A Challenge to Girardian Peacemakers to ‘Up Our Game’
I’ve been working on this blog for more than a month. It began with my struggle to muster the customary “Happy New Year!” this year. Under the shadow of Donald Trump as president, I don’t have normal expectations for a happy 2017. It feels like we are entering the Twilight Zone.
And if it is a time of anxiety for many white males like myself, I can’t imagine what it is like for the millions of people in the myriad groups of folks who were disrespected, degraded, and further marginalized throughout Trump’s lengthy campaign — and thus far in his presidency. It is on behalf of all those folks that — if it’s not too late, a month in — I wish us a Courageous New Year. As we stand together against the kind of hatred and disrespect Trump has marshaled, the good that can come this year is for peace and justice advocates to find ways of uniting in meaningful peacemaking activities as never before. In short, we need determination to ‘up our game.’
‘Upping our game’ as practitioners of Mimetic Theory is what has led to a longer roll-out of this blog. I find myself in the beginning processes of trying to re-evaluate elements of Mimetic Theory as we’ve attempted to articulate and live them thus far. This can be a dangerous comparison, but my experience the last several months might be similar to what Bonhoeffer was feeling in the 30’s, asking, ‘Is my theology up to the task of standing in the shadow of increasing Powers of authoritarianism and imperialistic oppression?’ As a person who has been and continues to be convinced of the world-changing potential of Mimetic Theory, I’m nevertheless pondering whether there are elements of it that need strengthening and further elaborating in order to meet the test of a time when the Powers are looming large.
Here’s the bottom line of my gathering struggle: Mimetic Theory is a wholistic anthropology that gives us tools of understanding and access to what is human in all its dimensions, ranging from the personal/interdividual dimensions of our relationships all the way to the institutional and cultural dimension of human relations. It is a theory that dares to hypothesize as to what generates human culture — all the transcendent realities (e.g., religion, government, economics) which those relations found and undergird. But this past month it has seemed clear to me (and I value the feedback of colleagues on this) that the center of the current state of Mimetic Theory tends to fall more toward the interdividual side of the spectrum. And if we are to stand in nonviolent engagement with the Powers that represent the cultural side of the spectrum, do we need to pay more attention to that cultural dimension of our anthropology?
I find myself, for example, going back to the work of Walter Wink on the Powers, who helped found COV&R in the early years but then gradually decreased his participation. Did he sense a weakness in Mimetic Theory when it came to the Powers? One of the highlights often pointed to in Girard’s work is that the importance of personal conversion is present right from the beginning, anchoring his first book (see “The Conclusion” of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel). But have we ever seen much represented in Girard’s work in terms of the ‘conversion’ or transformation of human reality in the cultural dimension? He speaks apocalyptically of the Scapegoating Mechanism as being exposed and losing its effectiveness, but does he ever speak in terms of its being redeemed? Wink, by contrast, sums up his overall thesis of his Powers trilogy:
The Powers are good.
The Powers are fallen.
The Powers are being redeemed.
(Engaging the Powers, p. 10)
I think that Girard’s Battling to the End provides a good illustration of what I’m talking about. He is analyzing the Scapegoating Mechanism as revealed in modern militarism but he is decidedly doing so, using Carl von Clausewitz’s On War as his guide, on the level of interpersonal dynamics, and not on the level of the Scapegoating Mechanism. He uses Clausewitz’s analogy of the duel to unpack the dynamics of history in terms of an escalation of mimetic desire between nations and cultures. An underlying assumption seems to be that this is legitimate because the Gospel has crippled the Scapegoating Mechanism with the result that interpersonal forms of conflict take over. The Scapegoating Mechanism is no longer a major part of the analysis except in noting the apocalyptic effects of its demise.
So what can we do, what can we hope, in the face of such threatening forces in human history? It seems that there is nothing we can do beyond personal conversion. If Battling to the End is not the place where Girard gives us something beyond that, then I don’t know where else to look. (And I’ve read more than 90% of his corpus.) It would seem that our best hope is to model someone like Friedrich Hölderlin — in short, not much basis for hope.
