Posted on March 25, 2017
A few Saturdays ago, my wife and I visited a local Muslim school that was hosting lunch as a way for neighbors to meet each other and to learn about Islam. The imam handled people’s questions with warmth, information, and humor. When asked whether Muslims felt that they had been mistreated in our area, he answered, “I wouldn’t say that we’ve been mistreated, but that we are misunderstood.” I thought that was a fine distinction, and one that the political mainstream seems increasingly incapable of making.
I want to write about this tendency on the part of the powerful to confuse umbrage with injustice, using two sources for my thinking: the anthropological philosophy of René Girard, and the worldview portrayed in the relatively recent movie God’s Not Dead. In short, what I want to discuss is what my friend James Stanescu has called “reverse scapegoating”: the claim made by those that scapegoat that they are the ones who have been scapegoated. It’s a rhetorically potent move, inasmuch as we have increasingly come to see victims as innocent, so if those who oppress the marginalized can make it appear as if they are victimized, then they retain the social authority to enforce the status quo. Crocodile tears: through feigning powerlessness, the powerful retain their entitlement to power.
I see this strategy at work in God’s Not Dead, which presents the situation of a straight white Protestant who can afford college as if he is one of the early martyrs being thrown to the lions in a Roman coliseum, just by virtue of taking an intro philosophy class. This is not played for laughs at all, but is portrayed as a young man’s courageous, lonely stand against the rising flood of a secular (read “atheist” (read “anticlerical”)) worldview that unfairly and aggressively suppresses the appreciation or even discussion of Christian views. This is a comparison made by a minor character warning the protagonist, Josh, upon seeing the cross he wears around his neck at an unnamed college in Louisiana—as though it would be a rarity in that setting for someone to dress that way. This is the first sign that the movie will trade in treating the norm as if it is the exception, and the exceptional as if it is normal.
For reasons that will become clear below, it matters that the college is unnamed but also in Louisiana. On the one hand, by being anonymous, the college is meant to stand in for any campus; we are to think that this is an artistic representation of academic persecution going on at college campuses everywhere, and by extension, a culture war between global forces of devout tradition and secular modernity. On the other hand, by being set in Louisiana, the movie hints at an equation of Christian faith with “the heartland” of the best country on earth, where plainspoken men and women possess a salt of the earth wisdom that ultimately triumphs over the shifty dissimulation of over-clever coastal elites.
In other words, over people like the villain, an atheist philosophy professor named Radisson. Radisson is persistently sarcastic, proudly struts his authority in the classroom, and joins his snobby atheist academic friends in berating the former student he’s dating for being a Christian and for serving a bad bottle of wine. He is an entitled jerk whose sole redeeming feature is that he only acts this way out of embittered childhood frustration with God’s failure to heal his terminally ill mother. He’s a commanding presence in this movie, thanks in large part to the acting skills of Kevin Sorbo, who imbues the role with as much subtle pathos as the ham-fisted script can allow. It’s Radisson who sets the plot in motion by demanding on the first day of class that students write “God is dead” on a sheet of paper, or else they will get a zero for a 30% portion of the class. Josh refuses to declare God dead and challenges Radisson to debate the subject—for fear that earning a maximum of a C in one class will “wreck his GPA” (these are the stakes taken to be equivalent to Roman persecution)—and aims to vindicate Christianity by “putting God on trial” in these classroom debates.
Radisson and Josh thereby form bowdlerized versions of Ivan and Alyosha in this C-grade version of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. These “arguments” consist largely in trading back and forth decontextualized quotations that name-drop competing authorities, until Josh emerges (by class vote) as the victor. Aside from a few scenes where he burns the midnight oil and gets in arguments with his vapid girlfriend (who dumps him for this grandstanding), Josh never goes through anguish; there’s never a scene where Josh seriously feels the weight of the possibility that there may be no God. It should be clear by this point that Josh is a cipher, a Mr. Everyman unburdened by existential crisis or any concern for people Jesus called “the least of these.” We never see or even hear about any family members Josh might have. Aside from the flakey girlfriend, he has no ties, no kith, no kin. Unlike Radisson, he has no surname. These relational and historical ties do not matter for the movie’s project, and indeed their absence allows Josh to take on the character of the universal subject—on the understanding, of course, that everybody is supposed to see themselves in a young, straight, white, middle class American man.
