(Stanford/Bob Fitch)

Tracing the legacy of nonviolence — from Jesus to Gandhi to King

For a word that's barely a century old, nonviolence has deep historical roots. Francesca Po, Marie Dennis, Adam Ericksen and Ken Butigan discuss.
(Stanford/Bob Fitch)

Subscribe to “Nonviolence Radio” on Apple Podcasts, Android, Spotify or via RSS.

This week, Nonviolence Radio brings together four voices, each one exploring a different aspect of nonviolence. We hear from religion scholar, activist and writer, Francesca Po; advisor to the Secretary General of Pax Christi International, Marie Dennis; pastor at Clackamas United Church of Christ, Adam Ericksen; and senior lecturer in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University, Ken Butigan.

Their varied interests help us to trace the deep roots of nonviolence in our history; to understand how contemporary, post-New Age ‘Self Religion’ breeds curiosity and tolerance; to see the ways the Catholic Church is becoming (again) a source of and support for nonviolence education; and finally, to recognize that the ‘scapegoat mechanism’ rests on a misunderstanding of scripture and can be fruitfully replaced with an empowering model of nonviolent action.

These four speakers, given their distinct perspectives, enlarge and enrich our understanding of nonviolence and reveal it to be a dynamic and powerful force, one with a long past and an increasingly mighty present.

Ken: The greatest movement in human history is coming. Why? Because it has to.

Francesca: You could actually see that a lot of these movements – not the self that’s the authority, it’s actually individuals that give authority to multiple authorities. So, it’s the ability to give authority to multiple religious traditions, multiple worldviews at the same time.

Marie: We believe that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to educate, to do the research necessary to understand how nonviolence works and how applicable it is in many, many different circumstances of violence.

Adam: Because as you’ve been saying and as the stories that you’ve been telling, nonviolence is more effective. And so, how do we change?

Stephanie: In the two week period surrounding International Day of Peace, September 21, and the International Day of Nonviolence Oct 2, 2022, The Metta Center co-convened a Nonviolence Summit with Partners from Humanity Rising.

On today’s show, we share the second day of the summit on the legacy of nonviolence through the ages – from Jesus to Gandhi and King and beyond.

Speakers from the panel you’ll be hearing from today include Michael Nagler, who is my co-host here at Nonviolence Radio, as well as the President of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, as well as author of many books on nonviolence, and co-founder of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at UC Berkeley.

Francesco Po, a scholar of religion, specializing in contemporary religion and non-religion.

Marie Dennis, a senior advisor and an advisor to the Secretary General of Pax Christi International at the Global Catholic Peace Movement, a program chair, Pax Christi’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative.

We’ll also hear from Adam Ericksen who is the executive director at the Raven Foundation and the pastor at Clackamas United Church of Christ, just outside of Portland, Oregon. His work focuses, especially at the Raven Foundation, on the teachings of religion scholar Rene Girard;

The panel begins with Ken Butigan, senior lecturer in the Peace, Justice and Conflict Studies Program at DePaul University in Chicago. He’s worked on a series of movements for social change including campaigns addressing homelessness, nuclear weapons, freedom for East Timor and the US, wars in Central America and Iraq.

In the 1980s, he was a founder and national coordinator of the Pledge of Resistance, which for nearly a decade mobilized nonviolent actions for peace in Central America. Since 1990, Ken has worked for Pace e Bene, a nonviolent service which has trained tens of thousands of people about the power of nonviolent change. He serves on the executive committee of Pax Christi International‘s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, which has cosponsored two landmark conferences on Nonviolence at the Vatican.

The greatest movement in human history – Ken Butigan

Ken: I’m very grateful to be with you and everyone around the world taking up this very, very important theme. The greatest movement in human history is coming. Why? Because it has to. We have to respond to white supremacy, economic injustice, the environmental destruction we see everywhere, questions of poverty, what we’re hearing about in Italy and in Iran. All of those things cry out for response.

And I’m very grateful that this particular program is inviting us to look at what are the deep roots in our religious traditions that can assist and deepen and broaden what we need to do to respond to the crises of a culture of violence and injustice.

The historian of religions, Karen Armstrong, has said, “Every single one of the major religious traditions all began in extremely violent societies. They came to birth in times like our own, filled with violence. And all of them took a position against violence, illuminating what lay at the core of it, which is largely egotism, fear, greed, and hatred.”

