Human Scarcity: Gathering via Exclusion

by Andrew Marr OSB

The Passion narratives in the Gospels and the apostolic preaching in Acts tell us the story of a tension-filled society in which the various factions hated each other. Then, suddenly, a magic moment came when they united in a common cause. What they agreed on was to do away with the one person they all blamed for the tension, the one person who was “stirring up the people.” The executed person, however, did not say dead. Three days later, he was walking around Jerusalem. Fifty days later, this man’s frightened and dispersed disciples had come back together and were boldly proclaiming the innocence of this victim who had been raised him from the dead by God. This claim is summarized most succinctly in the prayer of the apostles in Acts 4. Peter and John have just been released from prison for healing a cripple and anxiety is high: “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth, the sea, and everything in them, it is you who said by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant: ‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers have gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah.’ For in this city, in fact, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” Note that the abundance of well-being offered in healing a cripple was met with an attempt to make such healing scarce.

This quote from Psalm 2 pinpoints the human tendency of humans to fight one another and then resolve their quarrels by uniting against a victim who, in the end, is God. That is, human tensions are “solved” by making life scarce. This psalm verse tells us that the story of Jesus’ passion and death is not a new story, but an old story. The only thing that is new is that the old story is now being told for precisely what it is and always has been: the gathering of a hostile society against a victim. Two thousand years later, the story of collective violence seems old. We have seen it many times since the days of the apostolic preaching. This story has gotten so old that, in our time, we do a lot of quarreling as to who is the greatest victim. Two thousand years ago, this could not have happened. Victims were losers whose stories were suppressed. The strange quarrel in our time makes it clear that this story really has gotten too old. It is time to write a whole new story that will lay to rest the words of Caiaphas who said it is better that one man die than that the whole people perish.

Many disturbing stories of collective violence in the Hebrew Bible show us how old this story is. This Israelites responded to God’s gracious liberation from bondage in Egypt by rebelling against the leader who had brought them out and threatening to kill him. Psalm 95 warns us against “hardening our hearts as at Meribah . . . when our ancestors tested God and put God to the proof, though they had seen God’s works.” While the people quarreled over scant resources, God offered sustenance in the desert with manna from heaven and water gushing out of the rock at Meribah. In the midst of this quarreling, Leviticus 24 tells us of an “Israelite whose father was an Egyptian,” who was accused of blasphemy. Moses, doing what many politicians do today, redirected the violence from himself to this “blasphemer” by saying that God commanded all of the people stone the accused man. I can’t help but be suspicious about what the vague charge of “blasphemy” was really about, a suspicion compounded by his just happening to have an “Egyptian father,” which made him marginal to the Israelite society. This violence might also express anger at their Egyptian slave drivers. Remember, Jesus, too, was brought to Pontius Pilate for execution on the charge of blasphemy.

Stories like this give the Hebrew Bible a bad reputation compared to the imaginative mythology of other cultures. However, I would suggest that the importance of this story is that it was told. When we reflect on the out-of-control violence in the present time and the violence historians tell us about from times past, perhaps we should not be so edified by the myth of Prajapati, who was dismembered and a separate caste was created out of each piece of his body. I have found the research and insights of the French thinker René Girard very helpful in this matter. After analyzing this and many other myths, Girard has concluded that they show traces of collective violence that was garbled into myth. Garbling the truth into mythology reinforces society’s tendency to solve tensions through collective violence and then institutionalize that violence in repressive social structures, such as the caste system of India. In the Enuma Elish, a myth that had much influence in the Middle East, creation stems from the strife between the deities. Tiamat is slain by Marduk to stop a cosmic flood and humanity is created out of the blood of Klingat to provide slaves for the deities. Garbling the truth by mythology is the original cover up from which all cover ups that make newspaper headlines today descend. If Girard is right about founding myths, then it is an advance for humanity that biblical narrative reveals the ugly undercurrents of these aesthetically pleasing myths.

