Mimetic Mondays: Christianity 21 Talk: Mimetic Theory and the Nonviolent God

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(Mimetic Theory and the Nonviolent God was delivered at the Christianity 21 Conference in Denver as part of the conference’s 7-21 Talks. Participants have 21 slides that automatically advance every 20 seconds, which equals 7 minutes. The talk describes why mimetic theory is essential to the future of Christianity. The text is below. For more on mimetic theory and Christianity, see the Patheos site Teaching Nonviolent Atonement.)

When I was in seminary one of my best friends came up with a brilliant theological … pick up line.

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? What’s your hermeneutic?”

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 three minutes left.

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 (640) 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 himself, 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 and follow the Raven Foundation @ravenfoundation. Adam also produces mimetic theory content for the Patheos blog Teaching Nonviolent Atonement.

  • Fallulah

    Why did god make us violent? Aren’t we created in the image of god? So if we are violent, ipso facto wouldn’t that make god violent?

    • duhsciple

      God did not make us violent. We did that

      • Stan Theman

        What about lustful or greedy or stupid? Or self-centered? We do this to ourselves, too?

        • duhsciple

          We desire according to the desire of others. When I copy your desire in a competitive way, then lust, greed, stupidity and selfishness are quite likely.

          Since I experience God as a nonrivalrous Other, then I do not think that any lust I may have comes from God.

          How do you see it?

  • Fallulah

    These are actual questions I’m asking you to get insight into how you think, so please take the time to consider them and potentially answer them if you have time.

    How can you reconcile your statement “God has nothing to do with violence” with these bible passages:

    “I will destroy … both man and beast.” – Genesis 6: 7, 17

    “God kills everyone in Sodom and Gomorrah by raining “fire and brimstone from the Lord out of heaven.” – Genesis 19:24

    “God threatens to kill the Pharaoh’s firstborn son” Exodus 12:23

    The plagues of Egypt in Exodus.

    “God’s right hand dashes people in pieces” Exodus 15:6

    And that’s just the first 2 books of the bible! I can list plenty more examples.

    Now I am just curious, do you A) Not read the bible therefore don’t know this stuff is in it? or, B) Not believe the bible is the unerrant word of god. C) believe the bible is the unerrant word of god but ignore these passages thus not taking God at his word. D) Cognitive Dissonance.

    • duhsciple

      Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, not kill them.

      Jesus prayed forgiveness for his enemies from the cross.

      When Jesus rose from the dead, he did not retaliate against his betrayers, false accusers, deniers, torturers, mockers, abandoners, or the fickle crowd that went from Hosanna to Crucify.

      So friend Fallulah, the question is interpretation. Is God one minute wiping out the planet and the next minute teaching love? Is God like the pagan god, Janus, one minute terrorist, next minute tender (as the Wetboro Baptist interpretation suggests )?

      The Bible tells the story of God more fully revealing God’s character. Jesus (in Hebrews) is the same today, yesterday, and forever. Jesus is the full revelation of God. We read the Bible as he did. His interpretation.

      So Jesus heals a Canaanite in Matthew 15 (despite the command in Deuteronomy 7)

      • Fallulah

        I can cherry pick too.

        “I came to cast fire upon the earth (Luke 12:49)

        “And brother shall deliver up brother to death” (from verse 21)

        “And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake” (from verse 22)

        Oh and most importantly:

        “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” – Matthew 10:34

        Don’t even bother responding cuz I used to be a cognitive dissonant Christian, I know you will say, “It’s taken out of context, you need the right interpretation”.

        • Fallulah

          Oh and just in case it’s not clear those are things JESUS purportedly said in the NT.

          • duhsciple

            I see Jesus naming human violence. And the way that Jesus lived, certainly brought a violent blow back. We see the same thing with Gandhi who read the Sermon on the Mount every day. Also, MLK

        • duhsciple

          The interpretive question is: does the violence originate with God or with humanity?

          The interpretive lens I bring is that in God there is only light, no darkness at all. There is no wrath or violence within God.

          I read the Bible as a “text in travail”. Richard Rohr calls it 3 steps forward, 2 steps backward. The divine revelation in the text happens when violence is unmasked as human, not divine.

          What is going on within you that you write “don’t even bother responding”? I’m sharing how I read and interpret. Muslims, Christians, Jews, and ancient archaic religion do have a mixed god, loving one minute, brutal the next. That’s just not how I see it, knowing that I have the minority viewpoint

  • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

    …rivalry and violence has plagued humanity from the very beginning of human culture.

    True enough, considering that culture, i.e., agricultural civilization, is known to anthropology as the cause of human mass violence, beginning a few thousand years ago.

    However, violence hasn’t plagued human society from the very beginning.

    Is it natural for humans to make war? New study of tribal societies reveals conflict is an alien conceptindependent.co.uk/news/science/is-it-natural-for-humans-to-make-war-new-study-of-tribal-societies-reveals-conflict-is-an-alien-concept-8718069.html

    “Civilization originates in conquest abroad and repression at home.” ~Stanley Diamond, In Search of the Primitive: A Critique of Civilization, p. 1, first sentence

    “…we chose the latter [agriculture] and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.” ~Jared Diamond (May 1987) The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race. Discover Magazine. pp. 64-66. discovermagazine.com/1987/may/02-the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race

    “The emergence of systematic warfare, fortifications, and weapons of destruction follows the path of agriculture.” ~Violent Origins (Stanford University Press, 1987)

  • Stan Theman

    You have to cherry pick; religion is nonsense. You’re making it up too reflect what you already believe in hopes that you’ll somehow provide enough emotional motive force to get others to do what you want them to do.
    Just like the Fundiegelicals, come to think of it.

  • Jim

    The author is speaking of manmade violence. If you don’t think God is violent, experience a hurricane, a tsunami, an earthquake or a volcano eruption. They take million of innocent lives every year. Or do you think that God has nothing to do with these disaster?

  • https://www.facebook.com/jstonecypher John Stonecypher

    Hi Adam, I’m sad that you were one of the people I missed meeting at C21. I believe you and I were doing our 7-21′s at the same time. I so agree that Mimetic Theory has a huge role to play in our hermeneutical future. My big project right now is telling the Jesus story (on Facebook) through the lens of a non-violent God. Keep up the awesome work with the Raven Foundation; I’m learning a lot there!

  • MartinPierce

    None of the commenters are talking about mimetic theory. It seems like the three principles were pulled out of the air somewhat randomly. Starting from the first principle, a person could have gone in any number of directions.

    The choice was to go with the “scapegoat,” then to Jesus. To me, this raises questions about what parts of the Bible have been abandoned or deemphasized in the process. Also, what, if anything has been gained from this “theory”, whether it be in our understanding of the Bible or of the mimetic nature of humanity?

    Thank you, but I already knew about the Bible’s teachings on human evil, God’s mercy, and Christ’s atonement.

    I say, let’s acknowledge that the first principle is true, then consider ALL the implications, not just principles 2 and 3. Personally, I see no need to construct ivory towers of human philosophy (like “mimetic theory”) when we have the Bible and the broad discussion/body of knowledge known as Christian theology.

    Ah, I’m coming to understand it better now. “Mimetics” has taken the place of Adam’s Fall in “mimetic theory.” There’s no longer a sin problem; the problem is that human desire is mimetic. Why turn to Genesis 3 when science appears to tell us what mankind’s fundamental problem is? This theory makes me want to vomit since it (at least potentially) rejects or replaces so much of the Bible.

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