Jesus, Girard, and Dystopian Literature

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Jesus, Girard, and Dystopian Literature”

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw, Ph.D.

East Texas Baptist University

René Girard has exercised immeasurable influence in the fields of literature, anthropology, religious studies, and ethics. His theory of sacred violence, developed over the course of decades, began as thesis about “mimetic desire” and grew into a revelatory key to explain conflict and religion in society. Because Girard’s theory provides a metanarrative for human behavior and social interaction, especially the more destructive elements of both, it is an ideal overlay for the study of dystopian literature. In this paper, I will use insights from Girard to examine two of today’s most popular Young Adult book series—The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I will begin with an overview of Girard’s theory, then I will explore the characteristics of Collins’ and Roth’s dystopian societies, and finally I will evaluate how Girard provides an alternative to the destructive future envisioned in these novels.

Girard and the Violent Sacred

In his study of modern literature and the myths of ancient culture, Girard lays the foundation for his theory with a simple observation: Imitation has always been the cornerstone of human behavior. The very process by which humans grow from infancy to adulthood and develop into functioning members of society involves constant imitation, learning to desire what those around us desire and modeling our lives and actions after others. Girard developed this far-reaching thesis a variety of published works.1 My focus here will be the main strokes of his theory, paying special attention to those aspects that serve as background to our discussion of dystopic literature and the characteristics of a dystopic society.

Girard’s ideas, though descriptive of religion and society, owe their formation to his critical analysis of literature. Girard first notices a human tendency toward imitation in the antiheros of great modern novels, such as Emma in Madame Bovary, Don Quixote, and Dostoevsky’s protagonist in Crime and Punishment. Each of these characters acts out of an intense desire for something another person has or is. Girard’s conclusion in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel is that these literary characters represent an authentic problem with which all of humanity struggles, a problem Girard names “mimetic desire.” Mimetic desire is the urge all humans share, a desire that is rooted “neither in their objects nor in themselves, but in a third party, the model or mediator, whose desire we imitate in the hope of resembling him or her, in the hope that our two beings will be ‘fused.’”2 Girard explores the “mechanism” of mimetic desire through other literary genres such as Shakespeare’s plays, the tragedies of ancient Greece, and mythical texts throughout history, and each of his examples poetically demonstrates how imitation is the most basic and destructive force of human civilization.3

Plunging from literary study into the adjacent spheres of sociology and anthropology, Girard investigates ancient cultures and their myths, the earliest literature, to support his view that the problem of mimetic desire is a human reality present from even incipient accounts of civilization. What Girard finds in his study of ethnology confirms his suspicion: Imitation has always been the cornerstone of human behavior. He sees this phenomenon in contemporary settings—e.g., children playing in a room full of toys who all gravitate toward a toy because one child first desires it. He also unearths it in early tribal cultures from every continent—e.g., men fighting over the same women, food, weapons, and land.4 The very process by which humans grow from infancy to adulthood and develop into functioning members of society involves constant imitation, learning to desire what those around us desire and modeling our lives and actions after others.5

In Violence and the Sacred, Girard theorizes that mimetic desire not only fuels human cultural interaction, but also drives society to widespread violence. Humans imitate the possessions, desires, and qualities of others, often their social relations. When two people desire the same object, there is conflict and violence inevitably arises. The desire for an object or quality of another becomes the desire to be the other; consequently, the one imitated becomes both a model and a rival. Girard labels this desire “conflictual” or “acquisitive” mimesis and concludes that the violence that results from mimetic rivalry produces reciprocal violence in response and soon causes a cycle of violence, infecting everyone in society.6 However, according to Girard, endemic conflict among the members of a society cannot persist, so to alleviate mass violence humans form religion, a social structure that attempts to curb mimetic rivalry and its resulting violence through prohibition, ritual sacrifice, and myth. These three pillars of religion work together to prevent mimetic crisis, the name Girard gives the anarchical violence and conflict in societies, and thus to keep mimetic rivalry to a minimum.

