Letter from the President: Partnering with Theology & Peace, Martha Reineke

Editor’s Column: Playing with Mimetic Theory, Curtis Gruenler

Forthcoming Events

COV&R Annual Meeting

COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion

Lumen Christi Summer Seminar in LA

Partner News, Suzanne Ross

Sermon: Love in the Time of Corona by Jeremiah Alberg

Book Reviews

Wolfgang Palaver, Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness: Reflecting on Violence and Religion with René Girard, reviewed by Martha Reineke

Anthony W. Bartlett, Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible, reviewed by Woody Belangia

Jean-Michel Oughourlian, Psychopolitics: Conversations with Trevor Cribben Merrill, reviewed by Andrew McKenna


Letter from the President

Partnering with Theology & Peace

Martha Reineke
University of Northern Iowa

With this column, I continue my “getting to know you” conversations with COV&R’s partner organizations. Although most of these organizations are already familiar to COV&R members, I’ve realized that COV&R’s relationship could be more intentionally mimetic, and in a positive way! Who are we when viewed from the vantage point of these organizations? How can we get to know our partners better? How might we strengthen our organizations by enhancing our partnerships? In this issue of the Bulletin, I’m sharing features of recent interview that I conducted with Preston Shipp, current president of Theology and Peace (T&P), and Susan Wright, past president. Prior to my interviews, I knew very little about T&P. Their annual meetings have always been when I have been teaching May term. In 2020, thanks to much-appreciated financial support and planning facilitated by Suzanne Ross and staff from the Raven Foundation, the conference was held on a virtual platform. After attending several of the sessions, I realized that I wanted to become more familiar with T&P. I welcome the opportunity to share with all of you what I have learned. I have been inspired by my conversations to wonder about ways that T&P and COV&R might strengthen our relationship. 

If T&P were to have its mission captured on a banner, Preston told me, the banner would read, “Subverting the Matrix of Human Violence.” Susan shared that T&P is “a forum for people within the church—theologians, clergy, laity, activists, authors—anyone interested in articulating a theology that addresses the current crisis the church is confronting with its long history of retributive models of atonement theory and their fallout. T&P is an organization for persons interested in something more transformational and attentive to community building that will transcend the divisive issues that have plagued Christianity. T&P hopes to support efforts to grow congregations that are communities of peace, providing education for clergy and laity to receive the good news of mimetic theory. This theory can revive their ministries by helping them to address Christianity’s complicity with structural violence.” 

Preston and Susan highlighted the broad range of perspectives participants in T&P bring to sustained conversations about mimetic theory. For some, T&P meetings are an entry point for learning about mimetic theory. T&P meets in their city, they show up, and they hear about mimetic theory for the first time. Some of the most insightful plenary speakers and workshop organizers have been people not well-versed in Girard and mimetic theory. Others are highly immersed in mimetic theory, engaging in a “deep dive” that also is highly valued at T&P conferences The results are “dynamic conversations” with persons who are “doing the work of undoing rivalry.” In this way, T&P conferences have an applied focus which emphasizes the transformational aspects of mimetic theory. 

Preston indicated that COV&R and T&P complement each other: COV&R has a bigger, higher profile than T&P, hosting international conferences and speakers. COV&R members, many of whom are academics, authors, or individuals for whom mimetic theory is “second-nature” are perceived as “deep divers” into mimetic theory on an international scale. He sees less of a connection with and presence of “activist-type” voices in COV&R than in T&P. Susan described COV&R as a “parent” or “older sibling” to T&P with a primary role of “keeping us grounded in the theory.” Founded by Girard and his students, COV&R is a prime “witness to the power of the theory,” attracting persons from all over the world, many disciplines, and many professional settings. Susan commented also that “It’s always good to get a good infusion of theory. We are idealists in T&P and our passions lead us in many different directions. Mimetic theory keeps us on track.” 

Like Preston, Susan celebrates T&P’s uniqueness: the immersion of the theory in its application. On behalf of such transformation, participants in the conference nurture an intentional awareness, Susan said, that “we are all mimetic and, because mimesis is contagious and we have bad habits, we need to pay attention so that, over time, we can actually participate in such transformation.” Supporting that goal, contemplative prayer is a regular part of the conferences. Moreover, in planning conferences, Preston pointed out that the T&P board has engaged in extended processes of discernment to select an annual theme, hoping to intuit the most pressing mimetic crisis in a given year. That planning process has led, for example, to a meeting in Nashville in which participants reflected systematically on issues with racial disparities in the criminal justice system as a lens with which to look at issues of race across the spectrum of American society. 

Notwithstanding its strong sense of identity, developed over the thirteen years of existence, T&P faces an uncertain future. It has been built around a yearly conference. Because that conference model does not draw on the hosting services of a university, as does COV&R’s, it is encountering challenges with finding meeting locations, budgeting for a meeting, and identifying conference hosts. 

My conversations with Preston and Susan suggest to me that the community of inquiry and action that T&P has created is too important to lose to the challenges of planning and financially supporting annual meetings. We are, as Susan said, “a planet gripped by rivalry, beset by the escalation of violence and by the increased mobilization of scapegoating.” With COV&R and T&P acting as “siblings” in the mimetic theory family, there is much potential to appreciate each other’s distinct personae while at the same time exploring whether we may be able to offer more systematic mutual support to each other. With that goal in mind, I hope to take to the COV&R Board in July a suggestion that the Board initiate a process of discernment with T&P’s Board concerning ways that we might work together in the future. 

I’ve imagined a few topics for potential discussion. To be clear, I am not advocating any of them. I merely present them as ideas that might seed a discernment process were the COV&R Board to determine that it wants to support T&P. For example, annual meetings of the two groups could overlap, sharing the same conference site structure and planning mechanism. That sharing would add approximately 50-60 attendees to our COV&R conferences. On my understanding, before T&P existed, some of its members participated in COV&R sessions that focused on the application of mimetic theory. Perhaps we could redevelop in COV&R concurrent session “tracks” that focus on application of mimetic theory and activism within specific Christian and community settings. The T&P community also might wish to meet on its own a day before or after COV&R. The model here would be similar to that followed when COV&R met in conjunction with the Anthropoetics group. A complication in such a scenario is the international nature of COV&R; we may not be meeting in North America for several years. And T&P has developed robust conversations precisely in their particularity. They have focused on Christian communities in US settings struggling with issues confronting American churches and communities, e.g., white supremacy and racism. Is a shared annual meeting the best and/or only way of furthering a partnership? 

Having participated in one T&P conference, albeit virtually, I see potential strength in COV&R exploring the model T&P has used but with some changes. Both organizations could expand their breadth of influence with “pop-up” seminars and weekend meetings in various regions, both in the US and, perhaps, internationally. Like the T&P annual meetings, these would be planned by a local team, include thematically focused sessions, and would offer practitioners (ministers, priests, religious educators, social workers, etc.) an opportunity to earn continuing education credits. By affording persons an opportunity to have the kind of experience T&P has historically provided when it has served as a regional entry point for individuals to discover mimetic theory, bringing specialists together with people in a community to seed a common conversation about a topical issue associated with violence and religion, mimetic theory would expand its influence. We would need to build and fund a different kind of infrastructure for such workshops or weekend meetings than we have had in T&P or in COV&R. But the prospects of expanding the influence of mimetic theory through such a model seem to be worthy of a discernment process.

