1. What Is Mimetic Theory?
Today, there is a suspicion regarding ‘grand theories.’ The good old days of the Enlightenment appear to be over. We are told that we live in a multi-cultural world, that language is polyvalent, that meaning has been dislocated from texts. There is disdain for looking at the big picture. There is no big picture we are told. There is no desire for theories which ‘totalize.’
In the midst of this intellectual ambiguity, there is a group of thinkers who suggest that in fact, we can see the big picture. These are the folks who use mimetic theory. What a strange combination of words. Mimesis or imitation is hardly a theory. We all learn by imitation or copying another. Trades, arts, math, reading, science, values, behavior, attitudes, orientations, perspectives, these are all imitated by all of us from our birth to our death. So to call imitation a theory seems silly, it is all too real.
On the other hand, mimetic theory is about more than the act of imitation, it is about a generative mechanism (sort of like AI). Imitation has its consequences, these consequences are the ‘theoretical’ part of mimetic theory.
Mimetic theory, like all the best theories, is simple in formulation. Theory (from the Gk theorizein) is a way of seeing. We all operate with working assumptions about the world, ourselves and even ‘Transcendence.’ These working assumptions constitute our worldviews, what we conceive of as possible within our way of seeing.
Mimetic theory is a way of looking at humanity; it is anthropology, a way we have of describing ourselves. In this article I would suggest some of the components of mimetic theory and why I think that churches seeking to become peace churches would benefit from learning mimetic theory. But that is a little like saying physicists in 1910 would benefit from looking at E=mc2.
What is mimetic theory? Let me offer an illustration I use in almost all of my published work, that almost all of us have experienced. Imagine, if you will
“Two children are in a room full of toys. As soon as one of them reaches out for a toy, as soon as one toy becomes the object of desire, the second child imitates the first child. The first child is a model. As both children now focus their attention on that one toy, a rivalry ensues. The model has ‘issued’ a double bind in his act of reaching; at one and the same time he makes the toy an object of desire by reaching for it and as soon as he reaches for the toy an implied prohibition is sent, the toy belongs to him because he had it first. The rivalry, as most parents can attest, usually turns violent.”
There you have it. Mimetic theory explains the root of violence in the imitation of desire. I want what you want, you want what I want. Desire itself is non-consciously imitated. We fight because we do not recognize that we cannot find fulfillment, being, in another human.
James 1:14 says, (reflecting on the Adam/Eve/Abel/Cain narrative): “Each one is tested when, by his own desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin (rivalry), and sin, when it is full grown gives birth to death (murder, war).” And that is mimetic theory in a nutshell.
Let’s look at this phenomenon of imitated desire and its relation to violence
2. Mimetic Desire and Violence
Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you. I do not give you peace as the world gives.” In the Gospel of John, the term ‘world’ (kosmos) refers to the rebellious situation in which humanity finds itself. It is the ‘world’ and ‘worldly powers’ that will reject and crucify Jesus. And the world has a way of making peace.
When our desires are all being imitated from another, and we are unaware of this, we all think that anything we want is because desires arises from within us, we all wanted something first. We are autonomous individuals. But desire, in mimetic theory, is an interpersonal thing. We are not conceived of as autonomous, not as individual but as interdividual. We are our relationships. So, we are all dancing together, as a species, to the tune of this ‘below the surface’, nonconscious imitation of desire. I would say that we do not ‘have desires’ as much as desires have us.
And objects of desire can both physical and ideal. Cars and power. Sometimes the two are combined, as anyone who has ever watched a commercial knows. There is a celebrity or a pretty girl, or the promise of power on the highway, a better car, a faster car, a nicer car than one’s neighbors. And we desire that nice car. We desire its benefits. It will get us that pretty girl, or our neighbors envy. Madison Ave, consumer culture, capitalism are all forms of principalities and powers that play on our mimetic desire.
Objects of desire range from money to fame, respect to real estate, love to sex, holiness to lawn mowers. Anything can be an object of desire. But since we can’t all have everything, we will fight.
