Flipping the Script: Mimetic Theory and the Nonviolent God
(Editor's Note: This post was adapted from the author's speech at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver.)
When I was in seminary, one of my best friends came up with a brilliant theological … pick up line:
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"Hey, baby. What’s your hermeneutic?"
Despite the genius of that question, we soon discovered that anytime you start a pick up line with “Hey, baby” you’re in some trouble.
But it’s such a great question. Think of all the relationships that would have avoided painful break ups if they just defined the relationship in the beginning by answering the question “What’s your hermeneutic? What’s your primary interpretive method for understanding how the world works? What’s your interpretation of God?”
Since seminary, I’ve learned some important things about hermeneutics from a man named René Girard. Girard is an anthropologist who put forth a theory about human nature that has profound implications for how we do theology. Girard’s anthropology is called “the mimetic theory.”
Mimetic theory is important to Christianity in the 21st century because it helps us understand that violence belongs to humans, not to God. Girard’s point is that from the very beginning of culture, we have had a hermeneutic of sacrificial violence. But Girard helps us see that this hermeneutic is false and that the God revealed through the Judeo-Christian tradition and specifically through Jesus Christ is in the process of transforming our hermeneutic from sacrificial violence to a hermeneutic of nonviolent forgiveness, mercy, and love.
Mimetic theory has three basic principles.
The first principle is that desire is mimetic. That’s just a fancy word for saying that humans are unconsciously imitative. Girard claims that humans desire according to the desire of another. We are interconnected on the level of desire. Think “keeping up with the Joneses” — only on steroids. Without realizing it, we share desires with one another by watching what others desire. If my neighbor comes home with a new Mercedes, I look at it with a certain emptiness deep in my soul, and now I want a Mercedes. I was pretty happy with my 1995 Ford Escort, but now I need a new Mercedes.
One of the many biblical examples of mimetic desire is the 10th commandment. You know — don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff.
Why did the Bible have to tell us that? Because we covet our neighbors stuff. We have always tried to keep up with the Jonses. Interestingly, neuroscience’s discovery of the brain’s mirror neurons have confirmed Girard’s hypothesis, but you’re gonna have to trust me on that because I only have so much space in one post.
The second principle of mimetic theory is the scapegoat mechanism. If human desire is mimetic or imitative, our desires will inevitably converge on the same object, which will lead to rivalry and violence.
Girard postulates that this rivalry and violence has plagued humanity from the very beginning of human culture. In order for our first ancestors to avoid self-destruction, all of those tensions from mimetic desire needed an outlet, and they found an outlet against a scapegoat. The internal tensions that threatened the community were projected onto a single victim.In the same way that desire is mimetic, violence is also mimetic. When the finger of accusation points against a scapegoat, more fingers will imitate the accusation. Soon, the ancient community was united against a common enemy who was blamed for all the problems the group faced. The victim was then sacrificed. It’s important to know that the members of the community did not know what they were doing. They were caught up in a contagion of violence that was bigger than any individual in the group. They believed that they were the good guys who were standing against an evil "other" that threatened their survival. After the victim was sacrificed, temporary peace and good will descended upon the group. It’s as if the blood of the sacrificial victim washed away the sins of the community. But the conflict and rivalry born from mimetic desire was never actually dealt with and so the conflicts continued and the sacrificial solution was ritualized.
Religions emerged from the sacrifice of the scapegoat and a theology of the gods was formed. This brought with it a sacrificial hermeneutic that said the world runs on violence and the gods demand it.
The third principle of mimetic theory is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is in a process of transforming our hermeneutic of sacrificial violence into a hermeneutic of mercy, forgiveness, and love. This tradition reveals that the true God is not one of the gods. The violent gods are idols, projections of our own violence. Indeed, a sacrificial strand runs through the Bible that claims God does desire sacrifice — that God is violent. But there is an alternative strand within the Bible that leads us away from sacrificial violence. The Psalmist says, “Sacrifice and offerings you do not want.” And God says through the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
Jesus lived, died, and resurrected by the mercy strand in the Bible. Jesus frequently quoted Hosea to reveal that his hermeneutic was one of mercy not sacrifice. When the crowd united against Jesus and yelled, “Crucify him!” Jesus hung on the cross and prayed that his persecutors would be forgiven. The words “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” is an anthropological statement that affirms mimetic theory. When it comes to desire and violence, we don’t know the full extent of what we’re doing. But Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. Instead of sacrificing others, Jesus offered himself to human violence as a living sacrifice. Jesus saved humanity and reconciled the world to God not through a hermeneutic of sacrificial violence, but through a hermeneutic of God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love. As St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, "In Christ, God was reconciling the world to [God's self], not counting their sins against them, and trusting us with the message of reconciliation."
May your hermeneutic, your interpretive method, be guided by mercy, not sacrifice. May you participate in God’s merciful reconciliation of the world that doesn’t count our sins against us, but forgives. And may you know that God has nothing to do with violence, but everything to do with love and forgiveness. Thank you.
Adam Ericksen blogs at the Raven Foundation, where he uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Adam on Twitter @adamericksen.