As Susan said near the end of our interview, “I want to see mimetic theory succeed in the academy, but I also want to see it break out to achieve a public voice. It has something singularly important to contribute to society in the face of the crises we are facing.” Preston and Susan would welcome the opportunity for shared conversations about how T&P and COV&R might jointly advance that goal through new initiatives that would draw on our respective strengths as partner organizations. 

  Editor’s Column

Playing with Mimetic Theory

Curtis Gruenler
Hope College

Positive mimesis—imitation that avoids rivalry and enhances communion—no doubt takes many forms, yet I suspect that most of them involve an element of play or a spirit of playfulness. I’ve been thinking about this while working on a project about Dante’s vision of perfected community in Paradiso. Dante’s heaven is profoundly playful, though seeing this takes some imagination because of his weighty themes and dense poetry. In everyday life, too, it takes imagination to find playful alternatives to the cycles of habitual rivalry and conflict we are prone to. What are the practices of playful community Dante helps us learn to imagine? One is the idea of overaccepting from the theory of improvisation: responding to another not with just a “no” or a mere “yes,” but with a “yes and.” Sam Wells has explored overaccepting as an approach to Christian ethics in Improvisation, and Scott Cowdell translates it to a vertical, theological register in chapter 7 of René Girard and the Nonviolent God. I want commend two other resources for conceiving the dynamic play of positive mimesis.

The first is a great little book called Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse, an emeritus professor of the history and literature of religion at New York University, who died on September 25, 2020. Carse begins: “There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.” He goes on to unfold, in a provocative, aphoristic style, a universe of implications—social, political, spiritual—from this basic distinction.

For me this expands a contrast Dante makes in Purgatorio 15, probably derived in turn from book 15 of Augustine’s City of God, between desire for finite and infinite objects. Desire for finite objects is what leads to envy and rivalry—to what Dante depicts in Inferno—whereas desire for the infinite, ineffable Good is what moves people in Paradise: “The more there are who fix their minds up there, / the more good love there is—and more to love— / and each (as might a mirror) gives to each” (Purgatorio 15.73-5, trans. Robin Kilpatrick).

Carse probes what such a communion in love looks like, that is, he helps recognize what there is in our current experience that might be a foretaste of everlasting play. Here is a sample of how he describes approaching life as part of the infinite game: “To be playful is not to be trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen. On the contrary, when we are playful with each other we relate as free persons, and the relationship is open to surprise; everything that happens is of consequence…. To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.” (15, emphasis original).

The second resource is polarity thinking. Over the past three decades, Barry Johnson has developed an approach to management (in organizations from businesses and schools to hospitals and churches, where I encountered it) based on identifying tensions that lead to conflict when seen through either/or-thinking and understanding them instead as mutually enhancing interdependencies that can be leveraged through both/and-thinking. When polarities are involved, he suggests, negative dynamics follow from seeing them as exclusive, either/or possibilities, whereas leveraging them positively follows from learning to see them as mutually enhancing, both/and necessities.

In Dante’s heavenly community, and in any organization, one of the underlying polarities is between the part and the whole. How does each individual experience freedom and room for initiative and unique self-expression while also belonging to a unified, cooperative whole in which all are equal? Desire for each side is liable to color the other as a threat: loss of freedom and individuality on the “whole” side, or isolation and inequality on the “part” side. Either/or-thinking leads to a finite, zero-sum game. But identifying these negative dynamics, these rivalries, opens the possibility of a both/and polarity oriented to a greater, ultimately infinite purpose: “we all thrive.”

Johnson also discusses, in the first volume of And: Making a Difference by Leveraging Polarity, Paradox or Dilemma (2020), the polarity of justice and mercy. Mercy, he suggests, is involved in seeing the good of both sides of a polarity. Justice, on the other hand, tends to see good at the end of a straight line with evil at the other end. Emphasis on one good as the solution to an evil, at the expense of its interdependent, partner good, leads to an excess of laws and of punishments for breaking them. Most dangerously, it leads to self-righteousness and the tendency to deflect blame by projecting it onto others—what mimetic theory identifies as scapegoating.

Central to polarity management is an approach to mapping polarities that articulates their positive and negative dynamics: the values and fears on either side, the greater purpose that guides a positive movement between them, the action steps toward embracing both sides, and the warning signs of over-focus on either side. Superimposed on the whole map is an infinity symbol (a figure 8 on its side) with arrows of flow moving upward in the middle, as each side moves toward the other, and downward on the sides. Though Johnson does not use the language of play, his tools help identify the practical, interpersonal dynamics involved in approaching potential rivalries within the infinite game of playful communion.

Publication News

I’m very pleased to announce a theme issue of the journal Christian Scholar’s Review on “The Promise of Mimetic Theory as an Interdisciplinary Paradigm for Christian Scholars,” which I edited. My introduction gives an overview of work on mimetic theory across the disciplines. Other articles include: a wide-ranging integration of mimetic theory with work on conflict in social psychology by COV&R board member Kathy Frost; “Without Rival: Mimetic Theory in a First-Year Seminar” by book review editor Matthew Packer; “Between the Gospel and Myth: The Biblical Critique of Persecution in Cane, Sanctuary, and Beloved,” by Martin Kevorkian; and “From Violence Loop to Conversion Spiral: Mimetic Theory and Communities of Care for Children with Disabilities,” a dialogue in which my colleague from Hope College’s Social Work program, Dennis Feaster, and I discuss the work we presented at COV&R’s 2019 annual meeting at Innsbruck. The complete contents will soon be available at You may also email me  if you would like me to send it as a pdf file.

Michigan State University Press has announced Violence, the Sacred, and Things Hidden: Discussion with René Girard at Esprit (1973), translated by Andrew J. McKenna, in the series Breakthroughs in Mimetic Theory, scheduled for November 2021.

The deadline for submissions to the special issue of Xiphias Gladius on “Positive Mimesis: Education and Mimetic Theory” has been extended until March 31, 2021. Here is the announcement.

Forthcoming Events

2021 COV&R Annual Meeting at Purdue

“Desiring Machines:
Robots, Mimesis, and Violence in the Age of AI”

An online meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion
July 7-10, 2021, at Purdue University

Sandor Goodhart and Tom Ryba

We are happy to announce that COV&R 2021 will take place as planned through the digital meeting platform utilized by Purdue Conferences. All meetings will be digitally recorded and available to conference participants and other registrants for downloading for up to one year following the conference. Information regarding registration will be forthcoming shortly through Purdue’s conference website.

For a complete call for papers and further information as it becomes available, see the annual meeting page on the COV&R website.