We know this is true in many religious traditions, including Christianity, which we are going to be talking about this morning. Jesus called us to wean ourselves off from violence and to embark on the way of the divine life of peace and nonviolence.

So, broadly speaking, religion is a term that refers to the ultimate way of transformation, our deepest orientation or worldview, our most profound belief system. If we think about it. This can be realized either positively or negatively. It can be a path of formation and nonviolence, or a formation in violence.

The Christian scriptures scholar, Walter Wink, says that, “The greatest religion on our planet is not Christianity or Islam or Hinduism, but the religion of violence. We believe that violence saves us. It’s our way of last resort.”

The problem with that religion, the religion of violence with its beliefs, its institutions, its rituals, and its liturgies of war and all forms of public and private violence, is that it dehumanizes, diminishes and destroys us and really doesn’t solve the problems that it purportedly tries to solve. Often in the service of a larger domination system.

In contrast, there’s a different worldview, an alternative paradigm. Gandhi captured this when he said, “Nonviolence alone is the true religion for all times. Nonviolence is the dharma of awakening. Its votary has to make a conscious choice of it at every moment as we are surrounded by violence on all sides. Every one of us has, according to our capacity, to make our own way out of this dangerous predicament.”

I’m so grateful we’re taking some time to think about how do we all gather together out of this dangerous predicament? But when we speak of religious institutions and traditions, they often are tempted to fully embrace this violence religion. They often are tempted to reproduce the worst parts of the domination system.

So, the great prophet, theologian, Pastor Howard Thurman says in his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, “Religion means nothing if it doesn’t speak to the person whose back is against the wall.” Religion means nothing if it doesn’t speak to the person who’s back is against the wall. In his book, Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman develops the idea that Jesus addressed the person whose back was against the wall.

In his time, it was the existential reality of the occupation by the Roman Empire – institutionalized violence, oppression, threat, and destruction. Jesus announces a dramatic alternative to empire. He invited us to reject that system and to create another qualitatively different one. Why? Simply because God does not want us to be caught in systems of oppression. And God wants us to join in helping everyone else not to be caught in those systems.

And how do we do this? By self-sacrificing, love, solidarity, and forgiveness. In short, the nonviolent life, which is a radical challenge not just to specific acts of violence – we see specific acts of violence, say, for example, in Tehran – but the overarching domination system, the overarching paradigm of violence.

So how do we confront violence and oppression? We can run from it. We can accommodate it. Or we can use counter violence. Howard Thurman was one of the first theologians to reflect systematically on how Jesus approached these traditional scripts for responding to conflict and violence and oppression, including the structural violence of injustice, as he and his community experienced it in the first century under Roman occupation.

From Thurman’s perspective, Jesus understood that these three approaches – running from it, accommodating it, or combating violence with violence, were time-honored survival strategies. But they were ultimately ineffective and at cross-purposes with the vision of a God who is love.

In contrast to these traditional scripts, Jesus called us to a radically different script. The thorough rejection of violence combined with the prophetic power of unconditional love. Today we call this core teaching of Jesus, “Nonviolence.” A clear stance against violence mobilized by love for our neighbor, for all peoples, for all of us are made, according to the Judeo-Christian scriptures, in the image and likeness of God.

Jesus confronted the imperial, political, and religious realities that undermine personal and social well-being. For example, he demonstrated that true peace is achieved through nonviolent engagement and resistance, not through violence, not through lording it over one another, not through passivity. In his age, rife with violence, Jesus proclaimed a nonviolent reign of God rooted in that unconditional love. Jesus called on His disciples to love their enemies, to offer no violent resistance to those who do evil, to become peacemakers, to forgive and repent, and to be abundantly merciful.

Jesus embodied nonviolence by actively resisting systemic, dehumanization, as when he defied the law to heal the man with the withered hand in the synagogue, when he confronted the powerful at the temple and purified it, when he peacefully and with loving determination, challenged the men, accusing a woman of adultery, when he refused to call down fire on the Samaritans who had rejected his message, and when on the night before he died, he commanded Peter, to put down his sword.

Nonviolence is at the heart of the way of the cross and resurrection. When Jesus told us to love our enemies, to put down our sword and to become peacemakers, he was marking out a radically fresh way forward for humanity.

Love of enemies is a powerful force as peacemaker, Angie O’Gorman, declared, “By which Jesus meant wanting wholeness and well-being and life for those who may be broken and sick and deadly.”