Psalm 2 is far from alone in telling us the story of collective violence. We find it over and over again in the Psalms. In Psalm 69, for example, the Psalmist complains that “more in number than the hairs of my head are those who hate me without cause; many are those who would destroy me; my enemies who accuse me falsely. What I did not steal must I now restore?” This and other psalms confirm Girard’s conclusion that collective violence and mendacity go hand in hand. On the cross, Jesus cried out the opening words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Church calls these passion psalms and that it interprets as prophecies of Christ’s passion. The same has been said of the “suffering servant” in Isaiah 53, who was “despised and rejected,” “oppressed” and “afflicted,” “yet he did not open his mouth.” I would suggest however, that these psalms, and the sufferings of persecuted prophets indicate that the Hebrew Bible is revealing the same old story that is told with definitive clarity in the passion narratives of the Gospels. Prophecy is the voice of the victim. Jesus, knowing what the people were dead set on doing to him, said that they were perpetuating the shedding of “all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” The story of Abel’s murder by Cain shows us how old this story is, yet it is as new as what happens on school playgrounds today. The fratricidal strife between Remus and Romulus is superficially similar to that between Cain and Abel. The difference is: the blood of Abel cries from the ground; the blood of Remus says nothing.

A story in First Kings 21 exposes the social dimensions of collective violence with frightening clarity. King Ahab wanted a vineyard that belonged to Naboth. When Ahab tried to make swing a deal for it, Naboth declined. The firmness of Naboth’s refusal suggests that Ahab’s desire for the vineyard may have strengthened Naboth’s desire to keep it, but his concern to keep an ancestral land is understandable. There is no question Ahab’s desire for the vineyard increased when Naboth persisted in wanting to keep it. In his frustration over failing to make a deal, Ahab went to bed in a full blown pout. Jezebel stepped in and “solved” the problem by sending letters to the elders in Naboth’s town. She encouraged them to accuse Naboth of blasphemy and have him stoned to death. The plan worked and Ahab got the vineyard he wanted. At the beginning of the story, vineyards were abundant, but in the course of the story, they become scarce. Mathematically there were as many vineyards at the end of the story as before, but in the range of human desire, vineyards had become scarce. Not only had vineyards becomes scarce, life itself had become scarce.

Ahab’s intensified desire for Naboth’s vineyard is a deadly example of what René Girard calls mimetic desire. It is well-known that humans imitate each other. Without imitation, there would be no culture. We learn to speak by imitating the speech of those around us and we learn social maneuvers by imitation as well. Girard argues, however, that more fundamentally, we imitate the desires of other people. Seeing that somebody desires something sparks the same desire in us. Advertizing is based on this tendency. Ads try to convince us that everybody wants the object they are advertizing. Sometimes, they try to convince us that everybody wants their product, but you are among the few who can actually have it. We called it snob appeal. Whether or not mimetic desire works for good or ill depends on what desire two or more people share and whether or not the shared desire is conflictual or cooperative. In the story of Naboth’s vineyard, mimetic desire is a serious problem. Ahab and Naboth imitate each other’s desire for the same vineyard until their mimetic desire leads to mimetic rivalry. This a scenario familiar from what we see in the nursery. Although a room is filled with toys, if a child reaches for one of the toys, the other children reach for the same one. In the blink of an eye, toys that were abundant have become scarce. Tying in the relationship of Naboth and Ahab to this scenario suggests how mimetic desire works out when one of the children is considerably stronger than the others. There was a serious power differential between Ahab and Naboth. A similar anecdote that an eyewitness told me about occurred at a children’s party. The house was filled with balloons and all the children were happily playing with them until one child grabbed a balloon and cried: “This balloon is mine!” Suddenly, all of the children were fighting over the one balloon. It is as if a magic wand had whisked away all of the other balloons!

The image of a magic wand is apt in that it suggests that mimetic rivalry is an enchantment. Although rivals think they are fighting over an object, the object itself ceases to be significant. The bone of contention could be any toy in the nursery or any girl in a high school class. What matters is the rivalry. The more the rivalry escalates, the more the rivalry matters until the object disappears. In the end, rivals are making much ado about nothing. Shakespeare understood these dynamics very well. The Midsummer Night’s Dream is a particularly clear example of the enchantment of mimetic desire, which is blamed on the drops the fairies put into the eyes of the unfortunate young people who are lost in the forest. In the course of the play, two men chase one of two women while both women chase after one of the men. Then, the enchantment reverses and both men chase the other woman and the women chase the other man. Lovers have become scarce although there really were enough lovers for everybody as the play’s ending shows clearly enough. One of women, Hermia, states the problem exactly when she cries out: “Oh hell! To choose love by another’s eyes.” The Winter’s Tale becomes understandable when we realize how mimetic desire fuels the plot. Leontes cannot believe in his desire for his wife Hermione unless his friend Polixenes also desires her. To that end, he encourages Polixenes to express a desire for Hermione, and then he turns on his friend whom he has transformed into a rival, with tragic results.

