A Civilizational Crisis
Bari Weiss delivered a lecture at The Federalist Society * on November 10, 2023, in which she gave what I regard as the most insightful assessment of the shocking outpouring of antisemitism in this country and around the world that erupted after the savage Hamas attack on innocent Israeli citizens on October 7th. (This eruption of antisemitism, it is important to note, began before Israel’s war against Hamas in response to the attack.) About this anti-Jewish vitriol, Ms. Weiss said:
“When antisemitism moves from the shameful fringe into the public square, it is not about Jews. It is never about Jews. It is about everyone else. It is about the surrounding society or the culture or the country. It is an early warning system—a sign that society itself is breaking down. That it is dying. It is a symptom of a much deeper crisis—one that explains how, in the span of a little over 20 years since Sept 11, educated people now respond to an act of savagery not with a defense of civilization, but with a defense of barbarism.”
I regard this assessment as entirely consistent with Girard’s analysis of the function of what he called the “scapegoat mechanism” and the “apocalyptic” potential that accompanies its waning efficacy. Today’s antisemitism threatens to unite deracinated Western elites and their poorly educated progeny with religious fanatics among the Muslim populations here and abroad. Whatever else it might be, it represents an attack on Western civilization that shows no signs of slackening. As I have said from the podium many times, we are in a race between the effect of the Gospel revelation in crippling the scapegoat mechanism by exposing it to moral scrutiny and the message of the Gospel, which teaches us to both to protect the innocent and to repent the use of the imperfect means available to do so.
~ Children of Abraham ~
René Girard helped us understand how we fallen humans, rattled by societal crises, tend to offload our anxiety, animosity, and unhappiness onto convenient scapegoats. He explained how the passion and death of Christ reveals the truth about this ancient and enduring social reflex, which functions only when those caught up in it remain ignorant of that fact. As long as those who offload their fears and frustrations onto an anathemized culprit, they remain both unaware of what they are doing and, as a result, forgivable, if not strictly innocent. Jesus reminds us from the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)
Girard saw that by exposing the truth about this “scapegoating mechanism” the Cross of Christ placed humanity in an objectively apocalyptic predicament. Under the relentless pressure of the Gospel account of the crucifixion this perennial ruse for restoring social order would grow less and less effective. Resorting to this “sacrificial mechanism” would gradually backfire, placing mankind in an apocalyptic predicament.
It is during the last few weeks of the Church’s liturgical year that this apocalyptic theme comes to the fore. Even though the ensuing Advent season remains somber in many ways, the tone changes. It is suffused with expectation. It is centered, not on the apocalypse, not on Golgotha, but on Bethlehem, and on the humble faith of the young Jewish woman who carried Christ in her womb, and her world-altering Yes: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). Joseph Ratzinger understood Mary’s Yes in the context of her Jewish faith: “Just as the history of man’s life and the relationships he has formed reveal what kind of person he is, God shows himself in a history, in men through whom his own character can be seen. This is so true that he can be “named” through them and identified with them: the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Through his relation with men, through the faces of men, God has made himself accessible and has shown his face.”
Cardinal Ratzinger proceeded to call attention to the subtle way in which Luke “constructs a parallel between Abraham, the father of believers, and Mary, the mother of believers.” Ratzinger’s friend and colleague, Hans Urs von Balthasar, concurred: “Mary introduced her Son into the meaning and depths of Israel’s religion, however simple her words may have been. The Magnificat shows to what degree her own life flowed from the heart of this tradition, which rested on the promise to Abraham and his posterity.”
This Advent we have even more reason to recognize the depth and meaning of Mary’s Jewish faith and the abiding relationship between Christians and Jews that she embodies. For Israel and the Jewish people everywhere have lately become the object of worldwide vitriol, a crying out for the elimination, not only of the Jewish state, but of all Jews everywhere. Every decent person was shocked by the savage attack on innocent and helpless Israeli civilians on October 7th. But that was on the other side of the world. What was closer to home, if for the moment less savage, but shocking nonetheless, was the brazenly antisemitic protests that erupted in this country, conspicuously including angry demonstrations at many of the most prestigious university campuses in the West. Such antisemitism is no more respectable and no less dangerous than it was in the middle of the last century when it led to mass murder.
While armchair strategists and professional ethicists can quibble over the tragedies and complexities of the war now under way in the Middle East, there is no respectable middle ground on the savagery of the Hamas attack on innocent Israeli civilians and the volcanoes of hate that have lately erupted in our streets and on the campuses of elite universities. It is seen by many, and not without reason, as an initial phase of a war against Western civilization itself.
Where can Christians, perhaps especially Catholic Christians, go to find our bearings at this moment? To whom can we look, not only to understand this burgeoning crisis, but to draw on the moral and spiritual sustenance for responding to it appropriately? We might start by returning to another of Cardinal Ratzinger’s insights, namely that “at the moment when she pronounces her Yes, Mary is Israel in person.” To which he adds: “In his subtle way [Luke] constructs a parallel between Abraham, the father of believers, and Mary, the mother of believers…Mary is Zion in person, which means that her life wholly embodies what is meant by ‘Zion’.”
To recognize this “Zion in person” is not to diminish the historical and religious meaning of the nation of Israel. We Christians have a deep and abiding connection with our predecessors in the faith of Abraham. Jews are no more exempt from moral scrutiny than are we Christians, but we can never dismiss them or revile them. The theological differences between Jews and Christians are part of the deep structure of world history. For Christians, this common patrimony finds its most powerful manifestation in Jesus, but also in Mary of Nazareth, the source of Jesus’ Jewish identity. We who call her the Blessed Mother are forever united with our predecessors in the faith of our father Abraham.
We can hardly expect our Jewish brethren to agree with Ratzinger when he writes that “Mary’s ‘behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word,’ is the finally fulfilled expression of the faith of Abraham and of Israel as a whole.” Nevertheless, we have every reason to believe that this is in fact the case. But believing that has nothing to do with “Christian triumphalism.” On the contrary, constitutes an affirmation of Christianity’s abiding relationship with Israel and the Jewish people.
René Girard was born on Christmas day 1923 and aptly christened René Noël Théophile Girard. As we approach the birth of our Savior, and in gratitude to the man who taught us to better understand the sweeping ramifications of his life, death, and resurrection, may we face the daunting challenges confident that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the Truth that entered our world two thousand years ago and that unites Christians and Jews in ways we have only begun to appreciate.
* the text of the speech is available on the Federalist Society website