Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Violence and the Kingdom of God: Introducing the Anthropology of Rene Girard

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Violence and the Kingdom of God: Introducing the Anthropology of Rene Girard

Article excerpt

The claims the French thinker Rene Girard makes for his anthropological theory are as sweeping as they are bold. His theory explains both the root cause for violence and the origin of archaic religions, and then offers a strong apologia for the truth revealed in the Gospels. Girard's theory puts a finger on the wrenching paradox of our time: the growing ethical concern for victims even while violence escalates at all levels.

Rene Girard is a Roman Catholic layman who was converted to the Church of his upbringing in the course of developing his theory. Girard himself does not claim to be doing theology, but rather, emphasizes the anthropological dimension of his thought. The importance of his thought for theology, however, is considerable. Gil Bailie, James Alison and Raymund Schwager are among the theologians who have worked on the Girard thesis and I have made use of their work as well as Girard's.

The Role of Mimesis in Human Violence

The anthropological characteristic that Girard sees as most fundamental to human behavior is mimesis. Human beings are creatures who imitate. Without mimesis, there would be no human culture. We only learn to talk and act in society by copying the behavior modeled to us by others. Through mimesis, our thoughts and desires are intertwined with the thoughts and desires of others. Mimesis does not have to lead to conflict as a matter of principle, but as a matter of daily fact, it does. The conflictive aspect of mimesis can be observed in the nursery. When one child reaches for a toy, another child suddenly wants that same toy, but not any of the other toys in the room. As adults, we might manage to repress acquisitive mimesis in this open a form, but this restraint does not necessarily save us from acting like children.l Two men might create a triangle because one man's desire for a woman inflames the other man's desire for that same woman.2 Mimetic conflict can escalate to very dangerous levels when two or more people become more and more preoccupied with each other, rather than with the bone of their contention. The object of rivalry dissolves in the heat of this conflict and mimetic rivalry degenerates into conflict for the sake of conflict. The rivals become mirror images of each other, returning tit-for-tat endlessly. They become what Girard calls "mimetic doubles."3 The more intensely two people engage in mimetic rivalry, the more likely it is that more people will join in. It is possible for such conflict to reach epidemic proportions to the extent that the existence of the society is threatened.

Sacred Violence

Girard argues that when the contagion of mimetic rivalry reached a boiling point in archaic societies, peace suddenly and mysteriously emerged out of the chaos of all against all. How did this happen? At the crucial point, when a society teetered on the brink of destroying itself, the mimetic contagion suddenly focused on one person. This one person, and this person only, was deemed responsible for all of the social chaos. This responsible person was then killed through spontaneous mob violence. The immediate relief of peace and order was dramatic. So great was the sense of awe in the face of what happened that the person killed was then worshiped as a deity. The person who was totally responsible for the social violence became totally responsible for the peace. Girard refers to this process as a scapegoating mechanism. This "solution" was not the result of human ingenuity. Rather, the social escalation of mimetic contagion itself triggered the mechanism of collective violence. In order for collective violence to stabilize a society, it is essential that nobody suffer a moral hangover as a result of the event. One dissenting voice spoils everything. Moreover, the lynching of the victim must not be seen for what it was. There must be a total forgetting of what actually happened.

While the truth of the collective violence had to be forgotten, it was also necessary to sustain the camaraderie generated by that violence. …

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