Religion’s first line of defense against mimetic violence is law, or the prohibition of both violence and imitation, even when the imitation seems innocuous. Primitive societies often forbid members of the community from copying the words or actions of other members of the community. The logic behind such prohibitions may elude the Western mind, but Girard asserts that these laws respect the imitative character of violence and protect the primitive culture from mimetic crisis. A second tool for bridling mimetic violence is ritual sacrifice. Societies today keep peace and order by reining in the violence wrought in humans with complex systems of law, government, and judiciary courts. Primitive cultures did not have these systems so they thwarted blood vengeance and ubiquitous violence with their own preventive measures—namely, tightly controlled rituals. Whereas prohibition wards violence off by avoiding mimetic crises, ritual sacrifice avoids mass violence by performing mimetic violence. Ritual is the reenactment of an original act of violence, often the founding murder of a society,7 which serves to ward off mass violence with its “little doses of violence, like vaccination.”8 Girard explains this enigmatic mimicking of conflict as having the “beneficial effect of deflecting the participants’ desire away from the actions that might cause real violence.”9

Primitive religious rituals usually conclude with the killing of a scapegoat, a sacrifice that represents the conclusion of the mimetic crisis. This act separates a victim from the community as something “other.” This “other” is an innocent victim but serves as a focal point of blame for the entire group. The community erases its own culpability and participation in violence by participating in a violent act. It enacts “good” violence to evade “bad” violence, or the widespread, reciprocal violence that would threaten the stability of the community. S. Mark Heim's commentary on the Girardian sacrificial process in Saved from Sacrifice interprets this phenomenon aptly: “Ritual sacrifice is like a backfire started to consume the dry fuel in the path of a raging forest fire, and so to protect a town. The element of defense is the same as the element of destruction. Everything depends on using it in a carefully controlled and limited way.”10 Girard calls the ritual practice against an innocent victim the “scapegoat mechanism” and he uses myths and other literature to reveal this mechanism’s widespread presence in myriad societies spanning time and the globe.11

The figure of the scapegoat is the central and perhaps most illuminating aspect of Girard’s system for social theory and biblical interpretation. The scapegoat serves as a substitute victim for the community’s violence; it unifies the community by focusing it on one salvific task and establishes peace by taking away the violence that would divide the community. Though Girard finds that scapegoats are selected arbitrarily by communities, he finds that several characteristics common to scapegoats emerge from social history. First, the scapegoat victim stands alone as a community unleashes its collective violence against it. Girard describes this collective opposition to the scapegoat in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World:

The community affirms its unity in the sacrifice, a unity that emerges from the moment when division is most intense, when the community enacts its dissolution in the mimetic crisis and its abandonment to the endless cycle of vengeance. But suddenly the opposition of everyone against everyone else is replaced by the opposition of all against one. Where previously there had been a chaotic ensemble of particular conflicts, there is now the simplicity of a single conflict: the entire community on one side, and on the other, the victim.12

Collective violence against a scapegoat forms the core of the religious ritual that brings the restoration of peace.

A second characteristic common to scapegoats is their dialectical similarity and dissimilarity to their persecutors. The scapegoat must be similar enough to the members of the society that it can bear its pollution but dissimilar enough to be a pharmakos13 and bear it away. It is for this reason that scapegoats are accused of crimes that a society abhors, often extreme taboos, but are themselves usually innocent of these crimes. The scapegoat must be seen as removed from society by some trait or offence. A final characteristic scapegoats share is that they tend to be those who are weak, marginalized, and without family or allies, in order to preclude retaliation from someone on their behalf.

Girard locates the efficacy of the scapegoat mechanism in its ability to “‘purify’ violence; that is, to ‘trick’ violence into spending itself on victims whose death will provoke no reprisals.”14 The importance of the scapegoat mechanism for explaining the formation and maintenance of peaceful societies, both primitive and modern, cannot be overstated. Scapegoats also play an important role in the workings of the dystopic societies we find in The Hunger Games and the Divergent series

The third pillar of religion that works together with prohibition and ritual to control violence in society is the device of myth. Girard maintains that myth is necessary for the scapegoat mechanism to continue its peaceful regeneration in society. Without the illusion that myth brings to ritual sacrifice, communities would uncover the terrifying violence they both practice and elude and such knowledge would create a “sacrificial crisis” resulting in chaotic violence and destruction. The statement Girard makes about religion and myth shocks and rivets with its simple accusation: “Religion dupes; this is its only way to conquer violence.”15

Girard is quite thorough in his trek through the literature and mythology of human history, and in his exploration of ancient cultures, he mines the Hebrew Bible and New Testament for evidence of the mythic veiling of the violent. What Girard uncovers in the literature of the Jewish and Christian religions becomes the revelatory cipher to his theory. Girard sees the Bible as a text in “travail between myth and gospel” which reveals the system of sacred violence through its stories and theories.16 Scripture tells the cyclical story of the mimetic crisis of culture through such stories as Cain and Abel and Joseph and his brothers. In the Bible, as in all religious stories, violence becomes sacred as humans project their own mimetic violence onto God and fail to grasp that the violence originated with them.

