There is arguably no thinker in the past century who brought more attention to victims than René Girard. The French anthropologist based his whole multidisciplinary theory of human behavior on the “victim mechanism”—the singling out and sacrificing of a scapegoat to relieve the tensions of a community in a crisis of mimetic desire. For Girard, the unconscious drive to scapegoat outsiders runs deep in all of us, and the corpse of the victim, finally revealed in the corpus of Christ on the cross, is the hinge on which all of human history—religion, culture, literature, geopolitics—turns.
This is precisely why Girard’s warnings about “victimology” are so telling. In the last chapter of his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard makes bold to say, “The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and ‘radicalizes’ the concern for victims in order to paganize it. The powers and principalities want to be ‘revolutionary’ now, and they reproach Christianity for not defending victims with enough ardor.”
The most powerful anti-Christian movement, according to the great herald of the victim, is a radicalized, revolutionary concern for victims—what Girard terms “victimology.” How can we make sense of what appears to be a strange self-contraction?
First, we must take a step back and look at Girard’s reading of Scripture. For Girard, “Satan” and the “powers and principalities” in his army are bound up with the victim mechanism itself. The devil and the destruction of victims go hand in hand. This sheds new light on various passages of the Bible. For example, the various names given to Satan in the Scriptures—the “tempter,” the “accuser,” the “prince of this world,” the “prince of darkness,” and the “murderer from the beginning”—are best understood, collectively, as a picture of the victim mechanism.
To be successful, this work of Satan must have two features. First, it must be hidden from view for all involved. To be engaged in the Satanic bloodthirst for a victim is, by definition, to believe that you are not. “It would appear that everyone participates in this phenomenon,” Girard quipped, “except each one of us.” Secondly, it must imitate the order of God’s creation. Targeting, destroying, and deifying a victim gives a community an illusion of justice and order, an ersatz sense of peace and unity. Satan, in Girard’s words, is “the ape of God,” his kingdom a caricature of God’s kingdom. Popular portrayals of evil as something openly and vividly sinister blind us to its two characteristic features: secretiveness and deception.
What is the Gospel? For Girard, it is the definitive subversion of both Satan and his victim mechanism. This finally happens through the cross, which exposes the pattern of scapegoating “hidden from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 13:35) and unleashes the disorder of Satanic accusation, now bereft of its cover. Scapegoating still flashes all around us—often culminating, he notes, in psychological violence—but the false “order” of the murdered victim, on which all religion and culture are founded, has been revealed and overthrown. Satan can no longer hide, and the new foundation of culture is the imitation of Christ.
This explains why Girard saw victimology as Christianity’s greatest threat. He goes on to explain:
In trying to usurp the place of Christ, the powers imitate him in the way a mimetic rival imitates his model in order to defeat him. They denounce the Christian concern for victims as hypocritical and a pale imitation of the authentic crusade against oppression and persecution for which they would carry the banner themselves.
In the symbolic language of the New Testament, we would say that in our world, Satan, trying to make a new start and gain new triumphs, borrows the language of victims. Satan imitates Christ better and better and pretends to surpass him. This imitation by the usurper has long been present in the Christianized world, but it has increased enormously in our time. The New Testament evokes this process in the language of the “Antichrist.” To understand this title, we should de-dramatize it, for it expresses something banal and prosaic.
The Antichrist boasts of bringing human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver. Actually, what the radicalization of contemporary victimology produces is a return to all sorts of pagan practices: abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore but without real victims, etc.
In the wake of the Gospel, where a deep and passionate concern for victims reigns, Satan finds a new way of imitating God’s order and a new way of hiding his victim mechanism: victimology. He seeks to use the Gospel to his own advantage and turn the cross against itself. Alas, he is no fool: “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”
The second volume The Word on Fire Bible (Acts, Letters, and Revelation) further illuminates this dynamic of Satanic imitation in the wake of the cross. The second beast of Revelation, Bishop Barron explains, has two horns “like a lamb”; in this, it mimics the perfect love of the Lamb of God. Its number, we later hear, is 666; in this, it mimics the perfect wholeness of God, reflected in the number seven. In other words, “be careful in spiritual battle, because the beast can be deceptive. He can look like perfection, even as he mocks it.” We see this same principle powerfully captured in The Preaching of the Antichrist by Luca Signorelli, in which a figure who looks very much like Jesus directs the crowd below. But his left arm, which appears to be his own, is really the arm of Satan behind him, reaching through his cloak.
This is the unique horror Girard sees in victimology: the appearance of the Lamb of God, the feeling of his perfect kingdom, the sound of his proclaimed Gospel—and all of it the cunning lie of the devil. But precisely because they are fighting for victims, victimologists appear to be, and indeed believe themselves to be, on the side of the angels. The themes of Christianity championed by so many secularists—lifting up the lowly, defending the downtrodden—are ever on their lips. But they move according to the logic of the lynch mob, not the Gospel.
None of this, of course, gainsays the real existence of victims or the real necessity of defending them. In fact, Girard’s argument wouldn’t stand if that weren’t the case. It’s precisely because there are so many real victims and because we must defend them that victimology is so dangerous. By it, the powers and principalities ape the work of Christ to do the work of the Antichrist.
Girard’s concern is vindicated when it comes to abortion, one of the three issues he names as an outcome of victimology. Here, the protection of victims of sexual and social exploitation—authentic victims deserving of care and compassion—ends in a clandestine and “compassionate” destruction of the dehumanized pre-born. But Girard’s analysis cuts in both political directions. The neo-paganism that emerges out of victimology, he goes on to say, “locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions. This idea acquires a semblance of credibility in the limited domain of consumer goods, whose prodigious multiplication, thanks to technological progress, weakens certain mimetic rivalries.” In other words, the endless desire for consumption—stirring and stirred by unfettered freedom in the market—supplies a false peace amid the covert bloodletting that is Satan’s false new order. In every direction, we see what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.”
Girard died in 2015 before the rise of “cancel culture” and the “alt right,” but these contemporary cultural forces have only further vindicated him. Girard seemed to see traces of it on the horizon: “The current process of spiritual demagoguery and rhetorical overkill has transformed the concern for victims into a totalitarian command and a permanent inquisition,” he writes. “The media themselves notice this and make fun of ‘victimology,’ which doesn’t keep them from exploiting it.” Girard would not have been surprised to see social media mobs on both sides gathering around and destroying a favorite scapegoat—all in the name of rising up to defend innocent victims. It is the same old pagan pattern of socially sanctioned massacre, the same old frenzy into which the accuser whips the crowd—a frenzy that the cross, and only the cross, conquers.
The genius of Girard’s theory is clear in its explanatory power. Once you’ve really taken it in, it begins to make sense of so much of the world—not only myth, the Scriptures, and literature, but world news, local gossip, and, if one is honest, the paroxysms of resentment and violence in one’s own heart. But the unique threat now posed by victimology shows that Girard’s passion for victims was as prescient as it was powerful.
The greatest trick Satan ever pulled may have been convincing the world that he didn’t exist. But the second greatest has surely been using the language of victims to add to their number.