It was meant to be the cornerstone of an entirely new process of disarming evil, one which would decrease evil instead of feeding it as violence does. In short, he invited us to discover that there is another way than violence to resolve conflict and foster justice. This other way is not avoidance, appeasement, aggression, or attack. He suggested a dramatically different way.

I’ll close with these comments. In the early church, there was no separate word for nonviolence. There didn’t need to be. The word Christian signified what today we call nonviolent. Being Christian meant or was supposed to mean rejecting violence and loving one another. Being Christian meant taking up the nonviolent life as part of a nonviolent community. Being a follower of Jesus meant all the things that today we recognize as facets of nonviolence.

Praying for those who persecute you. Performing the works of mercy. Returning good for evil. Refusing to support war. Forgiving and reconciling with one another, especially when we’ve strayed from the nonviolent path. For the first 300 years, being a Christian meant saying no and saying yes. No to violence in all of its dimensions, and yes to the infinite worth and sacred dignity of every person.

We’ve come a long way since then, but in this century, we’ve begun to see that that really was, at least in Christianity, the heart of the matter. And some of us are beginning to invite that tradition, ourselves and the tradition, back to that way of active and creative, liberating nonviolence.

In harmony with religious traditions – Francesca Po

Stephanie: Our next panelist is Francesco Po. She’s a scholar of religion, specializing in contemporary religion and non-religion. She’s currently a member of the board of directors at the Metta Center for Nonviolence in Petaluma, California, an educator at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California. She previously served in the U.S. Peace Corps, as well as a high school campus minister and is co-editor of Religion and Peace, and The Study of Ministry.

Francesca: Okay, so a lot of the things that I’ve been thinking about lately are really connecting The Third Harmony into my work and into our individual lives. Third harmony, meaning harmony within ourselves, developing a spiritual practice, developing a spirituality.

And as you can see, my work is in religion studies. I’m also a high school religion teacher, so that all kind of ties together. I also do some independent work with developing people’s spiritual practices, anything from individual to group context.

Anyway, I just published this book, Religion and Peace, and my chapter in it is called, “Witchy Activism: Self-religion and Global Peace Movements.” It looks at how contemporary religious movements can cater into peace and nonviolence movements, and how, by definition, a lot of these contemporary religious movements actually are what are helping a lot of the peace and nonviolent movements in our world. So, a little bit more of a positive perspective.

I start with the idea of self-religion. Self-religion is my term for anything that we understand as New Age or post-New Age or inspired by the New Age. My title is called “Witchy Activism” because a lot of the contemporary religious traditions that are in that post-New Age movement, the term people are using is that it’s ‘witchy.’ So that’s why I’m using that as my title.

Self-religion, a lot of people think can be narcissistic, that the self is the authority, and it causes problematic spirituality in that way. But from a sociological perspective, you could actually see that in a lot of these movements it’s not the self that’s the authority, it’s actually individuals who give authority to multiple authorities. So, it’s the ability to give authority to multiple religious traditions, multiple worldviews at the same time.

The reason why people think that the self is the authority is because there is an ethic that’s being taught in these movements that a person needs to find their best self, their inner self, their mystic self – that’s why the word ‘self’ is being used. And it’s giving this idea that the self is the authority. But really, when you actually look sociologically, these individuals are giving authority to multiple worldviews and multiple religious traditions.

And then to go to our topic, I look at different global peace and nonviolence movements throughout history, and I demonstrate that a lot of the religious trajectories and the religious leaders of these peace and nonviolence movements are actually individuals or religious traditions that have this self-religion, or this ability to hold multiple authorities, and teach the ethic of self.

So, starting with Gandhi, we know that he grew up in a Jain region. So, he’s Hindu, but he grew up in a Jain region, a place highly influenced by the ethic of nonviolence. He was educated in the West, so he had a lot of Christian contemporaries and was influenced highly by that. He was also highly influenced by Edwin Arnold, who is a Christian scholar who translated a lot of Hinduism, and also was inspired by a lot of Buddhism. So, you can see that Gandhi was able to hold multiple religious traditions and multiple worldviews.

Next, we have Martin Luther King Jr, who was trained by Gandhi in nonviolence. We also know that he is a Christian pastor. So, he took in a lot of Hinduism and Jainism and a lot of the Eastern spirituality within his own. And we know from there that Martin Luther King also was able to hold multiple religious traditions and multiple worldviews in his spirituality.

And then going to Jesus. I’m not a historical Jesus scholar, but what I do know about Jesus, he comes from Nazareth, and a lot of the people in Judea, which is the capital city, would look at Jesus like, “Oh, who is this guy from Nazareth? Why are we listening to him? He’s just this kooky guy.”