However, whereas myths (especially those Girard labels “persecution texts”)17 usually hide the scapegoat mechanism by telling stories from the perspective of the persecutors, the biblical stories speak from the perspective of the victim. Burton Mack describes Girard’s discovery in biblical literature this way:

The scriptures of the Judaeo-Christian tradition turn out to be yet another type of literature. In them human conflict is narrated without recourse to mythic mentality. The primary way in which this is achieved in the Hebrew scriptures is by resisting resolution which depends upon seeing the victim as totally guilty and the victor as totally innocent…Girard sees this strange, new literature against the background of the universality of the surrogate victim myth, and concludes that the Hebrew scriptures are a special case, doing the work of criticism.18

The Hebrew Scriptures’ “work of criticism” is not completed within the OT, however. Instead, Girard sees the Hebrew Bible as a “long and laborious exodus out of the world of violence and sacred projections, an exodus plagued by many reversals and one that does not reach its goal within the Old Testament writings.”19 The Bible’s work of criticism intensifies in the NT Gospels, when Jesus’ teaching and passion expose the mimetic character of humans and their gravitation toward violence.20

Girard’s practice as a literary critic surely influences his study of the Bible because his exegesis of the Gospels proves both bold and profound as he gleans universal insights from pericopes that describe historical events. For example, one of Girard’s key findings involves the passages in when Jesus denounces the Pharisees for their role in the killing of the prophets and others. The passage reads:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the alter. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:34-36)

Girard sees beyond Jesus’ chastisement of a group of religious Jews and asserts that Jesus here unveils the sacred violence at work in all religion. It will be helpful to repeat Girard’s analysis of the above passage in Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World for it exemplifies how Girard reads and interprets the Gospels throughout his works.

The text gives us to believe that there have been many murders. It only mentions two of them, however: that of Abel, the first to occur in the Bible, and that of a certain Zechariah, the last person to be killed in the Second Book of the Chronicles, in other words, the last in the whole Bible as Jesus knew it. Evidently, mention of the first and last murders takes the place of a more complete list. The victims who belong between Abel and Zechariah are implicitly included. The text has the character of a recapitulation, and it cannot be restricted to the Jewish religion alone, since the murder of Abel goes back to the origins of humanity and the foundation of the first cultural order. Cainite culture is not a Jewish culture. The text also makes explicit mention of 'all the righteous blood shed on earth'. It therefore looks as though the kind of murder for which Abel here forms the prototype is not limited to a single region of the world or to a single period of history. We are dealing with a universal phenomenon whose consequences are going to fall not only upon the Pharisees but upon this generation, that is, upon all those who are contemporary with the Gospels and the time of their diffusion, who remain deaf and blind to the news that is being proclaimed.21

The Gospels’ presentation of victim and persecutor is revolutionary because it portrays elements of the violent sacred that religious mythology has masked for all of history—the unconscious nature of violence—a truth made known in Jesus’ words on the cross: “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

If we are to restore to this sentence its true savor we must recognize its almost technical role in the revelation of the scapegoat mechanism. It says something precise about the men gathered together by their scapegoat. They do not know what they are doing. That is why they must be pardoned. This is not dictated by a persecution complex or by the desire to remove from our sight the horror of real violence. In this passage we are given the first definition of the unconscious in human history, that from which all the others originate and develop in weaker form: the Freudians will push the dimension of persecution into the background and the Jungians will eliminate it altogether.22

