These are difficult times. Political rivalries are ratcheting up as we come closer to election day. Anger seems to be flowing through our culture like an ever-growing electrical current that might explode at any time. My father and I are on different political wavelengths, but there’s one thing we agree upon – we are the closest we’ve ever been to a civil war since the 1860s.
Just like electrical currents, there are negative charges or positive charges to our life together. We can find hope in becoming conscious of those charges. In becoming conscious of them, we can become more aware of our responses and hopefully move forward in a positive manner.
René Girard’s mimetic theory helps us do just that. Just like Benjamin Franklin discovered the scientific charges behind electricity, René Girard discovered the scientific charges behind being human. I’ll explain the three steps behind the theory below and the reasons that each step gives us hope.
1. We are mimetic, or imitative, by nature.
The first step of mimetic theory is that people are highly mimetic, or imitative. There are some obvious examples of this. When I was growing up, I loved playing basketball. I practiced by myself and I played with friends. One day my family was going on a long road trip. I hated road trips, especially road trips with my parents! Ugh. So about an hour before we were going to leave, I snuck out of our house and ran to our neighborhood court. When I got back home a couple of hours later, my parents were fuming. And then we left on quite possibly the longest road trip any of us have ever taken.
One of my great basketball heroes was Michael Jordan. I was inspired by his story. He didn’t make his high school basketball team as a Freshman. He was rejected, but he didn’t let that stop him. He worked even harder and then became the greatest player ever.
I thought, “I could do that! I could be like Michael Jordan.” And then the commercial came out. “Be like Mike.” My motivation to be like Mike was positively charged. I wanted to copy Michael Jordan, and so I practiced the fade away jump shot. I worked on my dribbling. I tried all kinds of trick lay ups. I practiced dunking…by lowering our hoop to six and a half feet because I could barely jump over a pencil.
My friends were frequently annoyed because I just wanted to play basketball.
Michael Jordan became my model. I practiced and practiced. I logged my shots in a journal and each day I tried to take more shots than the day before. I brought a basketball to school so I could practice in the gym before my first class.
But I had a problem. Other kids had Jordan as their model, too. They also practiced. Many practiced much more than I did.
Mimetics of Hope: Imitation
We all have models, whether we consciously choose them or not. In my case, Michael Jordan was my model for basketball. Could you pick a better model for basketball? I don’t think so. But there are two important points I want to make. First, I didn’t consciously choose Michael Jordan as my model. Michael Jordan was my model because Michael Jordan was EVERYONE’S model. Everyone wanted to be like Mike. There was even a song about him! My culture told me that I wanted to be like Mike.
Our culture is always influencing us and unless we are aware of the ways our culture influences us, we will remain blind to the positive and negative influences that surround us. If we are not aware, we will likely take on models who are not healthy for us.
Hope comes when we become aware of our mimetic nature. We are always influenced by those around us. The hope is that once we realize this, we can more consciously take on models who will be positive currents in our lives.
Just like Benjamin Franklin discovered the scientific charges behind electricity, René Girard discovered the scientific charges behind being human.
2. Our mimetic nature leads to mimetic scapegoating.
As I mentioned, many of my peers practiced more than I did. In addition, while I had a passion for playing basketball, I lost in the field of athletic genes. (Hey, you have to blame something, right?)
Which leads me to this second step. Our mimetic nature to copy a model leads to scapegoating. Sometimes we get into rivalries with our models. Girard made a distinction between “internal” and “external” mediation. Our model “mediates” to us how to be in the world. Internal mediation happens when we are in close proximity to our model. The closer we are to our model, the more likely we are to come into rivalry. External mediation happens when we are far away from our model. When we are far away from our rival, either geographically, historically, or socially, we are not likely to come into rivalry.
For example, Michael Jordan was my model, but there was no way that I would ever enter a rivalry with him. Not only did he live across the country from me, but he was also 15 years older than me, and he was the greatest basketball player ever. And I could barely touch the bottom of a basketball net.
But I did get in a rivalry with other kids at my school. After all, there were only 12 spots on the Varsity, JV, and Freshman basketball teams. We were all competing for one of those spots. I eventually developed a decent jump shot, but I was slower than molasses on a cold winter night. I couldn’t defend, run well, or jump. Try as a might, I wasn’t very good. By the end of my sophomore year, I came to the difficult realization that I would never be like Mike. I wouldn’t even be like Muggsy Bogues. Nowhere close. So I quit.
