Reading Rene Girard's and Walter Wink's Religious Critiques of Violence as Radical Communication Ethics

Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast
National Communication Assocation Annual Meeting
November 20-23, 1997

Violence and the rhetorical constitution of peoples

In a landmark 1975 essay entitled "In Search of the People," Michael McGee argues that rhetorical appeals to "the people" in political texts should not be seen simply as argumentative fallacies that mistake a plural collection of individuals for a singular social entity but rather as mythical realities that constitute a popular basis for collective actions.   According to McGee, this "people" is both false consciousness and the rhetorical means of unity and coherence.  As he puts it, "'the people' are the political and social myths they accept."

Since McGee's essay was published, a number of studies have investigated the formation of peoples in specific historical rhetorics and advanced our theoretical understanding of how "the people" function as a rhetorical commonplace.  For example, one influential investigation of this kind was reported by Maurice Charland in his essay on the constitution of the Quebecois as a resistant social movement rooted in the story of a particular people.  Charland's essay highlights the theoretical contribution to rhetorical theory made by the postmodern critique of the transcendental subject, namely a new understanding of the audience as rhetorically constituted and thus historically and socially situated, rather than as an extra-rhetorical entity whose reason governs its response to persuasive appeals.  Such a rhetorically constituted audience is already an incipient feature of Kenneth Burke's replacement of persuasion with identification as the basis of rhetorical practice, according to Charland, and is "logically prior to persuasion" and thus also to reason and even consciousness.  Thus, for an audience to come to understand itself as a people or as subjects, it must already be the effect of a political narrative that constitutes them as subjects capable of choice and action.  Such an understanding of the rhetorical formation of audiences offers rich possibilities for the analysis of social movements, political campaigns, and other practices of deliberative and ceremonial rhetoric.

If, however, audiences are not merely given and human subjectivity is not an extra-rhetorical effect, then the question of how audiences come into rhetorical existence and consciousness has an ethical counterpart that has not been adequately answered by rhetorical critics and communication ethicists:  how are audiences deconstituted and in what ways are subjects denied existence through rhetoric?  Put differently, if rhetoric provides not merely the means of persuasion, but also the sources of identity, then what kinds of rhetorics deny identity?

One answer to this question has been proposed by Chantal Mouffe, who argues that every discourse that constitutes a people always at the same time excludes people.  The excluded is, in fact, necessary to the construction of a people, according to Mouffe.  As she puts it, "while politics aims at constructing a political community and creating a unity, a fully inclusive political community and a final unity can never be realized since there will permanently be a 'constitutive outside,' an exterior to the community that makes its existence possible."   One answer to the question about which rhetorics deny identity, then, is to include any community-building or people-identifying rhetoric under the rubric of identity-denying rhetoric.

However, while this answer can help us become aware of the ethical ambiguities associated with the creation and maintenance of movements, peoples, and institutions, it also suggests that perhaps the original question was so broad as to force a political answer to an ethical question:  if one is always already going to exclude one simply has to make sure one is excluding the right people.  Perhaps we should intensify this question a bit and ask when such necessarily exclusionary rhetorics can be said to be violent, and thus, if one seeks to avoid violence, unethical.

Renata Salecl, who has studied the symbolic features of the war which took place in the former Yugoslavia, has concluded, by way of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, that a primary feature of the war was an effort to take away the enemy's ability to perceive itself as a people and as individuals.  According to Salecl, "in harming the enemy, the aim is not so much to cause actual material loss, to capture its territory, or destroy its political system.  The true aim is to destroy the very way the enemy perceives itself, the way it forms its identity."  In other words, the actual goal of the war-related violence, whether it is killing or wounding or raping the enemy, is a symbolic goal: to take away the sense of self and society that constitutes the human identity of the enemy.  One might conclude from these observations that if physical violence in war is a symbolic act that seeks to deny the enemy his or her subjectivity, then rhetorical acts that seek to destroy the identity of the other ought to be considered violent, and thus unethical.  For example, hate speech that seeks to reduce the other to something less than human can be considered violent within this rubric.

