[This paper was intended to be presented last March at Truman State University in Kirkville, MO, but the event was canceled because of the Pandemic. It was presented later via Zoom.]
As we live with so much conflict and alienation in the present time, we yearn to find a way to come together. But is that what we need? The French thinker René Girard suggested that we already are together and that is the problem. The problem is that we are often together in the wrong ways and we need to find better ways of being together with each other and with God.
Girard had an interesting and unusual trajectory in his academic life that, from soon after the Second World War up to his death five years ago, was spent in the United States, culminating in a position at Stanford University. In the course of his early literary studies, he noticed that the greatest novelists and playwrights revealed a tendency on the part of their characters to imitate not just the actions of other characters but their desires. That is, the more one person wants something the more likely it is that another will want the same thing. Although we tend to think that our desires arise spontaneously from within ourselves and belong to us alone, in truth our desires are borrowed from others and their desires are borrowed from us. The result is that we live in many overlapping social complexes filled with desires that we resonate with. At the same time, the desires of other people resonate with us. Girard called this phenomenon “mimetic desire” to hint at the unconscious level of these shared desires. It is not possible to be fully conscious of this matrix of desires but it is possible to cultivate the practice of what desert monastics called “vigilance” to increase our consciousness of it so that we won’t be puppets of others’ desires as often and will gain some measure of freedom before God. The American myth of rugged individuality dies hard, its illusory quality notwithstanding Both Girard’s mimetic theory, as he called it, and Christianity teach that the human self is composed of relationships. No relationships; no self. I will be exploring how the relational self works or fails to work in the course of this paper.
Mimetic desire is contagious. Just as microbes in the air can be caught by other people, other peoples’ desires can just as easily be caught. Just as a caught microbe incubates for a time before the symptoms show themselves, so mimetic desire incubates, but here is where the analogy breaks down. Even when the symptoms show themselves, the person who has caught the mimetic desire may well be the one who is least aware of it. We usually think of microbes as uniformly evil, but many are neutral and many are benign while other microbes are destructive and make us sick. Sharing desires is fine when both parties believe they can be shared. Two people enjoying the same piece of music would be an example of constructive shared desire. We are enriched when other people enrich our horizons in this way. But if two people are attracted to the same potential romantic partner, then there will usually be a conflict. Since Girard tended to focus on the destructive effects of mimetic desire, especially in his earlier and more widely read books, many people believe that mimetic desire is a bad thing just as many think microbes are all bad. The truth is that mimetic desire is good, as all of God’s creation is good, but like all of creation, it can take destructive turns. As Girard has famously demonstrated, the contagion of mimetic desire often leads to societal meltdown. The Scapegoat mechanism is the quickest fix in the midst of such a meltdown—except for the victim. As we shall see, destructive mimetic desire is much more contagious than constructive mimetic desire. But as a connecting force, possibly the prime connecting force between people, mimetic desire is the means of deep nurturing among all living beings.
In this paper, I am going to outline many scenarios that show how mimetic desire pans out in our lives. It is important to bear in mind that we live several of these scenarios all the time and they are not rigid categories. But before I move on to these scenarios, I want to mention briefly a recent development in neurology that suggests that there is a physiological basis for the anthropological insights worked out by Girard and his colleagues. This is the discovery of mirror neurons. Like many groundbreaking discoveries, this one happened by accident. Some researchers working on some chimpanzees sat down to lunch. When one of them picked up a banana, the electrodes recording brain activity in one of the apes beeped. When the researchers followed this up, they discovered that the same neurons that fire when a chimpanzee picks up a banana, fire if the chimpanzee sees somebody else pick up a banana. This is all the more true of the human brain. What this means is that we automatically react to the perceived intentions and desires of other people. Scientists are just beginning to unpack what mirror neurons are all about and some extravagant claims have been made and refuted. But one thing that has been consistent so far is that we are hard-wired to respond to other people and their intentions and desires.
In Christianity, the One God is believed to have revealed Godself as a three-fold matrix of persons. These persons are distinguished by their relationships. There is no individuality in the sense that any of the divine Persons act over or against another. They are one. They are inter-related. The Persons of the Trinity are a model for humans.