But as we competed for those few spots on the different teams, there became infighting among some players. We enter into a flow of a negative current. People debated who belonged on the teams and who didn’t belong. Parents sometimes accused the coaches of being “political” when making those decisions. One year a parent accused the coach of being racist because her son didn’t make the team.
And whenever this type of infighting happens, there is a rush to get people to join our side against someone else. And just like we are generally unaware of the fact that our mimetic nature leads us to have models, we are generally unaware of the fact that our mimetic nature leads us in a negative charge to join a group in opposition to someone else – our group’s scapegoat. The easiest way to find a sense of unity with others is to find a common enemy. And the more people we can get to join us, the more we convince ourselves that we are right and good and our common enemy is wrong and evil.
Mimetics of Hope – Scapegoating
Okay, so scapegoating doesn’t give us hope, but recognizing when and how we scapegoat does give us hope. As social creatures, we desperately want to be part of a larger group. It feels good to experience the excitement and power of being with others as we experience this negative current against someone else.
Of course, this isn’t just about high school basketball players. American politics is often about entering the negative current of scapegoating the other guy and getting enough people to join us so that we win.
We all think we are justified in doing this, and there may be sometimes when we are. Sometimes coaches really can be motivated by racism. And sometimes politicians are motivated by racism, too. The hope behind this step is that we can become aware of how easy it is for all of us to get caught up in scapegoating. And once we become aware, we can consciously choose to find another solution to our problems.
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3. The Biblical Revelation
Girard says that the negative charge our mimetic nature and the scapegoat mechanism are revealed in the Bible, but Girard says that the Bible goes further than just revealing these things. It also reveals the positive charge and how it can lead us beyond the negative.
Take Genesis, for example. God gives the first humans all the food in the Garden of Eden. There was an abundance of food in that garden. But God tells them they are not allowed to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Have you ever noticed that at first they didn’t want to eat from that tree? They weren’t interested at all in that fruit. They only became interested when serpent came into the picture. The serpent told them that God didn’t want them to eat from that tree because on that day they would become like gods. And God is selfish, so doesn’t want anyone like him!
Interestingly, in Genesis 1, God isn’t selfish at all. Actually, God shares the divine image with all of humanity. God creates humans in God’s image and thus shares the divine life with us right from the beginning.
But when we are negatively charged by mimesis, God’s generosity doesn’t matter. The serpent influenced the first humans to desire even more. Instead of following God’s generosity, they followed the serpent’s desire to take more for themselves. This put the first humans in rivalry with God, and in rivalry with one another. After they ate the fruit, God came to them and asked why they ate it. The negatively charged electrical current of the blame game coursed through their relationships as they blamed each other and the serpent.
The entire rest of the Bible can be understood as an extended story about this dynamic. Whenever we experience problems, we resort to the age-old solution of scapegoating someone else. Whenever we do this, we take on the serpent as our model and fall into rivalry with one another.
And yet, throughout the Bible, another way is also revealed. In the middle of Genesis, Esau forgives his brother Jacob for betraying him. And at the end of Genesis, Joseph eventually forgives his brothers for betraying him.
Mimetic forgiveness is the positive current to the negative current that is mimetic scapegoating. For Christians, Jesus is the concrete revelation of this fact. Jesus constantly went to the margins to heal those who were sick and include those who scapegoated. And like the prophet Jeremiah before him, Jesus criticized the leaders of the Temple who turned God’s holy place into a den of thieves instead of a place for all people.
The religious and political elite, along with a crowd, united in mimetic scapegoating against Jesus by killing him on a cross. But notice how Jesus *didn’t* respond. He didn’t respond by mimicking their violence against him. He didn’t say, “You jerks! You killed me. I’m going to send my followers to destroy you. I will pray for God to kill. I will get my revenge!”
Instead, Jesus prayed for them to be forgiven. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Mimetics of Hope – Forgiveness
God is the positive current of justice, forgiveness, and love that flows throughout the world. God is our model, but God will never fall into rivalry with us. That’s because God is always the Giver who is for us. The difficult thing to realize is that God is always for them, too.
And this is where we find hope. We all get caught up in the scapegoating mechanism. We all have our enemies who we believe are evil, which means that we are good.
It’s not just the first humans who ate from that tree of good and evil. We all eat from that tree.
Jesus reveals that God comes to us in the spirit of forgiveness. Even in the resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples who had abandoned and betrayed him. Instead of demanding retribution against them, Jesus offered forgiveness and continued to give them the mission to spread God’s love, forgiveness, and justice throughout the world.
It is in that positive charge where we find hope.