It’s here that we’re beginning to see what the movie is about, and why it matters that it’s set in Louisiana. The existential question of God’s nonexistence is not actually what the movie is about, nor is the movie interested in parsing the multifarious dimensions of what secularity, interfaith dialogue, rationality, or even Christianity can mean. Set aside the fact that every philosophy department teaches a course in the history of modern philosophy where practically every author, from Descartes to Kant, was a Christian (with the exception of Hume and, depending on who you ask, Spinoza). Set aside the fact that every atheist philosopher I’ve met is interested in teaching students how to think rather than what to think, and I’ve never heard even anecdotal evidence of professors insisting their students become atheists in order to pass a portion of the class, as the movie displays (and implies to be normalized). For all their errors those portrayals are actually a fig leaf for what the movie is really about, and only one discussion of the movie I’ve come across has seen it.
The movie is actually about validating the white establishment in America and coming to its defense. It is telling that one of the minor characters is a student from China—where there is actual persecution against Christians—yet he remains a minor character even after he converts. He is simply there to underscore our white protagonist’s bona fides, as are the two other people of color with names in the movie. One of them is a perpetually smiling reverend from an unnamed country in Africa, who embodies the stereotype of the “Magical Negro” to the hilt, visiting a white pastor whose surfer haircut and cool bracelets briefly disguise the fact that he is marginally less milquetoast than Josh. I will let you guess which of these two, the reverend or the pastor, the movie lavishes with more time, attention, and characterization. Like the student from China, the reverend is simply there to assure the white pastor that his comfortable life is just as godly. The third non-white character is a young student of unspecified Middle Eastern descent, whose brutish Muslim father forces her to wear a hijab, which she explains as “old-fashioned” and takes off at every available opportunity, such as when she cries to the baffled white pastor after he father disowns her for being secretly Christian. (In this tidy equivalence of a headscarf with Islam, one gets the sense that it’s been a while since the filmmakers attended a Greek Orthodox church.) Despite the fact that her father has beaten her and kicked her out of the home simply for being Christian—leaving aside how implausible that is—we never find out whether she cobbles together a new home life, or sticks by her faith despite this hardship. The real struggle, we are to believe, is Josh staring down the humiliation of a C in one class his first semester, a matter that he has decided to make public.
James described the movie to me as “a Tarantino revenge flick,” and I’m hard-pressed to disagree: every atheist in the movie either dies or gets a death sentence by the end. The movie is not really interested in exploring what it means to be a Christian—the faith is ahistorically portrayed as homogenous in the invisibly sectarian way that “nondenominational” (evangelical) Christianity tends to claim—because it defines itself negatively, over against an Enemy that does not really exist. In this movie’s universe, we can identify with Manichean ease who the believers are and who the infidels are. A blogger for “The New Left” drives a car with a vegetarian bumper sticker, so we instantly know she is a liberal and therefore an atheist—and lo and behold, her first words are embittered invective against Willie Robertson, the celebrity from Duck Dynasty who attributes his worldly success to God’s favor. He wears an American flag as a bandana so we know he’s patriotic and therefore conservative and therefore devout—and lo and behold, he soon quotes Scripture about the need to acknowledge Jesus before men in order to be acknowledge oneself before God, which is “simple” without exegesis or existential grappling.
The faith of each character is interchangeable with his; no Christians ever dispute over the meaning of any verse or what the right response to any situation is. For instance, there are no Catholics in this movie; they simply don’t exist in its universe. The protagonist invokes Georges Lemaître, who proposed the theory of the Big Bang, but refers to him as “a theist,” totally erasing over the fact that he was a Catholic priest. Even when citing a priest’s scientific discoveries as proof of God’s existence, the movie has to regard Catholics as not being real Christians, which should tell you something. This massification comes to a head in the movie’s denouement, which is Willie Robertson’s message at a packed Christian rock concert that if they love Jesus then they’ll show it by going into their cell phones and texting everyone in their contacts that “God’s not dead.” In case it wasn’t clear enough, the movie repeats this with a title card at the end, and indeed, the movie is more of a marketing campaign based on a meme than a film with an artistic vision that proceeds out of lived experience. If the movie ignores subtleties and finer points of theology and the messiness of concrete practice, if it steamrolls praxis under dogma, it is because its real goal is to mobilize, and so it is no accident that in the process it creates a mob.