Each person, each animal, each plant, each everything exists because it is the Desire of the Triune God that they exist. God breathes life into all of us. The breath of God sustains and bathes us in God’s Desire that we should be and that we should flourish. This is not an individual relationship between God and me, myself, and I. In God, I am connected with everyone and everyone is connected with me. In bathing in God’s Desire for me, I am bathing in God’s Desire for everybody else. Most of the time we “forget” that we are so cocooned in God’s Desire because many of the social matrixes we live in drown it out. We need to spend quiet time with God to allow the breath of God’s Desire to breathe in us.
We are all born in a mimetic field. We begin drinking in the culture we are born into with our mothers milk. A mimetic field can be likened to a gravitational field, a field that is comprised of the forces exerted by several moving bodies on each other. Usually, the desires of the mother have the most impact at first, and then the desires of other caregivers and the toddlers we happen to be thrown in with. There are of course, primary biological needs, the need for food being the most urgent. However, the desires surrounding the young child do much to shape how our basic biological desires pan out. Early childhood can and should be a time of much constructive sharing. Certain foods are desired by our caregivers and we often share in these same desires, although sometimes turnips are a little much for a small child. As is well known, small children are particularly susceptible to the modeling of others. Girard uses the example of the nursery where, if one child reaches for a toy, even tentatively, other children instinctively reach for the same toy, which usually strengthens the first child’s desire for that toy which, in turn, strengthens the same desire in the other children.
In a family system, a small child is profoundly affected by conflictual desires in this small social environment. Girard suggests that the Freudian Oedipus Complex is not based on an innate drive but has much more to do with mimetic desire. Daddy likes butterscotch so I like butterscotch. Daddy loves Mommy and I love Mommy. What’s the problem? The young child has little defense against the fields of desire that have wrapped themselves around the child before the child has any way of knowing what is happening. Few, if any, alternatives are on the horizon. Parts of the system are neutral or benign: table manners for example, and the language we learn in the home. Other elements are not so benign. If certain groups of people are hated by a child’s caregivers, the child will share that hate without knowing why. If the child is cherished, at least most of the time, the child experiences the enfolding comfort of God’s Desire. If the child is denied affection, the earliest connections are adversarial. If the child has to compete for attention and care, then it is harder for that child to believe that desires can be shared. When the child is enriched by shared desires, than the child can share desires more easily in later years. The more a child receives unconditional love, the more the child has experienced the reality of God’s love. When the system in the family is toxic, then the child has a hard time believing in a loving God. A religious upbringing will have an impact. It helps to teach a child that God is loving and forgiving. But if the interactions in the family are wrathful, the child will tend to think God is wrathful, no matter what people say about God.
The worst case scenario is violent abuse. This sub-scenario can happen at any age but I mention it here. In trauma, the desires of another invade the child’s own bundle of desires and set up a military occupation. The image is apt as such abuse is a traditional weapon in war. With such an invasion, the aggression of the abuser remains whether the abuser continues to be present or not. The child has lost a battle that could not have been won. The battle continues on, usually sinking below the conscious level, sometimes to the extent of repressed memories. All of the shared desires of one who was so invaded, are warped out of shape by the trauma. This is why extensive therapy is needed by those so victimized.
As a child begins to grow up, social horizons and their ambient desires expand exponentially. The family and its system of desires still has much influence but many other desires are in the air. The growing child is vulnerable to these new social ambiences, but the availability of alternate choices give some measure of freedom. There can be much constructive sharing of desires such as when teachers share their enthusiasms and other children share theirs. But once certain choices of friends and social groups are made, the hold of these social worlds tends to be very strong. The shared desires in these groups is constructive when it is a matter of infecting each other with exciting computer games or favorite songs. It is less constructive when an enthusiasm for a certain singer entails hatred of the favorite singer of another social group. Such dislike of other groups is often the result of a desire to strengthen the bonds within one’s own group. Being defined by an “enemy” is the quickest way for a group to gain a collective identity. Even in a group of friends, there is a certain jockeying for social power and rank. Some children try to gain more influence than the others. This can be a friendly competition, but it can become a damaging conflict that breaks a social set into smaller groups at enmity with each other.
Most children are introduced to competitive games meant that teach good sportsmanship. Insofar as games are a friendly competition, we can consider them a deeper level of cooperation where the two opponents or teams collaborate to create a good and exciting game. In major league sports, the league tries to keep all teams competitive but each team always tries to get an edge. The clean competition of sports is always in danger of falling into violent competition that takes the form of fist fights and bloody noses.
