IS THE POWER OF JESUS ANY DIFFERENT?
In the sermon last week, I spoke abut the work of Rene Girard and the way in which human beings navigate power. In his book ‘I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning’ he compares the way our world wields power and the way Jesus wields power. It’s a dense book, but really unpacks something important about how human communities try to cope with our conflicts, and the way Jesus does.
DRIVEN BY DESIRE
Girard treats the gospels and all of Scripture really, not just as theological documents but as Gospel Anthropology. They describe humanity as well as God. His book is a Christian apology rooted in a Gospel-inspired social science.
So, Girard talks freely of Jesus’ power because he sees the entire history of the world in terms of power and conflict. His core principle is ‘mimesis‘ and ‘mimetic desire‘. This is a fancy way of saying that we humans want to be like each other, and want to have what the other has. To be human is to desire. We desire intensely, even when we don’t know what to desire. Humans don’t know what we want – we just desire. We only learn what we desire by seeing it in others. In desiring the other, we transcend our animal desires. Desire is not bad. Imitating and copying one another is how we learn.
The crisis arises when our imitation and envy of others naturally leads to competition. And this crisis will always arise. Girard uses the term ‘scandal’ – the impossible obstacle facing humanity. Almost all of our desires are defined and held by others. Because are desires are all borrowed from each other, our desires eventually will come into conflict. Imitation leads to rivalry. Because our desires are mimetic, always tied together, conflict is unavoidable. It is a stumbling block – or scandal.
In fact, the prouder we are of our individualism and freedom, the blinder we are to our mimetic impulses, the more we ‘bow down to individuals’. In pride we align ourselves with mimetic models. It’s their freedom and individuality we desire. In our desire to be different, we start to act the same. Our desire to be independent binds us together with those we oppose. Antagonists resemble one another more and more. Conflict dissolves the real differences between us and makes us all the same – selfish combatants. No matter how much power we have, we are not free – we are slaves to one another.
Girard sees in the Bible perhaps the only ancient document which names and unveils this mimetic rivalry as a problem. (For example; Adam and Eve find themselves in conflict over who to blame; Cain and Abel’s conflict, grounded in envy is tied to the foundation of civilization; Joseph is scapegoated for his brothers’ resentment.)
CAN RULES RESTRAINT OUR DESIRES?
Morality and prohibitions (Such as Deuteronomy 5:21) can place the brakes on this mimetic crisis. Ancient wisdom knew that desire had to be restrained. The tenth commandment ‘Do not covet’ is not about coveting any particular thing. What the commandment forbids is coveting that which belongs to the neighbor. It is the intent of desiring what your neighbor has, whatever it is, that is the source of our misery. “Since the objects we should not desire and nevertheless do desire always belong to the neighbor, it is clearly the neighbor who renders them desirable.” This is the essence of mimetic desire. Other ancient cultures found different ways to express this.
Ancient wisdom sees the danger of unfettered desire. Our culture sees no danger in desire, only in suppressing it. But more fragile communities understood that you can’t always get what you want. That’s why more ancient communities had more strict taboos about sexual, material and spiritual desire. But even such prohibitions are temporary in restraining desire. This is the argument of St. Paul in Romans. Prohibitions or rules might restrain desire, but such prohibitions, once broken, can inflame those desires (Romans 7:7-8)
Eventually, conflicted desires will multiply and our communities become a tangle of frustrations. Pressure builds and builds as our desire for each other and what each other has. This creates a mimetic crisis – a war of all against all. Love, materials, prestige all create competition which collides into theft, abuse, adultery and, ultimately, violence. Therefore, internal violence threatens every community. It is a real social crisis.
SCAPEGOATING – HOW CONFLICT IS RESOLVED
In response to this disorderly, destructive violence, a satanic, accusatory power arose to bring a certain kind of peace and resolution. Instinctively, instead of self-destructing, communities found a scapegoat or scapegoats – weak, vulnerable or specially distinct individuals or groups that could be blamed for the growing disorder. These victims are determined to be responsible for the disorder. The chaos of the community is
These victims are then killed or expelled; at first, in primitive societies, this happens suddenly and instinctively. But the cathartic experience of violence and shared blaming brings a new peace and unity. Satan (the accuser) expels Satan (the one deemed evil and responsible for the chaos). Thus, a new peace arises – based on blame and accusation.
