Mimetic Theory Goes to Prison

Mimetic Theory Goes to Prison January 27, 2014

Dr. Andrew McKenna, Loyola University

I recently had the pleasure of discussing mimetic theory and scapegoating with our friends at the Metta Center in Berkeley. Michael Nagler suggested that our prison system in which African-Americans are incarcerated at six times the rates of whites is a good example of scapegoating. I agree. Michael understands something paradoxically true about scapegoating: that guilty people, even murderers, can be scapegoats. Having black bodies in prison does wonders for the self-esteem of whites. If “they” are guilty, and I am nothing like them, then I must be innocent. If “they” are bad, I must be good – you see how it works, don’t you? Locating guilt somewhere outside of ourselves allows us to completely believe in our innocence, so much so that we are actually scandalized by the thought that we may somehow bear maybe the teeny, tiniest bit of responsibility for the position the incarcerated black man finds himself in.

That’s how a guilty-beyond-a-reasonable-doubt murderer can be a scapegoat. Because, hey, let’s face it – letting go of the comforting sense of our own goodness constructed by scapegoating is a downer. It is, however, something that truly good people will do. Truly good people suspect themselves of scapegoating all the time, and most especially when they are completely and utterly convinced that they have found a guilty, no-good bad guy who deserves the worst punishment we can dish out. As René Girard, the founder of mimetic theory observed, “Why is our own participation in scapegoating so difficult to perceive and the participation of others so easy? To us, our fears and prejudices never appear as such because they determine our vision of people we despise, we fear, and against whom we discriminate.” And without whom our sense of ourselves as good and righteous begins to crumble.

This observation from Girard appears in a recent paper by Dr. Andrew McKenna called Human Sacrifice: Black-on-Black Violence and Mimetic Theory. Andrew is a dear friend and founding board member of the Raven Foundation and one of René Girard’s first graduate students. He is contemplating retirement from his long career as Professor of French language and literature at Loyola University and has recently taken on a new teaching assignment: teaching literature in a maximum security prison. That’s right, Andrew is teaching reading and writing to convicted murderers whose guilt is not in doubt. And odds are good that their victim was also black. (According to a Special Report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 93% of the 8,000 murders of African-Americans in 2005, the perpetrator was someone of their own race.) Yet, Andrew will not let us – the innocent un-incarcerated – off the hook. The violence of slavery and legalized racism of the Jim Crow era cannot and did not walk off the stage of history without leaving a stain on the oppressed. Victimized by systemic hatred with no hope of release or reprieve, the violence received must go somewhere. In his paper, Andrew uses his reading of two African-American writers, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, to argue that the violence goes inward.

In one example, Andrew analyzes a scene from Black Boy, Richard Wright’s autobiography, in which he and another black man, Harrison, are manipulated into staging a boxing match for a white audience. Wright and Harrison vow to each other to fake the fight, but their plan falls victim to their own self-hatred. Andrew quotes this snippet of dialogue from Harrison and Wright’s reaction:

         “They look at you and laugh at you every day, nigger.”

          It was true but I hated him for saying it. I ached to hit him in his mouth, to hurt him.

Andrew concludes:

“Here the perverse rationale for black-on-black violence is fully spelled out in its sacrificial and scapegoating significance. The hatred experienced from whites against their race is internalized within its members, turning them ineluctably against one another, each being a scapegoat for the rage that cannot find expression toward their oppressors.”

Murderers are guilty and so are we. Guilty of different things, of course, but mutually intertwined, dependent on each other in ways that shame us to admit. But as I said earlier, good people will face the shame in order to do the right thing. What is the right thing in this case? That’s where Restorative Justice comes in. Fellow Patheos blogger Benjamin Corey recently wrote at Formerly Fundie about the bad theology underpinning our criminal justice system and the cure that Restorative Justice offers. Ben’s article is titled Justice Broken: How A Poor Theology Of The Cross Created America’s Broken Justice System. Because of a bad theology of the cross, Ben argues, we have made the fatal mistake of associating God’s reconciling work with punishing violence. If we believe that God restores humanity by executing a death sentence against his Son – himself, actually – then in imitation of such a God we do the same. The result, Ben says, is that

“our prisons are overflowing. Why?…  I believe this is largely because we have misunderstood God as someone who will only be satisfied when he has his pound of flesh, and so we do these things and call it “justice served” when in reality, it is “justice broken”… since we’ve understood the cross in terms of punitive justice, we push forward a culture that is drunk on punitive justice– thus arriving at our current predicament.

“The reality is that the cross was an act of restorative justice– God was reconciling everything to himself, and in turn, inviting us to become what Paul called “ministers of reconciliation”– people who go forth and reconcile lives as Jesus reconciled lives.

“In order to fix America’s broken framework in regards to justice, we must recover a holistic understanding of what happened on the cross and no longer reduce and distort it into a punitive legal action. If we do this, we just might begin to build a culture that is hyper focused not on punishing people, but restoring lives.”


Andrew McKenna will be joining us for a live video chat at Teaching Nonviolent Atonement on Thursday, January 30. To join the live call, subscribe and register here. Subscribers have access to the live chats, our entire archive of the chats and are notified of upcoming interviews. 

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