Rene Girard and Franciscan Consciousness

Rene Girard and Franciscan Consciousness: An Overview of His Mimetic Theory

Kevin Michael Tortorelli, O.F.M.


There is no limit to desire. No object satisfies it. Of two desires it can be said that one desires something because the other desires the same thing. One desire imitates (mimesis) the other in desiring the same thing. Desiring is essentially imitative. This acquisitive desire endows the object with its desirability and engenders rivalry and tension between the two desires for the same object. This stress is dissolved by being discharged on a victim common to both desires. The victim becomes a scapegoat and the tension between the two desires for the same object dissolves. Without the scapegoat desire leads to violence.

The scapegoat may bear the burden of great evil or it may be consecrated so that its death brings peace and the light of civilization. The death of the scapegoat brings us both destruction and blessing, humiliation and exaltation, curse and salvation. The scapegoat illumines the sacral and the holy. The gods demand revenge and victims. They accept sacrifice that honors them and in return they grant peace and stability. Religious ritual safeguards the selection of a victim as scapegoat to be sacrificed to the divine wrath and violence.

The whole mechanism of sacrifice is only exposed with finality in Jesus. He unveils the nature of the 'sacral' as the violence spawned by the clash of desires whose sacrificial mechanism (scapegoating) the sacral would keep hidden from view. The cross of Christ can only be considered sacrifice in the sense of sacrifice as self-surrender in love. Otherwise the older notion of ritual sacrifice lays hold on the cross of Christ, introducing it as the repeated means by which to placate a god who requires violence. The unveiling of the mechanism of sacrifice exposes the nature of power in terms of violence, destruction and murder. When vengeance and scapegoating fail, they become in us resentment and self-wounding. But this is the drama of history because the power of the sacrificial mechanism wishes to lie hidden. In the 20th century, eg., it took the form of the pseudo-sacral apparatus of Nazism whose chief scapegoat was the Jew and which amassed violence and death against the Jew on a monumental scale.[1]

Such is a brief look at the thought of Rene Girard. The conclusions on offer here are pointed. All religion owes its existence to the covert scapegoat mechanism and in this form all religions are the invention of Satan. In particular all desire imitates another's desire and these two desires lead repeatedly to a dangerous tension that is siphoned off only by means of the scapegoat mechanism.

Within his analysis Girard identifies desire as acquisitive because it wants an object contested by two desires. Acquisitive desire turns into rivalry, envy and sets up the sacrificial mechanism. Acquisitive desire embarks on a course of violence. These are high stakes since it is through the envy of the devil that death entered the world (Wis 2:24) yet acquisitive desire eventually identifies God as envious of us and makes God an idol of sacral violence. In the end acquisitive desire is corrupted desire that bankrupts us. Acquisitive desire is massively deceived. So much so that its deception is synonymous with sin.

Agape as Nonacquisitive Desire

Sacred violence and deformed desire must be redeemed. “Just as the deforming act of desire produced a system of violence based on rivalry, so the reforming act of God produces a system of nonviolence based on love.”[2] The alternative to the conspiracy of the sacral deception does not lie in the individual but in a community where desire is redeemed from its acquisitiveness into a desire whose model is God's agape love in Christ. In the Gospel of Mark, this new community is the community of the scapegoat Christ, centered on the symbol of Jesus embracing the little child (Mk 9: 36-37). In this account the disciples are locked in acquisitive envy over which of them is the greatest. To these words Jesus counters that he would be first must be last and servant of all like this child. Receiving the child rather than expelling a person is the mark of the new community freed from mimetic rivalry in which the winner expels the loser or makes him a slave to his master. This new community can receive the would-be victim who has no power or prestige, only weakness and worth nothing. In doing so we receive Jesus and the Father who sent Him.

Agape is the good mimesis because it allows one to love the neighbor as oneself. One loves oneself in the neighbor who is no longer an obstacle, no longer the other desire I imitate in the levels of violence. It is the same agape love that leads one to belong to Christ by crucifying the flesh with its passions and {acquisitive} desires (Gal 5:24). Love of God and neighbor undoes the sacral violence of the sacrificial mechanism of religion. Agape leads one to the renunciation of acquisitive desire and the envy, tragedy and idolatry to which it inexorably leads. In its place agape reveals that one exists as the image of God in the world. As the image of God in the world one sees that one's very existence is entirely dependent on unlimited agape, the sustaining love of God. Agape reveals its own desire for us as a total giving. In it there is nothing acquisitive. It is faith that teaches this truth.

Nowadays there is a great deal of violence. It is all around us. We may find it within us. In the death of Jesus the gospel proclaims the innocence of the crucified victim and exposes the founding lie of sacred violence represented in the temple and its sacrificial cult. The alternative is to see that the antidote to sacred violence is to identify with the sacrificial victim. One consequence of this unveiling of the truth of the victim of sacred violence is the encouragement to avoid rivalry and envy by honoring humility. And humility conforms us to Christ's suffering and death, His great self-emptying, the antidote to mimetic rivalry and its fierce violence.

Franciscan Consciousness

One need not accept the whole of Girard's oeuvre to cast its light on Franciscan consciousness. One can begin with a renunciation of the elements exposed by mimetic theory. Mimetic acquisitive desire is destructive. It leads to rivalry, envy, idolatry, self-destruction. It justifies violence as a religious duty. Mimetic rivalry exposes power as violent and always seeking the vulnerable as scapegoat. Mimetic rivalry has lost sight of the once for all significance of the cross where agape stands above power represented in the instrumenta mortis, the Roman squad, the general mockery. In the form of idolatrous sacred violence, mimetic rivalry may masquerade as political peace and stability, patriotism and moral righteousness that is built on violent scapegoating and marginalizing. Renunciation begins with some understanding of the reality and functioning of acquisitive desire in myself and in communities that are significant to me and which I appreciate and value. Renunciation welcomes the truth that all I am, my entire existence, depends on Agape love and is sustained by it. I renounce mimetic rivalry and embrace my existence as bearing the image of God in the world. Francis comes to mind here. The former soldier and knight had been a prisoner of war in Perugia after the battle of Collestrada (November, 1202) where one imagines he saw the horrors of war. He quickly came to renounce this violence, a sign that he had been set free from acquisitive desire and mimetic rivalry.