Often there are many rivalries floating about in a social system, many of which cancel each other out so that there is something of a tense homeostasis between the petty rivalries. But sooner or later some of these rivalries are going to coalesce into full-blown feuds. These feuds may have started with a rivalry over position in the social group, two or more boys wanting the same girl—it could be anything at all. The struggle for social position, things, or people do not cause the rivalries; they are only the occasion for it. Girard explains that once a rivalry becomes well defined, the ostensible object of the rivalry disappears and we are left with rivalry for the sake of rivalry. Girard calls this “mimetic rivalry.” The rivals become mirror images of one another to the point where one cannot tell them apart. The irony is that each rival thinks he or she is unique and the other is only a copy. The more advanced the mimetic rivalry, the more the self is defined by the rivalry. Girard says that at this stage, each rival covets, not what the rival is believed to have but the what the rival is to believed to be. One wants the very being of the rival. This is quite the opposite of God’s Desire that each of us should be. The reciprocal acts of revenge that take place become as identical as the rivals themselves. Mimetic rivalry is an unending cycle of mutual violence. It has no beginning and no foreseeable end. As Girard said, Nobody starts a fight. We should add that nobody can finish it either. In mimetic rivalry, desire is by definition insatiable. It is not possible to have enough or to be enough. The result is an even deeper irony: the more one wants the being of the rival, the less substance, the less self, each rival has.
To explicate such a rivalry, Girard uses the biblical term skandalon. This Greek word means stumbling block, offense. It is a skandalon that Jesus tells us not to put into the way of Jesus’ “little ones.” Anyone caught in the crossfire of mimetic rivalry suffers. “Little ones” are the most vulnerable. Girard points out that the skandalon is the satanic. This is not about a rebellious angel tempting humankind. In the Bible, the Satan is the accuser. Accusation is what mimetic rivalry is all about as the rivals become skandalons, satans, for each other. The rivalry is always the sole fault of the other. The Bible has many examples of such rivalries that mirror our own rivalries. Saul and David compete to see who can kill the most Philistines. (When the maidens sang that Saul slew his thousands and David his tens of thousands, Saul was enraged.) Even Jesus’ disciples fought about who among them was the greatest. The first pair of brothers fought over a blessing. One might think that if anything can be shared, it’s a blessing, but once Abel’s offering was accepted, Cain assumed his wasn’t, with fatal results. Throughout Genesis, pairs of brothers fight over who is blessed and who isn’t. In mimetic rivalry, the rival becomes an idol. That does not mean that the brothers build shrines to each other. Fundamentally, an idol is anything at all that, not being God, becomes the primary organizing principle of one’s life. That is precisely what the rival is. Rivals are tightly bound together like super-strong magnets that can’t be pulled apart. It is a deadly embrace. When social groups enter into mimetic rivalry with each other, they define themselves by the ones they hate. Needless to say, the love of God is profoundly clouded over by the thick smoke of mimetic rivalry. In this smoke, there is no room for forgiveness. All is accusation. Mimetic rivalry is contagious. It can easily engulf a whole society like a Flood or a firestorm.
Girard argues that when ancient societies suffered such a mimetic crisis, one of two things happened. Sometimes a society would implode and we have few if any historical traces of them. What normally happened was that a mimetic swarm focused on one person who was then blamed for the entire crisis. (To this day, uncanny powers are attributed to unpopular minority groups, making them capable of bringing down a whole country.) There was no fair trial; only unanimous accusation. Girard called it unanimity minus one. The crowd had reached satanic proportions of accusation that banishes mercy and forgiveness past the edges of the world. This person was then killed or permanently exiled. The relief to the society was so powerful, so awesome, that the victim was then seen to be the solution, the deity who brought peace. It is a small step from making an idol of an enemy to making an idol of the victim. Meanwhile, like a mother hen, God wishes to embrace the people under God’s wings, but they are far from God, keeping themselves out of God’s reach, except for the victim who has seen the truth, even if for a brief painful moment before sinking into God’s hands. Perhaps this seems like a tenuous inference, but the prevalence of scapegoating behavior in society today should give us pause before dismissing the theory.
