Reflections on the 2021 Conference
and the Future of COV&R from
the Point of View of Loving Mimesis
Rebecca Adams, Felicity McCallum,
Julia Robinson Moore, and Vern Neufeld Redekop
Editor’s note: The previous Bulletin featured Scott Cowdell’s reflection on the plenary sessions from our July annual meeting that dealt with the conference theme, “Robots, Mimesis, and Violence in the Age of AI.” This article builds on the plenary panel presented by its authors about their work as “A Research Group on Loving Mimesis.” As you will see, it also addresses the topics that have been the focus of COV&R’s listening sessions this fall, as discussed elsewhere in this issue. The Bulletin would like to invite responses for possible publication next year. The deadline for the next issue is Feb. 1. Also, note that recordings of this session and all the sessions from the annual meeting, both plenary and concurrent, are available on the Socio platform, which carried the meeting, to those who registered for it until next July. After that time, COV&R will be able to make these recordings available on its own channel.
Greetings on behalf of the Loving Mimesis Generative Dialogue Group (LMGDG), which presented a four-part panel at the 2021 Online Conference. As those who attended know, our new working group consists of Felicity McCallum, an Australian Indigenous woman who is a doctoral student of theology at Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia; Julia Robinson Moore, an African-American Associate Professor of religion at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; Vern Neufeld Redekop, Emeritus Professor of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, Canada; and Rebecca Adams, an Independent Scholar in English and Theology in Central Pennsylvania, who brings a feminist/womanist sensibility.* We meet monthly on Zoom (despite our different time zones) and have developed a strong sense of community and interpersonal trust as well as an intellectual camaraderie. We tend to develop our thought—and have even written this article—collaboratively, in a process that Felicity refers to as “yarning,” an Indigenous word for a leisurely process of weaving together ideas with no agenda, with each contributor being equally valued. Our remarks here will touch on some of our panel themes at the conference and give a window into how some of our recent conversations have implications for the work and identity of COV&R.
In the LMGDG our shared commitment is first to engaging mimetic theory from the point of view of marginalized and/or historically persecuted peoples, naming what Rebecca calls “mimetic colonization” and its effects using mimetic theory as a powerful tool to analyze and describe the experiences of groups of people who have experienced colonization, violence, and scapegoating; and secondly, to using the resources of mimetic theory to practically develop and actively promote a positive worldview built upon the reality of “loving” or “creative” mimesis, a Girardian concept developed by Rebecca Adams in 1995 at the annual COV&R meeting and then published in more detail in “Loving Mimesis and Girard’s ‘Scapegoat of the Text’: A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire” (in Violence Renounced: René Girard, Biblical Studies, and Peacemaking, ed. Willard M. Swartley, 2000, 277-307). This concept enables mimetic theory to be used as a source for racial healing by offering a blueprint for constructive mimesis.
In our conversations and our scholarly work, we commit to using mimetic theory not just to understand, but also actually to help those who have experienced colonization, violence, and scapegoating. Violence is not about abstractions; it happens to real people. For instance, Felicity used her panel discussion at the 2021 Conference to talk about the urgent problems of domestic violence against women and incarceration facing Indigenous populations in Australia. She said in one of our later conversations about her dissertation: “I could not do this work [I do] without Girard’s analysis [of scapegoating]. I was raised in a community of people where my ancestors were buried in sand up to their necks and kicked in the head until they died.” If her words make us feel sick, they should. Sometimes Felicity says she feels overwhelmed with emotion at the circumstances she works with and talks about with regard to Indigenous people; they are so desperate and so immediate. We might therefore ask how we could be more supportive to COV&R members who actually come from marginalized communities. Julia also points out that for many people, racism is a lived experience (and not merely a theoretical one)—illustrated in her recent article in Contagion (vol. 28, 2021) about how black people, especially black men, were scapegoated in the southern United States through the horrors of lynching. Mimetic theory has provided an invaluable resource for her examination of racist dynamics and racist violence not only in the past, but also in her current vocation as a teaching elder and ordained minister in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA).