All conference meetings will take place over the specified four days and be either plenary or concurrent and last roughly ninety minutes each. Moreover, all concurrent sessions will consist of up to three separate 90-minute meetings in separate virtual rooms. Given a schedule of papers that needs to accommodate papers delivered in real time by participants in Asian, Australian, British, European, and perhaps other time zones (as well as those in the United States), we anticipate the delivery of between 80 and 120 papers. We will also be particularly sensitive—given the nature of the topic and the goal of the conference—to leave as much time as possible for question and answer sessions. As has been customary at COV&R conferences for many years now, we will continue to encourage papers that are off-topic.

Although the conference will be online, we anticipate that the Raymond Schwager prize will continue to be awarded as in the past and the winners invited to prepare papers for delivery. More information on these contests will be forthcoming.

Finally, because this conference was originally planned for July 2020, a number of inquiries had already been received before the date of Purdue’s cancellation of all in-person campus activities for the spring and summer. We have retained all such inquiries and see no reason in principle that a proposal already accepted would not be accepted in the present context for July 2021. But because of the new online format, we encourage all previous proposers to communicate with us once again and either remind us of your submission or resubmit your proposal to us before the May 1 deadline.

Please send abstracts of at least 150 words by May 1, 2021, to Sandor Goodhart.

All inquiries will be acknowledged and paper givers will be notified no later than May 15, 2021.

American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting
San Antonio, Texas, November 20-23, 2021
Call for Papers for COV&R Sessions

Convener: Grant Kaplan
Board of Advisers: Martha Reineke, Brian Robinette, and Chelsea King

The Colloquium on Violence & Religion section invites paper proposals on the following themes:

  • Papers related to the pandemic that apply mimetic theory to analysis about the pandemic and what it reveals about our common humanity, with particular attention to religious themes
  • Topics related to an examination of mimetic theory in relation to the theme of friendship, for example, around the themes of friendship and religious experience, friendship in the context of us/them bias in society, friendship in conflict and reconciliation, and the theme of social friendship in conversation with the recent papal encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,”
  • Topics related to eucharistic practice and the theme of spirituality

In addition, we invite a panel proposal on recent books related to mimetic theory, in particular, Giuseppe Fornari’s Dionysus, Christ, and the Death of God (Michigan State Press, 2020).

Proposals should be between 200-500 words and will be judged anonymously through the AAR’s INSPIRE portal, where proposals should be submitted. The deadline has been extend to March 8.

The Thought of René Girard: Understanding the Faith in a Secular Age

July 25-31
Los Angeles, CA

Summer Seminar for Undergraduates: “The Thought of René Girard: Understanding the Faith in a Secular Age,” led by Grant Kaplan and Trevor Cribben Merrill in Los Angeles, CA, July 25-31, 2021. Sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute. Registration is open.

Partner News

Thank You to Survey Respondents

Suzanne Ross
The Raven Foundation

Thank you so much to the 41 COV&R members who responded to our survey requesting feedback after the Mimetic Invitations Launch Party in November 2020. This was a joint event hosted by COV&R and the Raven Foundation. If you missed the event, you can watch the recording here and add your responses to the survey here.

The responses reflected an enthusiasm for efforts to make mimetic theory more accessible to general audiences, an enthusiasm shared by the COV&R Board. Many mentioned particular groups they were interested in reaching with mimetic insights such as people engaged in youth work and spiritual formation, organizational consulting, and those working for social change. Respondents encouraged the use of podcasts and YouTube videos that introduce folks new to mimetic theory to its ideas and relevance.

At the Launch Party I mentioned a new initiative called The unRival Network to explore applications of mimetic theory to the areas of peacebuilding, conflict resolution, and social change. We feel there is untapped potential here to engage new audiences and with any luck, to attract donors interested in finding solutions to the problems of rivalry, partisanship, conspiracy thinking, and supremacist ideologies. I invite you to visit the website and share stories you have about solving conflict and the efficacy of nonviolence.

News from the Raven Foundation

This year at the Raven Foundation our theme is Unlearning Violent Christianity. We have just published a new e-book by Adam Ericksen on the topic and are planning a variety of events and conversations we hope you can attend. Stay up to date and get a free copy of the e-book by subscribing to the Olive Branch. Recently, Adam interviewed public theologian and COV&R friend Brian McLaren on Brian’s book, Faith After Doubt. You can listen to this wonderful podcast about the value of doubt on your favorite podcasting platform. You can also find a full chapter from Brian’s book called Faith, Belief, and Revolutionary Love. And if you haven’t visited Raven in a while, check out our new look on our homepage! We hope to see you on Facebook and at our online events soon. 


Love in the Time of Corona:
A Christian Perspective

Jeremiah Alberg
International Christian University

Editor’s note: The following is a sermon delivered by former COV&R president Jeremiah Alberg at the church that serves International Christian University in Tokyo, where he teaches.

Praise the Lord!
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever.
Who can utter the mighty doings of the Lord,
or declare all his praise?
Happy are those who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times….
Then they attached themselves to the Baal of Peor,
and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds,
and a plague broke out among them.
Then Phinehas stood up and interceded,
and the plague was stopped.
And that has been reckoned to him as righteousness
from generation to generation forever.
(Psalm 106:1-3, 28-31)

I want to speak today about the plague, about the pandemic through which we are living and about what we might learn from it. We have been praying for those who suffer from it, praying for people to be kept safe, for people to recover, for the repose of the souls of those who have died. Our prayers imply faith in a God who has power over this disease. We believe that God is allowing this happen, that it is not beyond his providence, not outside of his love. I would like, then, to explore a bit what that might mean for us. I want to begin with something that might seem at first unrelated to the pandemic, but is, I think, actually quite at its center. It is something that is not unique to Japan at all, but there is a “Japanese version” of it.

I think that many of you will recall the case of Hayashi Masumi, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for putting arsenic in a pot of curry resulting in the deaths of two children, two adults, and the poisoning of over 60 other people back in 1998. I remember it well and I remember the first interviews after it happened. A number of people from the community repeated that what really upset them was the fact that the act was 無差別. That is, it was “indiscriminate” killing. I think this gets at something very deep in human beings. I would not say we “prefer” but I would say that we tolerate a bad order better than no order at all. We may well condemn a killing done from jealousy or greed, but at least we feel that we can understand it. It “makes sense.” But indiscriminate killing is “senseless.”

A plague, this pandemic, is nature’s indiscriminate killing. It does not differentiate the we usually do, the way we think that the world ought to be differentiated. For the pandemic one may be rich or poor, happy or sad, hard working and virtuous or a “lazy bum” and still die or still be spared. Something in us, as humans, rebels against this. We want our world to make sense. It needs to conform to some rules, we want our measure of control over reality and a plague mocks that desire as it takes it away. 