Girard makes the further provocative argument that ancient religious traditions and the structures of civilization and culture stem from this spontaneous act of collective violence. The three marks of culture that he outlines are myth, ritual, and prohibition. Just as nobody starts a fight, nobody is an aggressor; the victim is always to blame. The truth of the victim can not be faced. That is why Girard believes that the truth is hidden and clouded by myths. And yet these myths leave traces of the primal violence. The Hindu deity Prajapati, for example, was chopped into pieces out of which the world was created. Tiamat was also dismembered after losing her cosmic battle with Marduk. Cosmic conflicts such as this are further hints of the myths’ origins in violence. Some famous mythological figures have deformities. Oedipus was lame, Odin had one eye. It was said he gave one eye to the deities in exchange for wisdom. The wisdom of the victim, perhaps? Ritual is the coalescence of the chaotic violence into order, one that channels the camaraderie of the violence into a less destructive practice where animals or plants are sacrificed instead of humans. But if serious tensions arise in the society, people will often raise the ante and sacrifice another human. These sacrifices are often said to be generous gifts to the deities. They are actually more like bribes to stave off violence. Deities created out of violence are sure to be capricious, like Zeus or Thor. The third mark of culture, the third way of staving off violence, is through laws that institutionalize sacrificial violence. Fundamental to this is the pyramidal structure with the few on the top and the many at the bottom who serve as permanent sacrificial victims. Of course, a pyramid can topple. Girard said that the king was a sacrificial victim with a suspended sentence. In our own day, celebrities are celebrated and torn apart one after another. Violence and lies are the basis, the dynamic, and the outcome of civilization. Ancient civilization starts to sound a lot like modern civilization.
Society is comprised of a complex interweave of mimetic fields that work like gravitational fields. There are the small fields like family units and groups of friends and larger fields made up of clubs and other social groups. There are the mimetic fields of villages and cities. Overarching all of these is the mimetic field of a kingdom. With today’s communications, the whole world is a gigantic mimetic field. The pushing and pulling of desires in these matrixes diminish the sense of individuality of each person, making most people more or less puppets of one another. When a crowd forms with the force of a hurricane to unite the society through the persecution of a victim, selfhood is completely lost, at least for a time. With society as a whole based on these primal acts of collective violence and the lies that hide the truth of that violence, the mimetic fields hold large amounts of force that imprison everybody in this system. I think this is what St. Paul was getting at when he warned about the principalities and powers that govern the universe. Paul does seem to have been thinking of supernatural beings, and I do not rule out that level of reality, but Girard’s insights into mimetic desire and its societal dimensions suggest that human beings are capable of generating this amount of force through the shared desires that link us. The more violent the shared desires, the stronger the mimetic field. What was once called demonic possession could well take this form where some people are possessed by the desires of other people. The Gerasene Demoniac Jesus exorcized by sending the spirits into a herd of pigs said that its name was Legion. The Romans had filled the country with legions. St. Paul did not think that humanity could deliver itself from such forces. We needed to be rescued from outside of the system.
The picture I have just drawn is grim and can give the impression that humanity is intrinsically and irremediably evil. That is not the case but there is indeed a problem of evil of overwhelming proportions. It needs to be said, however, that this is not a case of a villain or a small group of villains getting together to hatch a plan to destroy the world for their benefit. What happened was an unconscious process, a process that sought to contain the frightening violence so that society could survive. Although the “solution” of collective violence permeated society with sacrificial structures at all levels, it was economical. That is, one person died so that the rest of society could survive. Sounds a bit like Caiaphas, doesn’t it?
Throughout all of these centuries, there were a few people, scattered throughout the world, who had enough glimpses beyond the crowd that they could live their lives differently than most. In tribal cultures, many were shamans of various types and talents. They don’t seem to have criticized their culture but they were (sometimes literally) a different drummer. They dressed differently. Sometimes their gender identity was fluid. They had visions. They healed people. In more developed cultures, such people turned to lonely places and lived quietly in silence. Some of them wrote about what the silence taught them. More often than not, they questioned the practices of sacrifice, Some of them renounced such rites altogether. Some of them warned their fellows that something was fundamentally wrong with the culture. One image for a culture on shaky foundations was the burning house from which one needed to escape. The world around us is an illusion, Maya. Behind or within the illusion there is something one could call the Tao. One could escape the burning house by meditating and renouncing violence. Other people noticed the ways that human desires were entangled and developed wisdom traditions to help any who would heed them how to navigate these networks. Many of them shared notions of a transcendent desire that had nothing to do with the strife that surrounded them.
