Several years ago, I read the book “I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning” by French literary critic Rene Girard. Girard has a fascinating theory that human beings learn desire by imitation. In a recent Gospel Coalition article, Joe Carter explains this concept this way: “Just as an infant learns to speak by imitating the language of his or her parents, we learn how to desire by imitating what others desire. When we’re toddlers, we want the toys the other toddlers want—a behavior that continues throughout adulthood.”
Girard calls this imitation of desire “mimetic desire” and it can be positive or negative, resulting in either mutual love/respect or “mimetic rivalry.” When mimetic desire turns into envy and rivalry, this inevitably escalates into conflict and violence. As Carter further explains:
“Girard argues that such rivalries can develop to the point where people forget the object of their desire and begin to imitate their rival’s antagonism. This antagonism and violence, which starts at the individual level, can eventually spread throughout the community and lead to a “war of all-against-all.” The violence threatens to destroy everyone involved, unless the antagonism is channeled toward a “war of all-against-one,” violence against a sacrifice—the scapegoat.”
As the mimetic rivalry escalates, it affects all parts of society until there is this widespread, insatiable, cathartic need for violence. According to Girard, in order appease this collective desire for violence, the society (or the mob) directs this violence toward a scapegoat. Almost all ancient cultures have some kind of ritualistic sacrifice involved in their origin.
There have been many fascinating connections made between Girard’s theory and the plot of Christopher Nolan’s Batman series. My friend Jonathan Lipps wrote a blog several years ago that explores how Girard’s theory plays out in the Batman story which is what inspired me to read the book in the first place.
I’ve been disheartened lately at how polarizing the world seems to be. I find it ironic that in an increasingly pluralistic society, where morality and values are more and more subjected to individualistic opinion, that people become increasingly defensive, vitrolic, hateful–dare I say violent–when their own subjective views and opinions seem violated or infringed upon.
- A school bus monitor in upstate New York is horrifically and verbally abused by some disrespectful 8th graders. The mob wants to respond by threatening the boys, tearing them apart verbally and calling for their own abuse.
- A tragic shooting in Colorado prompts a sudden spike in gun sales. The mob reacts by buying even more guns and ammunition, upping the ante of potential violence even more.
- The recent call to boycott Chik-Fil-A due to what was perceived by many to be homophobic, hateful comments is just the latest skirmish in a decades-long conflict between gay marriage supporters and opposers. Regardless of who “started” the hate and violence on this particular issue, both mobs on both sides of the issue have escalated the fear, hate and violence over the years. Chik-Fil-A just happens to be the scapegoat of choice today. And what kind of a world do we live in where the Muppets are now at war with the Chik-Fil-A cows?
If Girard is correct, the boycott of Chik-Fil-A will only satisfy the mob temporarily.
The beauty of Christianity is that we have a God who became the scapegoat for us. Instead of being a political candidate, a warrior, or even a mere philosopher, Christ came as a humble carpenter that lived a perfect life and He sacrificed himself for us. That the violence, wrath and “mimetic rivalry” that had built up in humanity for thousands of years culminating in a single cosmic moment, when the perfect son of God absorbed the ultimate punishment and became our scapegoat.
I don’t know why so many people who claim to follow Christ still respond to situations with hate and bigotry. I don’t know when “love your enemies” (a radically outrageous and subversive command in a traditional Eastern society) meant only love the people who vote the same way that you do, live in the same neighborhood that you do, and believe the same things you believe. I don’t know when “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” meant posting picket signs, email threads, blog posts and comments with the intent to hurt and malign the value and dignity of another human being.
I do believe that whatever is broken inside of us–the thing that makes us continually, chronically respond in that way–that is what Christ came to redeem, heal and restore. I have to keep believing that when we come up against any incident or situation (be it work, politics, home, relationships, what’s on the blogreel or newsreel) that causes anger, frustration, and rivalry to well up inside of our own flawed human hearts, when we become tempted to imitate the mob negatively–when we step into mimetic rivalry–we do nothing but contribute to the endless cycle of violence. Or we can imitate the One who’s already initiated and carved the way out of the cycle by becoming our scapegoat. We need to continually and habitually look to the One who has infinite grace and patience for our own ignorance and offenses–and follow the way of Love.