In the end, Girard’s analysis of the gospel message is fascinating and provocative, especially considering that he is neither a theologian nor an apologist for Christianity. Girard finds that, throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ teaching, especially his exchanges with the scribes and Pharisees, uncovers the violence inherent in their religion and all religions, and reveals what societies and religions have kept hidden for all of time. Girard’s commentary on Jesus’ passion and death shows that Jesus is a typical scapegoat like the scapegoats present in all religious ritual; however, unlike myths and other literature, the Gospels are transparent about this fact. The Gospels expose the scapegoat mechanism because they proclaim Jesus’ innocence. A scapegoat that is knowingly innocent completely reverses the effect of scapegoat sacrifice. Salvation from the violence in religion, then, comes with the truth that the Gospels reveal about Jesus’ death and the workings of society’s scapegoat mechanism. Jesus’ teaching and the unveiling of his innocent death make him more than just the scapegoat; they make him the cure to the need for scapegoats and the possible conclusion to sacred violence in humanity.23

Dystopian literature and sacred violence

Modern dystopian literature is not a new phenomenon; it likely began around 150 years ago,24 with the anti-utopian novella by Fyodor Dostoevsky entitled Notes from Underground and continued into the twentieth century with works such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Two recent young adult book series, The Hunger Games and Divergent, have become popular as literary works and lucrative movie series, and each novel is set in a dystopian society fraught with poverty, political terror, violence, and despair. Both of these series also reveal the same human problems that Girard has noticed in classic literature and ancient societies—the problems of mimetic desire, the cycle of violence, and scapegoating.

The Hunger Games

In The Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins describes a North American society aptly named Panem,25 which is ruled by a wealth and entertainment-obsessed Capitol. The Capitol’s government controls its twelve outlying districts with the annual Hunger Games, a ritual that requires each of district to sacrifice two if its children, a male and a female between the ages of twelve and eighteen, in a modern-day gladiatorial battle of blood and torture. When the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, first describes the Games, she sees past the spectacle and ritual to recognize the purpose the Games serve:

Taking the kids from our districts, forcing them to kill one another while we watch—this is the Capitol’s way of reminding us how totally we are at their mercy. How little chance we would stand of surviving another rebellion. Whatever words they use, the real message is clear. ‘Look how we take your children and sacrifice them and there’s nothing you can do. If you lift a finger, we will destroy every last one of you. Just as we did in District Thirteen.’ To make it humiliating as well as torturous, the Capitol requires us to treat the Hunger Games as a festivity, a sporting event pitting every district against the others.26

The Capitol uses the Hunger Games in the same manner that ancient religions used ritual and myth. Girard has observed that religious rituals reenact originating acts of violence in order to deter societal violence. Panem operates with a similar system, reminding its people of the violence of their former rebellion by forcing them to participate in yearly doses of violence, committed by and against their own innocent children. The Capitol also utilizes strict prohibitions, laws meant to curb the districts’ mimetic conflict, and disseminates its own form of mythology surrounding the Games, including state-controlled education and propaganda, in order to manipulate the people into peace and acquiescence. All three of Girard’s pillars of sacred religion appear in Panem’s political and social policy. There is a conspicuous absence of traditional religion in Collin’s novels and no mention at all of divine power and intervention. This omission reinforces the idea that Panem’s government is its religion, the maker of myth, enforcer of ritual, and creator of scapegoats.

Girard’s theory of the scapegoat plays a vital role in the workings of Panem. In addition to quelling rebellion and violence through the ritual violence in the arena, the Hunger Games also sacrifice scapegoats. The teen tributes from the districts become the scapegoats that alleviate the violence brewing in the discontented and starving people. These scapegoats also appease the rich and spoiled citizens of the Capitol, diverting their attention from the injustice around them with the excitement and entertainment of their brutal ritual. At the end of the first book, though, the scapegoat is almost revealed and the workings of the scapegoat mechanism begin to crumble.

At the conclusion of of Hunger Games, Katniss and her fellow district twelve tribute, Peeta, must kill one another in a final standoff to determine who becomes the victor and who falls victim to the cruel violence of the arena. Only, by that time, Katniss has figured out the workings of the Hunger Games, realizing that the focus on a victor diverts attention from the death and sacrifice in the arena and provides the catharsis needed to maintain peace in the districts. Ironically, although each of the tributes are offered up as scapegoats for the sin of Panem, it is the victor, the one who lives out her life in wealth and peace, who is the true and hidden scapegoat. Katniss convinces her teammate to commit suicide by poisonous berries alongside her, baiting the game makers, and threatening to unveil the victim mechanism by publicly turning victor into victim. Without a victor, the brutality of the arena and the scapegoat mechanism would be revealed and the Capitol would lose its deceptive power over the districts, resulting in a mimetic crisis that no government could subdue.