During those same years, something new and strange happened. A small rag-tag group of slaves fled from their masters, led by a man who said that the God who had spoken to him desired that these people be free. When the people were trapped at the edge of a body of water, it appeared that their leader was wrong, but then the water moved and gave them a path forward. Years later, this same people established a small kingdom built on the slave labor they had fled. Over a few centuries, a few prophets arose and rebuked the people for forsaking the God who had delivered them by oppressing the vulnerable people among them. They denounced the sacrificial rites, sometimes crying for reform of the rites, sometimes their abolition, convinced that their God desired mercy rather than sacrifice. On account of the waywardness of the people, these prophets prophesied a catastrophe and it happened in the form of a military invasion from Babylon, but their desperately loving God brought them back from exile. Their writings include stories of horrific violence. The violence was nothing new, but the act of writing about the violence without obscuring it in myths was a new thing. These writings included stories of how the prophets were persecuted for their fidelity to the Word given them by this peoples’ God. Their writings also included extraordinary stories about strife, deception but also a remarkable story about a man who forgave his brothers who had tried to kill him.
A few centuries later, a man, thought by some to be a prophet, wandered around the countryside. He called the formidable God of the prophets “Abba,” an Aramaic word that children use for their earthly fathers. He preached a message that his heavenly Abba desired that there be a deep peace among all people. He reshaped the messages of the earlier prophets, questioned the sacrifices, and warned of the dangers of returning violence with violence. By the time this prophet/teacher came into Jerusalem, the power brokers of the day who normally were at each others’ throats agreed on one thing: this prophet must die. Crosses were plentiful for the job and that was that. Perhaps a few people noticed that some three days later, small groups of followers of this teacher were suddenly giddy with excitement about something, but probably they didn’t.
It was on the Jewish feast of Pentecost in Jerusalem that the world shifted on its axis and has never been the same since. A small group of people drew some attention by miraculously speaking languages they weren’t expected to know. Many onlookers thought they were drunk in the middle of the morning. One of men speaking so strangely announced that the man who had been executed and probably forgotten by most, had risen from the dead. Such an announcement would have been horrifying. After all, what would one expect a person who had been killed to do if he should rise from the dead? The movie industry has made millions with their answers to that question. Perhaps some started to flee, but where could one flee from a live dead man who could appear anywhere to exact his revenge.? But the speaker calmed the people down by announcing that this resurrected man offered forgiveness to those who had put him to death. The speaker told the people explicitly what had happened, the very thing that had been happening again and again since the dawn of humanity in times of social crisis. But this man had been raised from the dead by Israel’s God, who thereby declared the victim to be innocent of any wrong-doing. Bewildered, and suddenly cut to the heart, the people asked the speaker: What can we do to be saved? The speaker answered: repent and be baptized. How can this resurrected man be so forgiving? How can God be so forgiving? That is a question that a persecutor of those who listened to that Pentecost Sermon was going to find himself pondering.
Jesus said that those who try to save themselves lose themselves. This is what happens when mimetic rivalry diminishes the self and collective violence disintegrates it. If one experiences a moral hangover from the violence afterwards, a bit of the self returns but it doesn’t stay long if one returns to mimetic rivalry and collective violence. What is needed is to step away from the crowd as Elijah did in order to hear the still small voice in silence. Once a man named Saul watched over the cloaks of the men who stoned a man named Stephen because Stephen had just denounced the sacrificial culture that gave Saul his identity. He confirmed this identity by actively approving of the stoning. Then he rode off to persecute the followers of this new way. But suddenly, he was knocked off his horse by a voice asking him “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This voice took Saul out of the crowd and he became an individual person. As an individual, Paul, as he now called himself, was open to God and to all of humanity. One of the fundamental principles of his preaching and ministry was the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles, which was to say, all people known to him. So it is that the Forgiving Victim draws each of us out of the crowd so that we can each flourish as an individual before God and neighbor.
In spite of Jesus’ teaching, example, and actions, it seems like the same old violence is still with us, two millennia since the death of Christ. But Girard suggests that there are a few fundamental differences between the “old” violence and the “new” violence.
The first difference is that there is a new gravitational field in the midst of the gravitational fields of the principalities and powers. This field is very gentle and appears to be very weak, but its strength is in its weakness. If the gravitational field of the Risen Forgiving Victim announced by the apostles and written up in the Gospels were strong in the sense of exerting brute force against the King Herods of the world, then we would be living in the same old violence with no hope of escape. Since the gravitational field of the Forgiving Victim is so gentle, it should be no surprise that it takes much time in slowly working in the hearts of humankind.
