Girard-how violence comes from imitation

The reading project I have just started is Rene Girard’s The One By Whom Scandal Comes.

My interest in Rene Girard’s work focuses on its relevance for interpreting the Bible. So I will bring out what he says about that and then try to show how that fits into his philosophy.

He quotes Jesus from Matthew 5:38-40 where he sets the eye-for-an-eye ethic over against his advice to offer the other cheek to someone who hits you and to give even more to someone who tries to take your property, your tunic.

Many people see Jesus as supporting some kind of pacifism or utopian ethic. Others see him as naive, weak or submissive. But Girard points out that Jesus’ examples are of people who want to provoke a reaction. To give them what they want would lead to escalating conflict and violence. Jesus is offering advice to short-circuit a cycle. What they want is imitation. If you fall for this and imitate their violence, you give yourself up to the spirit of reprisal which leads to never-ending violence.

So Jesus is not denying the right to self-defense or defense of one’s property. He is not saying that the person who is about to be murdered or raped or robbed should just let it happen. Rather he is calling for a break in the cycle of retaliation and violence. Girard thinks Paul has rightly understood Jesus, when in Romans 12:20 he said that non-retaliation heaps “burning coals” on the head of the aggressor. It denies the aggressor what he really wants.

It denies the violent person the pretext for further violence. Girard says that in our world this kind of counter-intuitive response to violence has become a condition of human survival.

Girard is talking about the cycle of violence we see in terrorism. His diagnosis is that in closer knit societies that once existed there were rituals built into family and village life that kept violence in hand. Eventually this even extended to international relations. But in our global world this has all broken down. If I understand him, even the Cold War and the nuclear standoff involved ritualized diplomacy that tamped down the danger of greater violence.

But the asymmetrical warfare we see today has disabled these fail safes and allowed cycles of violence and reprisal to get out of hand.

Both human conflict and rituals that have traditionally served to avoid violence involve the idea of imitation. The ritual of the handshake is a simple example. If you offer your hand for someone to shake, you expect them to imitate your gesture. If they do not, you take offense. If their failure to shake your hand was an oversight due to distraction, your response in becoming cool to them goes one step further. Their coolness may have been unintentional. But now your coolness toward them is intentional. This is an example of how conflict escalates.

A little more complicated example is the ritual of gift giving. If I give you a gift and you give me a gift, the gifts should be of similar value. If I perceive that what you gave me is worth much less than what I gave you, I will probably be offended. On the other hand, if I imitate you exactly and give to you precisely the same thing you gave to me, that also will cause offense.

Girard sees these rituals as having the purpose of containing human conflict. And yet the possibility of offense and heightening conflict is present in the rituals themselves.

I think Girard is saying that rituals, including sacrificial religious rituals, only go so far and tend to break down. Jesus and the New Testament, however, got it right in that they present a way to interrupt the reprisal cycle in a personal and non ritualized way. More profoundly than just advice to turn the other cheek, the New Testament presents the story of the cross.

He presents these thoughts in a part of the book designated “against relativism.” He says that many today cannot deal with violence because they have no basis for judging bad behavior. I think he is holding up Jesus as a counter to relativism. Apparently, because Jesus understood the mimetic or imitative sources of violence and presented an alternative, in Jesus we have a basis to say that the cycle of violence is bad and that there is a better way.

I may modify this view as I see more where he is going.

In the past, says Girard, human violence has been explained in two ways. One of them is political and philosophical. Although human nature is good, violence results from fixable systemic imperfections like the oppression of people by powerful classes. This is the popular social justice view. The other way has been biological. Evolution, the struggle for survival, and evolved tendencies to fight or flee illuminate human violence. A more recent variety of this is to look for genetic causes of violence.

These explanations are inadequate. He calls them “sterile”. His mimetic theory will prove to be the fuller and truer explanation for violence. And it will cohere with Christian theology. It is an impressive claim. I will have to see how persuasive I find it.

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About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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