Katniss’ ploy works, she and Peeta both become victors, and the system of sacred violence remains intact, for the time being. However, the next two books of the series detail the consequences of her act of rebellion, showing the effects her revelatory challenge have on the oppressed districts of Panem. Katniss’ action had begun the work of unveiling the system of violence that the Capitol had perpetuated for seventy-five years, and that knowledge led to an outbreak of mimetic violence committed by the districts against the Capitol, ending in a full-scale crisis of violence and rebellion27. President Snow, in the second book, unwittingly explains the cycle of violence inherit in their society as he tries to convince Katniss to become complicit in hiding the district’s system:

…uprisings have been known to lead to revolution…Do you have any idea what that would mean? How many people would die? What conditions those left would have to face? Whatever problems anyone may have with the Capitol, believe me when I say that if it released its grip on the districts for even a short time, the entire system would collapse.”28

The Capitol’s “grip” on the districts consists of the system it has created to quell violence—the prohibition, ritual, and myth that keeps the people from destroying one another in a tide of mimetic violence. As a writer, Collins is not covert about the purpose of the Hunger Games. She weaves it into the dialogue and reveals it in the nomenclature. For example, every twenty-five years, the games are known as the Quarter Quells, which points again to the games’ function of violence control and suppression.

By the conclusion of the trilogy, the truth of Girard’s theory for humanity becomes painfully obvious. The districts’ rebellion against the Capitol takes on a destructive mimetic quality as the rebels employ the same acts of terror and brutality committed against them to finally defeat President Snow and his government. Katniss, burned and broken by the destruction she suffered and caused, offers a final revelatory analysis of her society and of humanity as a whole:

I no longer feel any allegiance to these monsters called human beings, despise being one myself…Because something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children’s lives to settle its differences…The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.29
According to Girard, this statement unveiling the violent tendency of humanity should free Katniss from the cycle of violence that ravages her people and society. However, despite her penchant for seeing past the hidden mechanisms of violence and scapegoating, Katniss’ revelation is isolated and short-lived. In the end, the few Hunger Games victors who are left alive vote to offer up the children of the Capitol’s leaders in a retaliatory Hunger Games. Katniss is one of the victors who votes yes. The cycle of violence has come full circle, with the victims of violence intending to quell Capitol violence by scapegoating their children in horrific and vengeful ritual, just as they themselves were scapegoated and sacrificed. The trilogy may conclude with the victory of districts and a period of peace—but at what cost? And for how long? An ominous prediction by Head Game Maker and propaganda expert, Plutarch, serves as an appropriate and chilling analysis of the dystopic message of The Hunger Games, as well as an insightful vindication of Girard theory:

Now we’re in that sweet period where everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated…But collective thinking is usually short-lived. We’re fickle, stupid beings with poor memories and a great gift for self-destruction.30


Another dystopian trilogy popular with youth and adults alike, the Divergent series, presents a dystopian society that blurs the line between utopia and dystopia. This is not an uncommon literary device, or societal reality. As one critic has observed: “We create utopias, fortuitously (or not), based upon a need to envision a more hopeful future; dystopias happen, unfortunately.”31 The society in Divergent is a created utopia, built by a dystopian parent civilization (a future, civil war-torn America) as an experiment in peaceful coexistence. The problem is that the utopic city, housed in the ruins of Chicago, has no idea that they are an experiment, no suspicion that there is another culture beyond their walls that monitors and controls them.

Veronica Roth, the author of the Divergent trilogy, does not reveal the truth of this utopian/dystopian experiment until the end of the second book, Insurgent. Thus, the first two installments immerse the reader into the strangely regimented society that the heroine, Beatrice, inhabits, in order to provoke questions about how and why the society operates as it does. Beatrice’s city is divided into five factions that each value a different human characteristic above all others—the Erudite faction values intelligence, the Candor prize honesty, the Amity cherish peace, the Abnegation esteem self-sacrifice, and the Dauntless respect bravery above all else. Each faction has prescribed roles in society—for example, the Erudite invent and provide technological advances while the Dauntless protect the borders and police the city. The regimented society experiences relative peace and stability by adhering to its traditions and the key motto, “Faction before blood.”

