The Hebrews were the “first nation,” but Christianity presided over the emergence of the first nation-states, which combined a national government with a universal religion whose “kingdom was not of this world.” The strength of Western Judeo-Christianity came from its rejection of what Eric Voegelin called “compactness,” the sacralization of political structures and the deification of emperors. In the Judeo-Christian universe, the politico-economic order of the world was accepted in its necessity, but all human relations, including political ones, were subject to moral criteria. The genius of Christianity was to separate the egalitarian principle of reciprocal morality from the “tribal” originarity of Judaism as well as from the hierarchical organization necessary in any society beyond the stage of hunting and gathering. René Girard’s notion of emissary victimage as the foundation of human society captures the anthropological monism of the Christian social vision. In Girard’s reading, Jesus’ abandonment by Paul and the disciples was the sign that all humanity outside his immediate family had turned against him at the moment of his agony. What this means is that the differences between slaves and freemen, Romans and Jews, rich and poor, are irrelevant to assigning guilt for the Crucifixion and irrelevant to the redemption that it effects. The Crucifixion resolves a “mimetic crisis” that engulfs the entire society, swallowing up the resentments that separate ranks, classes, races, and genders in a universal rage that can be satisfied only by the sacrifice of a “chosen” victim. Jesus’ divinity is demonstrated by his election for this role; or in purely anthropological terms, by occupying the place of the victim, he becomes divine.
The redemptive vision of Christianity sees the whole society, and in principle, all humanity, as a great fraternity united by its participation in original sin and in Jesus’ forgiveness, in the context of which the indignities of slavery and other forms of human subordination are transcended. For the Christian, individual human dignity is independent of social status. In this vein, Clarence Thomas recently made the point that slaves even before the Emancipation did not lack human dignity, an idea crucial to the earliest phase of Christianity in an era when slavery was ubiquitous. (Characteristically, Thomas’ assertion was harshly criticized—in crudely racist terms—by a representative of victimary thought.)
Thus the hierarchies that ruled Christian societies responded to the “Caesarian” necessities of social organization while respecting otherworldly Christian morality in principle. The evolution from agricultural to industrial society unique to the Christian West was dependent on the secondary nature of these necessities. These societies never fundamentally denied the equality of souls before God, although this doctrine was stretched to its limit in slavery and many colonial practices. Indeed, the very excesses of racism are a backhanded tribute to this conviction of the equality of souls; it is easier to claim that Africans or Amerindians are “inferior races” than to accept slavery or dispossession as a practice among ontological equals, such as, we tend to forget, was unproblematically the case in antiquity—or in premodern Africa, which was, as we also prefer to forget, the original source of the “slave trade.” Prosper Mérimée’s1829 novella Tamango is a brilliant literary exposition of the paradox of the African slave-trader.
It is a tribute to Christianity that although it countenanced these moral compromises it was never wholly comfortable with them. But the Holocaust laid any further compromise open to unqualified condemnation. It is worth reflecting further on why the apocalypse that prepared the crisis of Christianity was precipitated, not by the moral conflicts entailed by such activities as slavery and colonialism, but by the fear of Jewish firstness. That so many in Christian nations could have believed the Jews to have dominated and corrupted the Christian inventions, deeply influenced by Old-Testament models, of the free market and liberal democracy was the beginning of the crisis of the modern West.
The Holocaust not only provoked the end of colonialism and segregation, and ultimately the rise of feminism and gay liberation, but concomitantly provided the stimulus for the West’s moral dissolution in White Guilt, a guilt that Christ cannot forgive because his own Western “whiteness” makes his forgiveness unavailing. Once the de jure classification of human beings became unacceptable, any difference of outcome among ascriptive groups came to be judged as well by the model of the Nazis and the Jews. The vision of a universal brotherhood of souls that had birthed the success of the West came to be seen as a mask of oppression. Just as the Jews had been the model of the victim-people, the “suffering servant” that became incarnated in Jesus, so they provided the model for the new victimage, which was focused not on social hierarchy per se but on ascriptive difference. There were henceforth nothing but Nazis and Jews—and by a strange yet in retrospect inevitable twist of fate, the latter did not take long to become the “new Nazis.”
The old antisemitism had found in the Jews convenient scapegoats. But the great Christian insight, restored to its central place by Girard, was that the scapegoat is really God. Those who executed Jews for having murdered Christian children were blind to the fact that to accuse the Jews of creating martyrs was really to make martyrs of the Jews, that the martyred Jew rather than his purported victim was the figure of Christ that Saul saw on the road to Damascus.
But whereas these ironic miscarriages of justice disfigured but did not yet put in question the Christian drama of sin and redemption, the Jew’s fancied central position in market society cast doubt upon the entire project of Christian-secular, that is, Western, modernity. Because the Jews formed a community centered like the Christian on a universal God, yet retained toward him a relation of historical firstness, they were fancied capable of constituting a secret compactness within the market that allowed them to transcend the laws of supply and demand. But if the Jewish community could take advantage of the social organization supplied by otherworldly Christian morality to subvert its fraternity of free souls, then the eternal possibility of Jewish defection, by guaranteeing a negative outcome to the market-system’s “prisoners’ dilemma,” fatally undermined modern bourgeois society.
