Living as I do in a very large, fragile glass house, I am reluctant to throw stones. I say this because Lent is a good time to take stock of the moral quality of one’s relationships and general environs, to get a better idea of how one is or is not a part of the world’s problems. There is, however, an occasionally indiscernible line between healthy reflection and self-righteous judgment. In recent years, in addition to the patient grace of God, I have come to rely on a more this-worldly insight in order to make sense of such things: the thought of René Girard, the French-American Catholic cultural critic. Girard stumbled onto an idea a few years ago that he calls mimetic theory, and the basic gist of it is this:
First, Girard says, all human desire is mimetic. Apart from fundamental biological needs, human beings copy one another, not just in basic linguistic and behavioral patterns but also in terms of what we consciously want. Strictly speaking, then, I have no desires that are original to me; rather, I desire according to the desire of another.
Girard’s second insight is that human conflict occurs when the desires of multiple people converge on the same object, either seen (that iPad), or unseen (happiness). Third, this conflict, which he calls mimetic rivalry, quickly escalates and can plunge a whole community into crisis. Such crises are resolved through “the scapegoat mechanism.” One person, then another and then a whole group of people point the finger of suspicion at an individual, the sacrificial victim, who is then expelled or destroyed. The sacrifice of the scapegoat restores order to the community...until the next crisis.
Admittedly, this is pretty grim news. We are, by nature, not free in the way that we thought; worse, we are prone to pretty brutal forms of violence. The good news, however, is that there is a way out. In the words of one student of Girard, Michael Kirwan, S.J.: “the Gospel is the biblical spirit that exposes the truth of violent origins, takes the side of the victim and works toward the overcoming of scapegoating as a viable means of social formation.” In other words, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus subvert the whole ghastly enterprise.
You may be asking why any of this matters. For starters, if mimetic theory is true, then we may need to rethink some of our most treasured presuppositions. If Girard’s world is, in fact, the world we live in, then the modern notion of the autonomous, self-actualizing individual, for example, is nothing more than a romantic myth.
Girard is not without his critics; I have a few questions myself. Still, his theory has some very interesting possibilities. It could help us understand, for example, something that is much on my mind these days: According to Girard’s theory, the scapegoat isn’t necessarily innocent and frequently isn’t. A sinner can still be a scapegoat.
That counterintuitive fact helps explain the sense of self-righteous satisfaction we derive from throwing stones. And there’s a lot of stone throwing at the moment; the news is full of tales of individuals who have done apparently sinful things. Many of us like to point to them—prelates, athletes, next-door neighbors, whomever—and say, along with the rest of the group, that there is no way that we could have done what he or she did; that, even in the same situation, in the same circumstances, we would certainly have acted differently. That’s a comforting thought, though mostly a lie.
Girard’s theory, not to mention revelation and much of human history, challenges that smug, self-righteous assumption. This Lent, we would all do well to consider how. I myself intend to do so in the quiet, though expansive living room of my own glass house.