With Walter Wink’s approach to the Powers in mind, on the other hand, it becomes more obvious who is missing from Battling to the End. When the possibilities for conversion expand beyond the personal to the cultural, when we allow for ‘redeeming the Powers,’ the obvious person who should be in a book about the modern history of war is Mahatma Gandhi. In the age-old chronicle of human warfare, he is the one person who truly brings new insight, not Clausewitz. In my opinion, the absence of Gandhi in Battling to the End is glaring indeed. Girard is giving us a sketch of modern warfare coming to an escalation to extremes. But because he isn’t looking for redemption on the level of the Scapegoat Mechanism, he misses the person I believe God has sent us just in the nick of time — the moment at which our technology presents us with the reality of self-destruction. Girard sees the matter only on the interpersonal level, so his only solution to this dire situation is that humanity undergoes personal conversion enough to cease fighting. But with Gandhi it’s not a matter of ceasing to fight — not as long as the Powers continue to destroy and oppress. It is a matter of ‘fighting’ in such a different way that it becomes something different than any previously human way of fighting. It is Jesus’s Third Way. It is not ceasing to ‘fight’ in terms of the Powers continuing to threaten the most vulnerable and the need of peacemakers to stand in the breach. Our call is closer to ‘fighting’ than it is to running away, or not showing up. But the ‘fighting’ is an engaging of the Powers armed only with love, forgiveness, and nonviolence — a willingness to be harmed along with a steadfast commitment not to do harm. The enemy is not flesh and blood (Eph. 6). It is the Powers. And love of enemies means that one’s actions bear the hope of redeeming even the Powers.
So I pray a courageous New Year for all those who anticipate the damage that a Donald Trump presidency is likely to inflict on the vulnerable. We have already seen it, less than three weeks in, with many of his Executive Orders. And for those of us who are guided by Mimetic Theory, I believe it involves a both-and. By all means, we must avail ourselves of all the practices which orient our ongoing personal conversions to compassion, forgiveness, and a pledge to nonviolence. But I believe we need to ‘up our game’ when it comes to understanding the Powers and imaginatively finding ways of engaging them in the hope of cultural conversion. (God’s Culture has arrived in Jesus the Messiah!) The most vulnerable among us depend on us to find that Third Way, the way of doing battle with the Powers in loving self-sacrifice.
For those of you who know me, you know that I believe the overriding manifestation of the Powers in our American setting is White Supremacist Racism. So my reading and spiritual preparations for action will be heavy on that issue as a guide to engaging the Powers. One of the books I’ve read this first month of 2017 is by a leader of the Moral Mondays fusion coalition in North Carolina, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement Is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear, by Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. I give the last word to Rev. Dr. Barber:
The greatest threat to our coalition was not the power of our opposition. They could threaten us. They could hurt us. They might, in their blind hubris, even try to kill some of us. But they could not, in the end, deny us. Because ours was a moral struggle, we knew we would win if we didn’t give up.
The only question was how long the fight would go on — which was why the greatest threat to our coalition was the temptation to forget what we had learned about our identity. A nonviolent struggle has two possible ends: winning the opposition as friends or giving up the battle. Though our coalition included the full spectrum of North Carolina’s diversity, we had come to recognize a common vision for our future in the history of the South’s antiracist freedom movement. Our relationships with one another were not simply transactional — a means to achieve our various organization’s goals. They had become transformational, lifting each of us to a new understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings and living members of one family. None of us would be free until all of us were free. (The Third Reconstruction, pp. 93-95)
Brief Addendum: I believe that another essential guide to understanding the task of engaging the Powers is to build on Brian Zahnd‘s brilliant reading of Matthew 25:31-46 in A Farewell to Mars. For more on this, see my webpage on this passage, Christ the King Sunday A.