But Nazareth was known to be a place that had a lot of travelers, a lot of people from different worldviews coming in and out of it. And so, we know that Jesus was actually highly inspired by a lot of different worldviews and religious traditions in his life. There are some scholars of the historical Jesus that had shown some evidence that there was some Buddhism that came into a lot of Jesus’ worldview, and so there could be some connection to Buddhism in Christianity as we know it.

We also know that Jesus taught this ethic of self-religion when he – in all the Gospels, except for John, so a lot of the earlier gospels, when people ask him if he was God, he would always say, you know, “What do you think? Who do you say that I am?” So, he inspired the individual.

And this ethic of self-spirituality, finding your inner self, it’s a lot of the taking away from the authority of – like the mainstream authority and really looking at the person in front of you and that message of love really is kind of what we know as this ethic of self authority so that you can hold those multiple authorities. So, Jesus himself was able to hold multiple authorities, worldviews, religions. Gandhi was able to do that as well as Martin Luther King.

You know, this has always existed. But I’m pointing it out that we are in this time when every religious tradition or even a lot of non-religious spiritualities, teach this specific ethic of being able to hold multiple authorities, to hold multiple worldviews and religious traditions and really hone in on that. To develop into our own spirituality so that we’re able to have the tools for these nonviolent and peace movements.

From the tradition of a just war to nonviolence – Marie Dennis

Stephanie: Marie Dennis is a senior advisor, and an advisor to the Secretary General of Pax Christi International at the Global Catholic Peace Movement, a program chair, Pax Christi’s Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. She was co-president of Pax Christi International from 2007 to 2019 and is a Pax Christi USA teacher of Peace.

Marie was one of the primary organizers of these two conferences on nonviolence and Just Peace that were co-sponsored by the Vatican and Pax Christi International. She’s an author or coauthor of seven books, editor of Choosing Peace: The Catholic Church Returns to Gospel Nonviolence, and co-editor of Advancing Nonviolence in the Church in the World.

Marie: So back to a bit about Jesus. As Ken said, during the first three centuries, the Christian communities practiced the nonviolence that Jesus taught and lived. But after Christianity was drawn into the empire and began to have more status in the empire, the spirit of the Gospel of nonviolence was maintained not so much by the whole tradition, the whole Christian community, but by individuals and some movements and small communities within the church.

But what we thought might be interesting would be to trace the evolution of the commitment to nonviolence in the Christian and ultimately the Catholic Church to where it is today. So you would be familiar with what became called the just war tradition. It was at the center of Catholic teaching for well over a thousand years. Its purpose was to restrict the resort to war by Christians in the public arena.

And in the beginning, it probably did that. But ultimately, it became clear that there were strictly defined limits the just war tradition intended to require for any resort to violent force, even at a public level; for a government to decide to go to war, there were strictly conditioned reasons. There had to be a just cause. There had to be a declaration by legitimate authority. There had to be proportionality in the means used, and so on and so forth. All of the conditions of the just war tradition needed to be fulfilled.

What became clear in the 20th century was that the very nature of war began to change. Modern weapons became frighteningly destructive, and increasingly impersonal. And also in the 20th century, thanks to the leadership of Gandhi, for example, and Dr. King, successful nonviolent campaigns for liberation from structural violence like colonialism or racism or occupation, became better known. Catholic teaching on war and peace slowly began to shift with an increasing emphasis on nonviolence as a possible tool for public officials.

And on the restrictions intended by the traditional just war paradigm that were intended to make war extremely rare and a truly last resort, every leader of the Catholic Church from Pope Pius the 12th, especially John the 23rd in the 60s and on until the present day, repeatedly and clearly articulated an abhorrence of war.

They began to say more and more clearly that there are no just wars. And the current pope, Pope Francis, has said that most clearly. For example, in 2007, Pope Benedict the 16th, the predecessor of Pope Francis said, “Love of one’s enemy constitutes the nucleus of the Christian revolution.” And a few years later, he said, “Jesus came with only the strength of love, totally without violence, even to the point of going to the cross. This is Jesus’ true message.” He said, “Seek peace with the means of peace and leave violence aside.”