As both Julia and Felicity affirm, René Girard’s analysis of violence is certainly a powerful tool for disenfranchised people of any type. But we all agree in the LMGDG that for mimetic theory to grow into its full potential, we must move beyond the temptation to simply come up with more examples of scapegoating and then analyze that scapegoating. For mimetic theory to really speak to healing those who have been scapegoated, we must also affirm the reality, even the primacy, of a constructive, positive alternative to violence, something which Rebecca’s theoretical work on “Loving Mimesis” develops. We can use all the existing resources and potentials within mimetic theory to better articulate and promote the nuts and bolts of constructive alternatives, something Vern has been doing for many years now in the field of Conflict Studies. Besides providing a detailed mimetic model describing the dynamics of violent and loving mimesis in From Violence to Blessing, Vern’s Girardian work suggests and models some possible ways for understanding the way forward, particularly in his recent groundbreaking books edited with Tom Ryba with chapters by well-known Girardian scholars: Rene Girard and Creative Mimesis and René Girard and Creative Reconciliation (2014), both of which were based on the 2006 COV&R conference. Rebecca notes that, as Girard so well articulates, violence is indeed a powerful reality and driver of history, but so are love and creativity. In fact, Girard stresses (consistent with the tradition of Catholic theology) that evil is always derivative of the good and is built on a vast illusion. We would do well to be mindful of this when studying and developing mimetic theory, which tends to stress the negative type of mimetic desire that can lead to mimetic violent rivalries and scapegoating. Yet, as Girard asserts, not all mimetic desire leads to scapegoating—it is also “the desire for God” and the opening out to the other.
In fact Girard’s repeated statement that “mimetic desire is inherently good”** is a game-changer for understanding the implications of his theory as a whole, challenging us to think through these profound words not as an afterthought but as a central idea of Girard’s theory. Rebecca’s work has been based on unpacking these implications, and the LMGDG always grounds discussions of colonization, violence, and scapegoating in the hopeful reality of creative or loving mimesis. As Felicity said in one of our recent Zoom dialogue conversations, the temptation to “apocalyptic defeatism doesn’t help real victims. They would not have survived their centuries of persecution, enslavement, and sometimes death if they didn’t have a connection to a worldview of hope and love.” And Rebecca pointed out in this same conversation that for all his reputation as a theorist of violence, Girard really does have the potential seeds of a theory of positive, creative, or loving imitation that can be developed further by others as a basis of hope and societal change.
Those involved in mimetic theory also need to do more sustained reflection on and critique of Girard’s thoughts about what has been called the “victimology” of our times. The possibility of scapegoating exists, of course, even in the process of identification of oppression and defense of genuine victims, yet the paradox of what Girard calls “the revelation of the victim” is that we cannot stop doing either of these things. So we must be discerning. (Although we cannot address these issues thoroughly here, an entire conference could be devoted to discussion of Girard’s chapter “On the Modern Concern for Victims” in I See Satan Falling Like Lightning and its real-world implications, something that would be very timely.) Yes, there may be mimetic competition among groups for who is the greatest victim. Although Girard has a point with this, targets of injustice, oppression or scapegoating still need and deserve help, and those who have experienced violence should speak up in their own defense and be heard.
It seems likely that Girard himself would support both of these suggestions. In fact, Julia recounts in her Contagion article how excited Girard was when she spoke to him in 2008 at the Riverside COV&R conference about wanting to apply mimetic theory to racial issues. He gave full approval and said he had always hoped this would be done. At the same time, he wrote about how victim awareness can get caught up in competitive mimesis among victim candidates, which can lead to what has sometimes been named “call out culture” in which there are competitions for who is most justified to “call out” others. (Of course, mimetic cancelling behaviors and fundamentalistic thinking are phenomena we find on both the right and the left.) In setting forth his critique he could have offered robust acknowledgement of the social ills to which women’s and civil rights movements attest (and to which many have given their lives to challenge) and offered a criticism of shortcomings/risks he sees in them. These are the kinds of questions and issues we need seriously to raise in mimetic theory circles, taking the points of view of marginalized groups into account.
