Mimetic Mondays: Reflections on Syria

Mimetic Mondays: Reflections on Syria September 9, 2013

By Adam Ericksen and Suzanne Ross

As the world wrestles with how to respond to the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, we thought we’d offer you some mimetic reflections on the use of violence. Mimetic theory is an anthropological theory of human violence that has theological implications. The reflections in this article are from friends of ours who are guided by the mimetic insight about violence in their work as preachers, teachers, bloggers, film producers, activists and civilian peacekeepers.

What is the mimetic insight about violence? What you will observe in their comments and prayers are two basic insights: (1) that violence creates more violence as adversaries become mirror images or doubles of each other and (2) Jesus came to shake our faith in violence as a means to achieve peace. Jesus knew that we have persistently and to our own detriment relied on violence to keep the peace, and that in so doing good people lose our claim to being any better than our adversaries.

Listen to his words to his frightened disciples who feared reprisals from the Roman soldiers, the peacekeepers of the day: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) When Jesus says “I do not give to you as the world gives” he is offering a critical, often overlooked, distinction between two methods of achieving peace. Jesus knows that we rely on violence because it works – not always, not perfectly, and not without cost, but violence has its own pitiless efficacy which we would be foolish not to acknowledge. Yet Jesus’ distinction begs the question we should be asking ourselves today: Can we take this particular moment in time to imagine our world on the inside of Jesus’ promise of peace with a new foundation, one built on mercy and self-giving love?

We’d like to thank our friends Ann Frisch, Michael Hardin, Mary Gay McKinney, Brian McLaren, Kevin Miller and Susan Wright for helping us imagine our way into Jesus’ promise. We hope you will join us at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement for our weekly conversations about human violence and the divine promise of peace. This Thursday we will be joined by Rev. Paul Nuechterlein, the author of the comprehensive website Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary.

The Seed of Desire

Kevin Miller

Success breeds imitation. As Walter Wink says, “The fact that something works reinforces its use the next time.” Therefore, if America’s military intervention in Syria succeeds at all in toppling the Assad regime or deterring it from launching further chemical attacks against its citizens, it will plant a seed of desire in the hearts of those on the receiving end. Having witnessed the effectiveness of America’s military might, those sympathetic to Assad—as well as those who oppose him—will seek to acquire and employ the very weapons used against them. Consequently, rather than relax tensions in the region, America’s actions will exacerbate them instead by hardening their enemy’s resolve and inadvertently kicking off a regional arms race. We’ve seen this cycle repeated over and over again in conflicts throughout the Middle East and around the globe. Surely we realize the futility of such actions by now.

If President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry truly want to help bring an end to the conflict in Syria, rather than model the imposition of national will through superior firepower (which is the very principle they claim to oppose in the Assad regime), they should seek out a response that kicks off a chain reaction of imitation in the opposite direction. The first step toward such an approach is to refuse to imitate the violence of their enemies. The second step is to pursue a course of action that not only reveals the full horror of the regime’s actions to the world but also humanizes the victims to the point that the Assad regime is shamed into abandoning such tactics and demonstrating they aren’t nearly as inhuman as their actions would lead us to believe. Such an approach would not only enable America to legitimately reclaim the moral high ground, it would set off a new competition among other nations eager to establish their own worthiness to claim that position for themselves. 

Kevin Miller is the producer of numerous films, including Hellbound?, and he blogs for Patheos at Hellbound?: Exploring Faith and Film, Good and Evil

A Mimetic Theory Look at the Syrian Crisis

Susan Wright

No one wants Syria to be the new Iraq. But how are we to prevent it?  Mimetic Theory, by exposing the unconscious social dynamics, which turn peaceful citizens into a single population galvanized for war, may provide a new found self-awareness on the part of politicians and the American people which could prevent a repetition of the past.

How many of us, looking back on the Iraq War, felt like the morning after, waking up with a really nasty hangover, horrified and dumfounded by what we had done in our drunken state? What were we thinking when we invaded Iraq?  We can blame the Bush Administration for distorting the facts, for manipulating public perception by linking Iraq with 9/11, knowing all along that there was no connection between Saddam Hussein the terrorists responsible. But that’s only half the story.  It shouldn’t have been that easy to fool the entire country, and the UK too…

It’s important that we draw the parallels between Syria and Iraq.  We’re asking the right questions and expressing necessary doubts.  But beware. Our opportunity to debate soberly in the full light of day, an appropriate response to the suffering of the Syrian people, the real victims in this, may disappear at any moment just as it did prior to the Iraq invasion.  The political pressures staking Obama’s reputation on his ability to gather support at home and abroad may unintentionally trigger the same mechanism, a flip of the switch in the American psyche, which will render true debate, contrary voices, and massive anti-war demonstrations inoperable.  Once the single mind of the crowd and it’s thinly veiled rationale for war is engaged, rationality no longer holds sway.  We’ve done it before.  The moment we transferred the trauma of 9/11 onto Iraq, convincing ourselves that Saddam Hussein was to blame, that moment was one of no return.

