Rene Girard’s take on the Passion is, on one level, desacralizing. The Gospel narrative of Christ’s persecution, torture, and execution reveals the perspective of the victim—the victim of sinful men acting as representatives of corrupt religious and political institutions. He didn’t deserve his crucifixion. We can see the “scapegoat mechanism” in action.
It’s ironic that Girard posits the scapegoat mechanism as the origin of our idea of god, and yet that the true God, when he came to earth, would be scapegoated and then deified. I don’t think Girard ever fully came to grips with this irony and its implications. He just regarded it as a profound mystery. But maybe there is a poetic meaning (I don’t say “justice”) in this irony.
For Girard, the Passion is the world historical event of events: revealing “things hidden since the foundation of the world.” Girard argues that our political structure and social order is based on sacrifice and/or scapegoating, in one form or another. The revelation of the truth of scapegoating upsets that structure and inaugurates a new age. The mimetic power of scapegoating and sacrifice is so powerful and mesmerizing that only God, in the person of the Son, could reveal its truth. So Girard reasserts true divinity, even as he demystifies the false sacred and false gods.
Girard’s interpretation contradicts traditional (substitutionary) theories of the Atonement, that “Christ died for our sins,” a theology that seems to assume a “vengeful” God who demands retribution, without any consideration of the guilt or innocence of the victim. In practice, Christians have evaded responsibility by blaming the Jews and Romans for Christ’s death.
For Girard, the Passion is a heuristic, in a radical sense: a revelation that makes continued scapegoating unconscionable. Of divine origin, but ultimately its meaning is rational and cognitive. So radical is the hidden truth of sacrificial religion (and related institutions) that it required the spectacular paradox of the God on the Cross to communicate its meaning. I understand that a theologian was able to convince Girard (after the publication of Things Hidden) that the substitutionary theory of the Atonement has some validity, but I’m not familiar with the argument, so I refrain from comment.
In any case, by demystifying “sacred” violence as human in origin, the Crucifixion confronts humans with their own violence, allowing them to recognize the true God, and seek salvation through faith. In this sense, Girard reaffirms the basic Christian message of repentance and faith.