This analysis of mimetic desire suggests that sin is not primarily a struggle between an immaterial soul and a material body. The real problem is a social process in which we are caught. The perceived struggle between soul and body is, in fact, an internalization of mimetic rivalry and our dualistic outlook is a major symptom of the problem. When we conceive of a superior, immaterial soul as responsible for controlling an inferior body, the body becomes a mere instrument. All other bodies become, by extension, instruments subject to our control or the control of others. In short, this dualistic outlook perpetuates mimetic desire in its most violent form. As long as the body is to blame for all our ills, our “souls” will perpetuate mimetic conflict with no end in sight.

There is more to the story of Ahab and Naboth than vineyards. Naboth was a civic leader in his town. Jezebel instinctively knew that other civic leaders were likely to covet Naboth’s position and would welcome the chance to rid themselves of their rival. Such proved to be the case. They orchestrated the charge of blasphemy, the same charge leveled against the man “whose father was an Egyptian,” and the same charge leveled against Jesus. Then everybody in the town attacked Naboth and stoned him. Mimetic desire for an object, namely a particular vineyard, turned into deadly mimetic desire for power and prestige. When this happens, power and prestige become scarce, and life becomes scarce.

The power issues in the story of Naboth reinforce my contention that mimetic desire for an object already makes the rival for the object more important than the object itself. Ahab was in no mood for losing out against a royal subject. The heat of mimetic rivalry melts the object as quickly as the inside of a live volcano melts a snowball and the rivals become preoccupied with each other to the exclusion of all else. The rivalry between Saul and David is a case in point. When the women chanted: “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands,” Saul was envious, convinced that David lacked only the kingship, and he tried several times to do away with David. Theoretically, the monarch of Israel was chosen by God through the prophetic office of Samuel, but Samuel had his own issues of rivalry with Saul. When Saul didn’t follow Samuel’s agenda, Samuel decided that God had deposed him. Saul, in turn, became obsessed with his rival David, whom Samuel was secretly backing. These obsessions drove God out of the picture. Rivals such as Ahab and Naboth and Saul and David turn from God to idolatry and make the rival an idol! “Idolatry” is the proper term because, in such situations, our rivals become the organizing center of our lives, the position God should have for us. The biblical term is skandalon, a word that means a stumbling block. The skandalon is equated with Satan, the accuser. Rivals become satanic stumbling bocks in their mutual accusations of each other. Jesus attacks this combination of violence and mendacity already noted in the Psalms when he tells us bluntly that the devil “was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth.”

Girard conjectures that chain reactions of mimetic rivalry threatened ancient societies with meltdowns. If and when the meltdown was averted, it was through collective violence. A miraculous, enchanted switch took place: rivals who were locked in the mimetic desire to rub out the other suddenly shared the same desire to blame one person for the whole mess and then do away with that person. The mutual accusations of satanic rivals was transformed into the satanic accusation of the victim. Girard further conjectures that the instant relief brought about by the murder of the victim was so powerful, that it was attributed to “god.” The person deemed responsible for the social meltdown suddenly became the solution and so was deified. This is how we get dismembered and injured “deities” such as Prajapati and the one-eyed Odin. The unity society gains through collective violence has a cost: at least one person is excluded. Girard calls it “unanimity minus one.” So it is that a society identifies itself by whom it excludes. The enemy defines the society, and our personal rivals define our individuality. The victims of this unifying process are not the only casualty. God has also been squeezed out of the picture. The Word came into the world and the world did not know him. Jesus was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Every victim has become the stone rejected by the builders of society.

Girard argues further that social leaders responded to these meltdowns and their dubious resolution by creating brakes to prevent a repeat of the crisis. One of them was a hierarchical arrangement that gave only a small elite the social and economic power to fight for the top positions. This is why Jezebel sent letters only to the other elders of the city, asking them to orchestrate false accessions against Naboth. Confining this mimetic meltdown to the nobility is an unstable solution in many ways. For one thing, meltdown within the social elite is still destructive to society as a whole, as Shakespeare’s history plays and tragedies show with disturbing clarity. More problematically, the concentration of wealth and power within an elite institutionalizes violence and makes permanent scapegoats of all lower classes. Scholars who have studied the political and economic situation of Palestine in Jesus’ day have found appalling economic oppression perpetrated, not only by the imperial structures of Rome, but also by the Jewish leadership. When power and prestige become scarce through mimetic rivalry, material goods become scarce as well.