This disruption of an undifferentiated reality relativizes our usual discriminations; the chaos relativizes our order. Think of all the plans for 2020 we had last January or February. All the things we just assumed we were going to do in April, May, June and for the rest of the year. Things we felt that had to do. Almost all of them gone. Each of us has a story of what didn’t happen, could not happen in this situation. 

Now on a wider level also, this relativizing makes evident the arbitrariness of all of our discriminations, of our present order. Since this is easier to see in someone else I will use the United States as an example. It is not at all accidental that the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement happened together. One is a kind of cause and the other an effect. Going way back in the history of the United States is a kind of unspoken order that, if we were to express out loud, everyone would know is false, but it still exists. I will put it this way: Violence by the police is good; violence by blacks is bad. We need the good violence to keep the bad violence under control. But as the pandemic began to destroy other distinctions—not just the distinctions between the healthy and the sick, or between those activities deemed safe and those deemed dangerous, but also distinctions between those of different religions, different socio-economic classes, and those of different races, other distinctions began to appear less absolute, more easily questioned. More and more people were able to see that not all police violence is good. That something is seriously wrong with the way many black people are treated by law enforcement. The coronavirus and Black Lives Matter are two sides of one coin. Two phases of a single phenomenon.

This brings me to the Bible. In the Bible the “plague” is mentioned over 100 times. Of those, 96 are in the Old Testament, and 13 in the New. All 13 are in the Book of Revelation. In general in the Old Testament, the plague is an instrument of God’s anger or God’s wrath, so that we could just say the plague is God’s wrath. The way we know God is angry is that he sends a plague. When a plague comes, we know God is angry. As the Psalm that we read says: “They provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds, and a plague broke out among them.”

The Psalm also speaks of Phinehas. “Phinehas stood up and intervened, and the plague was checked.” Thus, the Bible gives us some clues as to how to end a plague, and I thought everyone would be interested in learning how do that. So let’s look at the original story of Phinehas. It is told in Numbers, chapter 25.

Moses has led the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom. But it is a difficult freedom. They are wandering in the desert, trying to get to the Promised Land. It is a hard journey. Dry and dusty. It is difficult to stay faithful to God. The people keep falling into idolatry and Moses has his hands full trying to keep God’s people together. Even God gets tired of it and has to talked out of just killing them all. In this particular part the problem is that the men have begun to engage in sexual immorality with the Moabite or Midian women. These women invited the men to join in the fertility rites and sacrifice to their gods, to engage in idolatry. As the Bible puts it: Thus Israel yoked itself to the Baal of Peor, and the Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel. Notice there is no mention of any plague. The problem here is idolatry.

Here is what the Bible says happens next: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Take all the leaders of these people, kill them and expose them in broad daylight before the Lord, so that the Lord’s fierce anger may turn away from Israel.’” God speaks. He has fierce anger and the way to appease that anger is to kill and expose all the leaders of Israelites. Now pay attention to what Moses actually does. He says to God, OK, leave it to me. Then he turns to the judges, or the leaders of the people, and says: “Each of you must put to death those of your people who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” In other words, he just changes what God has commanded and, from our viewpoint at least, makes it a lot more reasonable. Only the people who have actually committed the crime are going to punished. This isn’t great, because a lot of people are going to die, but at least it is those who actually “yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.”

So things are pretty horrible in the Israelite camp. They face a real catastrophe. God is angry and a lot people are going to be executed. Into this tense situation walks an unsuspecting Israelite male and his Midian consort. They walk right in front of all these people weeping and go to their tent to do what they are going to do. Here is what happened:

When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear into both of them, right through the Israelite man and into the woman’s stomach. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

Now God reacts to this act. He says to Moses:

“Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites. Since he was as zealous for my honor among them as I am, I did not put an end to them in my zeal. 12 Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. 13 He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

There are number of things to notice here: First of all, it is emphasized over and over that Phinehas is a priest and this act is a priestly act. It is for this act that he is remembered in the Psalms. His killing stopped God’s anger. It also stopped the plague, because these are the same thing. Until we are told that the plague was stopped there had been no mention that there even was a plague. So the situation went from the threat of killing all the leaders, to the threat of killing all those guilty, to the actual killing just one Israelite and his Moabite concubine. 

But the important thing to see is that any of these killings, even the actual one was just as 無差別, just as indiscriminate as the plague. It didn’t matter whom was killed. The leaders were a mixed lot, good and bad, and they would all be killed. Those who had yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor were all not equally guilty, but all would be killed. This couple could have been anybody. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were scapegoats. 

God makes a covenant of peace with Phineas and a covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants. But then something else happens. Something so small you might not notice it. The bible discriminates, the bible differentiates. We are told: 

The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. 15 And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Kozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family. 

The victims are given names. They are to be remembered also. They are not simply forgotten. Midianite Lives Matter.

Jesus prayed the Psalms. Jesus knew the story of Phinehas. Jesus knew how he stopped the plague. But Jesus never speaks of the plague. In spite of its huge presence in both the historical books and in the prophets, we hear nary a word about it from Jesus. But I think Jesus does tell us something about plagues and about Phinehas and about the priesthood. Rather he shows it in that odd story that we know as the “woman caught in adultery.” I call it odd because it was pretty clearly not written by John, although it appears in that Gospel. It is probably from Luke or his school. I cannot help but read this story as a counterpoint to the Phineas story. Almost every element in one story finds its negative image in the other.

As you know, the woman caught in adultery is brought alone to Jesus by the crowd of Scribes and Pharisees. Students sometimes have asked me, where is man she was with? They have questioned and I have wondered if this just another case of patriarchy and misogyny in the Bible. But maybe something else is going on. In the Old Testament we have a group of men and women gathered and stationary at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The man and the woman go past them. In the Gospel the group of just men brings the woman alone to Jesus. Every element is reversed. In the Old Testament Phinehas alone goes after the couple. In the New Testament Jesus is confronted by the group with the woman. Phinehas, it says in the Psalm, “stood up and intervened.” Jesus bends down and does not intervene. He does not tell the Pharisees to stop what they are doing. Phinehas has his spear. Jesus has his finger. Phineas never speaks, he kills. Jesus does not kill, he speaks. “Let you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Phineas stopped the plague by killing. He made a clear distinction between those two doing evil and those for the Lord. Jesus stopped the killing by… Strangely Jesus stopped the killing by releasing what I can only call a counter-plague. There is no mention in the Gospel story of a plague, as there is in the Numbers, but if I am right about them being counter-points, then there should be some element in the Gospel story that corresponds to the ending of the plague. I think there is. Jesus is God’s counter-plague, or anti-plague. Jesus is God’s form of 無差別. God, who lets his sun shine on the good and the bad, is indiscriminate in his love. Jesus infects the world with this indiscriminate love. He points out that Scribes and Pharisees are the same as the woman, sinners all. 

God is indiscriminate in his love and the pandemic is indiscriminate in its victims. Phinehas stopped the plague violently by asserting an arbitrary difference between the group at the tent of meeting and the couple. Jesus stopped the killing by reminding us of our identity with those who sin.