Children are born into a faction of their parents but at age sixteen, they are able to choose the faction to which the will belong for the rest of their lives. Each sixteen-year-old undergoes a psychological testing the day before their choosing ceremony in order to aid in their decision. The test simulation usually reveals the faction to which each initiate is most suited. However, during Beatrice’s simulation, she discovers that she does not display aptitude for just one faction. She fits into several factions, she is told, and her simulation administrator ominously warns her that she is dangerous and must not reveal her results to anyone. Her uniqueness, this inability to fit clearly into one faction has a name…divergence.

On choosing day, Beatrice leaves her humble and selfless Abnegation family to become part of the dangerous Dauntless faction. The surface plot of the first two books follows Beatrice (now known as Tris) as she uncovers a plot by the Erudite to psychologically enslave the Dauntless to attack and kill Abnegation (the leaders of their society) in order to take control and steal valuable information that Abnegation leaders had been protecting. It is Tris’ divergent mind that allows her to escape the mind control of the Erudite, and she soon realizes that there are many other Divergent people hiding in her city, hunted by the Erudite because of their resistance to the mind-controlling power that they wield. Divergent and Insurgent raise as many questions as they answer but the big reveal at the conclusion of Insurgent changes everything, offering glimpses into the true dystopian message of the series.

After a guerilla rebellion against Erudite by the other factions, the vital data that the Erudite had coveted and Abnegation leaders had protected finally leaks. The five factions of the city, together with the factionless and homeless outcasts, learn that there is more outside their walls than they suspected. They view a generations-old informational video that shows snapshots of the violence that had riddled their parent society with death and destruction. The atrocities were not committed by a tyrannical government but by neighbors, coworkers, friends. The video announcer, a founding colonist of Chicago sent from the outside, tells them, “The battle we are fighting is not against a particular group. It is against human nature itself—or at least what it has become.”32

In the last book, Allegiant, Tris and a group from the faction experiment leave their walls to discover the outside world and end up uncovering the shocking story behind their structured, utopian-turned-dystopian society. The truth they find is that their parent society is technologically advanced but weakened by civil war. In fact, for generations, humanity had been plagued by war and violence. Genetic scientists in the Bureau of Genetic Welfare had sought a solution for the problem, probing human behavior and DNA for an explanation as to why civilized people kept killing one another. David, an official in the bureau of genetic warfare explains their findings this way:

There had been studies that indicated that violent tendencies could be partially traced to a persons’ genes—a gene called the “murder gene’ was the first of these, but there were quite a few more, genetic predispositions toward cowardice, dishonesty, low intelligence—all the qualities, in other words, that ultimately contribute to a broken society.33

Then, to reduce the risk of undesirable qualities, they “edited” humanity by correcting them with genetic manipulation. This editing damaged rather than corrected: “Take away someone’s fear, or low intelligence, or dishonesty…and you take away their compassion. Take away someone’s aggression and you take away their motivation, or their ability to assert themselves. Take away their selfishness and you take away their sense of self-preservation.” So the scientists inadvertently created a class of genetically damaged people (GD’s). Eventually, genetically “pure” people began to blame the GD’s for all the violence in society, despite the fact that the genetic manipulation had caused their “damage”.

In effect, they created their own scapegoats. In the face of overwhelming societal violence, uncurbed by the prohibition, ritual, or myth that Girard describes, the people in Roth’s society resorted to mass scapegoating. The problem came when the scapegoats became too numerous and fought back. The resulting purity war waged by the GDs caused massive casualties, eliminating half the country’s population. The government’s solution to this large-scale violence was the construction of societal experiments that placed genetically whole or genetically healing people in a behaviorally modified environment. Tris’ city was one of these experiments, intended to isolate good characteristics in people—bravery rather than cowardice, honesty rather than deception—and to value peace and humility in society rather than conflict and power. It was a sort of breeding ground for genetic healing. The scientists hypothesized that as more people began to be born divergent, or genetically whole, then the tendency toward violence—supposedly exhibited by genetically damaged people—would have been efficiently snuffed out.