We can look at the human tendency to indulge in satanic accusations as an addiction, perhaps the primal addiction. Every rivalry builds momentum that becomes all the more unstoppable the longer it goes on. The intrusion of the Risen Forgiving Victim is a shock to the system but not the kind of shock that uses force. To put the matter briefly: this old habit dies hard and it has hardly died in this world. It should not be a surprise then, that the systemic violence in the social structures at the time of Jesus should keep a firm hold even on the early church. There were important changes for the better. The outpouring in care for others, especially the poor, was a revolution that we take for granted today, but was quite a new thing in the Greco-Roman world. Hospitals, for example, are a Christian invention. On the other hand, the church could not shake off slavery and some New Testament writers temporized with it to some extent although it doesn’t go well with the teachings of Jesus. The establishment of Christianity in the Roman Empire didn’t save Christians from persecution as much as is commonly believed. Rather, persecution was redirected to different groups of Christians believed to be heretical. Which is to say that the although the Church advanced many Gospel values, it was also compromised by the political structures as well. Throughout the centuries, there are numerous examples of the church directly engaging in or condoning collective violence. The lynching of African-Americans in the United States is an egregious example where the mimetic prosecutorial process recurred with obliviousness of what was going on.
The “old” violence had the veneer of the sacred. With the “new”violence, this veneer has eroded. Or so it seems. Many thinkers of the past two centuries say that human culture has been secularized. Girard thinks the Gospel can be blamed or credited with this development as the truth of the victim revealed in Jesus topples the idols of the primitive sacred. But what has happened is what the Catholic theologian Thomas Cavanaugh calls the “migration of the Holy.” Sacred Kingship, a vestige of the primitive sacred faded away but the secular state took on the trappings of divinity, requiring of its members the devotion formerly offered to the gods. Political leaders have been raised up as new idols. New “secular” myths have arisen such as the classless state of Marxism and the deification of The Market. Both myths replace divine Providence with a transcendent force that runs the world through its supposed omniscience and omnipotence. Both of these myths make economics the prime matter of the universe, which makes them mirror images of one another.
Another sea change is the status of the victim. In ancient times, nobody wanted to be a victim or be thought to be a victim. There was honor in ruling others and making victims of others, but there was no honor in being a victim. Israel was the outlier with the prophetic extolling of “the Poor of Yahweh.” As Paul pointed out, declaring a victim on the cross to be the anointed one of God was an unbelievable scandal. But over the centuries since this scandal broke, the position of the victim has become the desirable place, a place of entitlement. Nowadays, almost everybody claims to be a victim, even the richest and the most famous. Everywhere we see a frantic mimetic rivalry as to who is the greatest victim with the most entitlements. In this scramble for inverted status, however, most people still avoid actually being victims. The entitlement of victim status has become a means of making victims of other people, Victims have become protean as they becomes victimizers, create enemies who make victims of them so that these enemies must be made victims. . . And so the real victims become invisible once again.
The biggest difference between the new violence and the old is that collective violence no longer “works” and it simply cannot ever regain the efficacy it once had. The risen forgiving victim has blown the cover and it can’t be put back on. This failure is not for want of trying as one can see from the daily news. Collective violence had worked as a tourniquet keeping the society together but the tourniquet required unanimity minus one. With the “new” violence, even if everybody in a town agrees to lynch a black person, someone in the next town or next state will cry “foul!” as Mark Twain did in his masterful article “Lyncherdom in America.” The victim had been the lynch pin (bad pun intended) of society but now that center will not hold. This is why the death of Osama bin Laden didn’t bring the closure some people expected. This violence can only spin out of control to apocalyptic proportions as we swamp the world with accusation and vengeance. The only possible center now available is God’s Desire, a desire that there be no more victims. We now need to look at practical ways in which we can enter into and live by this divine Desire.
In his epistles, Paul used various images for the Church which he defined as the Body of Christ. In baptism, we are all brought into the body of the Forgiving Victim who was killed by means of human wrath and vindicated by his heavenly Abba through the resurrection. It is important to note that all the wrath is on the human side. On God’s side there is only love and forgiveness. The notion that “God” killed Jesus out of wrath over human sin is a projection of the human rage that persists in the face of God’s Desire that we all enter into union with the Forgiving Victim. This Body bears the wounds of all victims from the dawn of civilization up to the present day and into the future for as long as we create more victims. Of the biblical images for the church I especially like that in First Peter: a holy temple made up of living stones. A stone is pretty inert but a living stone combines the solidity of a stone with the vitality of a human person. The image suggests both individuality on the part of each member that has been called out of the crowd and a new solidarity in Christ with all the other members and ultimately with all humanity. This temple filled with living stones is not identical with the institutional church, although I hope there is some overlap. Because of mimetic rivalry, a problem Paul had to deal with, and the church’s persecutory behavior, some people have been too hurt to be joiners. Also, many people are deeply rooted in other religious traditions that nourish them. It is important, however, to realize that the mimetic fields of collective violence are too strong for individual humans to withstand. We need to create a new culture after our escape from slavery under Pharaoh, and it takes a lot more than one person, no matter how talented, to do that. A new culture requires that we be joiners one way or another.