There are things that we could do to end this plague. There are effects of the pandemic that we can fight against. For example, I have read that students who will graduate this year have faced a very hard year with many companies cancelling their plans about hiring. In addition, they will have face another challenge next year, because they will be one year late and the new graduating class will be given preference to them. But this is discrimination. This is unjust to these young people. I think we should start a movement from this ICU Church that demands that company treats the graduates the same whether they graduate in 2020 or 2021. We should demand data on hiring to ensure that no discrimination takes place and if it does, these companies should be boycotted. We should fight the pandemic.

I know someone who works as a nurse in Tokyo and works to help people with Covid-19. It has been a stressful time. When this person asked to visit some friends, to meet even outside, wearing a mask, these meetings, under any conditions, were refused. This is not prudence, this is not wisdom; this is discrimination and it is wrong. It is magical thinking; that this person is now unclean or impure because of the work they do. If you know someone working on the frontline, against this pandemic, please do not withdraw from them. Take the necessary precautions but do not cut them off. Their work is hard enough already.

Book Reviews

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contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.

Into Saintliness

Martha Reineke
University of Northern Iowa

Wolfgang Palaver, Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness: Reflecting on Violence and Religion with René Girard. Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pages: 96.

Perhaps more intensely than at any time in recent memory, we are grappling on a global basis with intersections between religion and violence. In the US, we struggle to comprehend a violent conjunction of Christian nationalism and white supremacy during the insurrection on January 6, 2021. In recent years, Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States have been under siege from domestic terrorists whose ideology is steeped in antisemitism even as synagogues in Europe have been placed under guard and their congregants now hide their yarmulkes under baseball caps when out in public. Since 9/11, widespread Islamophobia has become a counterpoint to bombings in Europe, the Mumbai tragedy, as well as violence in the Middle East with its associated flood of refugees. In view of this unrest, Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness is a particularly compelling read. 

This volume is a new entry in the Cambridge Elements series on “Religion and Violence,” which was developed by Cambridge University Press in the years since the 9/11 attacks to bring scholarly insights to bear on violence motivated by religious beliefs. Available as a reasonably priced paperback or as an e-book, it draws on research Palaver conducted during the fall of 2018 in a workshop on religion and violence at Princeton University’s Center for Theological Inquiry. As Palaver participated in discussions with scholars representing a diverse range of disciplinary and thematic approaches to the problem of religion and violence, he had an opportunity to explain the distinctive contribution René Girard’s mimetic theory makes to understanding this issue. Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness is a most fortunate result of that effort. 

A typical argument that seeks to explain how religion becomes implicated in violence assigns blame for religious violence to religion. Drawing on Girard’s mimetic theory, Palaver takes a different approach. He argues that mimetic processes are at the root of all violence; as a consequence, discussions of religion’s role in violence follow, rather than precede, explorations of the causes of violence. Concurring with Girard that society and religion are built on a mechanism of scapegoating and that collective rituals of sacrificial violence are recorded in cultural myths, Palaver shows that Girard’s theory provides unparalleled critical insights into violence. As he demonstrates that Girard offers an explanation of features of the human condition that lead to violence, thereby addressing gaps and shortcomings in other theories, Palaver establishes Girard also as an essential interlocutor in discussions of how this violence is related to religion. 

Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness’s essential argument, developed with notable acuity, is this: If we are unable to distinguish between two religious terms that are often viewed as interchangeable—the “sacred” and the “holy”—we will find that understanding the relationship between “religion” and “violence” always eludes us. Palaver establishes the salience of this argument in several ways. 

Early in the book, Palaver develops a concept of religion that serves as a foundation for his overarching treatment of Girard’s views of the sacred and the holy. He rightly homes in on defining and justifying a normative rather than solely descriptive definition of religion, knowing that Girard relies for his own scholarship on just such a normative concept of religion. Moreover, the normative definition of religion at which Palaver arrives does not privilege Christianity. As a consequence, Palaver is able to show that mimetic theory can account for the possibility of the holy not only in Christianity but in other religions. 

As Palaver tracks the holy through the Girardian corpus, Palaver explains in especially insightful ways how the Swiss Jesuit and Innsbruck-based theologian Raymund Schwager contributed to Girard’s efforts to distinguish the sacred from the holy. There already is a consensus among Girard scholars that Schwager played a critical role in the development of mimetic theory and that knowledge of the Girard/Schwager relationship, as illuminated in their correspondence (published in multiple languages in recent years), is decisive for an informed perspective on mimetic theory. Palaver not only confirms the consensus view but also offers a nuanced and insightful elaboration of it. His discussion of Schwager is especially salient because it answers a key question: If the sacred/holy distinction is fundamental to Girard, why is this distinction unclear in Girard’s early work? Palaver’s analysis of difficulties with translation and his illuminating insights concerning Schwager’s influence on categorical distinctions Girard wanted to make reinforce Palaver’s claim that we can accurately perceive the relationship between religion and violence only if we are able to delineate the “sacred” from the “holy.” 

Significantly, even as Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness illuminates distinctions between the sacred and the holy in Girard’s works that have gone unrecognized up to now, the book also elucidates afresh the entire Girardian corpus, thereby strengthening the capacity of mimetic theory to speak of religion and violence in ways that make Palaver’s book essential reading not only by every Girardian scholar but also for anyone studying religion and its relation to violence. Palaver’s discussion of Girard’s reflections on the book of Job lays a foundation for delineating the holy from the sacred, advancing the book’s argument with a number of constructive moves. Drawing on Girard as well as on secondary literature, Palaver demonstrates what he calls “the biblical difference.” “The sacred” attests to a god who is the projection of a community’s collective violence, born of their human condition and lived out in their social and political institutions. “The holy” points to a transformation in a revolution that led to the “Axial religions” in which a God who sides with victims is revealed, as happens so memorably in Job, opening up on the other side of violence a responsibility for the other that creates an ethical alternative to the lynch mob that acts out the violence of the sacred. 

Woven into Palaver’s commentary on Job are additional observations that launch Palaver’s argument forward. His critique of Rudolf Otto’s discussion of Job is an illuminating contribution to the Joban literature in its own right. Palaver follows the thread of “the biblical difference” backward, referencing how, for Girard, Greek tragedy does not expose the sacred in ways that enable us to side with the victim but instead leaves us with the mob. So also does Palaver follow Girard’s argument forward, discussing how the holy emerges in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teachings. Palaver counters all readings of “the biblical difference” that espouse Christian exceptionalism. He shows that such readings are complicit with the worldviews of persecutors and also are distorted readings of Girard. Palaver succeeds in that effort by bringing into the discussion the work of Jewish thinkers Abraham Joshua Heschel and Emmanuel Levinas. 