When the fighting, the mimetic rivalries, within a group escalate the group is threatened and mimetic violence provides its own outlet. From the chaos of rivalry, a chorus emerges which identifies the problem or source of this communal disease. A pointed finger or a whisper is imitated, someone is blamed, someone is guilty. That someone is the victim. Persecution of the victim is the transfer of the dynamics of rivalrous desire onto the victim, collectively blaming, attributing guilt for the crisis to the victim (“it’s their fault, they started it”).
As the victim is sacrificed to the collective rage, the immediate consequences of the mimetic crisis are subdued having been ‘transferred’ to the victim. The group now experiences unity or peace. And this is how the world gives peace. Peace through strength, peace through violence, peace by passing our sins onto the other (sin is kind of like a moral hot potato game, look at the way sin is passed off in Genesis 3 and 4). This is what the principalities and powers know of peace.
But Jesus’ peace is not like that. Jesus’ peace is not grounded in violence done to a victim; Jesus scapegoats no one. Instead Jesus becomes the innocent victim in order to reveal the dynamics of human violence. This is the argument of the Letter to the Hebrews, Jesus is both the offering and the priest, his offering is a self-willed offering of life, not the taking of life. Jesus’ peace comes as self-giving. The world’s peace comes as the result of transferred hostility. They are two totally different things.
When God raised Jesus from the dead, there was (and is) a clear vindication of something about Jesus. We need to understand how the ‘world’ covers up and hides its victims and how God raising Jesus from the dead is the ultimate revelation of all our hidden victims.
3. Mimetic Rivalry
Western Christianity in the 21st century faces many complex problems. It’s major problem, however, is Jesus. Jesus doesn’t seem to fit our solution to violence. We poured our sins (our collective rivalrous hatred) out on him. He should have stayed dead. Then the transfer would have worked. He would have a made a good scapegoat for us. But he had the audacity to believe that he would be raised from the dead. And he was. Our collective violence was exposed for what it is, a false attribution of guilt, an attempt to reground our community, our society, our ‘world’ on victims. What the gospels show us is our propensity to solve our problems with violence. That is why, in the words of Simone Weil, "in the gospels there is a theory of humanity."
Jesus’ non-violence has been a puzzle for many throughout the history of Christianity. Some see Jesus as idealistic as though Jesus was a Platonist. Others see his posture of non-violence as cheesy or cowardly or an interim ethic. During the mimetic crisis of the late third and fourth centuries, the church began to modify Jesus’ non-violent ethic, suggesting that it was not a universal way of life. It was not for the State, but for the Church, not for the warrior but for the peasant, not for the master but for the slave (Oh, Nietzsche!). Constantine’s wedding of Christianity with state recognition began a process that found an eager ally in Augustine, who was watching the Roman Empire come apart in his lifetime. In his argument for the right of the State to maintain stability, Augustine would justify the use of force. And he would do this as a follower of the non-violent Jesus. We, in the West, are almost all heirs of Augustine in one way or another. And so Jesus’ non-violence doesn’t make much sense to us.
Yet, what is revealed in the life and death of Jesus and vindicated in his resurrection is, first, we ourselves and then, once we have looked at ourselves and our violent gods truthfully, the Abba of the Universe.
Jesus’ God is not the god of violence, the god of mimetic doubles. Jesus God does not kill, as do the other gods, Jesus’ God does not demand sacrifice, as do the other gods, Jesus’ God neither requires nor justifies the taking of life, as do the other gods. There are no ifs ands or buts about this. There is no wiggle room here. Jesus’ revelation of the character of God is distinct.
Jesus challenges our mimetic desires, rivalries and scapegoating in the Sermon on the Mount. Here, we are enjoined to desire God alone, to live in communion, trust and the love of God, and to refrain from judging (scapegoating) others. This is more than a code of ethics, it is a way of life, a way of perceiving human social relations, a way of living together. In fact, it is the way we shall live together in the kingdom of God, which is coming.
We can either live in mimetic rivalry or we can live in love. We live in mimetic rivalry when we desire the desire of the other or when we desire to be desired. We live in love when we desire God, who desires to love all and expresses that desire incarnate in Jesus, whom we are enjoined to imitate as his apprentices (disciples).
