James Alison’s work on Rene Girard’s mimetic theory is becoming more and more central to my understanding of Jesus and of “discipleship” and of nonviolence. This is a modified version of an email to a bunch of friends on why I think it’s important.
One of the things Rene Girard discovered is that desire is imitative – that human desire is structured so that we never really desire ourselves, we only ever imitate others’ desires. That is, we desire according to the desire of another, what he calls mimetic desire. That’s probably something that we can all basically recognise in certain situations – say two children fighting over the same toy, or advertising, or whatever. It’s more difficult to see it in action with some of our more basic desires if you like, because we have layers and ways of covering over the fact that we do this, and because desire is not necessarily just about what you or someone else wants, it’s about what you’re averse to, or react to, or repress. And because our pattern of desire is imitative (mimetic) we get into rivalries, and competition, which causes conflict and violence.
So James Alison has taken Girard’s ideas even further into the realm of Christian theology than Girard did and shown how the Christian scriptures witness to God as the only ‘other’ who is not caught up in this web of mimetic rivalry, or imitative desire. This is a being whose ways are “as far from our ways as the east is from the west”. And so God doesn’t get caught up in these webs of desire and rivalry and violence, not because God doesn’t desire, but because God is not imitative of our destructive web of desires (otherwise known as sin), and as such is free to be radically for us (which is called grace).
So the only way for us to emerge from this mimetic rivalry which leads to violence and sacrifice of all kinds, we need to imitate Christ, who is the perfect imitation of God.
Notice that we cannot escape mimesis itself – it is the basic way our desire is structured – but we can choose what we imitate. If we do not recognise the patterns our desires take then it is harder for us to be the people God has intended us to be because we’re too busy being the people we think others want to be/not be (hence the importance of prayer being formation by God’s desires rather than our social other).
More than that, our rivalrous patterns of desire makes it necessary for us to scapegoat and victimise others and other things. This is what Alison would say it means to know Jesus – that is, to recognise those we make our victims due to our destructive patterns (similar to what Margaret says below). So the question is do we have an experience of Jesus being utterly and gratuitously for us beyond our categories of right and wrong? And then how can we be gratuitously and graciously for other people without depending on anyone but Christ for our motivation?
So far from coming out of some kind of self-righteousness, once we become aware of the utter gratuitousness of God’s grace, we cannot help but imitate such gratuity. Recognising the ways we have (and continue to) participated in patterns of rivalrous, imitative desire which allows the social other to run us, and causes conflict, means that we have “eyes to see” and “ears to hear”, and the opportunity to repent. As God’s desires are non-rivalrous, we are freed to be truly ourselves.
Thus it is always God who initiates repentance and reconciliation, not us. In fact, the priestly pattern (as James Alison has pointed out in a fantastic article on atonement here) is not that we make sacrifice for our wrongdoing, but that God is doing the work, it is God who emerges from the Holy of Holies to forgive people. The blood which gives expiation for sin is God’s blood.
More than that, Jesus’ death becomes the revelation of our patterns of rivalrous desire which leads to conflict which leads to scapegoating – and reveals it in such a way that makes it difficult for us to continue such practices (what Alison calls “the intelligence of the victim”). As Mark Heim (Saved From Sacrifice) writes, the cross is intended to save us from ever thinking we need to sacrifice. That doesn’t mean we don’t bear costs when acting non-rivalrously in a world of rivalry, it means that we don’t need to perpetuate such a pattern.
So one of the questions I’ve been exploring is, in what ways am I caught up in mimetic rivalry with my social others? And how can I begin to extricate myself (or more properly allow God to extricate me) in ways that allow me to imitate Christ’s gratuitous grace, particularly in being for victims?