Politics & Apocalypse

Politics & Apocalypse

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

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Apocalypse. To most, the word signifies destruction, death, the end of the world, but the literal definition is "revelation" or "unveiling," the basis from which renowned theologian René Girard builds his own view of Biblical apocalypse. Properly understood, Girard explains, Biblical apocalypse has nothing to do with a wrathful or vengeful God punishing his unworthy children, and everything to do with a foretelling of what future humans are making for themselves now that they have devised the instruments of global self-destruction. In this volume, some of the major thinkers about the interpretation of politics and religion— including Eric Voegelin, Leo Strauss, and Carl Schmitt— are scrutinized by some of today's most qualified scholars, all of whom are thoroughly versed in Girard’s groundbreaking work.
     Including an important new essay by Girard, this volume enters into a philosophical debate that challenges the bona fides of philosophy itself by examining three supremely important philosopher of the twentieth century. It asks how we might think about politics now that the attacks of 9/11 have shifted our intellectual foundations and what the outbreak of rabid religion might signify for international politics.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609170417
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 01/01/2012
Series: Studies in Violence, Mimesis, & Culture
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 266
File size: 439 KB

About the Author

Robert Hamerton-Kelly is a founding member of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, and has authored, edited, or contributed to several books. From 1986 to 1997, he was a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University, specializing in the ethics of nuclear weapons, and the ethics of military intervention, with special attention to ethnic conflicts in Central Europe. He is pastor of the Woodside Village Church in Woodside, California. From 1972 to 1986, he was Dean of the Chapel and minister of Memorial Church at Stanford, Consulting Professor of religious studies and, by courtesy, of classics. He retired from Stanford in 1997.

Read an Excerpt

Politics & Apocalypse

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2007 Michigan State University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-811-9

Chapter One

The Evangelical Subversion of Myth

René Girard

Académie française and Stanford University (emeritus)

In Totem and Taboo, Freud writes that long before he himself penetrated the secret of human origins, the Christian gospels had done so. "In the Christian doctrine," he says, "men were acknowledging in the most undisguised manner the guilty primeval deed."

Here as elsewhere, the apparently unbelievable assertion of Totem and Taboo contains a gigantic insight. What Freud says here is literally true, except of course for his psychoanalytical interpretation of the primordial murder. In order to show this truth, one must go, not surprisingly, to those texts in the gospels that have the most unpleasant connotations to our ears, those most strongly repressed, even by the Christians, who avoid them more and more. Even they do not look closely at these texts because if they did, they might have to agree, they fear, with those who see a spirit of hatred at work in the gospels, a vindictive streak even in many words attributed to Jesus himself. Of all these texts, the so-called "Curses against the Pharisees," in Matthew 23 and Luke 11, have perhaps the worst reputation. They seem to confirm the opinion that the mind behind Matthew 23:35–36 still believes in the primitive blood curse (Gen. 4:10–12):

On you will fall the guilt of all the innocent blood spilt on the ground, from innocent Abel to Zechariah, son of Berachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Believe me, this generation will bear the guilt of it all. (Matt. 23:35–36)

Abel is not a Jew. How could these lines be read in the context of the primitive blood curse of the Jews? To the ancient Jews, the Bible was more than a religious code and a history of national origins. It was the history of the entire human race, the sum total of all knowledge. The religious murders are limited neither to a single blood lineage nor even to a single religious tradition. After the well-known figure of Abel, who is the first murder victim in the Bible, a rather obscure figure is mentioned. Why? He is the last murder victim in the second book of Chronicles, which happens to be the last book of the Jewish Bible (2 Chron. 24:20–21). Thus, the first and last victims in the Bible are mentioned. These two names obviously stand in lieu of a complete enumeration, which is impossible. There would simply be too many names. All the victims between the first and the last one are tacitly included.

This cannot fail to evoke the type of victimage I have been talking about, and the text of Luke gives us one more reason to believe in it.

If the word beginning (arche), which suggests the foundation of culture and is present in John (1:1), is absent from Matthew, it is present again or rather an even more significant word is present in the text of Luke, which runs almost parallel to the one of Matthew (Luke 11:49–51):

This generation will have to answer for the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation/beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. (Luke 11:50)

The word that is translated by some as "beginning" and by others, better still, "as foundation," is katabole. The Greek says apo kataboles tou kosmou. Apo suggests a generative relationship rather than a merely temporal one. Katabole means the ordering or reordering that terminates some kind of disruption, the climactic resolution of a crisis. There is a medical use of it analogous to the purgative katharsis, or paroxysmal fit (Plato, Gorgias, 519a). Kosmos means order. The Latin Vulgate translates apo kataboles tou kosmou by a constitutione mundi—"from [or since] the constitution of the world," but still does not render the connotation of a paroxysmal process. In conjunction with murder, especially the type of murder we have at the beginning of the Bible, like the murder of Abel, the Greek expression apo kataboles tou kosmou cannot fail to evoke the dynamics of our myth and ritual. The tracing back of religious murders to Abel, the association of the first murder with the kataboles tou kosmou, cannot suggest a merely chronological coincidence between the first murder and the foundation of the world. There is collusion between human culture and murder that goes back to the beginning of humanity and that, according to Jesus, continues down to his own time, and is still operative among the Pharisees.

