I remember years ago stumbling across a passage in G. K. Chesterton that disturbed me. The irrepressible optimist was making a case that the very failures of the church prove its truth. Yes, Christians have fought bloody wars—because they of all people have something worth fighting over. Yes, Christians have failed grievously (the Inquisition, slavery), but doesn't that establish their underlying doctrine of original sin? Chesterton's argument seemed too clever by half, too dismissive of great wrongs that have surely pained God and should shame God's followers.
A recent book, however, has me reconsidering Chesterton's line of thought. Violence Unveiled, by Gil Bailie, builds on the work of René Girard to argue that the Cross stands as the central event of history. The intended scapegoat became the sacrificial Lamb, thus introducing "the most sweeping historical revolution in the world, namely, the emergence of an empathy for victims."
Girard, a French scholar long resident in the United States, had already established himself as a prominent literary critic when his work increasingly began to focus on the role of violence in human culture—a theme that forced him to cross jealously guarded disciplinary boundaries. The result, expounded in Violence and the Sacred and the other books, was an unconventional theory of culture in which Christ's death on the cross is the single pivotal event.
According to Girard, societies have traditionally reinforced their power through "sacred violence." The larger group (say, German Nazis or Serbian nationalists) picks a scapegoat minority—or, in the case of the many societies that have practiced human sacrifice, a single individual—to direct its self-righteous violence ...