This article is an invitation to read the Bible, and indeed any literature, from the perspective of mimetic theory. It is what Bonhoeffer called, ‘the view from below.’ It is the prophetic voice of the Jewish Scriptures reminding us that true religion is caring for the victim (the marginalized and defenseless). It is understanding that it is all about the death of Jesus; a theology of the cross is a theory of the divine Scapegoat.
I have found that when I read humanity and its literature from this perspective, I am compelled to face my own violence by recognizing my own complicity in mimetic desire. I am humbled by this fact and am constantly being turned to Jesus, who is turned to God (John 1:1-2). And I find my redemption is learning and seeking to desire his desire alone.
The next section will look at the origin and demise of scapegoating.
4. Violence and Non-violence
“In the beginning was the weapon.” My friend Andrew McKenna is speaking tongue in cheek here, but he has put his finger on something important. He has suggested that we go to the beginning and see that the consequence of Genesis 2-3 (mimesis, rivalry, and blaming) lead to Genesis 4 (murder and culture). Genesis 4 says that after the murder Cain went out and built a city. For who? Himself? Mom and dad? No. The city is a reference to the human culture. And human culture begins with weapons.
Not so divine culture.
“In the beginning was the Logos.” (John 1:1) This Logos is face to face with God. This Johannine logos is the structuring principle of divine culture. Now Logos is a term from Greek philosophy and refers to that which orders or structures the kosmos. The problem is that the Greek logos is a violent logos. The pre-Socratics (Hereclitus) recognized that violence structured reality and so ‘divinized’ the concept. In Greek logos theory (in western culture), violence is deified. That which IS, is violent.
Yet the Johannine Logos comes into fleshly form, is non-violent and is rejected. The true logos which enlightens everyone, the true structuring principle is extruded, excluded and murdered. If the violent logos represents the gods of violence, the logos of John’s Gospel represents the non-violent God. Not for nothing but Niebuhr doesn’t have a chapter (in Christ and Culture) titled Christ for Culture. Humanity and God structure the ‘world’ on two different principles.
Mimetic theory talks a lot about origins, the origin of language, of social constructions, of ritual, myth and law. We moderns are not the first to be concerned with origins, the Bible also talks about origins. But when we are in denial about the violence at the origin and core of our humanness, we lie to ourselves about our origins. That is, we hide our victims from ourselves. We buy into the lie that victims deserved what they got. And they got what they got because they were bad people or because they had offended the deity. We show great concern for the victims of others but deny that our victims are innocent. That is, we can see others’ scapegoating, but fail to see it in ourselves. And so we imagine ourselves as ‘good’, as having been derived from ‘the good’, that is, good violence, justified violence, righteous violence.
When we do so, we are sucked right into the trap of mimetic violence, into the lies and murders of our structuring principle, the devil. Human culture, grounded in negative mimesis and violence, is demonic culture. There is no difference between the time of Cain and that of Jesus, nor our own time. From the beginning, we humans have tended to evolve ever more toward violence and the justification of violence. Only now, it is becoming apparent that building human culture on violence is like building on sand. And it is the gospel, the story of Jesus that has created this awareness.
Yet, today, even though we know this, the Middle East is exploding in one mimetic crisis after another. Objects of desire (land, oil, resources) have brought nations against nations to loggerheads. And no suitable scapegoat seems to be found. The US and the Iraqi government has tried to make Saddam Hussein a scapegoat but this has not worked, not because Saddam is not guilty but because we know that GWB and Tony Blair lied. Osama bin Laden might make a suitable scapegoat were it not for the fact that he, GWB, Tony Blair, Jack Straw, Dick Cheney and others are all mimetic doubles. Scapegoating needs unanimity, and a coalition of the willing does not constitute unanimity. In short, it is the gospel which impedes the Administration’s efforts to reconstitute the world on victims.
Whether we like it or not, the origins of America are in mimetic violence. America has a litany, a procession of victims upon which it has grown and thrived. Being a peace church in such a culture means recognizing the ways in which we have been deceived about ourselves, the way we look at ourselves, the way we understand ourselves, the way we interpret ourselves. It means renouncing acquisitive or appropriation desire and surrendering, letting go (Phil 2:5-11). This is the way of Jesus.