In the most technically complex section of Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness, Palaver traces the thread of the holy through the Girardian corpus, as it becomes increasingly visible in Girard’s later work, while making note of important developments in theories of religion in France in the twentieth century. Durkheim, Simone Weil, Henri Bergson, Levinas, and Jacques Maritain come under Palaver’s purview. As he does so, it is as if Palaver is reminiscing about the conversation at a dinner he once hosted. Previously, scholars have been aware only of snippets of the conversation that transpired on that occasion because Girard preserved in his writings about the sacred and the holy only his own contributions to it. With the assistance of Palaver, all voices are amplified and afforded sustained attention. As a consequence, a new perspective on the conversation comes into view. Most significantly, Girard’s thoughts about the sacred and the holy, deployed with reference to observations on the sacred and the holy offered by these other great thinkers, show forth anew, enhanced in depth and breadth. Weil’s influence on Girard is shown to be especially important. Although Palaver notes that her rejection of the Hebrew Bible is criticized by Levinas and Girard, he explains how Girard mutes features of her thought that conflict with his theory while retaining its most salient aspects as they contribute to Girard’s developing notion of the holy. 

Palaver demonstrates powerfully that Girard’s distinction between the sacred and the holy can only be understood against the background of developments in France. Placing the Dreyfus Affair at their center and highlighting the roles of Lazare and Péguy, Palaver not only draws the reader into the historical setting that shaped Girard’s theory of the holy but also bolsters his case for going beyond Girard to fill in the contours of “saintliness.” Benoît Chantre previously established a basis for this effort in his conversations with Girard in Battling to the End; however, Palaver draws out Péguy’s significance in ways not previously appreciated. Explaining how Péguy influenced Bergson, he weaves this discussion into commentary on Bergson, Levinas, Hölderlin, Weil, and Maritain. He also documents Girard’s comments on Péguy and the Dreyfus Affair and links these observations to commentary on Péguy in Battling to the End. Securely tethering “saintliness” to the holy, Palaver makes a fundamental contribution to scholarship on the holy in mimetic theory and opens the door to scholarship by others on the same topic. Palaver’s success in this effort makes me wish that “groundbreaking” had not become a tired description for original scholarly work because Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness truly does break new ground. 

If Girard were still with us, I can imagine that he would be deeply touched to see how Palaver’s reading of his response to the Dreyfus Affair establishes “saintliness” as an essential term in the lexicon of mimetic theory. After all, as cited and translated by Cynthia Haven in Evolution of Desire (p. 15) from Anspach’s edited volume René Girard, Girard once stated, “I was raised in the double religion of Dreyfusism and Catholicism (on my mother’s side), although I didn’t learn about Péguy until much later.” Palaver has written the book on Girard’s “double religion”!

A last example of the salutary impact Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness will have on Girard scholarship is visible in Palaver’s discussion of “intimate mediation,” an alternative to mimeticism that devolves into violence. According to Girard, intimate mediation is discovered through encounters with an “innermost God” associated with a kenotic concept of a nonviolent God and identified in the imitation of Christ. Girard discusses intimate mediation most in one of his last works: Battling to the End. This book has had a mixed reception, in part due to readings that argue Girard is resigned to the violent propensities of humans overwhelming human potential for responsible and loving relationships. In Battling to the End, Girard appears to some readers (including me) to promote disengagement and withdrawal from the world, at odds with the prophetic ethic of engagement with nonviolence Girard previously located and upheld in biblical narratives such as Job. In Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness, Palaver opens Battling to the End to new interpretations, building on the line of thought he already has developed. Palaver establishes that, for Girard, the holy is not rooted in God’s renunciation of the world but in God’s renunciation of worldly power and its divinization of violence. Having traced the thread of the holy through the entire Girardian corpus, Palaver is able to show that Girard is not advancing a novel claim in his last work but is building on views he first articulated early in his career in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel. Girard is promoting a “creative renunciation,” as articulated by Weil, that draws humans away from self-centeredness not in order that they may leave the world but rather in order that they may experience it anew, transformed as they are by their encounters with the holy. Palaver’s interpretation of the holy in Battling to the End, supported by the chapters that precede it, promises to have a strong influence on future studies of this controversial work. 

In Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness, Palaver attests with consummate skill to mimetic theory’s compelling description of human violence and to Girard’s singular account of the transformation of the sacred into a holy that is grounded in the revelation of a nonviolent God. Only a master of the Girardian corpus who also is a skilled and knowledgeable student of other twentieth century thinkers of significance to Girard could hope to achieve what Palaver so admirably does in Transforming the Sacred into Saintliness: a fully realized account of Girard’s theory of the holy that will have a marked impact on Girardian scholarship. The book will be received as a major work of Girardian interpretation of vital significance not only to the future of mimetic theory as undertaken by Girardian scholars but also for scholarship on religion and violence across the disciplines, as some of Girard’s most crucial insights, brought into focus for the first time by Palaver, are shown to constructively challenge, illuminate, and advance that work. 

Seven Stories

Woody Belangia
Independent Scholar

Anthony W. Bartlett, Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible, Hopetime Press, 2017. Pages: 235.

Seven Stories: How to Study and Teach the Nonviolent Bible had its origins in a group bible study that Tony Bartlett led over eighteen years. The resultant study guide, suitable for groups or individuals, is organized as numbered “stories,” each of which is divided into a “cycle” of three “lessons.” The first two lessons in each cycle focus on the Old Testament scriptures and the third examines how Jesus and the Gospels draw upon those scriptures. The aim of each story is to show how “Jesus’ teaching and practice of nonviolence are rooted in the deepest and most dynamic levels of the Old Testament” (8). Each cycle and lesson begins with learning objectives, key texts, major points, and concepts. Each lesson ends with lesson questions, personal reflection questions, glossary of terms, and references to resources for deeper exploration. I found these prefixes and suffixes to be quite helpful, as were the many sidebars sprinkled throughout the text. The typography is clear and there are many evocative photographs that illustrate the themes under discussion. It is a book meant to be used as much as read, as evidenced by the large margins for note-taking. 

Bartlett lists three principles that inform the book’s interpretive strategy: historical-critical method, the “anthropological lens” of the work of René Girard, and “a faith relationship with a God of nonviolence” (9). Seven Stories reads the Bible as an “evolving human document” (29) and “a progressive engine of disclosure” (26) that “must carry within itself a critique of its own theological forms” (9). Bartlett writes that the Bible’s “authority lies within the transformative process itself, with its slow, gentle but unfailing agency to bring creation to perfection in peace and love” (12).

It is instructive to consider why Bartlett organizes the book around “stories.” What is meant by story here?  The descriptive titles of each of the seven chapters give a hint: “Oppression to Justice,” “Violence to Forgiveness,” “The Land and its Loss,” “Wrath to Compassion,” “Victim to Vindication,” “The Temple and its Deconstruction,” and “History to its End.” Each of these themes “express movement ‘from’ something established and ingrained ‘to’ something unexpected and new” (10). “Story” is the textual vehicle that recollects, understands, and shares such movements in both social and psychological history. Story understood in this way is conversion, confession, testimony. 

