Two myths

Every people needs a myth, a story that explains who they are and how they are to live.  A myth is a fact that is more than a fact; it is an apocalyse, a revelation, an unmasking.  Liberal Europe, with the EU as its institutional embodiment, has the Holocaust as its founding myth.  The Holocaust is said to be the apocalypse of the West, the moment when its hateful inner essence was revealed for all the world to see.  Supposedly, it revealed that the West is built on a general principle of “excluding” the “Other”, of generating group solidarity by channeling hostility onto scapegoated minorities.  In the Holocaust, we find that the ultimate endpoint of this scapegoating is not just exclusion, but mass murder.  In the enormity of the crime, and the total lack of any provocation on the part of the victims, the West’s economy of hatred is exposed and dethroned.

This is the theology of the Holocaust myth, as elaborated by Rene Girard.  In fact, Girard thought he was describing a different myth–the Atonement wrought by Jesus Christ.  Girard imagined that the essence of sacrifice is scapegoating, and the essence of Christianity is the overthrow of the sacrificial system by revealing the innocence of the victim.  Of course, this is a gross misunderstanding of Christianity, which is a supremely sacrificial religion and sees self-offering, rather than redirected aggression, as the essence of sacrifice.  Still, no one could have misunderstood Christianity so profoundly except in the distorted atmosphere of post-Holocaust Europe.  Girard had unwittingly given expression to the myth of his own society and then superimposed this onto the myth of the previous society.

The Christian myth of the Atonement is quite different, although analogous.  The Atonement is the apocolypse of God Himself, the revelation both of His true nature and of His great love for us.  In the Holocaust myth, the emphasis is on the wickedness of the killers, rather than on the goodness of the victims.  The innocence of the victims is remembered solely to amplify the indictment of the killers.  It is the latter, not the former, who stand revealed.  In the Atonement myth, the emphasis is on the holiness of the victim and his deliberate choice to allow himself to be killed as a ransom for our sins.  The Romans, who carried out the execution, were never imagined to be a particularly wicked people.  The fact that we killed Christ doesn’t say much about us.  We already knew we were sinners.  It says a great deal about God the Son that he allowed himself to be killed.

Ethically, the Holocaust myth is purely negative.  Its only lesson is something to avoid.  Europe’s group identities must be destroyed so this can never happen again.  The Atonement myth is positive, an example to emulate.  So far from it being true that Christianity has an imperative to keep the Crucifixion from happening again, that it would be more true to say that Christianity would have the Crucifixion repeated all the time, both in the blessed sacrament and in acts of charity and self-giving in our daily lives.

Sociologically, the two myths are parallel.  The one legitimated the authorities of Christendom, Christ’s two swords of throne and altar.  The other legitimates EU bureaucratic despotism, mankind’s self-appointed defense against fascism.  In neither case could doubt be tolerated.  A man who doubts Christ’s divinity is a menace to Christendom, and a man who doubts the Holocaust is a menace to modern Europe.  Europe today prides itself on its open-mindedness, because it allows men to doubt Christ.  But, really, this is hardly impressive.  Christendom, too, was open-minded, in the sense that it allowed one to doubt the myths of other peoples.  One could speculate freely in medieval Europe that Mohommed was a madman.  One could have freely doubted the Holocaust, if it had happened yet.

P.S. Some of the points made here are also made by Gerry Neal in the comments of this post.  Be sure to check out his own blog “Throne, Altar, Liberty“, by the way.  It’s quite good, and has a great name!

5 Responses

  1. “Generating group solidarity by channeling hostility onto scapegoats” is the same explanation Joseph de Maistre gave for the universal human custom of shedding blood to appease the gods in “Enlightenment on Sacrifices”. Without the solidarity sacrifice generates, there would be no society, because individuals need myth and ritual to make them care about their fellows rather than treat them as Hobbes models. Men know that there is a supernatural power, it is good, and they are wicked debased creatures.

    Christ’s Passion is seen as the pivotal point of a historical process from more to less violence. The mass sacrifices of a stone age civilization like the Aztecs are replaced by occasional human sacrifices, which are replaced by channeling the violence outward to animals like sheep, which after the Passion was replaced by re-presenting the one human sacrifice of the Man-God daily for all time, until the death of Death.

    Where post-Holocaust liberalism goes haywire is by crossing the innate ideas behind sacrifice, which Maistre sought to explain, with the egalitarian materialism it inherited from the most extreme French Revolutionaries, and Marx after them. Sacrificial bloodshed is still understood in the context of a world where we are wicked debased creatures. Our offense, though, is not against God (who doesn’t exist); it’s against the ideal equality. That idealism contradicts materialism goes unnoticed.

  2. As I recall, Maistre thought that sacrifice is a result of a universal instinct in man that tells us that the suffering of innocents can cleanse the sins of the guilty. Man also knows, as you mention, that there exists a Divinity whom we must appease in order to avoid chastisement. This differs from Girard’s theory in that Girard saw sacrifice merely as a means of maintaining the social order. Maistre would certainly have agreed with this, but he ultimately had a larger vision of the nature of sacrifice.

    Maistre and Girard also differ to some extent on the goodness of sacrifice. As Bonald mentions above, Girard sees sacrifice as evil in that a victim is unjustly killed to maintain the social order. The Great truth expressed in Christianity, according to Girard, is that we for the first time see things form the point of view of the victim. On the other hand, Maistre thought that the dogmas of Christianity could all be found in a primitive form in the pagan religions. This lead Maistre to view sacrifice as a fundamentally good expression of man’s natural religiosity that has been corrupted by our twisted nature.

  3. It’s been some time since I read Maistre on sacrifice, but what I remember agrees with James’ description.

  4. This is perceptive analysis. Thank you for sharing this. It goes a long way towards explaining the irrational hatred and venom released at anyone who questions that myth today. Questioning the foundational myth makes one evil and irrational.

  5. Thanks, Justin. I aim to please. By the way, I hope you don’t mind me adding you to my blogroll.

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