Monday, March 07, 2016

Still Re-Reading Lent with Rene Girard: The Peace the World Cannot Give

So far I've only read two books by Rene Girard and maybe four that are based on his insights (so I'm  barely literate in this field), but I have been really, really intrigued by what I've read,  convinced that there is a lot more for me to discover (and be challenged by). From my introductory reading, I've picked up 3 key Girardian terms that have served me pretty well in taking a new look at those familiar Gospel passages we hear every Lent. The key words are imitation (Girard prefers “mimesis”), rivalry and victim (scapegoat).

Imitation/mimesis is a human non-negotiable. We do not come with an adequate set of instincts for survival, ready for life: we have to learn just about everything, and we do it through imitation. (Girard remarked that this loss of instinct was the price of our free will.) Imitation/mimesis does more than show us how to do things: it also indicates what kinds of things to do, to achieve, to desire and to flee; what goals to aim for; what shoes to wear for what occasion with which crowd; what team to root for (or to jeer). Mimesis, in other words, does not only communicate how-to's; it communicates values. A thousand industries in our consumer culture build on this foundation.

But what happens in our sin-infected species when too many people grasp after the same coveted prize? Well, rivalry (what else?). Mimetic rivalries can take strange forms. I myself once witnessed a tragi-comic mimetic escalation between two mentally ill persons, each of whom tried to outdo the other in terms of the gravity of their diagnoses. And rivalries can escalate as competing parties jostle for dominance. It can even lead to all-out war. Girard's reading of ancient myths revealed that when mimetic rivalry reached a crescendo, it would often lead to the bizarre unification of all the competing parties in a lopsided battle against a single doomed victim. The violence unleashed against the “one” resolved the tensions among the “all,” simultaneously revealing the victim to be both the true “cause” of the conflict and the surprising “savior” of the community: a kind of “god.” Thereafter, sacrifice would be offered in imitation of the original scapegoating violence that had revealed such a “divine visitation.” And sacrifice could be repeated (whether at the expense of another human victim, or eventually with an animal proxy) the next time the community was threatened with collapse in the face of rivalry. Girard verified this mechanism not just in the Greco-Roman myths, but across the spectrum of world literature. The deception of “peace through victim-making” would continue unopposed until Easter Sunday.

Repeatedly, Jesus warned his disciples about rivalrous attitudes. There was the time they had just arrived at their destination and Jesus turned to the Twelve. "What were you discussing on the road?" Mark reports pointedly: “They kept silent, for on the way they had discussed with one another which of them was the greatest. Sitting down, he called the Twelve and said to them, 'If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all' ” (Mark 9: 33-35 ). Another time, he advised, “...when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you” in a show of one-upmanship (cf Luke 14:12-14).

Christ Crowned with Thorns by Gerrit van Honthorst, from
"Offer no resistance to injury"; "Love your enemies."
Girard points out that Jesus' example in the Passion corresponds perfectly to his most puzzling, even distressing command: “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also” (Mt 5:39). “Like a lamb led to the slaughter” (Is 53:7), he did not respond to violence with violence, not even the measured violence of equal measure as in the old rule “an eye for an eye” (Lv 24:17-23). Jesus allowed himself to absorb, not escalate, the destabilizing violence that threatens society.

After the triumphant parade to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, when the disciples were sure that the Kingdom was about to be revealed (they were right about the fact, but dead wrong about the means), Jesus deliberately turned their expectations upside down by washing their feet. “If I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you must wash each other's feet.” He was calling for imitation, but in service, not in rivalry: “As I have done, so you must do.” There is little danger of mimetic escalation here!

Paul also takes issue with rivalrous tendencies that appeared in his communities. He ridicules those who compare themselves with others (favorably, of course) or who claim “higher” spiritual gifts or more important status in the community. With the Corinthians, he releases the full power of his irony, showing that he can out-do any and all boastful claims. And since the community is indulging in a foolish rivalry, he skewers them and “talks like a fool”:

“Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. ... Are they Hebrews? So am I! Are they Israelites? So am I! Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I! Are they servants of Christ? Now I am really talking like a fool: I am more, with my many more labors and imprisonments, with far worse beatings and frequent brushes with death...” (see 2 Cor 11:17-30). 
Instead of boasting of his authority as an Apostle, Paul turns the Corinthians' worldly standard of excellence upside down (which is truly “right side up” according to the example of Jesus). Then, to show us a “still more excellent way,” he gives us a kind of psalm about charity in all its self-emptying, other-favoring qualities (1 Cor 13). 

Girard's thought certainly rings true in my ears. It also makes some of the more mysterious passages in Paul (and in the book of Revelation) a bit more revelatory. Above all, what it suggests to me in this Lenten season is the need for the transformation of my desires. Like every other child of Adam and Eve except for Jesus and Mary, I imbibed a skewed set of values and the unfortunate concupiscence that drives me to pursue those limited goods at any cost. The redemption needs to reach me there, redirecting my hopes to what is good, true, real, beautiful and lasting; the hope that does not disappoint; the good that lasts forever and is unlimited, able to be shared completely by all without being diminished. 

And then? The end result is freedom. The children of God are free because they are no longer controlled by external/outside forces that would take them by the nose and lead them this way and that. We are always mimetic, but the thing is to “be imitators of God” (Eph 5:1) in Christ who made himself an example for us (Jn 13:15). That is peace “not as the world gives” (Jn 14:27), that is, not at the cost of someone else's blood or by making other people into a stepping-stone; not by assigning blame outward, but by letting it fall away, in imitation of the one who said “Learn of me who am meek and humble of heart” (Mt 11:29).

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Books I've read and recommend on this theme:

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