As mentioned, Rene Girard’s work and its emphasis on the disclosive power of narratives is a key inspiration. Girard never had a fully formed semiotic theory, but he did have a theory of linguistic origins. On Girard’s telling, the victim of a primordial scapegoating act becomes an object of shared fascination and focus, a transcendental symbol born of violence and mis-recognition (but also of social solidarity) that anchors the linguistic nexus moving forward. The resulting web of meaning founded in that first sign gives birth to the “world” of shared human experience, a world founded in violence and lies. (Perhaps not coincidentally the Greek word sêma, the root of semiotics, can be translated as either “sign” or “grave marker.”) Bartlett claims the Bible, properly interpreted through the lens of the gospel, induces a “semiotic shift,” i.e. “a shift in the way the world is figured and shaped at the most basic level, the level at which signs that give and convey meaning are generated” (11). Jesus as “word” thus becomes a new foundation for a “new generation of meaning.” Each of the stories in Bartlett’s study-guide seeks to undermine the received understanding of a violent God opposing human violence with a more powerful version of the same and to replace it with a loving God interceding peacefully within the economy of human violence. Well-known Old Testament stories and symbols are thus reconfigured and given new meanings. 

A particularly effective example happens in the fourth story. Bartlett catalogues examples of the symbol “cup of wrath” and its connection to “staggering” in the prophets and psalms. Read through the lens of such a symbol, God at first seems to be a purveyor of violence. But Bartlett makes the convincing case that these images describe the situation of humanity being handed over to and inebriated by violence. The sudden insight that human beings are the mis-recognized authors of such Biblical violence gives the gospel stories of Jesus’ cup an astonishing power, saturated as it is with the prefigured “cup of wrath.”

Not every part of Seven Stories hits the mark. The least effective is the “Method” cycle of three lessons that serves as an interpretive introduction. Bartlett tells us in his introduction that it is “very important” and “not to be put off,” a way of “preparing the ground,” so as to allow “the full thrill of the amazing new perspective.” Although there are some helpful parts—Bartlett gives a helpfully succinct history of atonement theory—some of the other material contained in this preparatory chapter would seem to demand a fairly high level of sophistication for a solo reader or group leader. The explanations didn’t strike me as sufficiently clear to those uninitiated in historic-critical or Girardian exegesis. For instance, the introduction to the Girardian theory begins with a rather unhelpful detour through structuralism, a path that adds complication more than illumination. But this is a quibble, since the chapters that follow are so well conceived. 

Bartlett’s focus on stories parallels René Girard’s early focus on the novel and his assertion that “all novelistic conclusions are conversions” (Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 295). The most “novelistic” stories are those in which we move from being agents of our own frustration toward an awareness of the second-hand nature of our desires, and thereby adopt a new mind and a new pattern of living. In the Girardian hermeneutic, this means becoming cognizant of our mediators and renouncing desire for the object of rivalry. Novelistic narrative then has the same from-to structure that Bartlett attributes to story:

“[The] hero renounces slavery. Every level of his existence is inverted, all the effects of metaphysical desire are replaced by contrary effects. Deception gives way to truth, anguish to remembrance, agitation to repose, hatred to love, humiliation to humility, mediated desire to autonomy, deviated transcendency to vertical transcendency.” (DDN 294)

There is a significant difference in emphasis between Girard and Bartlett. Whereas a Girardian conversion involves a reconsideration of an object’s desirability upon a change of mediation, Bartlett shows how semiotic dislocation can introduce a change to an entire network of interlinked meanings over time. Despite the difference in emphasis, these are complementary, and even overlapping, accounts of the transformation of meaning. 

Bartlett has articulated some of the theoretic underpinnings in his recent book, Theology Beyond Metaphysics: Transformative Semiotics of Rene Girard (Cascade Books, 2020)—a volume that fruitfully combines mimetic theory with semiotic anthropology [editor: to be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of the Bulletin]. I found a study of Seven Stories to be a perfect entrée into that more theoretical work. Study guides like Seven Stories, rather than just offering polished conclusions, allow a diligent reader the chance to experience the world-altering effect of transformative insight. Story in Bartlett’s sense has the same from-to structure as desire and desire is mimetic. Each of these seven shifts is a move closer to the desire of Jesus. To appropriate these stories into one’s soul is akin to renouncing the mediation of the psycho-economy of violence and accepting the mediation of Jesus, the one who saves and liberates.

Sacrificial Politics

Andrew McKenna
Loyola University, Chicago

Oughourlian, Jean-Michel. Psychopolitics: Conversations with Trevor Cribben Merrill. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2012. Pages vii + 148.

Seventy years ago, the eminent political philosopher Raymond Aron remarked that “people vote their passions, not their interests.” It is a truism systemically ignored by policy wonks and successfully orchestrated by demagogues worldwide. Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964) remains a classic study of it in US politics, where an unseemly, defensive tribalism has become normalized of late. The “more perfect union” intended by our constitution is undergoing a reconfiguration of the belonging-identity nexus in the form of uniting over against others, as if exclusion were the precondition for legitimate inclusion. Aron’s and Hofstader’s insights receive a focused, coherent elucidation—through René Girard’s manifold exploration of mediated, mimetic desire as it leads to conflict—in the present volume, a sustained conversation between Trevor Cribben Merrill and Jean-Michel Oughourlian, long a professor of Clinical Psychopathology at the University of Paris, co-author of Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, and author of three other books on mimetic theory. Oughourlian aligns Girard’s insights with “the great sages, wise men and philosophers” (81, counting, among others, Machiavelli, Sun Tzu, Spinoza, as well as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King), who come in for telling quote and commentary.

Girard’s project began as a study of the modern novel, from Cervantes through Proust in Deceit, Desire and the Novel, and in his last book, Battling to the End, his thinking extends to geopolitics, an exercise he labels “mimetic history.” This ambition was already embedded in his first book as it tracks the passage from external mediation, where the model for our desires is beyond the reach of competition, to internal mediation, where our models inhabit our own lived world and therefore are often primed to becomes rivals. De Tocqueville encapsulated this transformation neatly in Democracy in America, remarking of revolutions that cancelled royal and aristocratic privilege from the social structure that they destined private citizens to competition among themselves: “They have abolished the privileges of the few and so they will be faced with the competition with everyone else.” 

Psychopolitics, in fact, has been around since the 1970s, as we learn herein of Oughourlian’s mentor, the ground-breaking psychiatrist Ernest Hacker, who created a chair in psychopolitics at the University of Southern California. Its stated aim was to “shift the focus from policy to psychology in world affairs.” “Inasmuch,” Oughourlian summarizes, “as they are directed by human beings, states are themselves subject to the laws of psychology” (3). This leads to a comprehensive, that is to say a properly anthropological, foundation for political science. A mass of historical information emerges here in a new light, examples of which are drawn from the careers of Mazarin, Talleyrand, George Marshall, and Nelson Mandela. 