Bourgeois-era societies—France, Germany, Russia, Austria—boiled over in antisemitic frenzy, leading at last to the Final Solution. “Eliminatory antisemitism” sought to purify Western civilization of Jewish firstness and the Christian envy of it once and for all. Whether or not the Nazis were “really” Christians, when in Mein Kampf, Hitler called combating the Jew “doing God’s work,” he was clearly seeking to cleanse the God he had inherited from Judeo-Christianity of what he understood to be the fatal flaw in the Christian project. No doubt the Nazis rejected the Christian doctrine of the universal equality of souls. But in their eyes, master and slave races would get along just fine as Aristotelian “natural kinds”—once they were rid of the Jews.
Those who promote White Guilt will be happy to point out that the very horror inspired by the Holocaust benefits from “white privilege,” which makes us focus on this particular genocide (assuming it is not simply denied) while treating as minor matters the decimation of the Congo population by Leopold or the Amerindians by the future Americans. (Noam Chomsky will be happy to supply further references.) Of course, the difference is not the color of the Jews’ skin (although the December 19, 2014 Forward appears to consider it racist to cast Moses as “white”), but that the Jews, descendants of the founders of arguably the more significant half of Western Civilization, were judged by an advanced representative of this civilization to constitute the equivalent of a deadly infection that required them to be systematically exterminated on an industrial scale.
Hitler was defeated, but can we disagree with Girard’s assessment that postmodern victimary thinking signifies Hitler’s ultimate triumph over the West?
Hitlerism avenges its defeat by making the concern for victims [le souci des victimes] despairing, caricatural. . . .
We live in a world . . . that constantly, systematically, ritually reproaches itself with its own violence. We make sure to transpose all our conflicts . . . into the language of innocent victims. . . .
Although the nihilisms of the far Left are just as fond of Nietzsche as those of the far Right, they are careful not to renew the quintessential deconstruction, that of the concern for victims. Since the failure of Nazism, no deconstructor, no demystifier has attacked that value. (Je vois Satan tomber comme l’éclair [Grasset, 1999]: 271-72; my translation and emphasis)
In the face of the victimary onslaught, the West seems to have lost the ability to maintain the delicate balance between otherworldly moral values and respect for social norms, or indeed, to hold onto any notion of “normality.” The path from the denial of de jure group discrimination to the suspicion and eventual overturning of criteria that favor traditionally dominant groups requires dismantling not merely objective tests of qualification but ultimately the Judeo-Christian claim of common humanity.
Christianity has no moral criterion other than the victimary otherness of every human being as bearing the face of Christ. But now we are told to see the Other not as a poor sinner like ourselves, a fellow participant in Adam’s fall redeemed by Jesus’ martyrdom, but as, purely on the basis of ascriptive qualities, either a beneficiary or a victim of a social order unjust in principle, a figure of either irredeemable unworthiness or indelible innocence.
The idea that Christ’s suffering has redeemed humanity from its sinful state has been transmogrified into the promotion of a set of victimary resentments on the one hand and the proclamation of indelible White Guilt on the other. Those who do not accept this division are increasingly prevented from articulating the original Christian message of human brotherhood, even in its most anodine secular versions. A recent directive from the University of California warns faculty against telling students that “America is the land of opportunity” or using the term “melting-pot.”
Not everyone espouses victimary values; not everyone has rejected Christianity, even in Europe, and certainly not in the United States. But it is difficult to see what short of the trauma of war can reverse or even slow the “progressive” march of the victimary through all social institutions. Human sin and virtue are henceforth defined in political terms. Yet the fact that political debate concerning these terms is increasingly ruled off limits demonstrates that the victimary movement is unconcerned with the negotiation of diverse views and interests; it is millenarian, apocalyptic. No human interaction is beyond the reach of victimary reasoning, and the process only accelerates as each formerly accepted social norm is discovered to be a disguised form of oppression, each apparently innocent gesture a “micro-aggression.” No Pharisee could have imagined the moral arrogance with which those in power demean, and when possible, degrade, those they accuse of asserting “white privilege”—for such people, after all, are the heirs of the Nazis. Hitler’s quest to deny human fraternity seems not to have failed after all.
That hostility to the Jews gave birth to and remains in curiously inverted fashion at the center of the victimary process is a point I have made elsewhere. Christianity has become less antisemitic as the West and the world as a whole have become more so, and more anti-Christian as well. It has been largely forgotten that before WWII, Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together in relative harmony throughout most of the Middle East, even sharing religious shrines. With the creation of Israel, the Jews were driven out of the entire region, with a few marginal communities holding on in such places as Morocco and pre-Khomeini Iran. Now the Christians too are disappearing. In the absence of the Western hegemony that had brought hope of stability and prosperity, the religions of the West cannot resist the force of Islamic exclusivism, which the West itself accepts with surprising ease, perhaps with a nuance of envy. Can we imagine a Western Saudi Arabia that made it illegal to possess a religious book other than the Bible and forbade non-Christians from entering its holy cities? What would we say if “apartheid” Israel engaged in such practices? Yet can what remains of Christendom avoid a touch of regret for the power of the religious faith that pervades the realm of Islam?
For both historical and practical reasons, Israel is obliged to retain the “dualistic” Jewish understanding of the worldly socio-economic order as a sphere, no doubt less worthy than the kingdom of God, but for whose right conduct God must nonetheless take responsibility. (Israel also, not coincidentally, has the healthiest demography of any “Western” country.) Hence it may well be that, rather than following the current Pope’s redistributive populism, Christianity’s best chance of long-term viability lies in an increasingly intimate partnership with Judaism and Zionism. This would not only permit a counter-offensive against the Islamist persecution of both faiths, but allow Christians to relearn the necessity and dignity of firstness.