As the Creator, God continually wills us into being. That is, God wills each of us as individuals, not cogs in a mechanical universe or drops in the sea of a persecutory crowd. This means that as living stones, we, in turn, should will the individuality of each person as God wills the individuality of each person. This requires a renunciation of mimetic rivalry, of seeking “victories” over other people in the game of life. Such care for the individuality of others is modeled on Christ the Good Shepherd, who left the ninety-nine to seek out the one stray. This is not neglect of the ninety-nine; this is the care Jesus shows for each one of us. This care is the polar opposite of the sacrificial logic of Caiaphas who said it was better for one person to die for the people. The image of the Good Shepherd is tied in with forgiveness as this parable is told in conjunction with the Parable of the Lost Coin and, more relevantly, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. As living stones in the temple of God, we value the individuality of each person, each living stone, with forgiveness. Forgiveness is the fullest renunciation of seeking “victory” over other people. Jesus himself is the all-time loser by returning from the dead as the forgiving victim rather than the avenging victor. The deepest and most important ministry of the Church as the Body of Christ is to be instruments of forgiveness in a world still full of satanic accusation. Such forgiveness is indeed soft but is not as soft as one might think. As with the apostolic preaching, it is both a proclamation of forgiveness and a challenge to repent. We cannot accept forgiveness without accepting accountability for our own participation in scapegoating and the many other crimes that flow from that. Note, however that Jesus has reversed the order of repenting and then being forgiven. The Good Shepherd goes after the stray with forgiveness. Repentance is the free response to forgiveness. Or not, if we prefer the hell of our vengeance. Giving up vengeance is very difficult, especially if our identity is deeply tied to it. It can require a long process of letting go, which cannot be forced or rushed. Most important, forgiveness is ultimately God’s work. Our letting go is opening the way for God to enter our deepest hurts with God’s gift of forgiveness.
The deepest way the Church binds and enlivens the living stones who make up the Body of Christ is through worship. Since the dawn of civilization, ritual has strongly reinforced the sacrificial rites that institutionalized the primal collective violence. When Nebuchadnezzar threw the three young men into the fiery furnace for not bowing down before his idols, he had his musicians strike up the band. On the other hand, worship has given structure to the lives of most people over the centuries and fed the longing we all have for a Being transcendent to us. Jesus himself inherited a rich tradition of ritual and moved that tradition in another direction. From this inheritance, Christian worship consists primarily of the liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
The liturgy of the Word is the reading of and listening to the Holy Scriptures, often with reflections in the form of a homily or sermon comprising the first half of a Eucharist or a service comprised of hymns, psalms, and scripture, of which the Divine Office is a prominent example. The use of the psalter, the backbone of the office developed by the monastic tradition, is especially important and the Psalter is gaining use by many Christians in recent years. The Psalter is eminently suited to be the prayer book of the Church because of its comprehensiveness of the various moods of prayer, ranging from ecstatic joy in the Lord to the depths of despair and doubt. The most prominent and dramatic type of psalm is the persecution lament. Here, the voice of the victim is allowed to be heard to a degree unheard of elsewhere in the ancient world. In psalm after psalm, the Psalmist complains that everybody is ganging up on him or her with fierce persecution. Many of these psalms have been interpreted by the Church as prophecies of Christ’s passion. With the help of Girard’s insights, we can see that the persecutions were happening at the time the psalms were composed. These psalms are prophetic in the sense that they reveal the truth of what is happening. That the psalms could be read as narratives of Jesus’ Passion goes to show that there was nothing new in the persecution of Jesus; it’s what the power brokers and the mob had been doing all along. Liturgical use of the psalms keeps the worshiper well in touch with the truth of the victim, as well as giving voice to our own trials as victims. The psalms also shake any complacency we may have about forgiveness as many of them show us just how hard forgiveness can be in the heat of battle.