In the next section we will explore how religion and violence serve one another
5. Violence and Religion
Our reflections on mimetic theory have thus far shown us that there is a great distinction to be made between Jesus’ teaching on following him and the cultural call to participate (justly) in violence. In fact, it is a chasm or even an abyss between the two. Peace churches today do more than stand for non-violence or active non-resistance. Peace churches challenge the entire strategy of the ‘principalities and powers’ that control and guide violence. By going behind violence to acquisitive mimesis, the church announces that Jesus is not only Lord over violence and death, but of desire as well. To follow Jesus is to repent of the ways we culturally desire and to imitate him in his desire for God alone. Talk about the rubber meeting the road.
We can make a further important connection between violence and religion using mimetic theory. Mimetic theory suggests that religion arises from violence. This ‘mechanism’, this cultural strategy of violence, of transferring collective hostility begins in the dim mists of our human ancestors. The eventual awareness that the repetition of the scapegoat mechanism in a crisis resolved the crisis created a means by which social conflicts could be alleviated, a means, a ritual that could be used when necessary. Human sacrifice. To appease the gods. To bring the benefits of peace and security and stability.
This repetition is religion, the practice of using sacrificial violence to bring peace in the community and peace with God.
But there is more. The victim is judged guilty by the community, as the bringer of misfortune (all the pent up mimesis). But after the expulsion or sacrifice of the victim, the community experiences something good, unity or peace. This is attributed to the victim as well, and over time the victim begins to assume the status of divinity. This double valence of attribution, first demonization, then divinization (the attribution of power), makes the victim the first ‘thing’ with a double meaning. The first symbol as it were.
Think about it. We call a tree a tree and a flower a flower and not a book, we call a pencil a pencil and not an ice cube. We do not call a CD an apple or a chair a first class ticket. Yet the victim is the first ‘reality’ that has this double meaning, first this, then that. Religion seeks to maintain the duality of this view of transcendence, attributing both divine and demonic aspects to God, both violence and reconciliation, both mercy and vengeance, both love and hate. And it arrogates to itself the priestly role of ritualizing the sacrificial mechanism.
Jesus came to break apart this connection and to suggest that God was forgiving, not retaliatory. Jesus understood that "violence is not an attribute of God" (Epistle to Diognetus, 2nd Century CE). Jesus did not come to found a new religion but to announce that the Kingdom of God put an end to all religions. What count’s is faith in the loving Creator and sharing that love with others.
6. References and Resources
Why should peace church pastors and lay leaders and Sunday School classes and Bible studies and seminarians learn mimetic theory?
Mimetic theory is being tested all over the social sciences. From psychology, sociology, economics, political theory, linguistics, various anthropological disciplines, and now even the physics of nanotechnology to theology, biblical studies, and philosophy, mimetic theory has proven itself as a valid model over and over again. It just makes sense.
Where should one start?
Many of you probably have a Girardian teaching near you. They are usually members of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion. Take a course at their college or seminary.
Read the work of Rene Girard, the premier interpreter of mimetic theory. I would recommend either his book I See Satan Fall as Lightning or The Girard Reader edited by James G. Williams.
I began by reading Raymund Schwager’s Must There Be Scapegoats? There are excellent biblical and theological studies using mimetic theory. James G. Williams' The Bible, Violence and the Sacred is a very good introduction. Violence Renounced, edited by Willard Swartley contains many valuable essays applying mimetic theory to Scripture. Folks have really appreciated Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled and James Alison’s Raising Abel.
There are excellent online resources:
The Colloquium on Violence and Religion,
Dietmar Regensburger (Web Editor), Faculty of Catholic Theology, University of Innsbruck, Austria. This is the official website for exploration, criticism, and development of René Girard‘s Mimetic Theory.
Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary, by Paul Nuechterlein.
Understanding the Bible Anew Through the Mimetic Theory of René Girard.
My Core Convictions: Nonviolence and the Christian Faith, by Paul Nuechterlein.