Pope Francis has underscored that emphasis again and again, pointing to the church’s yearning for peace and disarmament. He has repeatedly decried the World War being ‘fought piecemeal’ is how he describes it. He’s called for the world to transform our conflicts without violence. He emphasized integral ecology, emphasizing the fact that the natural world has intrinsic value and is also a victim of war and violence. He’s highlighted the tremendous profit in war making and in marketing and in trafficking, in weapons. He called even the possession of nuclear weapons morally unjustified in the Holy See that the Vatican’s message in 2014 to the Vienna Conference on the humanitarian consequences of a nuclear exchange, even a limited nuclear exchange.

At a Vatican conference a few years later on nuclear disarmament in 2017 and during his visit to Japan in 2019, Pope Francis deliberately moved the commitment, the Catholic commitment to nuclear abolition beyond what had been a strictly limited acceptance of the strategy of deterrence based on nuclear weapons, to what he called a moral rejection of even the possession of nuclear weapons.

The Holy See strongly supported the Nuclear Ban Treaty in 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. In January of 2017, Pope Francis wrote what is a World Day of Peace message. Each year, the pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, writes a message on January 1st called the “World Day of Peace message.” In 2017, following the conference that we held in 2016 that was co-sponsored by the Vatican, his message was on nonviolence, a style of politics for peace, on nonviolence as a spirituality, a way of life, an important strategy for transforming conflict, for preventing violence, for protecting vulnerable communities, and it was the first official Catholic statement on nonviolence.

So for what – 2000 years? – Christians have been trying to understand, what does it mean to love your enemies. And now, in the contemporary context, what does it mean? How do we live that out in the public arena as well as in our personal lives? The Catholic Church, in the last 15 or 20 years, has actually begun to grapple with that question, to recognize the possibility that a commitment to nonviolence might not only be the commitment of an individual, a personal commitment, but that it also should be a commitment of an entire community. And it could be a commitment at a public policy level of governments.

And part of that is because there’s been a recognition over the last decades that nonviolence is not only a faithful way to live out the teachings of Jesus, for those of us who follow Jesus, but it is an effective strategy for engaging with the multiple violences of our world.

In the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, we have come to recognize that as a people, we often don’t recognize the multiple expressions of violence that are at play in the world. And therefore, we often miss the power of nonviolent action to counter that violence. So part of our strategy has been to move the Catholic Church to center a commitment to nonviolence and therefore to teach nonviolence through all of its channels of communication and education, Catholic universities, local parishes and dioceses, Catholic religious communities and so on.

Because we believe that the churches, religious institutions, have the capacity to do the kind of training and education and consciousness raising that is going to be important if we are going to move our world from permanently being caught in a paradigm in a framework of violence. So, we’re going to move from there to a logic of nonviolence.

We believe that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done to educate, to do the research necessary to understand how nonviolence works and how applicable it is in many, many different circumstances of violence. We are hopeful that in the coming fairly near term that the Catholic Church actually will make a commitment to center nonviolence in all of its actions, thereby reclaiming the teaching of Jesus from a few thousand years ago. So thank you.

Breaking the scapegoating synergies – Adam Ericksen

Stephanie: Adam Ericksen is the executive director at the Raven Foundation and the pastor at Clackamas United Church of Christ, just outside of Portland, Oregon. He studied the work of René Girard in relation to nonviolence and Christianity for 15 years. He wrote his master’s thesis titled “Love and Nonviolence in Christianity and Islam.” It compares the 20th century nonviolence movements of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abdul Ghaffar Khan.

Adam: Hi. Thank you so much for having me and what wonderful presentations we’ve had. Thank you so much. I wanted to talk about René Girard, and how Girard has helped me with this question of violence and nonviolence. Because Marie just said something that was so crucial for me, which is when Marie said that we have this framework of violence, and we need to move to a logic of nonviolence.

And that is so crucial, Marie, I’m so glad that you said it. And Girard has helped me personally understand how violence infects, not just our society or not just those people that I can accuse of being violent, right, but myself, too. And how I can own my own inner violence and move beyond it.

He was a man of many trades. He doesn’t like being called a theologian, although he dives into that, he’s much more doing anthropology. His magnum opus is, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. So, if you’re interested in more, I’d invite you to check that out.

Ken said something earlier, quoting Walter Wink. Girard said something very similar to Wink, that “Christ took away humanity’s sacrificial crutches and left us with a terrible choice: either believe in violence, or not; Christianity is nonbelief.” And so I’m going to kind of show us how we get there.

