Zombies, Imitation and Apocalypse, and the Resurrection

Editor’s Note: This article was submitted by guest author Shelly Johnson. It previously appeared on her blog, “Love is Stronger.” 

 

I have had zombies on the brain recently. I am teaching a philosophy of zombies class this summer at a local college, and I have really enjoyed planning the class. Philosophers have long been fascinated with zombies because the zombie phenomenon tells us interesting things about the connection between our mind and body and about ethics and social and political philosophy. I always find zombie movies and shows excellent food for philosophical thought.

What I Learned from Watching Zombie Movies

All zombie movies have common recurring themes. Some kind of virus or weather anomaly occurs and a large portion of the population is turned into violent, ravenous, consuming creatures devoid of emotion, compassion, love. A zombie’s MO is to consume and destroy, and zombies do this with no recognition of the humanity which they are destroying.

And the rest of society, understandably so, becomes fearful, reclusive, suspicious of everyone, locked into a paranoid and violent survival of the fittest. Society devolves into an escalating storm of terror, violence and aggression.

Wait…Has the Zombie Apocalypse Already Happened?

If one of the major signs of a zombie apocalypse is people engaging in mindless consumption, violence, and lack of compassion and empathy, to be quite honest, it often feels like the zombie apocalypse has already occurred.

I thought about listing some statistics about consumption and violence, especially in the United States where I live, but I don’t really think I have to do that. We see evidence in the news daily of people who seem focused on getting more, more, more, no matter what it costs other people, and we also see people lashing out violently against completely innocent people in all manner of ways.

And sometimes it feels like it is getting worse and spiraling out of control. And we are all afraid and paranoid and often feel a lot of hate for one another.

How Did This Happen?

Where does this greed, violence, and lack of compassion come from?

One of my favorite philosophers who writes on this subject is René Girard. Girard is known for his theory of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating, and in my opinion, his theory explains a lot about the zombie apocalypse, although of course, Girard never mentions zombies or zombie apocalypses.

Girard, Mimetic Contagion and the Zombie Apocalypse

Girard notes something interesting about human beings and human psychology: we are imitators. We don’t come into the world with pre-formed desires. We learn what to desire from the people around us we see desiring things. We imitate those desires.[1] So, babies and young children develop desires by imitating what their parents and the other authority figures around them desire.

As we get older, we learn to desire things by noting what our friends, the culture around us, and the people in the media desire. Some of the clearest examples of imitative desire are the cultural fads that catch on and spread like wildfire—overnight it often seems. Often they occur because we see something in the media—a type of clothes or speech habit or hair style or whatever. The characters in the show desire this thing, and then all of a sudden, everyone else desires it, too.

This is how music becomes popular. Movies. New fashion. Political figures. We are surrounded all the time by one another, watching what each other desire, and we learn to desire those same things.

I also think Girard’s theory of imitation explains the phenomenon of bullying quite well, especially in middle school. In middle school, we don’t know who are, and we are looking around for some kind of identity. Sometimes we see a “cool kid” picking on some other kid, and we see that person desiring and relishing the power he has over the kid he is bullying. We desire this power, too, and we start picking on the kid as well.

Girard calls this tendency to imitate mimesis and argues that it is at the basis of human psychology. At its basic level, mimesis is good because it is the mechanism of desire that allows us to develop the personality traits, behaviors, and customs that make us human.[2]

The problem with mimesis is that sometimes human beings can suddenly all begin to desire the same thing, and they get locked into what Girard calls mimetic rivalry.[3]

Example: I desire and want to possess what you desire and want to possess. And you see me desiring that thing, and now you desire it and want to possess it more. And this escalates my desire to possess, and then my desire escalates your desire. This can eventually bring us into violent conflict.

This mimetic rivalry escalates and stirs us into a homogeneous frenzy of desire, and violence threatens to break out and destroy everyone. Communities are filled with greed, consumption, and violence, and everyone can feel it. Girard calls this wildfire of mimetic desire mimetic contagion[4], and I read it as something like ground zero of a zombie virus contagion.

Who Will Save Us from the Zombie Apocalypse?

Girard argues that historically communities have always fallen back on the scapegoating ritual to stop this mimetic contagion. Communities would unconsciously choose some kind of scapegoat—an innocent person or group–that they would blame for the violence and hate in the community. They would kill the scapegoat, and this would alleviate the mimetic contagion, and peace would return to community. [5]

Girard argues that this scapegoating ritual occurred again and again throughout history and that we can see it in our myths, in many past religious rituals, and in many historical events. Killing the scapegoat did indeed restore peace to society, but it did so at the sacrifice of innocent people and groups, and the violent contagions would inevitably break out again

So, the question is: Is there ever an end to mimetic contagion and scapegoating?

Christ’s Crucifixion and the End to Scapegoating

Girard argues that Christ’s crucifixion exposed the scapegoating mechanism for what it is. Christ was innocent and was killed by the Roman authorities and religious leaders of the day in a scapegoating mechanism.

But the passion story in the New Testament shows that this is exactly what the crucifixion was: an act of scapegoating an innocent victim.[6] And in the passion story, Christ rises from the dead and breaks the chains of hate, violence, and darkness (which is what sin is). The innocent scapegoat becomes the conqueror and breaks the power of mimetic contagion and all of the violence and hate that go along with it.

But Christ’s death does something more than this: Christ gives us the perfect thing to imitate: Love.[7] And we see this in Christ’s life—his love for the sick, the suffering, the marginalized, the forgotten, the sinners, the scared, the lost, his enemies. For everyone.