Problems of mimetic rivalry are prominent in Jesus’ teaching. In the parable of the highest places at the banquet, everybody becomes a rival to everybody else as they try to elbow each other out for the best places. In their struggles, they completely forget the host of the banquet! The pharisee who prides himself on being so much better than the publican is the one whose prayer failed to make him right before God. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew has the greatest concentration of teaching in mimetic rivalry. It is the poor in spirit, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemaker who are blessed. Jesus follows up the beatitudes with admonitions to turn away from the anger that leads to and inflames mimetic conflict. If we are in conflict, we should leave our gift at the altar and be reconciled with our enemy, and then return to the altar. When struck on one cheek, turn the other. Reacting to violence with violence is an old story, one that never ends happily unless the violence is renounced through being merciful, which can easily lead to being blessed when people revile and persecute us.

The Epistle of James offers us some startling insights to the process of mimetic desire. “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? They come from our cravings. We want something and do not have it, and so we commit murder.” This may seem a strange accusation, but James is moving directly to the end result of mimetic rivalry where covetousness leads to disputes and conflicts, precisely as it does in the story of Naboth’s vineyard. James goes on to say that “we don’t receive because we do not ask, but when we do ask, we ask wrongly.” At the end of this harsh passage, James admonishes us to cleanse our “double-minded” hearts that cause us to make idols out of our rivals. As long as we are double-minded, we are split into mimetic rivalries that continue their destructive path. James couples this double-mindedness with speaking evil against one another with satanic mutual accusations. Just a paragraph earlier, James had sad that the tongue, though small, has the power to become a fire that gets out of control and threaten “the whole cycle of nature.” A raging fire is an apt image for the escalating accusations that lead to collective violence. On the same continuum is the institutionalized violence where “the wages of laborers kept back by fraud cry out.” It is these oppressors, says James, who “have condemned and murdered the righteous one who does not resist you.” In a remarkably short space, James has taken us through the first promptings of mimetic desire to a conflagration of mimetic rivalry, to institutional violence, to the culmination of killing “the just one.”

The idolatrous, satanic obsessions of rivals with each other amount to demonic possession. This understanding of possession allows us to accept the reality of the exorcisms in Jesus’ healing ministry without necessarily believing that supernatural forces were involved, but it does not preclude that possibility, either. The Christian legend about Satan suggests that mimetic rivalry could just as easily happen among spiritual beings as among humans, another indication that the human body is not the main problem. The Gerasene demoniac’s name is “Legion,” a loaded demonic name if there ever was that refers to the Roman legions occupying Palestine and the social matrix involved with that occupation. One might think the people would have been glad to have a problem-person sorted out, but the opposite seems to have been the case. They reacted to Jesus’ exorcism by asking him to get out of town. Girard suggests that if the man had indeed been possessed by the community’s tensions to the extent of becoming the communal scapegoat, then the people would have been incensed at losing their scapegoat and the social equilibrium he gave them in his possessed state. This incident points to our current situation, two thousand years after Jesus definitively blew the cover on collective violence. Every day, we see news stories about attempts to unite a broken society through the scapegoating mechanism, and each attempt fails more miserably than the last. Just think back on the sense that Timothy McVeigh’s execution didn’t “work.” That is, it didn’t bring peace to our troubled society. Timothy McVeigh was far from an innocent victim, but many complex social tensions had centered on him so that one could say he stood in the place of many others who had contributed to the violence that led to the Oklahoma City bombing. Like the Gerasenes, we prefer to expel Jesus rather than the mimetic rivalry that resolves itself on a victim. As we reflect on the instability in our time, we realize that the expulsion of Jesus has become very dangerous, to the extent of threatening the existence of our planet.