The Eucharist is derived from the Last Supper. Although scholars disagree as to whether it was a Passover meal, its proximity to that feast provides the background for it nonetheless. Like baptism, the Eucharist is thus tied to the Exodus from Egypt, making it a new Exodus, a non-violent Exodus with no plagues and no mass drownings. Jesus himself is the Paschal Lamb sacrificed, not to God, but to the powers that be. As baptism is the entry into a new culture, the kingship of God that Jesus preached, the Eucharist is the meal that feeds us on the journey into the kingship. Jesus admonition that we eat and drink in memory of him is not a matter of recalling a past event. For Jews, memory is about making the past present in the here and now. The death of Jesus and his resurrection as the Forgiving Victim are present as we tell the story and eat the bread and drink the wine. Unfortunately, many attempts to define this presence has led to dissensions in what is supposed to be the sacrament of unity. Perhaps it should be enough to eat and drink in the faith that we are being fed by the very life of Jesus. Far from coveting the very being of a rival, Jesus gives his being to us so that we can become our true selves grounded in Christ.
One absorbs God’s Desire through meditative reading of scripture and contemplative prayer, better known today as centering prayer. These practices are closely related since reading scripture naturally moves into centering prayer. Both practices are supported by participation in the liturgy.
The proper reading habit for scripture is to read prayerfully. The old monastic term lectio is being used again in our time. A common admonition is to read for formation rather than information. In reading scripture, we need to try to tune in to God’s Desire working through the twists and turns of highly flawed people. Girard’s theory about primordial violence and how it continues to work helps us to see that scripture reveals violence; it does not advocate it. This insight gives us a strong sense of direction for how we can learn from the violent parts of scripture without being absorbed by it or being driven to shun these passages altogether. Given the many threads in scripture, it is inevitable that we will pick and choose. Many writers denounce cherry pickers of the Bible but I have yet to come across anybody who wasn’t a cherry picker. People who make the most noise about taking everything in scripture with equal seriousness always end up insisting on everybody holding strictly to a few favorite verses and quietly dropping the rest. Given this problem, what should we do? The best suggestion I can make is to note that Jesus did a lot of cherry picking with scripture and our best bet is to try to pick the same cherries as Jesus did. An example of Jesus’ cherry picking is his first sermon in Luke where he reads from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” But Jesus pointedly stops short of the following phrase in Isaiah: “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Isaiah proclaimed favor with Vengeance. Jesus, proclaimed favor without vengeance, which fits in well his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount and his own practice as the risen forgiving victim.
A passage in Revelation, a book filled with hideous violence, gives us a key to the right way of cherry picking. The One seated on the throne holds a scroll. The question is: Who is worthy to open the scroll? That is, who shows us how to read scripture? One of the elders around the throne says: “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev. 5: 5) So, like all who wait for God to come and fix the wagons of our enemies, we await a lion who will come and pounce on all the bad guys (ourselves excepted). But instead of the Lion, the “Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” enters to take the scroll. That is, the slain lamb is the key to scripture, the key to history, the key to God’s Desire. Later in the book, much violence unfolds before the Lamb, but it is not the Lamb who commits the violence; it is human violence such as we see all around us today.
Contemplative prayer can be defined as resting in God’s Desire, soaking in God’s Desire. Pure and simple. Except being still and quiet enough to rest in God’s Desire is a considerable challenge. We have already taken in God’s Desire in the Eucharist and chewed on it in Lectio. Now we rest in God’s Desire and soak it in. Several techniques for contemplative prayer have been taught over the centuries. One simple technique is to use a prayer word such as “Love” or a short phrase to focus one’s attention on God, hence its contemporary name of centering prayer. Some people do better to focus on a passage of scripture or an image of scripture and then let the prayer simplify itself in due time. A lot of our own desires will surface along the way, and not just the ones we are comfortable with. But even the most unsavory desires, our anger, our hurts, surface in the sea of God’s boundless forgiving desire for each of us to flourish. Even when contemplative prayer is done alone, as it often is, we find ourselves naturally reaching out to everybody, even those who frustrate us most. And given the power of mimetic desire, contemplative prayer in groups such as in a Quaker meeting or a Centering Prayer group, can strengthen and uphold all of us. It is contemplative prayer that teaches us in our deepest inner being that in God, there is no mimetic rivalry, not a trace of resentment. This is the greatest mystery of God, that much as we keep defining ourselves through our rivalries, God has no need of such things, which is why God is so undefinable in God’s endless abyss of love and letting be.