“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Humans are mimetic creatures: we learn by images and imitation. This is nothing new. Aristotle identified it, Saint Thomas Aquinas built from it, and René Girard pioneered his grand theory of violence and the sacred from it. As Christianity declines, the human impulse for transcendence and the yearning for unity, solidarity, and community remain, but we are now seeing a full-throated return of thyia in all its (un)holy horror and terror.
In his magnum opus, Violence and the Sacred, René Girard undertook a breathtaking analysis of human nature, religion, politics, and psychology. As do most scholars both secular and religious, Giraud argued that religion is one of the primary vehicles for communal and political unity. However, Girard argued that the rifts that divide humans were never truly healed in the false unity offered by ancient religious rites and practices. The unanimity created in religious ritual is epiphenomenal. It is a mere byproduct of collective frenzy through mimesis—imitation of the rage that united most against the scapegoat. “Unity” was temporarily achieved when all participated in acts of collective violence against the scapegoat in order to bring some degree of (false) healing and unity to the community. Rinse and repeat.
Girard also argued that Jesus of Nazareth and the new religion of Christianity truly did bring about a transvaluation (but in a good way, contra Nietzsche). Jesus forgives his killers, thus opening us to “the better angels of our nature” as we imitate the sacrificial victim in forgiveness. Reconciliation through forgiveness heals, not the act of collectively participating in violence.