The experiments failed, and anyone reader familiar with Girard’s thesis would have predicted such failure. In Tris’ city, the people still devolved into conflict and violence, even with the presence of the “genetically healed” divergent population. The absurdity that Roth highlights with her description of the experiments is glaring. Even before the genetic modifications that produced “damaged” humans, the genetically pure still resorted to mass violence and destruction. The scientists conveniently skirted this truth and concentrated the blame on their GD scapegoats rather than human nature. Roth’s dystopian society does not even fare as well as primitive societies that Girard describes. Whereas primitive peoples throughout time figured out that ritual and religion curb mimesis and societal violence, the government in Roth’s world relies on science and genetic control instead of religion and ultimately have to resort to extreme, en masse scapegoating to quell the violence. Even that last ditch attempt fails to produce peace. The series ends on a bleak note, with no true end to violence on the horizon for either Tris’ city or its parent society. It is an appropriately dystopian conclusion.

Girard’s answer to dystopia

The authors of The Hunger Games and the Divergent series paint very different pictures of dystopian societies, but their literary worlds share a foundational common denominator…the relentless cycle of human violence. It is no accident that Girard discovered the impetus for his social theory in the pages of great literature. Fiction requires concentrated conflict, so authors often stress the weaknesses of humanity, spotlighting our struggles and revealing the hidden problems that plague us all. Dystopian fiction is particularly pessimistic, envisioning times and societies dominated by the worst of human frailty—oppressive governments, unjust social systems, prejudice, hatred, and endemic violence. Literature about future dystopian societies provides us a way to face our worst fears but also warns us that our failures have consequences.

The dystopias in The Hunger Games and the Divergent series confirm what Girard has observed about human nature and society—humans are caught in a cycle of violence prompted by the worst impulses we have, acquisitive and conflictual mimesis. Without a tightly controlled system of prohibition, ritual, and myth, or religion, humanity would destroy itself with wars, revenge, and widespread violence. Katniss and Tris attempt to free their worlds from violence by revealing the workings of society, but they both fail when they are sucked back into the cycle. They both fail to grasp that permanent solution to the cycle of violence—one that dystopian literature almost never turns to—is Jesus Christ as the scapegoat to end all scapegoats.

If, according to Girard, Jesus’ death and the revelatory witness of the Gospels freed humans from the need for scapegoats, then the world already has the answer to dystopia. Unfortunately we have not, as a global community, fully grasped that answer or put it into action. At its core, then, dystopian literature personifies humanity’s ignorance, misunderstanding, or denial of the Christ event. According to dystopian ideas, our civilization is moving away from hope to destruction. According to the gospel, humanity is moving toward hope and reconciliation. With every realization of the cycle of violence, with every affirmation that Jesus is the scapegoat, with every conversion to Christ’s kingdom, we are moving closer to the truth that humans are meant for peace and unity, not violence and conflict. Dystopian literature may depict the very real violence that plagues the human race, but it must be classified as fiction because it does not describe the world we live in—a world that already has the true cure for violence and the answer to dystopia…Jesus Christ and his kingdom.


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______. Violent Origins. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987.
______ and J.-M. Ourgoulain and G. Lefort. Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Heim, S. Mark. “A Cross-Section of Sin: The Mimetic Character of Human Nature in Biological and Theological Perspective.” Pages 255-72 in Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspectives. Edited by Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004.
______. Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

Mack, Burton. “The Innocent Transgressor: Jesus in Early Christian Myth and History,” Semeia 33 (1985): 135-65.

Schwager, Raymund. “Christ’s Death and the Prophetic Critique of Sacrifice.” Semeia 33 (1985): 109-23.
_______. Must There Be Scapegoats? New York: Crossroad, 2000.

Williams, James G. The Bible, Violence, and the Sacred: Liberation from the Myth of Sanctioned Violence. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992.

______. “The Innocent Victim: René Girard on Violence, Sacrifice, and the Sacred.” Revue des sciences religieuses 14 (1988): 320-26.

1 The works most pertinent for this study are Deceit, Desire and the Novel (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1965); Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977); The Scapegoat (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986); Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987); Violent Origins (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987); and the most recent Evolution and Conversion: Dialogues on the Origin of Culture (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing, 2008).

2 René Girard, Mimesis and Theory: Essays on Literature and Criticism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), 246.

3 His analysis of these genres of literature appear throughout his body of work. See especially, René Girard, Critique dans un souterrain (Lausanne: L’Age d’Homme, 1976); “To Double Business Bound”: Essays on Literature, Mimesis, and Anthropology (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978); A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, Odeon (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); and Scapegoat.

