Rene Girard (1923-2015) was a French literary critic, anthropologist and religion-observer. He identified the (unfortunate/pseudo) power of blood sacrifice in vicariously assuaging communal blame and so de-escalating vengeance. The horror of mutual escalating vengeance might otherwise tear a village or society apart in a conflagration of contagious violence… were it not for the innocent scapegoats who bear the brunt of the violence (and who unjustly bear the sin of others’ projected blame). For Nietzsche, this was just survival of the fittest based on human “will to power” but to Girard (and Jesus) it is horrible, wrong and not inevitable.
Endemic violence was the reason given in Genesis (chapter 6, verses 11 and 13) for why God destroyed the world by flood in the time of Noah. After the flood, God allowed animal sacrifice, I believe, as a sort of compromise between human sacrifice and violent anarchy – until He should come in person to show us better truths.
Rather than people scapegoating other people or animals what God really wants is that we learn mercy. As He said through the Old Testament prophet, “I desired mercy and not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). Jesus quotes this verse twice – in Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7. Jesus didn’t quote another text which says “to obey is better than sacrifice” but chose a text that implies that God does not desire sacrifice at all. In the Matthew 12 passage He goes on to say,
“If you had understood this you would not have persecuted the innocent.”
Of course, chief among the innocent whom His interlocutors persecuted was Jesus Himself! So it is a straight forward application of His statements to say that if the theologians of His day had understood God’s real attitude to sacrifice they would not have crucified Jesus (or scapegoated any innocents) at all! Instead they would have had mercy on those who needed it and have been receptive to those telling them the truth.
In these verses, Jesus also told his listeners to “go and learn what (“I desire mercy and not sacrifice”) means.” It was a rare theological tip from Jesus for those out of tune with the Kingdom of God about where they could begin to review their theology. I think it could apply to many Christians today.
If Girard had done his work back then Jesus might well have added, “Go read Girard.” I say this because I believe that Girard has rediscovered for us God’s real attitude to sacrifice and illuminates the Scriptures much more than Substitutionary Atonement does. Girard testifies that he could only have rediscovered God’s real attitude to sacrifice because it is what the Bible itself testifies to – and what the Gospel opens our eyes to. He argues that without this Biblical witness over two millenia it is very unlikely that modern secular critics of Christianity’s preoccupation with a barbaric act of crucifixion would be enlightened enough to see it as barbaric at all – instead they would only ever see it as necessary – just a part of humanity’s “will to power” (to quote Nietzsche).
Paradoxically, this truth about Jesus’ crucifixion has been hidden from Christians – by the doctrine of Substitutionary Atonement! I went 30+ years as a Christian before I was really ready to read Girard! I should say that some of Girard’s context is too liberal/progressive for my way of thinking. In particular, I think, his belief in evolution causes him to over-socialize the Gospel. Nevertheless, his central discoveries around scapegoating are absolutely riveting, God honouring, and transformative for both an individual’s faith in God and, I believe, for God’s Kingdom to come!
Here’s a good place to begin reading more about this: “Saved from Sacrifice” by S. Mark Heim.