The LMGDG invites others to join in doing analytic and practical work on both the nature of loving mimesis and examining modern forms of colonization and scapegoating in accordance with the aims of COV&R to “explore, critique and develop” mimetic theory. Taking into account the experiences of colonized or marginalized people has implications for the mission and future of COV&R. We can begin to ask ourselves the following types of questions as scholars/practitioners: Whom do we choose as models? How do we apply mimetic theory to our real-world communities? What happens when people who come from historically marginalized groups speak from their point of view within the mimetic theory community and begin to do scholarship in collaboration with others in that community? How can we include more of those voices? What would the format and content of plenary talks look like, for instance, at COV&R conferences if there were a greater showcasing of the mimetic theory work of women and people of color? We might also spend more time in the COV&R community on questions about some of the big theoretical issues of mimetic theory: For instance, how is the concept of forgiveness problematized or deepened when we attend to the voices of women and people of color as they describe how violence and scapegoating have impacted their lives? We can ask what it means to forgive, and what the steps of real reconciliation look like—a topic about which Vern has a great deal of practical experience in working with First Nations People in Canada, the Muslim community, and many other groups around the globe. And let’s be sure we identify and name the many examples of creative and loving mimesis around us, for they are there.
Girard consistently had a very open, flexible view of his own theoretical project and its explanatory power—he was a model of openness to new insights and questions. This is one of the greatest strengths of his methodology. So we could ask: how might mimetic theory as a whole be better promoted publically as a tool by COV&R to help unpack and respond to the experiences of marginalized people? How does their experience speak to “exploring, critiquing, and developing” mimetic theory in new directions? As some practitioners have stressed in the past in COV&R, there can be a mutually beneficial ongoing dialogue between some types of nonviolent activism and theory.
We can also do some self-examination, using a strengths-based approach to COV&R as an organization. This includes acknowledging the long-time commitment to interreligious dialogue and the diversity that has existed within COV&R, with many bridges (unusual in an academic group) that have been built between people of different backgrounds: European/American/Canadian members initially and now others from around the world; Catholic/Protestant/Jewish members, also engaging some Muslim voices; people across the secular/religious divide; those interested in science to spirituality; both academics and practitioners, and those of different ideological and political persuasions. Girard has brought all these people together into profound dialogue. This is a true rarity. More disappointingly, though, as Martha Reineke wrote in the August Bulletin, women currently comprise only 12% of COV&R’s membership. And very few people of color are represented (though Julia mentions in her Contagion article the ones who have been members and contributed important scholarship historically.) Again on the positive side, many people, including women, have said that COV&R was one of the most welcoming and even family-like of all academic organizations of which they had been a part. So we can ask: What positive resources do dominant cultures have to sensitively self-critique and correct themselves with regard to those who have been marginalized? COV&R has, for instance, had generally good habits of reflexive self-awareness (what we might call a mimetic consciousness) about possible scapegoating behaviors in its conference discussions. So how can we continue to be hospitable to everyone through a process of creative/loving mimesis, affirmation, and listening, while also acknowledging that some groups, as Felicity and Julia have noted, have systematically experienced scapegoating or exclusion in our world and still do? It’s worth noting that COV&R could actually become a model for other organizations to become more self-reflective about issues of diversity and inclusion. And we can acknowledge the difficult fact that some people may have left COV&R or had a negative impression of it in the past because their perspectives have been marginalized within the group, while also stressing the organization’s strengths and future possibilities to do better.
Girard ultimately takes Jesus as the model of positive and constructive imitation, and as Vern explicated in his 2021 conference panel talk, Jesus taught, lived, and died (and Christians believe was resurrected) from within a context of the colonizing Roman Empire in 1st century Judea. Jesus stood with the marginalized and scapegoated of his day, and in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, proclaimed and modeled a new, better nonviolent way of being human in community. He consistently challenged those in positions of political and religious power—those with the most power to scapegoat—yet he did so without rivalry. As we look to him as an exemplar of loving or creative mimesis, Rebecca has reminded us in her COV&R talk that this moves beyond traditional “external mediation” toward the practice of what Girard calls in his late work “innermost” or “intimate” mediation,*** something similar to her general model of loving mimesis which can be expanded upon and used by all, whether they consider themselves Christian or not. And we as scholars and individuals can practice what Rebecca calls mimetic hospitality, where we lovingly desire the subjectivity of Self and Other simultaneously, in order to really hear the experiences and pain of people who have actually suffered, whoever they may be.