Girardian Annotated Bibilography & Links Page, by Paul Nuechterlein.
Preaching Peace, by Michael Hardin. Preaching Peace has introductory articles on mimetic theory as well as many essays applying mimetic theory, a blog, Bible Studies, and comments on the Lectionary gospel texts.
James Alison Theology Webpage , by James Alison.
The Cornerstone Forum: Enriching Faith and Engaging Culture,
by Gil Bailie.
7. About René Girard
I would like to conclude with a few paragraphs that I wrote for an essay in honor of Rene Girard. Rene is truly a gift of God to the church. His humility is as deep as his scholarship is deep, even though his work on mimetic theory has been compared to the likes of Hegel, Freud and Einstein. Mimetic theory has generated institutes and journals. It is here to stay. And because it gives us such an honest and yet hopeful picture of humanity, it is more valuable than all of the dualistic anthropologies of the western tradition.
“Rene has also called attention to the work of the Spirit in the world in a way that is not limited to the narrow notions, confines and limitations of most churches. His work on the Paraclete has called attention to the fact that God is at work throughout our history, our institutions, our great writers and artists and indeed all those who recognize the deconstructive power of the gospel. The corollary to this is Rene’s appreciation for the apocalyptic element in the gospel and the recognition that as the gospel is preached and the Spirit is at work, the mechanism which grounds human culture is coming to an end. Throughout the history of the church there have been those who have felt themselves on the edge of a temporal abyss but in our post 9-11 world, which has become increasingly globalized and capable of exterminating the human race, we recognize the Hobbesian possibility of the final collapse of human civilization, as we know it.
In the midst of this working of the Spirit and realizing that as we preach the gospel we contribute to the destructuring of the world, we are not doomsayers. People avidly seek something other than the violence, hatred, and vengeance generated by the coordinates of religion and culture. Rather than turn these seekers outward to a false transcendence, to a kingdom by and by, we, like the early Christians, turn our attention to the needy, the outcast, and the victims of our cultural breakdowns. While we may indeed have an eschatological hope for the renewal of creation and all of humanity, we are not lead out of ourselves in pseudo religious ecstasy but deeper into our own communities.
I have come to believe that the essential transformation of Christian theology can and will only occur when we begin our anthropology and our theology from the point of reference provided by the cross of Jesus. In other words, from the point of view of the victim, or what Bonhoeffer called ‘the view from below.’ Contemporary hermeneutical dilemmas fade away. Preaching that takes its cue from an ‘ism’ is graciously regenerated by the Spirit given in the cross of Jesus; the perspective of the persecutor and the justification of victimage no longer hold sway (John 7:37-39, I Cor 3). As Christian preachers we are not bound to take our cues from inherited theological paradigms that are infected with the myth making violence of religion, instead we find the exposure and defeat of all violence in the forgiving victim of the Cross who represents God before us. Far from creating a new cult of victims, the forgiving victim is the singular truly transformative agent in the world. This is the power of the Spirit of Jesus in the world today.
On all sides we are assailed with cries for retaliation and revenge. Christian complicity in these chaotic pleas is exposed with the cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” It is difficult for me to read Christian theology that continues to act as though violence stops violence, power renders power ineffective or retaliation is an effective balm for emotional pain caused by suffering.
At the beginning of this twenty first century Christian preachers are faced with only two options, to either continue in preaching the mythologized version of the gospel that has come to us in various disguises, or to proclaim the good news of the gracious, ever living Creator shown in the person and message of Jesus. Rather than conceiving of Jesus through the inherited categories of the western metaphysical tradition, mimetic theory has brought about the imperative to once again perceive Jesus in his Jewishness, as one who interprets the character of his Abba to us in his actions, his words, and his miracles. In the gospels we are given the story of a human life lived before the Father, a humanity shaped by desire for the Father alone. In the face of Jesus and how he related to his contemporaries we can and may find the character of this Abba. In short, the gospels present Jesus as one who imitates his Father and in the gospels is found the liberating message that opens hearts and minds to also become imitators of the divine character.
Peace to you in your studies, actions and prayers.
Feel free to contact the author, Michael Hardin, for more information.