Mimetic theory is the theory that Girard came up with, and he came up with it by reading novels. And what he discovered was that humans desire at a non-conscious mimetic level (and mimetic is kind of just this academic term that means ‘non-consciously imitative’). And so we are unaware of this mechanism that we have, that is, in modern parlance, you might call it ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’ Right?

So we see that our neighbor has a new car and something inside of us thinks, ‘Oh man, I wish I had a new car. That car is so nice. It’s so much better than my car.’ And something inside of us gets resentful towards our neighbor. And we start thinking, ‘That jerk, how did he get the new car?’ Right?

And so this is like a kind of a non-conscious thing that happens within us. And if I start getting upset with my neighbor over other things, I may want to non-consciously bond with my neighbor who was an enemy, but I don’t want to be enemies with my neighbor. So what we’ll end up doing is I’ll start gossiping about our other neighbor down the street who also bothers me in some way.

So we will unite in the scapegoat mechanism, we’ll scapegoat my neighbor down the street. And what this does is create a bond between me and the neighbor that I had some hostility for against our scapegoat. You might think of this as uniting against a common enemy. What brings us together more than anything? It’s by having a common enemy.

Girard says that this is there at the foundations of human culture. I’ll get to a little bit more later, but you can see this working out in the biblical text, Girard says. Girard says that at the beginning of human culture is this kind of mechanism of desire that leads people into conflict.

And at the beginning of human culture, there’s this war of all-against-all that gets channeled into a war of all-against-one, and brings a sense of peace to the community as they unite against a common enemy. We’ll get a little bit more to that as I continue.

So basically human desire is non-consciously, unconsciously mimetic. “We don’t know what to desire,” Girard says, and so we look to models for what to desire. We know that advertisers know this really well. Put something up on a billboard, a model, somebody who’s famous, that we all want to be like, right? And all of a sudden we’re all drinking that same beer or we all want the Rolex watch or something.

So this is how Girard says that human desire works. We look to models for what to desire. And as long as we can share those desires with one another, we might find a mutual friendship over those desires. These mutual desires can bring us together in a shared passion, a shared interest. But if we can’t, if we’re unwilling to share that interest, the same thing that brings us together as friends, can also tear us apart as enemies.

You may have heard of the phrase “frenemies,” right? We can become friends over a shared desire for something. It can be an object like shared desire for, I don’t know, like my kids like to play video games with their friends. But if they get into a super competitive mode of who’s going to win at the video game, there can be some very serious conflicts. Right?

We can also fight over things at work, like a workplace promotion or power or prestige. This happens on the personal level, but it also happens on the national level.

America is the greatest nation in the world. America is the model, right? And so what is this going to do? This might invoke envy in other nations as we compete with one another over who is the greatest country in the world. And we can go to war over such stupid conflicts – seemingly stupid conflicts. Right? But they feel very real to us in the moment.

So, this brings the scapegoat mechanism. Generally, Girard says that when we have these shared desires, and we come into conflict against one another, we end up channeling those conflicts against a victim, against our sacrificial victim.

Scapegoating is something very common. We all know what we mean by scapegoating. That’s one of the things that makes this step in mimetic theory very easy to understand is that the common understanding is, Girard says, helpful for us to know.

But one of the things that scapegoating does is bond us together. It’s a glue, a common hatred that bonds us together over and against an enemy. And the scapegoat – it doesn’t matter if the scapegoat is innocent or guilty. All that matters is that the scapegoat functions as a way for the community to unite against, and, either sacrifice or banish, so that we gain a sense of peace for ourselves.

Now, scapegoating only ‘solves’ the problem of our conflicts for a very brief period of time. It doesn’t actually solve the conflicts. And so those conflicts will always reemerge because we never solve it by channeling our conflicts against an innocent victim. This, Girard says, the sacrificial scapegoat mechanism, is what forms religion.

And so what religion does in the ancient world is a very good thing. We hear frequently how religion is violent at the very beginning of human history, and we still see today, how religion is tied in with violence. The sacrificial religions channeled all of the mutual anxieties and conflicts that we have against one another into a violence against a sacrificial victim. So that’s where sacrifice ends up forming religion.

For Girard, sacrifice comes first, and then religion picks up on it, and over time, tells myths, stories. And the sacrificial victim is accused of all of the hostilities within our community. But then there’s a sense of peace after the victim is sacrificed, a sense of temporary peace. And so the victim is both seen as the ultimate enemy, but also the giver of peace.

This is where you have this ambivalence of the gods. Some of the gods, at the same time, can be wrathful but also loving. This is often seen in the Christian God as well, despite the fact that the New Testament has one definition or two definitions of God, and one of those is that God is love. Period. And that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. But we still project wrath onto God.