He desired to love everyone and make them whole, and looking at Christ, Girard argues, we learn to desire to love others, too.[8] This is what stops mimetic contagion because rather than our desire escalating us into violence and aggression towards one another, we know how to desire love, which leads us to relationships of connection and peace with one another.

And by the way, whether you believe in the literal resurrection of Christ like I do or not, or are a Christian or not, this post is still for you.

Let me return to actual zombies.

How Does This Help With the Zombie Apocalypse?

One of my favorite zombie movies is Warm Bodies. It has many of the same zombie motifs you see in any other zombie movie. What is unique about this movie, though, is that it is one of the few zombie movies that suggests that zombies can come back—they can regain their humanity.

The main character is a zombie who somehow has an awakening one day. He realizes who and what he is and is appalled by his violence and aggression. He wants to change, but he doesn’t know how.

And I won’t spoil the movie completely for you, but I will say that this zombie boy falls in love with a girl who is not a zombie, and it is this experience of love that brings him back from his zombie life. And as other zombies experience love, they experience this same type of resurrection of their humanity.

The theme of the movie is clear: Love resurrects.

It would be easy to dismiss this theme as schmaltzy zombie sentimentality—except for that if we look at history, it turns out that this idea of Love resurrecting is on point. One of the clearest examples of this, I think is the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. MLK did a lot of things, but one of the things he did, I believe, was resurrect zombies.

For years in the United States, people got locked into zombie patterns of hate, aggression, and racist violence against People of Color, and it provoked more hate, aggression, and violence in our country. And then Martin Luther King Jr. came along and led one of the biggest marches of Love from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, and this massive demonstration resurrected a lot of people from their zombie states.

Many people (certainly not everyone) suddenly began seeing the humanity of People of Color, and they said, “Segregation and discrimination must end.” And all around the U.S. and the world, throughout history and in the present, we see examples of this powerful kind of Love: The Buddha, St. Francis of Assisi, John Wesley, Sojourner Truth, Corrie ten Boom, Victor Frankl, Myles Horton, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, Maya Angelou, Paulo Freire.

These people demonstrated great acts of Love—a love like the Love of Christ—and as they did so, they brought people back from various zombie apocalypses in which people were locked into patterns of hate, greed, and violence, and these people learned how to love and be human again.

What if the Zombie Apocalypse Is Not a Fictional or Singular Event?

The older I get, the more I am convinced that zombie apocalypses are not science fiction, and I also believe that the apocalypse is not a singular event but an event that happens regularly in society.

Human beings are both amazing, beautiful creatures, and we are also incredibly stupid and cruel. We regularly focus on the wrong things like greed, power, and violence. When we do this, we become locked into patterns of mimetic contagion that result in escalating greed, power-mongering, and violence. We catalyze zombie apocalypses.

The only way out of this pattern is to learn to desire Love both personally and socially, instead of greed, power, and violence. We are imitators, and we imitate what we see in our personal and public life. The antidote to the zombie apocalypse is to make Love present in both our personal and public lives and to learn to desire it together.

This Love respects the dignity of all human beings, and it works on personal, public, and economic solutions that honor the dignity of everyone–because this is what it means to desire Love practically.

At this point, given that this is a post about the resurrection and René Girard who is a Christian writer, one might think I am advocating that we unify the Church and State or something like that. I am not advocating this. Christians can also get caught up cultural patterns of greed, power-mongering, and violence. Too often Christians forget about Love and get fixated on being theologically pure and politically powerful. These problems perpetuate their own kind of violence.

I think this is why St. Augustine in his sermon on Love wrote, “A bad person can receive the sacrament of the body and blood of the Lord… A bad person can have the name of Christ and be called a Christian. [But] to have love and be a bad person is impossible. Love is the unique gift, the fountain that is yours alone. The Spirit of God exhorts you to drink from it, and in so doing to drink from himself.”[9]

I also think this is also why so often in the New Testament Scriptures, the folks who often best understood Christ were not the powerful church leaders or even Jesus’ own disciples but rather those who were considered sinners and outcasts—like prostitutes, tax collectors, the poor, and the weak and sick. Deprived of love and rejected by society and the church for so long, these folks were in the best position to understand and receive Christ’s love.

That Christians can be caught up in patterns of greed, power-mongering, and violence does not negate the power of Christ’s Love. Rather, it suggests that it is hard to remember Love if you are surrounded by a culture and toxic church messages that consciously or unconsciously teach you to desire greed, power-mongering, and violence.

But there is hope. Love is always reaching out to us, and we can teach ourselves to desire Love. We can teach our children and students. And we can structure society in such a way that encourages people to desire Love rather than consumption, greed, power, and violence.

Love expressed practically in our personal and political lives is the way out of the apocalypse, and we can absolutely escape. We have ended zombie apocalypses before in moments of great Love, and we can do it again.

 

1] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. Orbis Books. New York: pg. 15-16

[2] “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire.” Girard Reader. James G. Williams, ed. Crossroad Publishing Company. New York: 1996.

[3] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 13

[4] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 24

[5] See especially Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, chapter 6.

[6] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pgs. 123-125

[7] Rene Girard. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, pg. 13

[8] “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire.” Girard Reader. James G. Williams, ed.

[9] You can find a link to Augustine’s entire Sermon on Love here: https://christianhistoryinstitute.org/study/module/augustine

 

Image: Screenshot from Youtube: “Warm Bodies (1/9) Movie CLIP – Saved by a Zombie (2013) HD,” by MovieClips. Image modified.

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