The irony is that what motivates mob mentality—and gives urgency or even a semblance of rationality to its capacity to erupt into collective violence—is the latent fear that we are losing our individuality. It is here that Girard makes the first of many startling claims in his masterpiece, The Scapegoat: despite what we might think, it is not difference that the intolerant fear, but sameness. This is what Girard calls “the crisis of undifferentiation”; it is the anxiety that we are losing what makes us special. As an anthropologist, Girard notes that every culture takes itself to be sophisticated, to already respect all respectable differences, and to be fine with those who are different so long as they stay over there.
To illustrate this, take the current discourse of neo-Nazis and how they say they do not want genocide but simply an all-white “ethnostate.” First of all, note the fact that displacing all people of color would amount to genocide. What are neo-Nazis so afraid of that they would propose something so heinous? They fear that immigration means “we” are losing what’s special about America, and the fear there is that a person of color could be their neighbor, or marry their sibling, or teach their children. Their xenophobia is a fear that it may become hard to tell the difference between those who are “white” and those who aren’t. The fuzzy boundaries of who does and does not count as “white” deeply dismay and alarm them; I imagine they would dislike hearing that at one time the Irish were not counted as “white,” since the question of whether Jews are “white” brought them to schism. Girard’s theory allows us to see the irrationality behind this and other modern forms of intolerance that take the form of the question, “Why can’t they be tolerant like us?”
Out of this anxiety to distinguish ourselves, Girard argues, we latch onto small and irrational differences as though they hold monumental significance: think about the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, or between the Hutus and the Tutsis in Rwanda. As an elaboration of Freud’s idea of “the narcissism of minor differences,” Girard tries to probe into why societies work so hard to contradistinguish themselves from people who are so similar to them, even to the point of arbitrarily selecting a victim and taking that victim’s oppression to be socially necessary. This is why we are so easily swept up into mob violence—because the continuation of society itself appears to be at stake, threatened by the scapegoat.
The signs that indicate a victim’s selection result not from the difference within the system but from the difference outside the system, the potential for the system to differ from its own difference, in other words not to be different at all, to cease to exist as a system. This is easily seen in the case of physical disabilities. The human body is a system of anatomic differences. If a disability, even as the result of an accident, is disturbing, it is because it gives the impression of a disturbing dynamism. It seems to threaten the very system. Efforts to limit it are unsuccessful; it disturbs the differences that surround it. These in turn become monstrous, rush together, are compressed and blended together to the point of destruction. Difference that exists outside the system is terrifying because it reveals the truth of the system, its relativity, its fragility, and its mortality.
This is why scapegoating flares up in times of social crisis, when the traditional categories and distinctions start breaking down; society as we know it appears to be grinding to a halt. We start grasping at straws and pointing fingers, not so much because we lack the intellectual capacity to investigate into the actual cause of social ills, but because of an irrational and zealous conviction that somebody must pay. Again, it is not so much ideological superstition that motivates scapegoating, for that does not explain the bizarre and potent fervor that makes the superstition so attractive to begin with.
Instead, it is the crisis of undifferentiation, and this in turn rests on what Girard calls “mimetic desire.” Human beings have to be taught how to desire, Girard thinks, and we learn what we want and how to want by mimicking the desires of others. Think of how you can go all day without eating, perhaps without it even occurring to you that you are hungry, and the moment you see someone eating fried pickles you think, “Oh, that looks good.” It suddenly hits you that you are hungry, and have a specific hankering for something you normally wouldn’t choose. Our mimeticism naturally leads us to want fungible goods that cannot be shared, and thus we come into conflict. Or, even when from a rational perspective it is perfectly clear that we can share goods, each of us want to be the only person to have that. Think about how a child will steal another child’s toy even though he already has one identically like it.