One of my favorite goddesses is Diana, who is both the God of wild animals and also the God of the hunt. Right here, you see the ambivalence within the gods. Girard says that revealed religions, the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus, are moving us away from the sacrificial religions and into a non-sacrificial religion.

You can read the Book of Genesis as a great example of this. Adam and Eve eat the fruit. Eve only eats the fruit because the serpent directs her desire towards the fruit. Eve didn’t want the fruit at the beginning. She never wanted to have anything to do with it until the serpent says, ‘Hey, that’s fruit. Good for eatin’, right?’ And so then she eats it because she has this mimetic desire. The serpent in the story is mimetic desire, or suggested desire.

Cain sacrifices his brother Abel, and out of that is the formation of the first culture, the first community. So Girard sees this happening here in the biblical text.

There’s violence that comes about into the flood and there’s this flood of violence. And God is implicated in that violence, in the story.

But then in Genesis Chapter 12, you get a change in the character of God. In Genesis, God comes to Abraham and Sarah and says, basically, “I’ve tried that violence thing, and now we’re going to try something different.”

“I’m going to call you,” in Genesis Chapter 12, “here is your job, Abraham and Sarah and your descendants. You are called – I’m going to bless you, so that you will be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.” If there’s any cursing, in the story, that God says to Abraham and Sarah, that’s God’s job. Your job is to be a blessing to all the families of the Earth.

As the story goes along. We find that all the families of the Earth include even the enemies. Even the Egyptians who are going to enslave us. All the families of the Earth include them. Even the Assyrians, as we see in the prophets, particularly Jonah. Even the Assyrians are to be blessed by us. “The Babylonians,” Jeremiah says, “be a blessing in the nation that you find yourself in, even if they are your enemy nations.”

Jesus isn’t making up ‘love your enemies’ out of the blue. He’s formed by this tradition that God is giving to Abraham to be a blessing to all the families of the Earth. Jacob and Esau have their brotherly conflicts, where each where Jacob steals his brother’s birthright. Later on in the story, Esau forgives Jacob. And Jacob says, ‘in you, in this act of forgiveness, in your face, I see the face of God.’ This is what God is like. Forgiveness.

Joseph is the scapegoat of his brothers, and they move through their pain and trauma that they’ve inflicted upon one another into reconciliation.

The Book of Genesis is this move from violence to nonviolence, both on the human level and in our understanding of God from a violent God that will destroy, even the Earth, to a nonviolent God who is there to bless all the families of the Earth. That’s the move that Genesis makes.

Jesus is the model. If we all need models, Jesus says, follow me. And this is crucial for our understanding of the nonviolence of Jesus. ‘The Son of God,’ language. Marie talked beautifully about the early Christian movement and its interaction with the Roman Empire.

In the ancient world, if you were to talk about the Son of God, your model for that would have been the Roman Emperor and how the Son of God was a title given to someone who was to reveal who God is. What are the gods like? Well, you look to the son. And the Roman emperors’ Son of God is the one who shows us what God is like. And in that sense, the Roman Emperor brings peace through the sword, brings peace through violence.

The name ‘’Son of God’ for the early Christians is a subversion of this violence of the Roman Empire. Why? Because the true Son of God, the true representation of God, The Father, God of Jesus, is the nonviolent one who refuses to act with violence, but would rather take violence upon himself and offer forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation in return.

Jesus models for us the true God. And as all of us here who love Gandhi know that he was influenced by turning the other cheek, love of enemy. Gandhi also saw that Jesus was active in his nonviolence by setting his face towards Jerusalem, setting his face towards the cross, which motivated Gandhi to set his face towards the salt protest. Right?

But Jesus, as Gandhi knew, wasn’t killed because he told us to love one another. Jesus was killed because he actively resisted the oppression of his day, the economic, religious and political oppression. Gandhi used Jesus as a model for how to do the same thing during his day. As did Martin Luther King Jr. As do many of us today.

So, humans have been sacrificing, scapegoating, from the very beginning. This, Girard says, is in our social DNA. That’s how embedded scapegoating and violence is inside of us. And so we need different models. Jesus is a model. Gandhi is a model. Martin Luther King is a model. Dorothy Day. Many models for us today to root this out of us so that we can own it for ourselves and move into a more peaceful world.

