Mimetic Theory, Desmond Tutu, and the Blank Red Starbucks Cup

Mimetic Theory, Desmond Tutu, and the Blank Red Starbucks Cup November 13, 2015

desmond and starbucks 4The human sense of identity is very fragile, especially when we seek it in the wrong places.

Whenever I get angry at someone, my spiritual director tells me to enter into that person’s “map.” What does the world look and feel like from that person’s point of view? From within their shoes? Of course, we can never really know the answer to that question, but it’s an exercise in empathy, which I think is crucially important if we are going to follow Jesus in loving our neighbors, who include even our enemies, as we love ourselves.

So I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and with the help of René Girard’s mimetic theory, I try to imagine myself in the shoes of someone who is offended by receiving a red Starbucks cup without the words “Merry Christmas.”

Mimetic theory is crucial to this exercise because it tell us the truth about human identity. Mimetic theory claims that there is no “self” without an “other.” Desmond Tutu explains this principle in his book God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time,

None of us comes into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are.

The truth is that “I am because other people are.” I am, I have a sense of self, because I receive my sense of self in relationship with other people. I use the term “other people” in a very broad sense to include all of culture. Because we are relational creatures, for better or for worse, we will always receive our identity from others – our family, friends, co-workers, church, television, movies, and possibly even a blank red Starbucks cup.

Here’s the point: Once we understand the mimetic nature of being human, we can begin to intentionally choose which people and what things we will receive our identity from.

What does this understanding of human nature have to do with the scandal over the red Starbucks cups? Well, here’s what happened to me when I put myself in the shoes of someone who is offended by receiving a blank red Starbucks cup: I felt blank inside. I felt an emptiness within. And that emptiness caused fear inside of me because, in the face of a blank Starbucks cup, I felt how one could begin to lose a sense of self. That emptiness can trigger a burning sense of instability and fear. What do I do with my fear? I could easily become angry and lash out against Starbucks.

I’d like to make two quick points here. First, receiving our identity from a Starbucks cup is what biblical idolatry is all about. It elevates an object of the world to a position that it shouldn’t have in our lives. That’s when our sense of self becomes very fragile. When it’s threatened, even by something as mundane as a blank Starbucks cup, we tend to lash out. But the second point is that telling certain Christians that they have a fragile sense of self because they are in an idolatrous relationship with a red Starbucks cup isn’t actually very helpful. Neither is responding to their outrage with our own outrage against them. Because of our mimetic nature, responding to outrage with outrage only reinforces the outrage between us.

So, when I put myself in the shoes of a Christian who is offended by the Starbucks cup, I ask myself, “What do I need?” Here’s what I don’t need – I don’t need someone to attack me. I don’t need someone to tell me that I’m wrong. That will only harden my heart. I’ll probably become defensive and simply reinforce my position.

What I do need is for someone to model an alternative to the outrage and hostility that seems to permeate our culture. From politics to red Starbucks cups, hostility is everywhere. But, if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will see that love and compassion also permeate our culture.

René Girard and Desmond Tutu would say the same thing: we receive our identity through others, but one’s true self is found by receiving it from the God who is love. That God calls us to seek justice and to love our neighbors, including our enemies, as we love ourselves. To paraphrase Ephesians, it’s that love that puts to death the hostility between us and enables us to live into the new creation of God’s universal compassion.

Image 1: Flickr: Jennifer Hughs, Starbucks Holiday CupsCreative Commons License, some changes made; Image 2: Flickr: Skoll World Forum, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond TutuCreative Commons License, some changes made. 

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