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Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 218–19 

Book Review

Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking

ed. Willard M. Swartley. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000. 343 pages.

Reviewed by Duane K. Friesen

This collection of fourteen essays, the fourth volume in the series Studies in Peace and Scripture, under the auspices of the Institute of Mennonite Studies, grows out of a conference on the thought of René Girard held at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in June 1994. Willard Swartley, former Dean of the Seminary and Professor of New Testament Studies, was the organizer of the conference and is editor of the volume. The essayists include a mix of scholars (Bible, theology, literature, philosophy, social ethics, religious studies) from a variety of religious traditions (Anabaptist-Mennonite, Roman Catholic, Jewish). Girard responds briefly to some of the essays to conclude the volume. The essays address the scholarly community and are not as accessible to a lay audience.

The essays engage and test the very influential and provocative theory of Girard that the underlying cause of the recurring cycle of violence in human cultures is mimetic desire and rivalry which leads to violence and a threat to social order. Girard posits that in order to deal with the threat of violence and disorder, a victim is selected as the scapegoat onto whom the violence of the community can be projected. Girard argues that this scapegoat mechanism has been exposed in the Scripture and is overcome in Jesus’ death on the cross.

Part I of the book sets out Girard’s theory, tests how it applies to biblical literature (e.g., Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Hebrews), and shows how Girard’s view is an alternative to traditional substitutionary and satisfaction theories of the atonement. God is revealed in Jesus to be a {219} nonviolent God. The scapegoat mechanism, the necessity of Jesus’ death to satisfy God, is unmasked. The nonviolent God of Jesus calls into question as well the necessity of human violence against a scapegoat to restore the moral order.

Many of the essays also raise a number of critical questions and issues about Girard’s theory. Is the theory too reductionistic by explaining the source of all violence in mimetic desire? Does Girard make exaggerated claims by positing mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism as a universal explanation for all cultures? By claiming that the New Testament is the supreme example of the unmasking of the scapegoat mechanism, does Girard overlook the Old Testament and evidence of this unmasking in other religious traditions? In what sense does Girard’s theory need a more adequate theological grounding (e.g., in a trinitarian view of God, and a more incarnational view of our participation “in” Christ to overcome violence)? Does Girard recognize sufficiently both “bad” and “good” mimetic desire (in human cultural life as well as in the call to imitate Christ)? Does Girard’s theory, against its best intentions, legitimate violence, given Girard’s claim that mimetic desire is universally grounded in human culture as the basis for rivalry and the scapegoat mechanism? As a corrective to Girard’s one-sided emphasis on “bad” mimesis, is there not evidence in human culture for mimetic desire as the creative power of love that generates the flourishing of human life without violence?

For anyone who is interested in the thought of René Girard, I highly recommend these engaging and provocative essays.

Duane K. Friesen
Professor of Bible and Religion
Bethel College, N. Newton, Kansas

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