The kernel of his argument is formulated by Girard in his forward: “Mimetic rivalry obeys the same laws on both the individual and national levels” (ix). As Oughourlian writes, “Individuals react to one another in exactly the same way as nations do. There is no essential difference, merely a difference of degree” (74). “React” is the key word here: presumed agency emerges as reflexive action in response to another’s. This is a lesson Girard learned from Proust, who in Time Recaptured deftly analyzed the symmetrical patriotisms and recriminations, and mutual accusations of brainwashing, in French and German propaganda during World War I: “In these great quarrels the great ensembles of individuals called nations are behaving to a certain extent like individuals. The logic driving them is perpetually fueled by passion, as we find in the conflict of an amorous quarrel.” Proust’s narrator goes on to suggest analogies with the quarrels between father and son, a cook and her boss, a wife and her husband. Oughourlian’s commentary rightly highlights the religious dimension of such wrangling as a kind of “war of the Gods,” which consists of a “deification of desire”: “Because it is fighting evil, my desire takes on a divine aspect, and thus it is a divine desire…. Thus my god, who is my desire deified, fights your god who (who is your desire deified). My desire is good, yours being the evil one” (25). This is one of many such Molière moments in the text, an instance of the humor that Girard admires in his foreword and that regularly detects similarities just where they are most strenuously denied. As a character quipped in the Pogo cartoons of yore, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Needless to say, the same sort of analysis can be applied to political parties within nations, as we have witnessed on our own shores. This book resonates tellingly with our own political maelstrom, mimetic theory being a compact set of ideas whose time has come, again, and again. We have seen opposing political agendas, however real as to differing goals, being submerged in a swarm of increasingly vitriolic allegations. Hyperbolic polemics have been amplified in our century by the cacophony of internet sites that have effectively displaced traditionally authorized network news sources and forlorn “newspapers of reference.” Sensing that our “virtual world” is displacing the actual one (43, 54), Oughourlian’s analyses may serve as a defining template for current turbulence, as that word derives from Latin “turba,” the crowd.

Oughourlian’s focus is on international relations, where politics, he states, is “totally bankrupt” (40), a situation he dates to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, “there are no precise and credible enemies to be found” (54). The Cold War provided for a clearly delineated, more or less theologized friend/enemy world structure, in terms of the vocabulary provided by Carl Schmitt. In its wake, we do not find ourselves in a more peaceful world but, instead, a turning inward of political rivalries in search of scapegoats for social discontents. The US is experiencing a sacrificial crisis between religion and politics reminiscent of those in Sophoclean tragedy, with the difference that we lack conclusive rituals to resolve it.  In a world in which divine sanctions for violence have been undone by Christian revelation, Oughourlian states “religion gives way to politics” (50). But this statement is reversible: what we experience in the US is politics giving way to religion, to a resacralization of agendas and identities, a phenomenon that we detect in ballot-driven regimes worldwide (readers can fill in the blanks). These “pseudo-monotheisms” (26) rankle against secularism or mere religious pluralism, inventing enemies to tighten circles of allegiance. Oughourlian’s analyses can remind us of Girard’s reading of Julius Caesar in A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, where he concludes that a true political science cannot be separated from religious anthropology, that sacrificial politics is a pleonasm.

None of this is entirely new. Sophocles has dramatized this “patriotic” pathology in Antigone. In the wake of a civil war that pitted rival brothers for the throne of Thebes, a contention of thematically labeled mimetic doubles, “each slain by his brother’s hand,” Creon seeks to re-establish order by rebranding one brother as the enemy of the state and of all civil order. He describes Polyneices as “consumed with one desire—to burn the gods of his race roof to roots; he thirsted to drink his kinsmen’s blood and sell the rest to slavery” (trans. Robert Fagles). The claim is outrageous; the attacker could not have had such a goal, since his aim is the government, not the total destruction, of his subjects. Creon’s hyperbole seeks to moralize, and in effect theologize the conflict. The twins’ surviving sister cannot assent to refusing burial, and therefore properly human identity, to her sibling. We know how that ends, with Antigone hanging herself and Creon’s son futilely attacking his father and hanging himself, whereupon Creon’s wife kills herself. The play proposes no sequel to this thoroughly King Lear-like denouement, but it is a prequel to our strident disputations. For Sophocles is on board with Oughourlian, as are Shakespeare and Ibsen inter alia, when he states that “politics is not logical but psychological” (5)—and often trends to psychopathology: what starts out as A vs. B devolves to 1+1=1; what appears as difference devolves into identity. 

Ancient Greece was the world’s first democracy, and Sophocles was acutely attuned to its political-religious stresses, which regularly threatened to tear it apart. The United States is the modern world’s first democracy, and a nascent political science of it was not available from its members, but from an outsider, an objective observer: Tocqueville’s reflections remain apposite. This is a position also enjoyed by the somewhat self-exiled Girard, from Avignon to Indiana. Tocqueville foresaw the contention built into our credo, the founding article of faith being “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson came up with the last phrase in lieu of “property” (from Locke) in his first draft. It is more abstract, not to say vacuous, as a putative object of desire in a world undergoing constant desacralization. Above all it sidesteps the scandalous fact of slavery, of humans as property to be counted among other chattel and commodities of all sorts. Any consideration of American exceptionalism has to take this cornerstone of our prosperity into account. 

The fact that Americans are still quarreling over the consequences of this heritage can be attributed to the “various strategies of denial,” that, as Oughourlian points out, “are what psychopolitics takes as its object of study” (10). If our historical struggle, like Germany’s Historikerstreit over its Nazi past, remains unresolved among us, it is doubtless for reasons alleged by the poet Robert Bly: “It’s possible that the United States has achieved the first consistent culture of denial in the modern world. Denial can be considered as an extension—into all levels of society—of the naïve person’s inability to face the harsh facts of life. This habit of not-seeing, and lying about life, has been attached like a limpet to the American soul” (The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: A Poetry Anthology, 1993). He goes on to say that “Great art and literature are the only models we have left to help us stop lying, to turn and face life.” “To punch a hole in denial” is their epistemic role.  This is the kind of work that Oughourlian assigns to a good therapist: “seeing reality, discovering the real, means rendering conflict null and void, making rivalries empty and dull” (61), and we can ponder this book as a national as well as individual self-help manual. Disillusionment (Cervantine desengaño) is ever the requisite goal. 

Oughourlian describes freedom in terms of a “struggle with oneself,” for which he prescribes a kind of asceticism, and elsewhere metanoia, conversion (with an assist from Peter Sloterdijk). This may be too much to ask in a nation-state where freedom is strategically confused with a zany array of consumer choices and conceived by many as embodied in macho gunslinging. During the pandemic in the US, libraries have been closed but not purveyors of assault rifles, which are only good for hunting human flesh. Though Oughourlian’s analyses first appeared in French ten years ago, they lose none of their freshness as a diagnosis for the relatively young United States, which at present bears too many symptoms of a delayed, contagious adolescence.


Bibliography of Literature on the Mimetic Theory Vol. XLVIII
Dietmar Regensburger

Bulletin 67 – March 2021