Friendship is the bond between one and the scapegoat victim, a bond that exposes the power of the scapegoat mechanism. Invariably the scapegoat victim is weak and vulnerable. Compassion for the victim is the particular virtue of this friendship. Being free from the scapegoat mechanism can have extraordinary effects because one is freed from the rivalry of 'us and them.' I think of Francis and the early friars and their commitment to lepers and to peace with Muslims, living among them as lesser brothers. One notes here the expansiveness and breadth of this commitment to friendship in contrast to the narrow divisiveness and scornful envy born of mimetic rivalry. In his freedom from the scapegoat mechanism it did not take Francis long to leave the world of the scapegoat mechanism. In penance and conversion Francis leaves the realm of sacred violence that needed the leper victim. He passed into the nonviolence of the Lord Jesus. The friars, the penitents from Assisi, preached against acquisitive desire in their appeal to a joyful, simple life and to penance that expressed freedom from the violence that was rife in medieval society. The Secular Franciscan movement is born here. In the Third Order Rule of 1221 they are not to take up arms against anyone. Thus the Third Order embodies a non-violent policy in society. The Franciscan experience is a growing sense that peace is our gift to the world.

Where there is reconciliation mimetic rivalry has been exposed as dark and harmful and so forsworn. Kissing the leper opened the path to being reconciled to Francis' own fears of contagion and loss of place in the social status of Assisi. The prejudices that characterized the mimetic rivalry of his whole culture were likewise cast off. Francis knew Christ returned the leper's kiss at La Verna. Grace is extraordinary. Its wisdom teaches that genuine and authentic power comes through weakness, a great treasure that lies in earthen vessels. Earthen vessels are invited to a mimetic identification with Christ in his death. This mimetic identification with Him takes shape in agape love for each other and for agape knowledge of each other. This knowledge reconciles knowledge proper to mimetic rivalry, a knowledge that despised the weakness of victim Jesus. In this reconciliation we no longer know Christ or each other 'after the flesh.' Of this healthy mimesis Paul said, Be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1Cor 11:1). Many of us would add here a healthy imitation of Francis, the little poor man of no account.

On La Verna the Lord invited Francis to imitate him as victim, to share with Jesus the victim's experience of contempt and rejection. So Celano (1Cel 95) will say of the encounter, the crucified servant of the crucified Lord. Christ the victim is marked by the lethal wounds of crucifixion and the spear thrust. The sight of Him empowers passers-by to play their part in requiring the death of the scapegoat that preserves the order of sacral violence and all its forms and patterns. Francis did not meet Christ the disfigured victim with contempt but with love. Therefore the sacrificial, scapegoat mechanism breaks open on La Verna.[3] Francis accepted the marked victim. He so identified with the wounded victim Christ that the. signs of the scapegoat mechanism were transferred into Francis' own body. This is Francis' union with Christ the abandoned victim whose body was torn by unspeakable violence out of love for us. It is a union with Him who became the sin of the world, the poor victim who must die. On La Verna Francis embodies the love that broke the scapegoating mechanism – See my hands and my feet that it is I myself (Lk 24:39), the words of the Risen Lord. Francis imitates Jesus by bearing in his body the death of Jesus that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our bodies (2 Cor 4:10).


Rene Girard has developed a far reaching analysis based on the effects of acquisitive desire and mimetic rivalry. These account for the vast structure of power, its deep foundations in the human spirit, its architecture of strife and conflict, its world of envy and hate, its contempt for the weak, its preservation at the cost of the destruction of the victim. It is a breath taking analysis that weighs heavily on the mind and burdens the spirit.

The crisis can only be met by agape love lived and revealed to us in the Lord Jesus. Agape love replaces the darkness of a conflicted world with the light of the new creation in Christ. This new creation shines among us. I believe Girard's analysis deeply illumines the life of our holy father Francis. Francis embodies the passage from the world of acquisitive desire and mimetic rivalry as up and coming cloth merchant and would be knight to a world of joy in the victim, in nonviolence and in the cross of Jesus. In Francis agape love lets us see the effects of its presence in our lives as Franciscans, in the Church and the world. Thanks to Rene Girard we see these effects because we have come to understand them in an analysis that enlarges our consciousness.


[1]The foregoing remarks on Rene Girard are taken from Hans Urs Von Balthasar, ”Soteriology: A Historical Outline”, in Theodrama: Theological Dramatic Theory. IV The Action, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 298-308.

[2] Robert G. Hammerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence Puul's Hermeneutic of the Cross (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Augsburg, 1992), 161. Also see his The Gospel and The Sacred Poetics of Violence in Mark (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Augsburg, 1994).

[3] “Henceforth let no one trouble me; for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” (Gal 6:17).


Kevin Tortorelli is a 74 years old Franciscan of the Order of Friars Minor. Born in Boston, MA, he holds degrees from the Washington Theological Union, St Bonaventure University, Boston College and has done research at St Edmund's College, Cambridge, UK. He has taught Religious Studies and Classical languages at Siena College, Loudonville, NY. His chief interests lie in Patristics and in the thought of Bernard Lonergan and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Presently he lives in St Petersburg, FL, in happy semi-retirement. He has written two books and published a little over two dozen articles.