Mathew 23:35–36 and Luke 11:49–51 are a revelation of the original murder.

Now let us read another curse that evokes the mechanism we have uncovered in the previous readings:

Woe unto you, lawyers and Pharisees. Hypocrites! You build up the tombs of the prophets and embellish the monuments of the saints, and you say, "If we had been alive in our fathers' time, we should never have taken part with them in the murder of the prophets." So you acknowledge that you are the sons of the men who killed the prophets. Go on then, finish off what your fathers began! (Matt. 23:29–32)

The Pharisees do not deny that the murders took place. Far from approving or ignoring the murders, they condemn them severely. They want to disassociate themselves from their murderous ancestors and religious forerunners. In the eyes of Jesus, however, they do not succeed; the religious behavior of the Pharisees paradoxically perpetuates the solidarity it denies, the solidarity with the murder of the prophets.

The murder of the prophets was a collective action and the arrogant denial of participation is also a collective action. "If we had been alive in our fathers' time, we should never have taken part with them in the murder of the prophets" (Matt. 23:30). In other words, we should never have surrendered to the mimetic contagion of the collective victimage. The Pharisees reassure themselves that they are incapable of such a deed.

In order to demonstrate their noninvolvement in violence, their own intrinsic innocence, the sons condemn their fathers; the original murders had been committed with a similar intent. The murderers murdered their victims, we found, in order not to perceive their own violence; this is the real significance of the scapegoat effect, which projects the violence of the community onto the victim. The sons, therefore, do exactly the same things as their fathers; they condemn them as murderers in order to achieve the same purpose as the murderers themselves, in order to obfuscate their own violence. The condemnation constitutes an act of violence that repeats and reproduces every feature of the original murder, except for the physical death of a victim. The sons have only shifted from one type of scapegoat to another. They are the spiritual murderers of their own murderous fathers and, as such, well worthy of these fathers from whom they think themselves separated by an abyss.

The continuity from generation to generation is insured, each time, by an effort to break with the past that always takes the form of an actual or symbolical murder of that past, of physical or spiritual victimage. Our hypothesis alone can make this "filiation" intelligible, because the original murder is already a means for the community to break with its own past violence, to forget the reality of that violence by thrusting its entire weight upon the collective victim. All later culture repeats the violent flight from violence; people repeat the violent burial of the truth that already characterizes even the most primitive forms of cultural foundation and elaboration. All human culture begins and continues with a violent burial of the truth. In the case of the Pharisees, and Oedipus and his oracle, the victims seem to be vindicated, the murderers are condemned, the break with the violent seems complete; but this appearance is deceiving.

Past murders are denounced as the exclusive responsibility of the actual murderers, as something that is of no real concern to those who come after, to the pious Pharisees, except, of course, as a cause for self-congratulation. The old structure is reversed; the original murderers now occupy the place of the original victims and vice versa; the reversed structure serves the same purpose as the original one; it justifies the contemporaries by disengaging them falsely, because violently, from the violence of the past. The repudiation of the past is analogous to and continuous with the violence of the past.

Now I go to another text that has always appeared even more obscure, vindictive, and sinister perhaps than the ones already quoted, but it really means absolutely the same thing. It is John 8:43–44. The interlocutors inside the text are not designated as scribes or Pharisees but simply, this time, as the Jews.

It is true that this text is a historical source of Christian anti-Semitism, but one can show that it is only because the text is completely misunderstood by the Christians.

Your father is the devil and you choose to carry out your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and is not rooted in the truth; there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie he is speaking his own language, for he is a liar and the father of lies [or of liars]. But I speak the truth and therefore you do not believe me. (John 8:44)

At least five themes in this enigmatic text are closely interrelated. Satan is described as an inexhaustible source of lies; the Jews are still imprisoned in these lies, because they share in Satan's desires. The Jews actively collaborate in a satanic delusion, which exists from the beginning and which is essentially connected with murder. Satan was a murderer from the beginning.

What kind of murderer can this be?

The designation of Satan as a murderer is usually interpreted as a veiled reference to the story of Cain and Abel. Most commentators rightly believe, in other words, that John 8:44 is not unrelated to the text: "On you will fall the guilt of all the innocent blood spilt on the ground, from innocent Abel to Zechariah," and so forth (Matt. 23:35).

This is true, up to a point. The murder of Abel comes first in the Bible chronologically, of course, but perhaps also in another and more fundamental sense.

We found that the murder of Abel is the primordial murder in the sense that it is the foundation of the Cainite culture, which is presented as the first human culture. Satan is the mimetic cycle itself, the mechanism of human culture. That is why his reign is really at an end, even though his triumph seems more complete than ever. We can understand very well why he would be a murderer from the beginning, and the father of all liars (meaning all the hearers of Jesus), the father of an entire culture that is not rooted in the truth. We can well understand why Jesus would speak of two languages, his own language, which reveals the original murder and is therefore the language of truth, and the language of his listeners, which is a lie because it is still rooted in the original murder. The one truth that these listeners resist the most is the truth being uttered at that very moment, in that very text, the truth of the original murder.

