Early Rejections of Sacrifice

Antigone_5369-MichelidesOne of the chief tenets of René Girard’s theory about sacred violence is that humanity was not capable of seeing the truth about what it was doing until Jesus revealed the truth in his passion and resurrection. (See Violence and the Kingdom of God) This is quite a sweeping judgment but outside of the Hebrew Bible there is close to nothing that comes to mind to refute this generalization. Girard’s theory would predict this to be the case and Paul’s assertions that humanity is enslaved by sin too deeply to escape it without the help of Divine grace would also corroborate this position. One would have to have read everything written or recorded from history up to the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection to have a basis for presenting an airtight case.  However, considering that we are all created by God with mimetic desire with its potential for good, one might think that some people may have caught at least to some extent.

An interesting phenomenon that occurred between the eighth and third centuries BC that is customarily called the Axial Age points to a collective awakening in humanity. In several cultures, there was a questioning of and withdrawal from sacrifice. It was the Hebrew prophets who were by far the most articulate on the subject and coupled their concerns with the revealing collective violence behind it. In India, the Brhamanas edged away from sacrifice as Girard pointed out and Brian Collins collaborated at greater length in The Head beneath the Altar. The Upanishadic tradition turned to intense inward meditation as did Jainism and Buddhism.  They all seem to have seen a smoking gun in sacrificial rituals. It is instructive that these new movements in India rejected the Vedic caste system although Jainism created a caste system of its own which was less hierarchal, at least relatively speaking.  In China, Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu preached withdrawal from conflictive societies to seek union with the Tao. Confucius remained involved with society but developed an ethic seeking to limit mimetic rivalry. It occurs to me that the ancestral rites in honor of ancestors were an extension of filial respect in this life that could limit conflict between generations. Many examples of insights into the problem of mimetic violence could be noted. I will confine myself to two powerful examples.

One of the most memorable teachings attributed to the Buddha is the Parable of the Burning House in the third chapter of the Lotus Sutra. A dilapidated house catches fire while the children are playing inside. They are so absorbed in their games that they do not want to come out of the burning house, no matter how urgently their father calls them. In the end, he has to make extravagant promises of the rarest and greatest of toy chariots and oxen to entice them to come out. Once the children are outside the house and are safe, they wonder where the toys are. Their father, being very rich, gives them carriages of great size and beauty, way beyond their wildest, childish dreams. For one steeped in mimetic realism, it is not difficult to see the burning of a dilapidated house as an image of a society engulfed in mimetic violence that threatens  to destroy the society, much as the Flood in Noah’s time threatens to destroy humanity. Once taken outside the house, something done through deep meditation in Buddha’s teaching, all is calm. Given the phenomenon of scarcity caused by mimetic rivalry, it is instructive that once the children are outside the burning house, there is mind-boggling abundance such as the abundance Jesus created in the wilderness for the four and five thousand people. (See Mimetic Scarcity)

The other example is the Theban plays of Sophocles. Oedipus the King has been studied at length by Girard and Sandor Goodhart for the mimetic tensions and the scapegoating of Oedipus who is blamed for the plague, another image of a society in mimetic crisis. Goodhart argues in Sacrificing Commentary that Sophocles seems to believe that Oedipus is innocent and covertly gives clues for the reader or watcher of a performance to see this, but he is carefully subtle about it. After all, plays in Athens were performed at the Festival of Dionysius, a highly sacrificial god who was torn into pieces and whose devotees tore people into pieces during their frenzies. In Intimate Domain, Martha Reineke demonstrates that in Antigone, Sophocles takes his insights much deeper. Antigone shows a deep self-sacrificing love by burying her brother’s body against orders from Creon to desist. Since Antigone cannot actually dig a grave, she buries her brother by scattering ashes over his body, an image revealing the truth about death. She dies a sacrificial death for her defiance, but she dies not as a sacrificial victim but on her own terms, as Jesus died on his own terms and not those of Pontius Pilate or Caiaphas. Since Antigone dies outside of the city, she has died outside of the system of the persecutory polis. In this way, Reinecke suggests that she has become a figure of Christ.

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One thought on “Early Rejections of Sacrifice

  1. I am reading Parker Palmer’s , ‘Let Your Life Speak’.
    In it he talks about finding one’s own ‘True self’. Reinecke appears to have found her ‘true self, as. Christ, through doing things on his own terms found His true self.
    A very thought-filled article.

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