Franciscan Spirit Blog

Richard Rohr on Sacred Violence

Both René Girard and Gil Bailie have taught us that the most effective and common way to turn social hatred into social harmony is via a scapegoat. It works so well, it gathers the community so quickly, that it has endured through most of human history. Now it is the normal story line, so normal that we hardly see it. It remains denied, invisible, and unnoticed.

C. J. Jung saw the same pattern in the individual that Girard sees in society and culture: That which we fear, deny, and avoid will, with one hundred percent certainty, be projected somewhere else. In other words, there is an intrinsic connection between fear, hatred, and violence. Furthermore, we will do it with impunity and even grandiosity. It is the sacralization of violence and the most common form of violence. That way, we can be hateful and not feel the least bit guilty about it—but, in fact, feel morally superior!

The process of creating sacred violence is so effective that it is now in the “hard wiring” of human personality. As Aquinas noted, no one intentionally does evil. They have to explain it to themselves as good! I am sad to say that, historically, religion is the most effective proponent of hatred and fear, and therefore violence.

Sacred violence is the most common kind of violence. How strange that we could ever arrive at this place after Jesus said that he came for “the forgiveness of sin” (Matthew 26:28) and to share the perfect love that casts out all fear! It’s no surprise that he has to spend a great part of his ministry in an effort to reform religion itself. Religion is, ironically, the safest place to hide from God! In its healthy forms, it is also the place to find God. As the Latin saying goes, corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst of all).

We see the classic pattern already in Adam’s treatment of Eve and Cain’s killing of Abel. It is the original lie and has continued nonstop until now. It is called history: largely a record of who kills, imprisons, tortures, oppresses, controls, enslaves, rapes, occupies, or exploits whom. It’s really quite disappointing, once we see it. Then, the utterly predictable response is revenge or retribution. The old and only story line continues unabated. It never stops. At this point, it is getting quite boring. We need a new plot, beyond “get the bad guys.”

It is only the mystics and seers in all of the great religions who give us a genuinely new story: redemptive suffering instead of redemptive violence. Socrates, Jesus, the Mother of the Maccabees, Buddha, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, and Óscar Romero—these give us a genuinely new story line. These few are the true history-makers, who expose the self-serving lie of hatred and open a way through for the rest of us. All others are only delaying the resurrection of humanity.

Resurrection will be taken care of for us, as quietly as a silent Sunday morning, once the lie of “Good” Friday has been exposed and thereby undercut. Once Jesus put all his effort and energy into that Friday, God took care of Sunday easily. But, as the Gospel texts say, “suddenly there was a violent earthquake … [and] the guards were … like dead men” (Matthew 28:2, 4). The game of smoke and mirrors was over—for good—but there is a continuing seismic shift toward the imperial system.

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