It is not wrong to relate this text of John to the story of Abel. The two are related; but the people who connect the one to the other do not understand the relationship; they do not perceive the genetic mechanism of culture behind the murder of Abel. From the phrase "Satan was a murderer from the beginning," they think that something is missing. The missing information would be the identity of the victim and of the murderer. We are told that the victim is Abel. In the text of the gospels we see a garbled murder mystery from which the names of the actors have been removed by mistake. We feel we add something to the text by supplying these names. This attitude is supremely significant. All interpreters always think they have a perspective, a methodology, another text that goes further than the gospel text. They do not realize that as long as they look for the individual or generic names of the victims and culprits, in specific episodes of murder, they remain imprisoned in mythology; they have not yet uncovered the truth. In order fully to uncover the truth, you must eliminate all proper names, all fictional elements. You must replace all the fabulous stories of origins by the semiotic matrix, by the genetic mechanism of all myths and rituals. This is exactly what the gospel text is doing when it says: at the beginning of human culture was murder and all human beings without exception are the sons and daughters of that murder. Down to the present day, they remain imprisoned in its lie because they have not yet really uncovered its operation.

If I am right, all modern attitudes are regressive and repressive in comparison with the text of the gospel.

With vertiginous speed but with complete clarity, a mechanism is formulated in John, the best formulation because it is purely abstract and universal, the most likely to be misunderstood. Now we understand that it is the same thing to be a son of Satan and to be a son of the men who killed the prophets. The surest means to perpetuate the lies that are rooted in the original murder and to generate more liars is to say, "If we had been alive in our fathers' time, we should never have taken part with them in the murder of the prophets."

The original murder is an inexhaustible source of falsified cultural meanings and values in which not the Pharisees alone, not the Jews alone, but all of humanity is still imprisoned.

The connection in John between Satan, murder, untruth, and the arche, the beginning, means exactly the same thing as the connection between murder, the denial of murder, and the foundation of the world in the Synoptic Gospels. The foundation and principle of this world, the devil and Satan are one and the same thing and they are none other than the spontaneous scapegoat mechanism as the source of all previous religion and all human culture, the mechanism of symbolicity itself.

Far from saying entirely different things and being rooted in a different spirit, the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John say exactly the same thing. The vast effort of modern criticism to dismember the New Testament as well as the Old, and to compel each text to diverge from every other, resembles the attitude of many classicists toward the tragedic corpus of our Greek and European heritage; we must suspect that this immense enterprise of dissociation is not innocent; it must be part of our effort to elude the significance that is common to all these texts, to flee from a message that we go on treating more or less in the same fashion as those whose place is designated in the gospels as the first recipients of that message.

The traditional interpretation of the text tends to narrow down the scope of the text to the interlocutors inside the text who are, of course, Jewish religious groups. Its traditional title, "Curses against the Pharisees," already constitutes an interpretation. This reading is obviously wrong. We can assert its essential deficiency even if already in the letter of the text that has come down to us certain details tend, if not to support the traditional reading, to suggest that the people who transcribed it had an imperfect understanding of that text. The reading we provide is too powerful, too faithful to the letter of the text not to sweep aside what still may appear to us as minor textual blemishes. These are not sufficient to discredit the present reading, which is both too coherent and effective in its relative complexity (lectio difficilior) to be refuted by such minor blemishes. These can be caused either by temporary lapses of the gospel writers, literally overwhelmed by the enormity of the message they had to record, and they can also be deficiencies on our own part, signs of our continued inability to grasp that same message in its entirety. Whatever the case may be, the reading I give totally implicates the reader and suggests there cannot be any innocent misreading of such a text.


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Table of Contents

Table of Contents
An Introductory Essay
Robert Hamerton-Kelly
The Evangelical Subversion of Myth
René Girard
¿Denial of Apocalypse¿ versus ¿Fascination with the Final Days¿: Current Theological Discussion of Apocalyptic Thinking
Jozef Niewiadomski
Carl Schmitt¿s ¿Apocalyptic¿ Resistance Against Global Civil War
Wolfgang Palaver
Philosophy, History, and Apocalypse in Voegelin, Strauss, and Girard
Fred Lawrence
Modernity and the Jewish Question: What Leo Strauss Learned from Nietzsche
John Ranieri
The Straussian Moment
Peter Thiel
Understanding in Quest of Faith: The Central Problem in Eric Voegelin¿s Philosophy
Stefan Rossbach

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Politics & Apocalypse 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
tomdave More than 1 year ago
in this provocative book a number of significant scholars interpret the writings of rene girard in light of the notion of an apocalyptic end to humanity's war with itself. these essays are worth reading if only to see the influence of girard on theologiocal thought, but even more to see his thought applied to religious ideas.