George Floyd, Rene Girard’s “Founding Murder Theory” and The Point of No Return

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This is the post that I never wanted to write but knew that if I lived long enough, I would have to. In the person of George Floyd, it seems that the planet has received what Rene Girard would call its next “founding murder”.

I first learned about this idea of the founding murder from one of my seminary professors. In his examination of the meaning of the Cross in modern times entitled, Saved By What Shouldn’t Happen, Professor, S. Mark Heim talks about the human tendency to build community around a common enemy. Referencing the work of Anthropological Philosopher, Rene Girard, he invites the reader to consider that for millennia scapegoating was the essential framework around which cultures were built and their sustaining myths were established.

Girard goes so far as to say that central human myths are nothing other than transcriptions of the “founding murder” around which a community is formed, written from the point of view of the survivor. As the old saying goes, “History is written by the victor.” And as such, when this history is written, the victim’s story is so sanitized that future generations can barely recognize the crimes that have been perpetrated thus setting the stage for societies to repeat the patterns of violence around which their cultures were established.

However, when looking at Christianity, Girard observed that while there are many facets where these stories mirror many religious and cultural myths of their times, the writings of the Bible and the life of Jesus in particular, is the only tradition written largely from the point of view of the victims. And with Jesus, it is the only story where the scapegoat is aware that he is being scapegoated and rather than flee or defend himself accepts this human tendency and forgives the perpetrators thus inviting in the possibility of breaking the retribution cycle that binds many of us and prevents us from receiving or extending the healings and restorations we long for.

Ever since I learned about this theory, I have been on edge about when the next “founding murder” would take place that would force our hands to start making the societal changes that we all know are necessary for us to live into the ideals that we profess. With every unjust murder and subsequent protest, I have wondered, “Is this the one?” From time to time, I would even insert some of this theory into my sermons to start priming my community for when it happened. Because when it did I didn’t want this to be the first time they heard it. As pressure built in our country and as every video came out, I felt increasingly certain that we were getting closer. And I knew that when it did it would be unmistakable because we have now what past cultures never had–video. That means that the story can be told from the point of view of the victim. And that once their stories start being heard, they cannot be unheard.

From the place of my highest ideals, I believe that it is possible for humanity to get to a place where we no longer need scapegoats to keep our societies together. But we are not there yet. Just being honest, we often think of ourselves as being more evolved than ancient societies that made sacrifices of animals or people to the gods in order to appease their anger. But the reality is that we continue to do it everyday. Only now our gods our the economy, fashion, popularity, militarism, nationalism, etc.

Despite Christianity being on the scene for two millennia, we have yet to get the main point of the Jesus gift–that sacrifice is not required to commune with God and our neighbor in beloved community. The following scripture passages indicate this quite explicitly. As you can see, even before Jesus the awareness existed that God offers a relationship that transcends the scapegoating mechanisms that we have made the idols of our progress. Likewise, after Jesus’s earthly ministry, we have continued to hold on to those mechanisms. And in many instances, we have projected onto Jesus that he gave his life for our institutions.

Hosea 6:6

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

1 Samuel 15:22

And Samuel said, “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.

Psalm 51:16-17

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Mark 12:33

And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

Many other passages that express this idea that God doesn’t want, nor is God pleased by our sacrifices can be found here.

Why George Floyd?

Many people say that one of the reasons George Floyd’s murder had the global impact that it did was the length and the cruelty of the murder and that we was heard to call out to his mother as he realized that he was dying. In fact, it came out that some of his last words were, “Momma I love you. Tell my kids I love them. I’m dead.”

In his dying this way, the dam broke and the voices of the scapegoats began flooding into our consciousness and they started to put their wounds on display. When I preached this sermon, it was in part to raise the awareness that we still tend to do this–to make scapegoats of folks and find our salvation in what should never happen.

What Christ showed is that not everyone who shows their wounds is “playing the victim”. Sometimes showing our wounds is an invitation toward more compassionate awareness. It is redemptive vulnerability in service to those who have been lulled into spiritual, emotional, or relational complacency. Or who have otherwise stifled their conscience for a false sense of safety or simply were blissfully unaware. That’s why even in the teachings of the Bible that many claim as a source of inspiration, Jesus showed his wounds out of compassion for Thomas who could not believe without proof.

It has long been this way–that burden of proof is on the one who had endured the suffering. But blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.

No matter where people identify in the current system, this event will be a line of historic demarcation not unlike other moments in history. Now that we have had such a global response to this “founding murder”, there is no going back. We have come to the point of no return. The video is not going anywhere. The victims stories will now be a part of the historical arc. And now that it has occurred, whatever future we create will have to incorporate the voices that for too long have gone unheard.

The last words of George Floyd and Elijah McClain cry out.

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