Violence and Desire

Violence and Desire

Even in parts of the world where we live in unprecedentedly peaceful times, there is a revival in the popularity of gladiatorial sports (like boxing and MMA) ; a ubiquitous thread of “justified” violence in hit TV and film dramas – especially those produced in America; and a sense of frustration, resentment and fear bubbling just beneath the surface of Western civilisation that threatens to erupt into various forms of aggression.

In recent years, I have listened to and read a lot from people resisting violence, and seeking to identify and challenge what underlies it – people like David Graeber in the area of economics and Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd and Brad Jersak in the area of religion (see my previous posts like Economics 2.0 or Debts)

The most frequently quoted source of inspiration for writers and speakers like these is the work of the anthropological philosopher, Rene Girard.  Here is how I understand Girard’s key convictions, based on his book: “I saw Satan fall like lightening.”

“Mimetic Desire” is a fundamental mechanism for human and social development, meaning that we learn and grow by mimicking others’ desires – or, to be more precise, what we think their desires are.

(This puts me in mind of Peter Rollins’ assertion that human beings are ‘fantastical’ creatures and fantasy starts with our attempt to imagine what makes us desirable to those that we want to be desired by).

There are, however, dangers in this mechanism of “Mimetic Desire, ” against which we need safeguards.

The first danger is to covet what our neighbour has, turning our mimetic model into a rival. The more we pursue what they have, the more they desire to hold on to it. We thus enter into a spiral of mimicking each others’ desires which simultaneously diminishes and enslaves us by eroding our unique identities and over-inflating the value of the objects of desire, turning them into idols.  Girard thus concludes that the 10th Commandment in the Hebrew Bible (“do not covet”) is not just unique in the world’s moral codes but profoundly revelatory about the human condition.

The second danger is to make an enemy of our neighbour.  Anyone that seems to get in the way of the fulfilment of our desires (not least our model for those desires) is a “scandal” to us – a word adopted from Greek and Hebrew meaning a “stumbling block” or “snare.”  When we view someone as a scandal, our attitude is driven by a spirit of accusation and deceit (“Satan” in Biblical language) that unchecked will consistently culminate in violence and murder (Satan “was a murderer from the beginning”).

The third danger is to “scape-goat” an individual. When multiple rivalries and frustrations build in a society, the community will eventually latch onto a single victim who is demonised as the common scandal and subsequently lynched as the sub-human cause of the contagion. Religions have sanitised this by ritualising it in sacrificial systems.

Girard calls this “Satan driving out Satan” to ensure that society does not implode and to guarantee that the system itself is perpetuated unchallenged.

In ancient mythologies, the relief that the community feels was typically credited to some mystical powers of the scapegoat who, having previously been demonised as the cause of the contagion, was then deified as the restorer of well-being.  The Greek word “pharmakos” (from which we get pharmacy, pharmaceutical and pharmacology) reflects this by connoting both “poison” and “remedy.”

Girard considers the Bible to be unique in both describing this universal mechanism (coveting, accusation and scapegoating) and challenging it by consistently giving voice to the victims (like Joseph, the Psalmist, and the tiny nation of Israel) rather than justifying the violence against them.

In the Bible, God calls a people to separate themselves from the prevailing system and be progressively formed as a model to the rest of humanity of a different system.  He warns them against coveting; promotes and models love towards those that might otherwise become enemies (like the foreigner in the land); and first regulates and then progressively works towards an end to the whole sacrificial system.

The Bible itself and the annals of history bear bountiful testimony to the fact that, far from separating themselves from the system and modelling an alternative to humanity, the “people of God” have continually colluded with and mimicked the incumbent powers, becoming models of the very evils they were called to stand against.

And yet even Nietzsche, the harshest of critics of Christianity, recognised that a concern for victims was the hallmark of the Judeo-Christian tradition – whether the people of that tradition lived up to it or not. He saw the Jude-Christian tradition as a pestilence not because of the hypocrisy of so many of its adherents but because its concern for victims was a scandal to the progress of humanity and the emergence of the Uber Mensch.

In response to the atrocities of the Nazism that applied Nietzsche’s conclusions in extremis, the horrified world became hyper-sensitive to anything that might possibly be considered a form of victimisation, lynching – without irony or mercy – anyone accused of victimising others.  This is the root of “political correctness gone mad.”

The great folly of our age is to fail to recognise that the now almost universal concern for victims is solely a result of the Judeo-Christian influence on the world.  Instead Christianity is scapegoated as the principal creator of victims rather than their liberator. (Despite the pervasive scapegoating of Jews throughout history, since the Holocaust there can be no question about whether or not they are victims).

The tragedy in this scenario is that the entire mechanism is once again obscured from view.  In advocating the satisfaction of all desires (“whatever makes you happy”), neo-paganism and consumerism avoid some of the build up of frustration.  But the underlying issues remain unacknowledged and the consequent dangers are not guarded against, ensuring that the whole diabolic system is perpetuated.