When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter told Jesus that he was the Messiah. In Mark, Jesus’ response amounts to: “Shut up!” Matthew adds fulsome words of praise from Jesus as he promises Peter the keys to the kingdom. Clearly, Jesus was deeply concerned with how his Messiahship was understood. Far from being a Messiah who triumphs over his enemies in the same way that the Roman Empire and all empires before that have triumphed over their enemies, much the more popular model among Jesus’ fellow Jews, Jesus saw himself as the suffering servant who would be rejected by every social and political group in Jerusalem then killed, after which he would rise from the dead. But when he told his disciples this, Peter suddenly changed from being the rock on which Jesus would build his church to a satanic stumbling block. Jesus’ predictions of his imminent death were not fatalistic in some cosmic sense. They acknowledge the inexorable mimetic processes that are moving toward collective violence. The parable of the evil workers in the vineyard warns Jesus’ listeners of what they are doing, and they react by trying to kill him on the spot. Events have come to a pass where Jesus can only break the pattern of collective violence by being the victim whose story is fully told, all the while trusting that he is the son of a God of life, not death.

The second time Jesus warned his disciples about what was going to happen to him, they “did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Their problem was not a lack of intelligence any more than that is our problem with understanding Jesus’ death. We learn the real reason for their incomprehension soon enough when Jesus asked his disciples what they were arguing about on the way. They were silent. Their silence thunders in our ears even today. They were afraid to admit that they were arguing about which of them was the greatest. By infecting each other with mimetic rivalry, the disciples prevented themselves from seeing and understanding Jesus even he was speaking plainly. That the disciples should fight about such things right when Jesus was telling them that he was about to be put to death makes the end result of mimetic rivalry all the more clear. By placing a child among the disciples, Jesus presented a helpless human, one of Jesus’ “little ones,” for whom they were creating a stumbling block.

Frustratingly, the same thing happens yet again when Jesus predicts his coming suffering, death, and resurrection a third time. James and John, the two sons of Zebedee asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hands in glory. Not surprisingly, the other ten disciples were angry at this arrogant request. More surprisingly, none of the disciples seemed to be the least bit encouraged by the final part of Jesus’ prediction, that he would rise from the dead. Perhaps they were too overwhelmed by the scarcity of life to conceive of the abundance that would come with Jesus’ Resurrection. Jesus put a stop to the quarreling by contrasting the repressive style of authority among the Gentiles (and among the Jewish leaders as well) with the greatness of serving others, such as the little child Jesus had presented earlier. Jesus then tells us that he has come to serve to the extent of giving his “life a ransom for many.” It is worth noting that a ransom is not a lawful payment, but one taken illegitimately, by force. Even if a kidnapper is paid a ransom for the release of a child, one does not think that the ransom is in any way just, or the kidnapper’s due. Rather, a ransom is a rescue from an oppressive enemy, pure and simple. Jesus’ death was the result of human choices, not the will of God.

Given the iron grip of mimetic entanglements, suitably called “the powers and principalities of this world” by St. Paul, it follows that God’s process of weaning us from our entrapment would take time. This goes a long way toward explaining the tensions in the Hebrew Bible and even the New Testament between the so-called wrath of God and God’s love. The Church continues this painful process of extrication from sacralized collective violence to this day. The most horrific lapse is the way the Gospel narrative has been used to perpetuate the practice of resolving social tensions in Europe through persecuting the Jews. In an analysis of a medieval document about a plague in France, Girard demonstrates how the author explains at length why the Jews are responsible for the plague and why the Jews must be expelled to keep the town safe. Today, hardly anyone reading this document can think that the writer was right about the Jews. We need to be equally cautious about our own certainties of whom to blame for the ills in contemporary society. As long as society tries to hold itself together through collective violence, life is scarce, and everything connected with life is scarce.

The illusion of individualism is so prevalent in contemporary Western culture, that we tend to believe that all we have to do is think for ourselves and assert our desires to counter the force of “the mob.” This illusion overlooks the fact that we are created as mimetic creatures. We cannot escape it. Rebelling against the mimetic desires of others only keeps us ensnared by them. Since it is true that we are mimetic creatures by necessity, our only fundamental choice is: whose desire will we imitate? Will we imitate the desires of other humans, or will we imitate the desire of God? In my second lecture, I shall examine the power of God’s desire, a desire which is a pure gift, a desire that offers us freedom from the grip of mimetic rivalry, a freedom that gives us the power to wish the good of the other so as to provide a cup of cold water to one of Jesus’ “little ones.”