So, just a few more quotes here from the Book of Revelation and the nonviolence seen there is, ‘let anyone who has an ear, listen.’ If you are to be taken captive into captivity, you go. If you kill with the sword, with the sword, you must be killed. Here is a call to the endurance and the faith of the saints. The endurance and the faith of the saints for Revelation, which admittedly is a very strange book. But the endurance of the faith is the endurance of nonviolence.

And the only reason that you would ever be led into captivity is because you are, what John Lewis says, ‘causin’ some good trouble.’ Working for justice. And so may we continue to cause some good trouble in the realm of revelation and Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King in the endurance of the faith of love and nonviolence. Thank you very much for your time.

Reflections on scapegoating and sacrifice

Michael: Yeah, Adam, I actually had this conversation with Rene about 30 years ago, I guess. And his work led me to a kind of insight. I don’t think he agreed with me, by the way, but I’ll share it anyway.

That in the crucifixion of Jesus, we can look on it in two different ways. We’re supposed to look upon it as a warning, a stark warning – if the best of you can be killed in this horrible manner, something is terribly, terribly wrong. And that something is, to kill. To commit violence against others. That, I believe, is what Jesus meant that act to be.

But instead, we take it as a scapegoat in the old ritualistic sense that he’s taking all our sins off, and now, whoopee, you know, let’s party. And soon enough, we’re going to need another scapegoat. Like maybe that neighboring country is a good one.

So, he really, I think, laid his finger on a crisis in human consciousness. Exemplified by that one incredible act, that one incredible human being.

Adam: Beautiful. I agree with you. I think that’s a great way to put it. Yeah. Yeah. Amy has made some very good comments referring to Abraham and the near sacrifice of Isaac in that story. And God provides, as Amy says, a scapegoat, the Ram to sacrifice instead.

I think this is – Amy, you’re pointing to an excellent movement within the Jewish scriptures of a move away from human sacrifice, towards something maybe a little better, animal sacrifice. And moving even further away, towards the prophets who say, ‘God didn’t want your sacrifice at all.’ Right?

Animal sacrifice. Human sacrifice. That’s the pinnacle of the prophetic message. God doesn’t want your sacrifices. God wants justice and mercy, right? And this is ultimately the point, Michael, that I think that you are making, too, is that Jesus, for Girard, is supposed to be the last scapegoat, taking away our sacrificial crutches. But we have to find a different way of doing this. And Jesus models it. But are we actually going to follow him?

And that’s where Girard says that history shows, maybe not. As Marie has beautifully shown us. But there’s hope, as Marie has also beautifully shown us, too.

Michael:. I love what Augustine did with the sacrifice, which is to say it’s real, all right? But instead of sacrificing something outside, even the innocent animal who had nothing to do with it, you’re supposed to sacrifice your bestiality. And he elaborates that just beautifully in The City of God. And I think he got it. That was what Jesus intended the sacrifice to stand for. But it was a pretty subtle message, unfortunately.

I think that you know, the approach of Augustine and others, to interiorize the sacrifice is precisely that union that you were speaking about. That we turn the violence against the evil that we can reach and most importantly, recognize that the first evil we can reach is within us.

The other point I’d like to make is something that in my book, The Search for a Nonviolent Future, I made a distinction. Okay, so I’m a professor, I deal with words, and maybe I’m being kind of shifty here, just playing games with semantics. But I said, “Let’s distinguish between violence and the use of destructive force.”

Now, if you look closely at the word ahimsa, which is, of course, the ancestor of nonviolence, it actually means – I mean this is a linguistic fact – it actually means the absence of the intention to harm. So, when a surgeon operates on you, he is doing something which if you were a fly on the wall, you might say, “Oh, my God, what a horrible thing. He’s rendered this person helpless, and he’s cutting them up.” But he is doing that without an intention to harm.

So, force can be used where you do not intend harm with it, but it must be in a kind of surgical way. Now, of course, that’s tricky because the minute you start using violence, your emotions kick in and the himsa is again prominent.

But I think it’s worth dealing with that subtlety a little bit, because it helps disentangle our issue of needing to struggle hard against what is unjust, between that and violence.

Stephanie: You’ve been listening to Nonviolence Radio. Until the next time, take care of one another, and we’ll see you in two weeks.

We want to thank all of our speakers again from the panel, from the Nonviolence Conference. And with special thanks to Jim Garrison of Humanity Rising and Ubiquity University who helped convene this Nonviolence Summit. As well as to Tom Eddington who helped organize and moderate these sessions.