Thursday, June 18, 2009

Girard on Blood Feuds

No scholarship, no matter how great, stands outside of time. The river keeps moving, and even theories of uncanny prescience and blazing insight must take their place amid the flux of events.

No one gets it ALL right; the next wave is always coming.

I say this as someone who is so strongly influenced by Rene Girard’s work that I consider myself a Girardian. And I am not alone. Countless articles, many books, and now of course websites (especially Girardian Lectionary) discuss, expound and extend Girard’s central insights about the relationship between religion and violence. In books like Violence and the Sacred (French, 1972, English translation, 1977), Girard has explored how socially sanctioned violence arose out of religion, and the threat this poses to cultures under Gospel influence, which increasingly can no longer accept such violence.

I am currently reading Violence and the Sacred. In the first chapter, on sacrifice, I was surprised to read a statement that sounded strikingly out of date.

“It may be that a basic difference exists between a society like ours and societies imbued with religion . . . When internal strife, previously sublimated by means of sacrificial practices, rises to the surface, it manifests itself in interfamily vendettas or blood feuds. This kind of violence is virtually nonexistent in our own culture. And perhaps it is here that we should look for the fundamental difference between primitive societies and our own . . . .” (Violence and the Sacred, John Hopkins, 1979, p. 14)

Why does this seem outdated to me? It’s because “interfamily vendettas or blood feuds” have hardly gone the way of the Hatfields and the McCoys. Rather, they have taken a new form in the gang violence, often connected to drugs, that plagues so many cities in the United States − not to mention Mexico, with its epic struggle against drug cartels.

Rene Girard is 85 years old and may not get out to many movies. But he would surely have much to say about Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, where the myth of cleansing violence undergoes a critical reexamination. Maybe Eastwood had Girard in mind when writing the script?

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