The efficacy of this victimization then turns into ritual – rituals of sacrifice, human or not; rites of passage, dangerous and possibly deadly, to weed out the problem people; rituals of accusation and punishment, for example, witchhunts.
It is out of those rituals, unwritten and unreflective at first, that religion forms. Ritual develops over time into formalized religion, to standardize the ritual and provide narrative context. For Girard, our myths or religious stories conceal the foundational violence under all societies. They tell stories of a scapegoat, victim bringing peace, or a god dying, or gods killing other gods -no matter how fantastical, these myths cover real violence and the victim mechanism. At heart, religions throughout history have been the work of self-justifying deception. Even Christianity falls into this same trap.
Underneath all culture is a religion of victim sacrifice where one is blamed for the conflict of the many. Self-serving myths and founding stories cover up violence and make it palatable. The only story that does not do this is the founding stories of the Bible.
We divinize and therefore justify our victimization – pretending the victim is not innocent. We blame each other and seek to justify ourselves. Myths always condemn the victims and justify the crowds.
Girard uses the Satanic imagery. The foundation of our societies is the satanic act of accusation. That is what Satan means – the accuser. We cope by finding, blaming and expelling victims. And we blind ourselves to this truth by self-deceit. This too is Satanic, because Satan is the father of lies.
THE NEW HOPE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
The gospels and the rest of the New Testament reveal things that are new – things hidden since the foundation of the world.
Firstly, Jesus reveals in his teaching the truth of mimetic desire and conflict. In the sermon on the mount, he places the true issue of human conflict not in action, but in desire. It is our hearts and our eyes that are the problem. We can restrain ourselves with prohibitions, but more importantly, we must focus on what our heart desires. We must focus on desiring God, not the things of this world (material coveting). The parable of the workers in the vineyard also reveals that we do not just want to get paid, we want to get paid more than others.
Secondly, in his actions and signs, Jesus condemns the religious structures that are built referentially on the judgment of others. The Pharisee in the parable is condemned for comparing himself to the tax-collector. And the tax-collector is justified for coming humbly to God for justification. Outward, comparative religion is condemned. Humble, inner presence before God is rewarded.
Thirdly, Jesus asks us to follow him in taking up our cross. This is not an invitation to suffering, but to self-denial. We must imitate Jesus as he imitates God – generous, non-anxious and non-grasping. Jesus knew a God of incredible generosity and favor. See all the parables about prayer. God gives generously. So, we ought not to live in grasping competition, but in open-handed thanks.
Christ shows us how to release on our desires (taking up our cross) not by forbidding desire, but by giving us a new model – imitating Christ in trusting God.
“Non-Christians imagine that to be converted they must renounce an autonomy that all people possess naturally, a freedom and independence that Jesus would like to take away from them. In reality, once we imitate Jesus, we discover that our aspiration to autonomy has always made us bow down before individuals who may not be worse than we are but who are nonetheless bad models because we cannot imitate them without falling with them into the trap of rivalry.”
For the Christian, the path of discipleship is a conversion from being lost in mimetic desire to imitating Christ. Both the conversion of Peter and of Paul illustrate this. They both stop following the crowd in condemnation and self-justification and align themselves with Jesus, the innocent and overcoming victim.
Fourthly, and most importantly, Jesus, in his death as an innocent victim, and his resurrection as a justified king, exposes once and for all the deceit and self-justification of the single-victim mechanism. Never again can we pretend that the victim is guilty, if we crucified the Lord of Life. There is a revelatory power to the cross. Jesus’ death brings a certain peace. Herod and Pilate become friends. The crowd disperses. Rome is satisfied. The priestly rulers maintain their authority.
Colossians 2:14-15 is one the clearest explanations of this. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame by triumphing over them in him.”
Jesus’ resurrection shows that God preserves the innocence and identity of the victim, and overturns the false justification of the world. Jesus is Lord means that truth, generosity and compassion will justify us, not the blaming of others.
Jesus brings peace – not a peace from cathartic violence – but a peace from divine justification. Jesus, the innocent victim forgives, and invites us into relationship. The gospel deprives us of sacrificial self-justification.
Finally, we learn in the New Testament about the Holy Spirit, the paraclete or defender of the accused. The Holy Spirit (the counselor for the defense) is the opposite of Satan (the accuser).
For Girard, the gospels are not just a theology, but an anthropology. They help us understand ourselves.