Victims, Syria and the Contagion of Violence

Victims, Syria and the Contagion of Violence June 14, 2013

Many of us had high hopes in President Barack Obama that he would lead our nation toward peace. But with the series of events that continue to occur, the use of drones to assassinate “terrorists” and U.S. citizens, the continuing torture at Guantanamo Bay and, most recently, the decision to enter the Syrian civil war, one begins to realize that Obama seems to be just one more leader that uses violence to “solve” violence. And these moves that attempt to protect the “victims” (in this case the “opposition” in Syria) brings up a strange paradox that Andrew Marr has recently pointed to in a post: “…the growing ethical concern for victims even while violence escalates at all levels.” (See Marr’s post:

We know that deep in the womb of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament is God’s special care for the “orphan and widow.” The differences with the Greek and Roman empires over this issue have been well documented. For the Greeks and Romans, widows and orphans were disposable. The God of the Hebrews had a special care for the “orphan and widow.” This care was taken into the New Testament, and the Gospels reflect Jesus’ clear preferential treatment of orphans, widows, women and children.

And it’s true our culture has taken up this cause in so many ways, with care for the poor, children and the recent admonishments not to bully. Of course, there are broad exceptions—the disturbing state of education for poor children, and, for many conservatives, the outrage of abortion on demand. Nonetheless, victims are often featured and celebrated in the media.

And yet the violence of our culture rages on with almost weekly mass killings; we see an inability to limit these massacres, and the growing apathy toward any gun restrictions whatsoever. We now suggest arming our teachers in a pathetic and predictable attempt to use violence to prevent violence.

The question lingers, from a Christian perspective, what’s the answer? Andrew Marr uses René Girard’s work to show the universal tendency to imitate the other, or in Girard’s terms—our mimetic desire. Triangles abound, two men love a woman, and the competition over her leads to conflict and sometimes violence. We see this on a society-wide basis, with political parties jockeying for position, the one suggests we must defend the opposition in Syria, because they are victims of a terrible regime, and this meme moves another, Barack Obama, to suggest, based on flimsy evidence of the use of weapons of mass destruction, that we should arm these victims, and the violence then escalates. (See; see Juan Cole’s detailed analysis of the complex nature of Syria on the ground:

Syria becomes the latest hotspot upon which we project yet another “proxy war” between the United States and the forces of the Shia in Iran and Hezbollah, and their gun supplier, Russia. This plays out on a world stage, where “monsters” are found and the forces of good come for vengeance. Violence is used to solve violence, and now we’ve seen it in an endless series of historical and contemporary incidents that violence nearly always begets more violence.

So does this contagion have an end? The answer seems to be no. Humans have learned that violence works as an outlet for mimetic desire; when competition grows, violence quite literally lances the wound. And for a while the conflict pauses. But then it erupts again and again. And now we fight over who is the victim—if everyone is a victim, then the whole action of mimetic desire creates a competition over victimhood. It is a strange and predictable road that we’re on.

Marr argues, this is not God’s will, “The ‘Wars and rumors of war’ are simply the concrete consequences of choosing mimetic violence rather than the kingdom of God…. It is not God who inflicts violence on humanity as a punitive measure for being bad. Rather it is humans who inflict violence on other humans—violence as a sign of the collective rejection of God. When we insist on choosing to act in this way, God delivers us over to our own passions and allows us to live with the result (cf. Romans 1:18-25).”

The way of Jesus is the way of nonviolence; it is the way of refusing the competition; it is the way of seeing life as a gift to be shared; it is the way of justice and compassion. Most of us, however, choose “normal religion,” as Girard calls it, which facilitates human violence through sacrifice. The kingdom of God, in Jesus’ teaching, calls us to give it up—to stop the madness. The contagion of violence, however, seems to be our destiny, and the apocalypse is on the horizon.

See Timothy S. Miller’s The Orphans of Byzantium: Child Welfare in the Christian Empire. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003.



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