After I read the title of this post, I immediately realized that I had bitten off more than I could chew. There are so many things that I want to say about this topic that are not within the scope of a blog post.
As I have been watching the headlines in the news, the posts on Facebook, and the subjects of conversations, I have been perceiving an increase in “scapegoating.” Maybe the increase is simply my perception, but to me it feels like there is a rise in the use of fear to create a common enemy against which everybody can unite. There is a recurring narrative that frames a person or group of people in terms of, “They are the reason we can’t have nice things.”
This is nothing new. I would guess that most people who read this article will immediately think of the way that Hitler blamed the Jews for Germany’s economic troubles and successfully united the German people to commit genocide so that they could once again have nice things. This is an extreme case and it allows us to feel good about ourselves as we denounce the atrocities of this 20th century dictator. Thank God, *WE* are *NOT* like that! Are we?
Gregory Maguire wrote a book entitled Wicked that was later adapted into a record breaking musical by Stephen Schwartz. This retold story of an American classic (The Wizard of Oz) is a study on the question of self-justified violence and the often arbitrary division between good people and evil people as it opens with the question, “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” In an extraordinary set of plot twists, we come to see how the identification of “good” and “bad” characters varies depending on who writes the history. This book hits a little bit closer to home than the classic Nazi illustration, because we begin to see how well-meaning, good-intentioned people can do bad things in service of the pursuit of having nice things.
What is troubling is that scapegoating does work. Sort of. We all celebrate the death of the Wicked Witch of the West–so that means that everything is good and everybody will get along from now on, right? Luke 23:12 tells us that “Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other.” (NASB) Two former enemies became friends united in the cause of a common scapegoat (Jesus.) But the peace and friendship that scapegoating brings doesn’t last, because it doesn’t address the fundamental problem: We want nice things and somebody else is preventing us from having them. Everything would be better if we could just get rid of this troublesome person or that extremist fringe group. *They* are wicked and they deserve to die. Rene Girard described this phenomenon 50 years ago with his development of mimetic theory. A quick synopsis of mimetic theory is that people largely imitate (mimic) each other–returning evil for evil and good for good. The problem is that when we return evil for evil, we inevitably also escalate. Escalation reaches a critical mass, at which point, people and groups of people choose a scapegoat on whom they can unleash their accumulated violence.
Here is a positive example: The other day I was walking across the bridge in Glenwood Springs rather lost in my thoughts. I glanced over and saw a total stranger walking along the sidewalk by the road. On an apparent impulse, he raised his arm to me with the peace sign on his fingers. Without thinking, I returned the sign to him as I walked on wondering what in the world had just happened! I love that this random dude gave me something positive to mimic!
There are any number of negative examples in our current culture. A lot of folks are suffering. Many people are angry and stressed and they are looking for a scapegoat on whom they can pour their frustration. Every day I observe myself and others choosing to blame immigrants, corporations, teachers, politicians, gay marriage, white privilege, policemen, etc. Jesus understood this human tendency so well that I would say that he made it one of the central themes of his ministry. Centuries before Rene Girard outlined his mimetic theory, in the “Sermon on the Mount,” (Matthew 5-7) Jesus challenged his followers to do something wildly non-mimetic. He said, “love and pray for your enemies,” “turn the other cheek,” “give people the coat off your back,” “go the extra mile,” etc.
Jesus calls on us to break the cycle of mimetic violence. Our impulse to return evil for evil, good for good, an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth is so strong that it seems that Jesus is asking the impossible of us. In order to prepare for writing this article, I did some research. By that, I mean that I typed some key words into Google! (Incidentally, I highly recommend searching the internet for “Rene Girard,” “Mimetic Theory,” and “Mimetic theory of atonement.”) As I began to understand the problem of mimetic violence, I refined my search to, “How do you break the cycle of mimetic violence?” And I have to say, I was pretty disappointed in the results. I guess we’re better at identifying the problem than solving it!
Jesus is calling us to a way of living that is astonishing, radical, and counter-cultural. It is a social construct that He called, “The Kingdom of God.” When you read Matthew 5-7, you constantly see Jesus contrasting “you have heard it said…” with, “but I say unto you…” It was called “The Way” by the early Christians. It is not mimetic. (Or you *could* say that it is mimetic of Jesus, but somehow, when you are smiling at somebody who is frowning at you, it doesn’t *feel* very mimetic or even remotely natural!) It is TOUGH. Our own violence is always justified, and after all, we only want nice things.
You probably thought that I would end with the solution, right? Instead, I would like this article to be the beginning of the discussion. So… How would YOU answer my Google search? How do you break the mimetic cycle of violence? Scapegoating is the traditional answer, but I refuse to believe that we have to kill somebody so that we can have nice things. I’d love to read your ideas in the comments!