We’re not there yet, so be vigilant. Look for manipulative language lumping Syria and Al Qaeda in the same sentence. Beware of promises that military action will be short and sweet. Watch for impatience with UN investigators and proceedings. Don’t trust US intelligence claiming independent proof supporting the administration’s allegations. Keep watch over your own emotional register.  Don’t let fear get an inside line. Participate in a prayer vigil as possibly the best way to interrupt those unconscious social dynamics.

We don’t have to wake up a year from now with a hangover, wondering how a “limited military action” escalated into a full-scale war.

Susan Wright lives in Syracuse, N.Y. where she writes and teaches, combining her interests in theology, mimetic theory, and continental philosophy. She blogs at NoOutcasts.org

Civil Society Provides Common Ground in Syria

Ann Frisch

While the use of chemical weapons is deplorable, any action must be viewed through the lens of what will help lead to a just and lasting peace: Syrians must decide Syria’s future.

At this very moment, courageous Syrian women and men are working for a peaceful settlement. They are mostly ignored by the world. They are doing peacebuilding and reconciliation work. They are establishing local ceasefire zones. While differing in viewpoints they share a commitment to a peaceful, pluralistic and democratic Syria.

The Syrians working nonviolently for a sustainable Syria deserve our support, not a fragmented, violent opposition who are committing war crimes.  These civil society actors, a substantial number of whom are women, provide the common ground for a peaceful transition.   They need diplomatic and financial support.  Their leadership needs to be promoted in the international initiatives including Geneva II.  Chairs at negotiating tables should not be reserved exclusively for men with guns.

On the international level President Obama and other leaders can decrease the violence to allow civil society to do their work.  They can help stop the flow of weapons.  The US can start by withdrawing our support for armed actors and engaging Russia to follow suit.  The two nations could exert tremendous pressure on their respective allies to stop supplying weapons.  They could jointly offer a Security Council resolution sanctioning any nation supplying arms to any group in Syria.

Likewise, the US and Russia could lead the way in establishing a ceasefire.  They could create an opening for the new leadership in Iran to play a constructive role.

Unarmed civilian peacekeepers could be deployed to protect civilians and support Syrian civil society in preventing violence and building peace from the ground up.  Such nonviolent peacekeepers would come from international civil society and thus not represent national or multi-national interests.  Indeed, unarmed civilian peacekeepers are working effectively today in such places as the Mindanao region of the Philippines, South Sudan and Colombia.

Ann Frisch is Senior Adviser and Returned Peacekeeper for Nonviolent Peaceforce

An Open Letter to President Barak Obama

Michael Hardin

August 31, 2013

Dear Mr. President,

Like you and the world I was shocked at the use of chemical weapons in Syria this week. Like you, Secretary of State John Kerry and others in your administration, I sensed that a corner had been turned that a line had been crossed. However as an average ordinary citizen I am concerned about the reports that send conflicting information about the motives and means of who was behind this attack. It is not clear to me, nor was it clear to the British Parliament that military action is required at this point. I confess that I do not have the access you do to intelligence but from non-mainstream news reports it would appear that there is not “actionable” intelligence that is unequivocal in nature.

Inasmuch as you have a Christian background, I urge you to reconsider your theological heritage and remember that just two days ago you spoke about the legacy of one of the greatest Americans who ever lived, Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King stood firmly against the war in Viet Nam and we know how that ended. Dr. King chose to follow in the steps, not of R. Niebuhr, but of the Prince of Peace, Jesus.

You may, as you said in your Nobel Prize speech feel that war is a legitimate instrument. However, you have been misled both by Niebuhrian ethics as well as the justification for the use of violence in certain liberation theologies. One searches the Gospels in vain for justification of war, indeed one searches the New Testament in vain for the use of violence as a tool in the Kingdom of God. As a Christian brother I urge you to rethink your faith and heritage. I beg you to read the Sermon on the Mount again tonight. I ask you to consider how many times Jesus called for peacemaking and how peacemakers will be called ‘the children of God.’ I urge you as a citizen of these United States not to use the US military to achieve questionable goals that have been initiated by the neo-con community.

Please pray about this. I guarantee your heavenly Father will not in any way authorize you to pull the trigger (unlike your predecessor who heard voices). Jesus is the Lord.

