Rene Girard died this week. Thankfully his world-changing insights will live on, but we owe an enormous debt to a man who articulated them with such erudition.
Reading articles like this one on the ‘leader’ of the United Patriots Front, a far right group opposing Islam in Australia, reminded me of one of Girard’s insights that continues to hold deep explanatory power. Namely, that conflict does not arise because of difference, but because of sameness or proximity – that it is when two people or groups have only slight differences that conflict escalates. (Dr Seuss also helpfully made this observation in an even more engaging way with his story of The Zax.)
The irony of the UPF, with its violent ideology, persecution complex, religious imagery and language and determination to establish its ideals through violently conquering its enemies, is that it is precisely the mirror image of what it purports to oppose.
As Dr Chloe Patton, an expert in the visual imagery of extremism, notes in the article, “Here we have an individual who is clearly radicalised, who is brandishing firearms while preaching holy war.” No doubt this person would see himself as the opposite of Islamic extremists, yet he could hardly be more obviously similar.
This is the dynamic that enables people and groups to justify becoming monstrous in order to defeat what they perceive to be monsters, a dynamic which enables the West’s brutality towards Islamic State, itself (at least in part) a product of the West’s brutality across the Middle East and central Asia.
It is this neverending process of mirroring/imitation that Jesus warns us about in the last part of Matthew 5 (see my more in depth explanation here), encouraging us instead to break the cycle by imitating the ‘complete/perfect’ love of God (not just towards neighbour, but enemy also).