My way of glossing the crisis of undifferentiation is to think of it in terms of a profoundly distressing question: who am I if I’m not the only person to want this? Rather than limit my desires or find some other way to feel special, it is easier to deflect my attention away from this crisis of identity, and to try eliminating the person who is an obstacle to my desire. This is why we so often get into heated arguments or come to blows with our best friends, our siblings, our fellows. This is why, at the climax of so many action movies, the villain says something along the lines of, “We’re not so different, you and I.” That truth is too horrible to think about for too long; no wonder the hero has to kill the villain immediately afterwards. According to Girard, this is why so many myths tell tales of siblings (such as Cain and Abel)—or even more to his point, twins (such as Romulus and Remus)—murdering each other.
In point of fact, according to Girard, it is precisely this kind of groundless murder that all civilizations (not just Rome) are founded upon. Our institutions are waist-deep in blood we take to be necessary to have shed. There are bones in the foundations we have forgotten about. Mimeticism leads to a cycle of violence and retribution, but if there is a scapegoat, that temporarily relieves the pressure internal to mimeticism because we take the victim to be the cause of our conflict. For a time, order is restored and things actually do get better. But then mimetic desire triggers the crisis of undifferentiation again, thereby “necessitating” the selection of another victim. Over time, this pattern can become ritualized and taken as necessary for maintaining cosmic balance—and that is precisely what sacrifice is, according to Girard, and why every society has engaged in animal (or even human) sacrifice somewhere down the line in its history.
Witches in Salem, Jews in Nazi Germany, Japanese-Americans during WWII, communists during the Red Scare, immigrants from some (but not all) majority-Muslim countries—who the scapegoats are changes, but the social mechanism of scapegoating remains even in “advanced” societies. The story about what the scapegoat is guilty of is secondary, which is why the causal connection between the victim and the social crisis can be so tenuous or arbitrary. The zeal for sacrifice continues even today in the aforementioned conviction that somebody must pay, even when there is no real harm that has been done; mimeticism means we go out in search of insults we can interpret as injury, precisely to have somebody we can pin our frustrations upon.
I believe this is where we came in.
God’s Not Dead is seething with the fervor of mimetic violence. It’s not enough that atheists be proven wrong; they have to die for the narrative to achieve the closure it seeks. It’s as though atheism—which, in this evangelical milieu, is synonymous with intellectualism and progressivism—is a mortal sin, and the wages of sin is death. Christ’s sacrifice was somehow not sufficient for all humankind, and instead must keep on being repaid, on account of the anxiety instilled by the idea that America is losing what’s made it special, what’s made it supreme among all nations: a Christianity hazardously and appallingly equivalent to white supremacism, as James Cone has brilliantly pointed out. We should ask ourselves whether it’s accidental that Richard Spencer makes the same equation the movie makes, where in spite of saying that he does not believe in God, he identifies himself as “a cultural Christian.” Within this scapegoating perspective, people of color cannot count as real Christians, for “real Christians” and “the real America” are one and the same. What else can explain how a Christian could watch this movie and not be disgusted by its dehumanizing and violent attitude toward the heathens, other than that it is an exercise in self-validation in the face of an Enemy who poses no real threat? From a Girardian perspective, Americans thirst for rituals that reenact and lend justification to its murderous origins, and the popularity of God’s Not Dead speaks to this false need.
According to Girard, the logic of the persecution text becomes more complex over time, as the untenable and irrational nature of the scapegoat mechanism is slowly but surely becoming more apparent throughout history. Whereas before, people could be “naïve persecutors” who saw nothing wrong in lynching a scapegoat, now people have a greater awareness that victims of mob violence can be innocent. In order to persist, the scapegoat mechanism has to become more subtle to accommodate this dawning awareness. My hypothesis is that reverse scapegoating is a reactionary stance, taken up in response to the universal truth of universal inclusivity. It’s no accident that the Enemy of God’s Not Dead is a horde of progressives. The reverse scapegoating of recent decades of Pat Buchanan’s self-declared “culture wars” inform the political context of this movie: the real victims are conservatives, and the truly intolerant ones are liberals.
