academic dignity to the crushing of the weak by those with the will to power – a dignity that directly led to Naziism (and which remains undiluted in Ukrainian Banderism and its Western Neoconservative and Neoliberal supporters).
Significantly it has been the remaining attraction of the old power-structures that has usually been the cause of setbacks for pure Christianity from within. I have already mentioned the widespread blindness to the incongruity of the ownership of one human being by another. The centralizing power of the Church of Rome is also a prime example, first of all anathematising the entire Orthodox East, then seeking to consolidate temporal power across Europe, and persecuting individuals deemed heterodox by the sword (often through spiritual threats to the civil power to do its dirty work “by proxy”). Then the colonialism of governments was supported and encouraged by the Churches, winking at atrocities because the spread of the gospel was enhanced.
For those with a limited knowledge of church history I must stress that these abuses were mixed with true Christian compassion – for example, witchcraft was declared imaginary by earlier Popes, partly in order to prevent persecution of the innocent, only for the witch-hunting craze to be started in later centuries, perhaps owing to secular ideas on the reality of magic, and then taken up by too many Christians.
Yet in biblical terms, Satan has been bound by this triumph of the gospel, and I would certainly agree with Girard that in societal terms, concern for the weak and despised has been a strong transformative factor. Yet Scripture also. somewhat mysteriously, predicts the resurgence of Satan’s power in a deceptive way shortly before the return of Christ, and that is a theme I have written about frequently with reference to our own times since I wrote Seeing through Smoke in 2019.
That brings me to Girard’s aforementioned observation. I See Satan Fall was published in 1999, when the woke phenomenon was still confined mainly to academic circles and was invisible to most of us. Girard, though, prophetically sees that Satan is now using the historically Christian concept of victimhood itself as a weapon against mankind, by exaggerating it out of all proportion, removing its necessary connection with innocence, and using the resulting moral high ground both to denigrate the “judgmentalism” and “exclusiveness” of Christianity, and to deceive the world into seeing everything through “victimhood” spectacles. In essence, victim culture seeks to “out-christian” Christianity, and as a result even many unwary believers, not to mention “people of goodwill,” fall into “the devil’s trap.”
And trap it is, because paradoxically the face of kindness, inclusivity and aversion to “hate” always hides the same old system of power through scapegoating. I think most readers here have seen that in recent times.
Single sex marriage is marketed as equal rights for gay couples, and yet seems to end up in the persecution of ordinary cake-makers. Transexual activism, to protect a victim-class that scarcely even existed within my lifetime, leads to the mutilation of children in itself – but subsequently to the silencing and denigration of its victims when they speak out about the trauma they have suffered. The same fate awaits “TERFS” – that is, real and living women – who are afraid of sharing toilets with biological males, or don’t even get the chance to share sports trophies.
COVID regulations were supposed to protect your granny, but in practice caused disaster to a generation of school-children, hardship to whole swathes of working people, and even to Granny herself, condemned to die of loneliness and neglect in a care-home, if not actively despatched with midazolam and fentanyl. Once again, those who protested (or simply disobeyed the nonsense) became victims of baying mobs, egged on by official propaganda. Even now, people close to me are glad to see such people suffer, because “rules are rules” even when we know by what arbitrary means they were devised.
Racism ceases to become an individual instance of hatred for one’s brother without a cause, and instead becomes defined as a permanent warfare between one ill-defined class and another. One may become cancelled simply by being black and denying that your white friend is racist. Likewise with feminism, where modern victim culture seems to have started, in which the individual most culpable is not the male chauvinist, but the woman who wants to stay home and raise a family, thus betraying someone else’s cause.
Perhaps victim culture actually started with socialist “class consciousness” rather than feminism. The proletariat was the victim of the rapacious capitalists, who were shot on principle, but woe betide any proletarian who disagreed. For obscure reasons, though, it appears that the workers are now deemed oppressors.
Climate alarmism makes the supposed victim “the planet,” but it is individual scientists or journalists who will lose their jobs and their good name (through the now universal hatchet job on dissenters in Wikipedia) for departing from the narrative of the powerful. And oddly saving the planet also impoverishes most of the people actually living on it, most severely the millions of poor in the developing world who, it seems, are actually just “the overpopulation problem.”
Ukraine too is presented as an innocent victim – a small democratic country of nice people, and therefore worthy of our Christian concern for the downtrodden. But neither the protestors burned to death in Odessa in 2014, nor the 14,000 individual civilians killed by government shelling in Donetsk thereafter, nor the conscripted tens of thousands sent to certain death at the front because Boris Johnson scuppered a peace deal, nor the torture and extortion of individual political prisoners like Gonzalo Lira, are brought to our attention.
In fact, I deduce from Girard that the whole principle of our present “culture of compassion” is actually the same old painting of the faceless, anonymous crowd as the victim, and of the individual speaking the truth as the villain to be sacrificed to restore order. LGBTQ+, grannies, blacks, women, the planet, or Ukrainians are all anonymous classes presented, en masse as victims. But in practice the pretended protection of these theoretical classes leads to the victimisation of actual individuals. And when the Bible tells us to care for the poor, it means “poor people,” and not “poverty” in the abstract or collective sense. Therein lies the difference, and the deception to which even the bishops have succumbed.
For Satan to hide his hatred and jealousy of mankind under the cover of the Christian virtue of compassion is, indeed, a very clever move, and one calculated to “deceive, if possible, even the elect.” It’s also, as Girard points out, a novel move, historically speaking, and one that appears to be moving the world into all kinds of crises at once. Perhaps, then, these really are the end times when Satan is released back into the world, for a short time.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.