On the other hand, Judith Butler has argued that hate speech paradoxically imparts a kind of subjectivity to its victims even as it seeks to reduce the victim to a particular kind of object.  Insofar as a subject is named, even negatively, that subject is granted some form of recognition which enables it to conceive of itself as capable of resistance.  Thus, the most obvious kinds of violent speech, those that are addressed directly to a victim, perhaps should not function as our example of the most egregious form of violent speech.

How are we then to describe and explain the symbolic violence that is performed in people-constituting rhetorics?  Can we judge one as more violent than another?  Are there nonviolent forms of people-constituting rhetoric that undermine or challenge the violent forms?

I believe some of the answers to these questions lie in the religious origins of people-constituting rhetorics, origins that have in recent years been described quite elaborately by two religious philosophers: Rene Girard and Walter Wink.

Rene Girard and the Myth of Sacred Violence

In Rene Girard's theory, the beginnings of human society are based on the religious transformation of mimetic violence into the collective sacrifice of a scapegoat.  Before the beginning of humanity, according to Girard, hominids copied one another's violence in a frenzy of retaliation and mimicry that can best be described as the violence of all against all.  At some point, instead of being directed at everyone in general and no one in particular, this violence became focused on a specific victim, who was marked out by some kind of distinctiveness or weakness.  In the collective murder of this victim, or scapegoat, the violence of all against all was brought to a halt as the first community was united by its murder of the victim.   In Girard's theory, this distinction between the victim and the community stands at the origin of both community and language, the first signifier, so to speak.  This founding act of signification is based on a "single trait that stands out against the confused mass or still unsorted multiplicity."

The momentary halt to violence produced by the collective murder of what we can now call a scapegoat attributes to the victim a kind of magical power that the newly formed community acknowledges by seeking to reproduce this moment again and again, this time through the reenactment of the originary murder in sacred rituals and by the substitution of "new victims for the original victim, in order to assure the maintenance of that miraculous peace."   As this sacred ritual gets repeated again and again, the distance of these acts of persecution from the originary murder becomes greater and the ritual becomes inscribed by mythic features that both mark and mask the original founding murder.  Girard's research has found the story of the scapegoat repeated again and again throughout numerous human cultures and societies which he takes as a symptom of the universality of such persecution.

Furthermore, Girard claims to have discovered a recurring cluster of features that characterize this recurrent myth, features that he says indicate the presence of the scapegoat mechanism either in mythic texts or in actual historical persecutions.  These include 1) some kind of social crisis, 2) crimes that challenge certain essential social differences, 3) a set of characteristics that mark the victim as unusual or weak, and 4) the act of violence itself.  One familiar text that carries these features is the Oedipus myth, but, according to Girard, the features appear again and again in the literature and history of the world's civilizations, and they provide the religious basis for both the mythical and historical social practices of persecution associated with the creation and maintenance of human institutions and collectives.

However, Girard believes that in the Christian Bible the story of the scapegoat is retold in a way that decisively unmasks and undermines the religious basis for persecution and scapegoating.  The Bible tells the story of violence against the scapegoated victim for the first time from the standpoint of the victim.  As such, the Bible story enables us to decode and unmask the sacred myths that support persecution and are associated with the standpoint of the persecutors.  By focusing attention on the victim in this way and exhibiting the sacred justification for violence against the victim, the Bible weakens and undermines the power of the scapegoat mechanism.  As Girard puts it quite enthusiastically, "Once understood, the mechanisms can no longer operate; we believe less and less in the culpability of the victims they demand.  Deprived of the food that sustains them, the institutions derived from these mechanisms collapse one after the other around us.  Whether we know it or not, the Gospels are responsible for this collapse."
Walter Wink and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

While Girard's approach to society's founding violence and its antidote remains somewhat abstract and theoretical, another scholar who is interested in the same problem and who has been influenced by Girard's work has been writing prolifically about the practical implications of sacred myths associated with violence.  Walter Wink is perhaps best known for his three volume trilogy on the Powers, or as he also calls them, the World Domination System.  Wink is interested in the analysis of mythical violence primarily for what it can tell us about how to engage in creative acts of resistance against oppressive and violent structures that dominate the contemporary world.