Girard’s account of the demonic sheds light on what makes reverse scapegoating possible. Following the classic Augustinian formulation of evil as the privation of the good all the way to its logical conclusion, Girard holds that Satan is not an entity that actually exists. Instead, “Satan” is name for the spirit of accusation that permeates the political establishment and underwrites its imperialist logic, which explains why Satan is described as “the prince of this world.” Since evil is parasitic upon the good, the scapegoating mentality cannot exist apart from those it possesses (indeed, Girard reads demonic possession this way), and it takes the form of divisiveness that inflames and rationalizes mimetic rivalry. Because our political institutions have not yet internalized the spirit of universal inclusivity that Christ taught, the kingdom of God has yet to be realized, and is beset on all sides by the kingdoms of this world that it challenges. Because Christianity teaches that we are no longer to think of anyone as an Enemy of God, it takes away the self-imposed zeal for persecution that has defined all society hitherto, and thus poses a “threat” to those who crave a threat so that they can keep on craving, and not share space and resources (or think of everyone as their neighbor). Christianity’s internal logic is to be at “war” with the very idea that the nature of reality is war, and so it is not accidental but essential that Christianity is pacifist. One shares this message not through the forceful indoctrination of the missionary (so hard to distinguish from the imperialist), beating the unwashed heathens over the head with a blunt dictum, but through the unforced force of living the Way (John 13:35).
The culture wars of Pat Buchanan and God’s Not Dead undermine this idea that we do not need an Enemy, for they would not know how to make America or Christianity great without some threat that is implicitly in the way of making both great again. It must demonize in order to conceive of itself as angelic; it must reverse scapegoat in order to buy its sense of grace on the cheap. (Indeed, at no point in the movie does any Christian offer any substantial help to anyone else; they all simply engage in virtue signaling.) A supremacist society cannot stand an affront to its supremacy, and it uses this as pretext to dominate new lands and markets. As Girard puts it, “To adore Satan is to aspire to world domination.” This warmongering attitude is implicit in the normalized violence of the stance toward gun ownership taken by “real Americans,” represented again by Willie Robertson as he defends his hunting lifestyle in front of the shrewish leftie reporter. This zeal for a culture war comes out most strikingly in a scene where Radisson briskly stalks up behind Josh in a hallway after class, slaps a hand on his shoulder, and whirls him around to practically hiss in his face, “In that classroom, there is a God, and I’m him! I’m also a jealous God, so do not try to humiliate me in front of my students!”
Only out of a demonizing spirit that needs an adversary would it strike anybody as plausible that an experienced and well-educated atheist would care enough about a freshman’s unoriginal objections that they would resort to violence and blackmail, at his workplace and in public view, just to silence them. While this scene is admittedly fictional, the movie’s final move is to provide a title card enumerating court cases of secular “condemnation” of Christians, to drive home the message that what you’ve seen might as well be real, that it dramatizes a real and ongoing persecution. Yet in almost every case listed, we find exaggeration or outright fabrication.
It is at that moment that the movie reveals its true message: to varying degrees of one-dimensionality, its characters are there simply to prop up the mechanism of reverse scapegoating. From a Girardian perspective, the movie engages in the very kind of demonic behavior it attributes to Radisson’s dimestore Miltonic rebellion. It is a movie possessed by the spirit of the Accuser. God’s Not Dead is of the devil.
 This movie passed up the opportunity to clarify whether minoritarian agitation and intersectional analyses reduplicate or overcome previous debates regarding the favorability of a united front or a popular front. I for one was really hoping to hear more about the shortcomings of class-only/class-first leftism.
 René Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 21
 Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 196
 Girard, The Scapegoat, pp. 189-190: “Jesus speaks as if the satanic principle had used up its force for order and as if all social order would henceforth succumb to its own disorder. …The reason lies in the fact that the violence of the cultural order is revealed in the Gospels…and the cultural order cannot survive such a revelation. Once the basic mechanism is revealed, the scapegoat mechanism, that expulsion of violence by violence, is rendered useless by the revelation. It is no longer of interest. The interest of the Gospels lies in the future offered mankind by this revelation, the end of Satan’s mechanism. The good news is that scapegoats can no longer save men, the persecutors’ accounts of their persecutions are no longer valid, and truth shines into dark places. God is not violent, the true God has nothing to do with violence, and he speaks to us not through distant intermediaries but directly. The Son he sends us is one with him. The Kingdom of God is at hand.”
 Ibid., p. 196
 With his prominent beard, his lifestyle in the wilderness, his homespun wisdom, as well as his giant face enjoining the faithful to mobilize the godly message at the rock concert, I am beginning to think Willie Robertson is this movie’s John the Baptist.