This past week, on November 4th, Rene Girard died. He was 91 years old. A professor at Stanford University, Girard’s work is difficult to categorize. He’s well regarded as a French historian, literary critic, and philosopher of social science; he was the author of nearly thirty books. He’s been a major influence on disciplines such as literary criticism, critical theory, anthropology, theology, psychology, mythology, sociology, economics, cultural studies, and philosophy. In short, he’s one of the great public intellectuals of our time. I want to tell you a bit about him tonight.[i]
Rene Girard studied the phenomenon of human violence[ii]. A Roman Catholic, he developed the theory of mimesis, picking up this word mimesis from Greek philosophy—it’s the word from which we get the English word imitation. Mimesis, simply put, is the way humans habitually imitate others. Anyone who’s been around children knows this right away.
Kids imitate their parents—parents are quite often horrified when they see a child pick up one of their least favourite behaviors. This continues through all of life and across all human societies in subtle and usually unconscious ways. Our desires for objects, for people, for emotional connections come not just from within our selves but are generated by our social activities and interactions with others.
The whole advertising industry takes advantage of this by engaging us with images of people enjoying a new car or a soft drink or a particular style of clothes—we see people enjoying something and we begin to want to have that ourselves. Our desires are based on the desires of others. We imitate each other: this is the basis of mimetic theory.
And one of the most destructive ways that we imitate each other is in how we deal with conflict and this is another important insight from Rene Girard–the propensity to scapegoat others. We all manage our conflicts by blaming someone else for them. We find unity against a common enemy. In good sacrificial formula, all of our conflicts and sins against one another are washed away as we unite in expelling or sacrificing our scapegoat. Temporary reconciliation and peace descends upon the community, but it is only temporary. For the expulsion or murder of our scapegoat never actually solves our problems. Our conflicts re-emerge and the scapegoating mechanism continues.
Girard sees this scapegoating tendency over and over again in human history and in current events. Wars, and violence generally are rooted in a pitting of a group against an individual—once the individual is gone, it is hoped, peace will emerge but only temporarily as this system is self perpetuating.
The term ‘scapegoat’ actually has its roots in the Bible—from the book Leviticus where in chapter 16:8, a goat is designated to be cast into the desert, bearing the sins of the community. It finds further expression in the temple worship of ancient Israel where animals were slaughtered to pay for the sins of individuals. Once you become aware of this dynamic of scapegoating you see it all the time within the lives of families, institutions, political systems—maybe it’s too far to go to comment on the recent Canadian federal election, that one guy got scapegoated for the dysfunctions of the government; but the giddiness with which Mr. Harper’s party was defeated sometimes makes me a bit nervous, particularly because I wholeheartedly share it.
Now you may be wondering why you’re getting a crash course on the anthropological philosophy of Rene Girard this evening and what relevance if any it has to the gospel reading tonight[iii]—so let’s go there.
Let’s remember first, that this story, commonly called the widow’s mite is placed near the temple in Jerusalem. We now know about the temple and its animal sacrifices: animals were sacrificed to take away sins committed by the people. It’s the place where the scapegoat mechanism is in full throttle and around it has developed a whole system of officials who manage it. Priests do the work, scribes document the proceedings: they have become important people in society. And it needs money to operate, so to the section of today’s gospel reading from Mark—Jesus, with his disciples, is watching folks approach the treasury.
Now I’m sure most of you remember from your high school literature classes a literary concept known as foreshadowing: this is when something happens in a book or a play that anticipates a major plot development to come. In theology this notion of foreshadowing is known as prefiguring—and I think the story of the widow’s offering is a prefiguring or foreshadowing of the most important part of the gospel. How do we get there?
Well before the widow makes her offering, Jesus, speaking to his disciples offers these somewhat harsh words, “”Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”
They devour the houses of widows. Remember that in this ancient patriarchal society women had no rights outside of their husbands, and widows were completely disenfranchised: they had no rights and their very homes would, after the death of husbands, be taken over by the authorities, in this case, the religious authorities. So then, as the narrative continues, who comes along to make her offering along with the rich and powerful men, but a woman, a widow, who puts into the treasury to coins, basically all her money.
Now for centuries, preachers have seen her as an exemplary figure and used her as an example of sacrificial giving. I don’t see it that way at all. Mark Davis, in his blog, Left Behind and Loving it puts it this way, “She is participating in a system that routinely oppresses her. In a profound way, she is acting with nobility and self-sacrifice and she is contributing toward an unjust system. She is giving all that she has and she is abetting a system that will take away all that she has. It is truly a tragic situation facing the widow, because her means of practicing true piety is at the same time a system that is devoid of justice and will, in turn, exploit her.”[iv]
She foreshadows someone else who will be caught in a system whose story we remember each time we meet. Jesus got caught in the scapegoating system. He was the identified problem for whom the only solution was his death. He gave everything he had, his own dignity, his very life stepping into the violence of that system alone, abandoned and betrayed by his friends and died a cruel and painful death by execution on a cross.
And why Rene Girard remained a Christian, why in the theories of mimesis this Christ story is so urgently important, is that the resurrection of Jesus breaks that system, because he returned not inviting his followers to seek revenge, thereby perpetuating the scapegoating system, but instead spoke words of peace and forgiveness.
He broke that system down, and as we imitate the life of Christ we too can break down the scapegoating systems and all other injustices that pit person against person and nation against nation. It is not though, simply through our own efforts that this can happen, but only as we open ourselves beyond ourselves, to the power of God, to the presence of Christ we find in this Eucharist, to change us, renew us, rid us of our latent violent scapegoating tendencies and open us to the transforming love of God we know in Jesus Christ.
For in this and every Eucharist, in the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine we know ourselves again to be healed and forgiven and made new in Jesus Christ so that we can, with God’s grace, confront the injustices and inequities of the world and call all people to the peace and dignity afforded to the beloved daughters and sons of God—the blessed and holy community in which we participate now.
[iii] Mark 12:38-44