Origins of Sacred Violence – April 2008

Reflections by Adam Ericksen
Education Director

Conference presenters and hosts (l to r): Professor Sandor Goodheart, Professor Andrew McKenna, Suzanne Ross, Dr. Esmail Koushanpour, and Keith Ross.

Is Religion to blame for global violence?

Does belief in God eventually lead to the easy justification
of violence in God’s name?

Where does the idea that God sanctions violence come from?

At The Origins of Sacred Violence interfaith conference held in April 2008, the Raven Foundation presented an exploration of the provocative ideas of René  Girard on the function of sacred violence in human communities. Local guest scholars from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions responded to videos produced by Trinity Institute, the educational wing of Trinity Wall Street Church, New York.

Reflecting on the event, I think it was a huge success in building interfaith understanding and respect. Our guest speakers, Sandor Goodhart, Andrew McKenna, and Esmail Koushanpour, were open and honest about their own traditions and respectful, even admiring, of the others. It was a lesson for me in vulnerability, courage, trust, and the hope for peace.

Session 1 – Sacred Violence with James Carroll and Andrew McKenna

Our first session focused on sacred violence. Andrew McKenna gave an excellent overview of mimetic theory, stating that humans fall into conflict through mimetic, or borrowed, desire. This conflict results in frustration that needs an outlet. Unfortunately, the outlet comes in the form of a community uniting in violence against another. This “other” is known as a scapegoat. The scapegoat is innocent of the frustrations, but the community is blind to the innocence of the scapegoat, and having convinced itself of the scapegoat’s irrefutable guilt. After Andrew’s introduction, we viewed a clip from the Trinity event, where James Carroll present the need to reform theology to reflect an understanding of God as nonviolent so we can participate in that nonviolence. Carroll also discussed that in archaic religions, violence and religion were inseparable, referencing Girard’s victimary process and scapegoat mechanism. Andrew responded to Carroll by correcting some of his views on Girard and helping us understand the link between religion and violence. With Jesus imitation of the non-violent God as the model for Christians, the archaic connection between violence and the sacred is reformed, no longer allowing us to put our responsibility for violence onto the shoulders of God. Jesus reveals that God is non-violent, so humans bear the responsibility for their use of violence.

Download the transcript from Session 1.

Session 2 – Desire with Tariq Ramadan and Esmail Koushanour

The second session started with Esmail Koushanpour’s brief introduction to Islam. He stated the basic beliefs of Islam, the five pillars of Islam, and the concept of Jihad. Jihad literally means “struggle.” Esmail discussed the two types of Jihad: The greater Jihad, which is the struggle within oneself to live righteously and submit to God’s will, and the lesser Jihad, which is to defend Muslims and the Muslim community. After Esmail’s presentation, we showed the clip from Trinity of Tariq Ramadan, who discussed Islamic understanding of human desire. Ramadan stated that humans struggle with two kinds of aspirations: the temptation to violence and the desire for honesty and transparency. Here, we saw the connection between desire and Jihad. Jihad is the desire to live righteously, which means living by the will of God. Jihad is ultimately a call for introspection. The Greater Jihad states that the starting place for dealing with global violence is not to point fingers and accuse others. The starting place for dealing with global violence is the self and our own inner struggles to restrict our impulse for violence.

Download the transcript of Session 2.

Session 3 – Scapegoating with Susannah Heschel and Sandor Goodhart

Our final presentation was on scapegoating, led by Sandor Goodhart. Sandy started by introducing the Trinity speaker, Susannah Heschel. As with Carroll, Heschel brought up Girard’s thought, but she made a common mistake in interpreting Girard’s work. That mistake is that Girard endorsed violence as a means to peace. Fortunately, Sandy corrected this common misinterpretation. Girard doesn’t endorse violence; he repudiates it. The unity a group feels at the expense of another is not a good thing – it is demonic. To help us better understand this demonic concept, Sandy led us through a brilliant discussion on a Jewish interpretation of the Abraham and Isaac story that repudiates of violence. The Abraham and Isaac story is fundamentally as story about the refusal to participate in violence against another human being, even if we (mistakenly) think God endorses that violence.

This conference was very meaningful to me. As a Christian who has learned the importance of taking my own traditions seriously, I have also discovered the importance of taking Jewish and Islamic traditions seriously. The conference cemented my inclination that there is much we can and much we need to learn from one another. Andrew’s luminous introduction to Girard’s thought on sacred violence opened the door for us to discuss these very important issues. The Islamic concept of the Greater Jihad explicated by Esmail stands on its own as an important way to peace, and the more I understand the Greater Jihad the deeper my own spiritual practice becomes. The Judaic understanding of the Abraham and Isaac story offered by Sandy is an indispensable way of understanding how to resist violence, even if we think God is calling us to bloodshed.

Download the transcript of Session 3.

The conference proved challenging. Our separate traditions, and even our holy scriptures, have been contaminated with violence. The conference helped me understand that the responsibility for violence falls on the shoulders of humans. God does not sanction violence; God seeks to lead us out of its vicious cycle.


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