Sincerely Yours,

Michael Hardin

Hardin is the co-founder of Preaching Peace and is the author or editor of numerous books and videos, including The Jesus Driven Life, Striken by God?: Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ, Peace Be With You, and Compassionate Eschatology.

On the Road to Damascus

Mary Gay McKinney

As Congress debates a military intervention, we must engage our moral imaginations. A host of effective options lie between doing nothing and firing Cruise missiles.  The methods are there.  The people are ready.  Will there be the political courage to invoke them?

As we ponder the question of whether and what kind of violence to add to the unfolding horror in Syria, scripture holds light and wisdom.  Paul, being as righteous as he knew how to be, went to Damascus to destroy the followers of Jesus.  This movement could be called an emerging mimetic double for Judaism as Paul understood it.  On the road to Damascus Jesus intervened with questions.  Jesus had taken a side, based not upon right or wrong, but upon addressing an author of the violence unfolding and upon its result.

Now we have another well-meaning individual, being as righteous as he knows how to be, planning a trip to Syria.  In the case of this traveler, our President, he has already departed from even the most humanly righteous model, which would be to go there himself.  He plans to send messengers, another Biblical method, but not verbal messengers.  He wants to send his message with bombs, and perhaps military men and women to follow.

Just as Jesus undoubled Paul from his rivalry with the followers of Jesus, Syria needs an undoubler, first, to stand between Presidents Obama and Assad.  What might happen if they met in binding arbitration answering each other’s questions, at a neutral location such as Geneva, Switzerland?  Just the two of them, their translators and religious advisors could be in the room, until they emerge with a plan for all.  Subsequent to this conference would be meetings between President Assad and his mimetic doubles, his rivals within his own country.  Existing in Syria are multiple doublings created over the years by multiple factors.  It is like chess on a three dimensional board.  As challenging as it is for one doublet to sit town, it is next to impossible for multiple doublets, intertwined like a tangled chain, to find a way to the conversations desperately needed.

The remaining non-negotiable step that might make the impossible possible is that any of the negotiating parties must be accompanied and advised by the best, deepest, strongest and least violent of their holy men and women who can bring new truth and new light from the Koran and the Bible.

Mary Gay McKinney is pastor of Open Prairie United Church of Christ in Princeton, Illinois and an active participant in Theology and Peace. Mary is the mother of Sgt. Will McKinney who was wounded in Afghanistan.

Praying for a Creative Alternative

Brian McLaren

I joined many others in praying for the situation in Syria last Saturday because I think it’s time we realize that Dr. King was right: we can’t cure violence with violence.

Mirroring violent behavior sets vicious cycles of offense and revenge in motion. We need a more creative response – not passivity, not inaction, but something more creative and constructive than “punishing” or “retaliating” or trying to cure violence with violence.

What might those more creative and constructive alternatives be? Maybe a day of prayer with fasting will prepare us to imagine them. Here’s what others are saying:
Pope Francis
Evangelical leaders

Here’s a prayer that expresses what is on my heart (feel free to use or adapt as is helpful):

Living God, our world is broken-hearted by the atrocity of chemical weapons being used in Syria, killing children, women, and men indiscriminately. And our hearts grieve no less for the many tens of thousands killed and millions displaced by the civil war there.

We pray for peace, God of peace: not just the cessation of conflict, but a new day of reconciliation, civility, and collaboration for the common good … in the Middle East, and around the world.

We also pray for the United States, whose leaders are contemplating military strikes in retaliation for the atrocity, to punish those who ordered it, and to deter those who might plan similar atrocities in the future. We acknowledge that our leaders are trying to do what is needed and right, based on the understanding they have. But on this day, as millions of us around the world pray, we ask for greater wisdom, greater understanding, greater foresight, so that we can find new, better, and non-violent ways to achieve lasting and profound peace.

We know from bitter experience that “our” violence promises to end “their” violence, but in the end, it only intensifies vicious cycles of offense and revenge. We also know from bitter experience that inaction and passivity also aid and abet evil. So on this day, we seek your wisdom, for a better way forward … a new way that we do not yet see.

We Americans sense that our nation is on the verge of rethinking its role in the world. In this moment of rethinking, we also pray for guidance. Help us learn from past mistakes, and help us imagine better possibilities for the future. In this time of political tension and turmoil – not only between, but within our political parties – may your Spirit move like the wind and give us a fresh vision of what can be, so that we do not repeat old, tired, and destructive cycles of what has been. May the wisdom and ways of Jesus, upon whom your Spirit descended like a dove, guide us now – to a wise and responsible role as good neighbors in our world. Amen.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian. You can follow him at brianmclaren.net and at his Patheos blog.

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