Wink's research has focused on the myth of redemptive violence which he claims has its origins in the ancient Babylonian Enuma Elish.  In the Enuma Elish, a battle among the gods results in the dismemberment of the female god of the saltwater oceans whose blood is then scattered about in an act that creates the cosmos.  The youngest god, Marduk, who performs this act and who happens to be a male god, is consequently given power over all the rest of the gods. According to Wink, this myth of creative and redemptive violence has exercised enourmous power in human history and is alive and well in popular films, comic strips, and television programs -- the narratives that dominate the fantasy life of North Americans.  The myth of redemptive violence assumes that killing and violence are inherent to human existence and that they are the means by which human societies save and recreate themselves. Furthermore, this myth legitimates the granting of power to those who have distinguished themselves by forging order out of chaos through the exercise of violence, as so many Americans were willing to do, for example, during the Cold War with respect to their political and military leaders.   In American society, the various reproductions of this myth in popular culture have led to the acceptance of violence as the primary form of agency exercised by the institutions related to the Domination System; that is, institutions, whether they be states, social movements, educational institutions, churches, or families, that are based on the assumption that violence is necessary to exorcise evil.

While this approach differs from Girard in significant respects, like Girard, Walter Wink finds the antidote to the myth of redemptive violence in the story of the Gospels, especially in the stories about Jesus' creative responses to the domination system of his culture.  As Wink describes it, however, the gospel stories provide an alternative to the two prominent choices people are granted when they face domination or violence:  accept it or fight it.  This alternative takes the form of creative nonviolent resistance against violence, a resistance that always in the final instance refuses to become what it resists, as Jesus did, for example, when he suggested turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving the creditor who sues you not only your outergarment but your undergarment as well.  All these are acts which, according to Wink, subverted the domination system of Jesus' time.  By way of one example, getting rid of your undergarment would leave you naked, thus shaming, not yourself, but the creditor who sees you, within the logic of ancient purity codes.

Wink believes that the use of creative nonviolent strategies for resisting the domination system have become more and more prominent.  He cites, for example, the nonviolent overthrow of the Marcos regime in the Philippines, the nonviolent Tianamenn Square protest (with the unforgettable image of a lone unarmed protestor facing up to a tank, and the mostly nonviolent transformation of South Africa, to name just a few.

Constitutive Rhetoric and Mythic Violence

The theories of Rene Girard and Walter Wink call our attention as critics of discourse to the violence associated with the most prominent community and people constituting strategies in the history of humanity.  These theories suggest to us that whenever a people is being formed or called out in rhetorical practices there is also an exclusion, a persecution, an act of violence incipient in such a rhetorical act.   As rhetorical scholars, we will, of course, be less inclined to find the same old myth everywhere, just in different form.  Instead we will seek to describe the specific historical means of persuasion and identification that shaped the rhetorical constitution of peoples, giving particular attention to the way in which the other of a given people is identified.  Perhaps we will find in such constitutive acts commonplace reiterations or restatements of the scapegoating mechanism or the myth of redemptive violence.  However, we will understand that there is no necessary reason for the appearance of such mythic commonplaces other than the rhetorical uses to which they are being put at a given moment. Concomittantly, we can also be attentive to and supportive of the rhetorical and performative acts that seek to unmask or subvert the persecuting and violence-prone systems of power and dominance that remain a central feature of the postmodern social landscape.

