The Common Good

Hobby Lobby, Rivalry, and Choosing Grace

Though Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby has been argued and decided by the highest court in the land, the battle rages on. Politicians, columnists, editorial staffs, and bloggers are furiously duking it out along clearly drawn battle lines. On one side, we have the Champions of Religious Freedom. Squaring off against them are the Defenders of Women’s Rights. The Champions are celebrating a victory for free expression of religion, the Defenders are sounding alarm bells about losses of protections for civil rights. 

A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shu
A Hobby Lobby store in Jacksonville, FL, at night. Image courtesy Rob Wilson/shutterstock.com

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On the storm-tossed surface it can seem as if this is a clear case of irreconcilable differences. But it is worth wondering if the differences are as vast as they seem. Rather than focus on differences, I’d like to search for the possibility of reconciliation.

False Differences

Mimetic theory is my favorite tool for analyzing conflict. It lays bare the dynamic by which we come into conflict and nurture differences in order to feel secure in our identities. As a rivalry escalates, such as this one between the Champions and the Defenders, each side insists on its utter and irreconcilable difference from the other. But on close examination, what emerges is an odd symmetry—what René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory, calls mimetic doubling.

What often passes notice beneath all the sound and fury is that each side is acting as a model for their rival to imitate. Even though the rhetoric proclaims differences, passion and certainty is what each side has in common. The more one side displays its passion through protests, law suits, political platforms, action plans and so forth, the more the other side’s attention is drawn to the issue. Each side is learning from the other that this issue is the critical issue of our time which can brook no compromise. As a rivalry escalates in intensity—such as arriving at the Supreme Court for adjudication—the rivals come to resemble each other more and more. They have imitated (mimetic is the Greek word for imitation) one another’s passion for such a long time that they have become mirror images of one another (that’s the doubling).

Of course, the rivals don’t want us, or themselves for that matter, to see the similarities. But they are very much alike in their insistence on their moral superiority over each other. Each side accuses the other of being irrationally attached to a position based on flawed reasoning. Neither side is willing to consider that their rival is in possession of even a grain of truth or a modicum of rationality. (I can predict right now that comments on this article will take issue with my insistence on the importance of this similarity—readers will dive in to convince me that their side is the right one, that they are really and truly in possession of the truth and occupy the moral high ground, that the difference between them and their rival is undeniable and vitally important to all that is good and just.)

But I must insist that it is this identical claim to moral superiority which matters and which is in fact the cause of the apparent conflict. The underlying issues, whatever you think they may be, whether religious freedom, women’s reproductive rights, creeping restrictions on abortion or loosening of civil rights protections—all these issues are things we can talk about and solve together through discussion and compromise. Unless we begin from a position that says, "We refuse to talk with you or compromise." Which, unfortunately, is the position that both the Champions and the Defenders tend to occupy, together.

The Scapegoating Conundrum  

One reason that the rivals refuse to recognize what they have in common is that there is a real difference between them, a difference which is much easier to see than their similarities. Each side has a differentscapegoat—each other! Champions of Religious Freedom have no problem recognizing that they are being scapegoated by the Defenders of Women’s Rights. They know that the accusations against them of being narrow minded, misogynistic, irrational and the lot are completely false. And the Defenders of Women’s Rights see the same thing, only in reverse. Defenders know that they are not religious persecutors or unmoved by the moral issues of abortion. Scapegoating the other side is another similarity disguised as a difference.

But it’s a difference with a benefit. Each side gets a boost in their sense of themselves as morally superior over the other exactly because they know that the other side is scapegoating them. Having a shared scapegoat cements their sense of solidarity and of being united for a noble cause. As Girard explains, “What people call the partisan spirit is nothing but choosing the same scapegoat as everybody else.”

However, the scapegoating conundrum is that we can always see someone else’s scapegoat, but never our own. That’s because our own scapegoats appear guilty to us even though we can clearly see the innocence of other people’s scapegoats. Once the innocence of a scapegoat is revealed, they no longer can function as our scapegoats. So if the Champions and Defenders could begin to see that their accusations against each other are false ones, then dialogue and reconciliation would become possible.

Choosing Grace

Girard calls the tendency of rivalries to escalate to the point of mimetic doubling the escalation to extremes. It is the point at which the differences between the two sides appear to be extreme but which paradoxically is also the point at which very little separates them. Girard’s insight is that rivals are mistaken to believe that the path to justice goes through their rival. It is a function of the scapegoating phenomenon and its benefits that each side believes that justice requires the defeat of the other. That belief only leads to escalation and the perpetuation of conflict—or peace by the annihilation of one side or the other. The escalation to extremes leads to partisan strife in the political arena and provides the justification for violence in pursuit of our ends.

The fact that each side in this contest between the Champions and the Defenders share a concern for justice and the protection of victims is more important than their disagreement about who the victims are. If the rivals were to actually walk their talk about the concern for justice, then they would be acutely and humbly sensitive to learning about the ways in which they might be guilty of injustice without knowing it. As we grow more and more alike in our passionate intensity for what is good and right, we unwittingly open up the possibility for reconciliation. Girard explains that reconciliation is actually “the reverse of the escalation to extremes. It is a real possibility, but no one wants to see it. The Kingdom is already here but human violence will increasingly mask it. This is the paradox of our world.” 

I’d like to invite you to signal your willingness to inhabit the Kingdom by resisting the urge to defend your position with a partisan comment on this article. Instead I encourage us all to confess our complicity in scapegoating our rivals, in resisting reconciliation in favor of partisanship, and in nursing our hatred and anger against one another. As inspiration for this Kingdom exercise I’d like to leave you with these words from Brian McLaren in his new book on spiritual formation, We Make the Road By Walking. They come in the context of Brian’s look at the rivalry-infected families of Genesis, including Cain and Abel, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph and his brothers.

"As in Genesis, life today is full of rivalries and conflict. We all experience wrongs, hurts, and injustices through the actions of others – and we inflict wrongs, hurts, and injustices upon others. If we want to reflect the image of God, we will choose grace over hostility, reconciliation over revenge, and equality over rivalry. When we make that choice, we encounter God in the faces of our former rivals and enemies. And as we are humbled, surrendering to God and seeking to be reconciled with others, our faces, too, reflect the face of God. We come alive as God’s image bearers indeed."

Suzanne Ross blogs at the Raven Foundation, where she uses mimetic theory to provide social commentary on religion, politics, and pop culture. Follow Suzanne on Twitter @SuzanneRossRF.

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