4 Girard, Things Hidden, 19.

5 The idea that early humans developed a “radical mimetic capacity” to imitate others, form themselves from empathetic observance, and gravitate toward cultural formation corresponds with recent study on humans and cognitive development. See, e.g., S. Mark Heim, “A Cross-Section of Sin: The Mimetic Character of Human Nature in Biological and Theological Perspective,” in Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality in Biological and Religious Perspectives (ed. Philip Clayton and Jeffrey Schloss; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 255-72.

6 Here Girard takes Plato’s concept of imitation one step further, recognizing that it is not limited to mere representation but results in appropriation and eventual conflict. “It was Plato who determined once and for all the cultural meaning of imitation, but this meaning is truncated, torn from the essential dimension of acquisitive behavior, which is also the dimension of conflict” (Things Hidden, 8).

7 Girard provides an analysis of Levi-Strauss’ work on founding murder in Things Hidden, 105-12.

8 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 290.

9 Girard, Things Hidden, 23.

10 S. Mark Heim, Saved from Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 47.

11 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 4-192.

12 Girard, Things Hidden, 24.

13 The Greek term pharmakos refers to the ritual sacrifice offered up at the festival of Apollo in ancient Athens. Athenians chose this human scapegoat (or scapegoats) from the outcasts such as the crippled or the criminals and this death was thought to offer expiation for the people.

14 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 36.

15 Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 23.

16 Girard, Violent Origins, 145.

17 Girard discusses persecution texts, their characteristics, and their function within the realm of religious violence in Things Hidden, 126-38.

18 Burton Mack, “The Innocent Transgressor: Jesus in Early Christian Myth and History,” Semeia 33 (1985): 135-65 (140).

19 This is Schwager’s concise assessment of Girard on the OT (Must There Be Scapegoats? New York: Crossroad, 2000), 43.

20 Girard’s work displays a preference for the NT within the biblical canon and his interpretive focus within the NT is the Gospels. James G. Williams puts it this way: “for Girard there appears to be a threefold canon within the canon: within the Bible, the New Testament; within the New Testament, the Gospels; within the Gospels, certain teachings on love, forgiveness, and nonviolence, particularly the Sermon on the Mount" (“The Innocent Victim: René Girard on Violence, Sacrifice, and the Sacred,” RSR 14 [1988]: 320-26 [325]).

21 Girard, Things Hidden, 159. Girard’s exegesis here is insightful and adequately supports his universalizing of the words of Jesus. However, his comments also display a tendency to look for his own theory within the pages of Scripture. It is one thing to assert that Jesus’ accusation against the Pharisees here should be read as an accusation against more than just that religious group. It is quite another thing to insist that his words speak explicitly of all societies and all violence in history and that these words reveal the widespread sacred violence of Girard’s theory. No exegete coming to this passage without Girard’s theory in his mind would have made such an interpretive jump. Nevertheless, Girard’s interpretive practice is one to which many theologians and scholars succumb, and the fact that his theory colors his reading of the text does not preclude that his reading is valid nor does it render the insights he mines unusable.

22 Girard, “Gospel Passion,” 38.

23 According to Girard, Jesus is the cure to the need for scapegoats because his death in the Gospels reveals the workings of sacred violence, which only function while hidden (Things Hidden, 158-79).

24 One of the earliest appearances of the word “dys-topia” can be traced back to 1868, when John Stuart Mill uses it to describe projects that are “too bad to be practicable” (Collected Works, xxviii [1988], 248). Dystopian ideas have plagued humanity for much longer, however, because as long as there has been myth and literature there have been fears about evil places and evil people or creatures that threaten the peace and stability of humans.

25 Aptly named because it recalls the Latin phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses), employed to describe a political environment that appeases its populace with diversions and shallow entertainment instead of solid public policy and service.

26 The Hunger Games, 18-19

27 The rebellion of the districts can be classified as mimetic violence because, as Girard illustrates, violence is the easiest mimesis of all. Panem’s reign of terror, characterized by violence and hidden by ritual violence, taught it citizens that violence is the only way to gain control.

28 Catching Fire, 21.

29 Mockingjay, 377

30 Mockingjay, 379.

31 Gregory Claeys, “News from Somewhere: Enhanced Sociability and the Composite Definition of Utopia and Dystopia,” History (Apr 2013, Vol. 98, 145-173), 160.

32 Insurgent, 558.

33 Allegiant, 125.

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