By way of conclusion, I would like to briefly describe such a utopian rhetorical act that appeared in early modernity during the Reformation.  In 1527, a group of mostly Swiss Anabaptists, gathered together in the Swiss village of Schleitheim to define their relationship to the structures of religious and political power that were persecuting them.  Using Girard's theoretical apparatus we can see that the Anabaptists had clearly come to function as scapegoats for both the Catholic and Reformed parties in the social crisis precipitated by the reformation.  They represented an effort to collapse such central social distinctions as those between clergy and laity, sacred and profane, inner and outer, the future reign of  God and the present reign of God.  They were marked out as distinctive because of what was considered a peculiar piety that was given to perfectionism and spiritual excess.  And they were tortured and executed by the thousands for engaging in ceremonies of rebaptism and for refusing to baptize their infants or to attend state-sanctioned church services.

At Schleitheim, a motley group of these persecuted rebaptizers hammered out a confession of their commitments that helped establish an alternative people that functioned as a sort of christian counterculture of early modernity.  The document was addressed to "brothers and sisters in the Lord" and it asserted that the Schleitheim assembly had been "united to stand fast in the Lord as obedient children of God, sons and daughters, who have been and shall be separated from the world in all that we do and leave undone."   This assembly of brothers and sisters, this new people, was united not by violence against the other but by a refusal of all violence, even civic-sanctioned violence, against anyone.  Additionally, the Schleitheim assembly committed itself to refuse the civic oath, to attend state-sanctioned church services, or to baptize infants.  Moreover, it refused to enforce these commitments with anything more forceful than excommunication and the ban.

At the same time, the Schleitheim assembly clearly understood itself as a people by way of its exclusion of that which was considered evil.  It described the world in stark contrasts: darkness and light, carnal and spiritual, Satan and Christ.  And it identified with the light, the spiritual, and Christ. "Put away from you that which is evil, and the Lord will be your God, and you will be His sons and daughters," it admonished.

A mythic analysis of this text will either simplistically conclude that we have here yet another regressive instance of the scapegoat mechanism in its exclusion of those who are associated with darkness or a utopian nonviolent refusal of the myth of redemptive violence in its refusal of the sword, depending on whether one is following Rene Girard or Walter Wink.  The rhetorical critic in this case can make wise use of Girard and Wink by noting how the Schleitheim Confession picked up on available archetypal and biblical commonplaces, commonplaces that of course may have some of the same functions that Girard, for example, ascribes to the scapegoat mechanism.  But a rhetorical analysis shows that the Schleitheim confession constituted an alternative community that was both unambiguously against the use of the sword and at the same time unambiguously for social separation and shunning.  Such a text both included and resisted elements of the commonplace founding stories of human peoples.  It both scapegoated and refused to kill the scapegoat.  It is a moment in the history of religious rhetoric that is marked by the struggle to exceed the social and historical options of the time, using the social and historical materials associated with that time. In the final instance, as we struggle to understand the relationship between rhetoric and violence, it is to texts such as these that we must turn in order understand how religious or people-constituting rhetoric can be used both ethically and unethically, both on behalf of violence and against it.  The mythic theories of Girard and Wink can help us discern some of prominent social opportunities and obstacles any people-constituting rhetoric confronts, but they cannot predict exactly what dangers and possibilities lie in the specific moments in which someone speaks and a people is given subjectivity.


1. Michael McGee, "In Search of the People," Quarterly Journal of Speech 61.3 (1975): 235-249.
2. McGee, 247.
3. Chantal Mouffe, "Democratic Citizenship and Political Community," in Miami Theory Collective, eds., Community at
Loose Ends (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1991): 78.

4. Rene Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, (Stanford: Stanford U. P., 1987): 4-47.  I am indebted to Andrew McKenna's thoughtful interpretation of Girard in his Violence and Difference, (Urbana and Chicago: U. of Illinois P., 1992): 69-73.

5. Girard, Things Hidden, 100.

6. Girard, Things Hidden, 103.

7. Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers, (Minneapolis: Fortress P., 1992): 13-31.

8. John H. Yoder, The Legacy of Michael Sattler, (Scottdale: Herald P., 1973): 35.