Girard’s theory can powerfully describe both the worst of human nature but also its best possibilities. It potentially offers a vision of a world that gets past the insidious interplay of scapegoating and persecution, by telling the truth in love. We hope a glimpse into our generative conversations about both mimetic colonization and loving mimesis can spark and inform new types of mimetic scholarship, as well as further discussion about diversity and inclusion issues in COV&R itself.
*Felicity is Celtic-Indigenous Australian. She is an Awabakaleen, an Elder of the Awaba which is also known as Lake Macquarie, Newcastle and Hunter regions of New South Wales, and lives on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples in what is also called The Australian Capital Territory. Julia speaks from the ancestral lands of the Catawba, Cheraw, Sugeree, and Waxhaw peoples in North Carolina, USA; Vern speaks from the ancestral lands of the Algonquin Anishnaabeg people in Ottawa, Canada; and Rebecca speaks from the ancestral lands of the Susquehannok people in Central PA, USA.
**See Girard, René. “The Goodness of Mimetic Desire,” excerpt of an interview with Rebecca Adams, in The Girard Reader, edited by James G. Williams, 1996, 62-65. “Mimetic desire is inherently good”: see I See Satan Falling Like Lightning, 15.
***“Innermost mediation” and “intimate mediation” are mentioned in Battling to the End (2010).
COV&R Sessions at the American Academy of Religion
Brian D. Robinette
This year’s American Academy of Religion meeting was the second of the Covid-19 era. While last year’s meeting was unprecedented for being conducted virtually, the conference this year in San Antonio, Texas was only a little less unusual for being both in-person (roughly 4,000 attending) and online (roughly 2,000). Those attending in-person will have noticed a difference in feel, as the compression and buzz of a typical year’s conference gathering (usually around 9,500) ran at a gentler pace. But if the lines for mid-afternoon coffee were shorter, and the broader social interaction generally relaxed, it will be good to experience the AAR at its usual, if sometimes exhausting, clip next year, God willing.
Despite the unusual circumstances, the COV&R sessions this year were all on site, well attended, and consistently high in quality. Each of the three sessions reflected a rich mixture of regular and new attendees, with one session being co-sponsored.
The first session on Saturday morning (November 20) had as its theme “Friendship, the Social, and the Violent Sacred.” Jaisy Joseph (Seattle University) initiated the session with her paper, “Racism, Casteism, and Mimetic Ecclesiology.” She was followed by John Soboslai (Montclair State University), whose pre-recorded paper was entitled, “The Martyr as Friend: Inverting the Scapegoat’s Sacrifice.” Chelsea King of Sacred Heart University, and former Schwager Award winner, served as a respondent. The session was presided by Grant Kaplan (Saint Louis University), who facilitated the business meeting after a spirited discussion of the papers.
The main topic of the business meeting concerned ideas for formulating next year’s call for papers. Several ideas were suggested and discussed, including that of victimhood’s ambiguous power in an age of intense polarization. The possibility of a panel focusing on a recent publication of interest to COV&R attendees was also discussed.
The second session on Sunday afternoon (November 21) continued the theme of the first. Presided and moderated by Brian Robinette (Boston College), the two papers focused on matters related to contemporary U.S. politics and social media. The first paper by Chris Haw (University of Scranton) was entitled, “The Capital Riot as a Case in Mimetic Magnetism and the Challenge of Agonistic Love” (see also the review elsewhere in this issue of Chris’s new book, Monotheism, Intolerance, and the Path to Pluralistic Politics). Following it was a paper by Russell Johnson (University of Chicago) entitled, “Like and Unlike: Mimesis, Social Identity Theory, and the Barriers to Online Dialogue.”
The third and final session on Monday afternoon (November 22) had as its theme, “Academic Rivalry in the Modern Age: Thinking with Girard and Beyond.” Co-sponsored by the Nineteenth Century Theology Unit, and moderated by Hans Schwartz (Regensburg University), the session began with a paper by Grant Kaplan, entitled, “Brothers or Enemies? Revisiting Academic Rivalry in the Möhler/Bauer Debate.” Bryan Wagoner (Davis & Elkins College) followed with his paper, “Franz Overbeck and Carl Albert Bernoulli through the Lens of Girardian Mimetic Rivalry.” Johannes Zachhuber (University of Oxford) offered a pre-recorded response and later joined the Q&A through video feed.
Next year’s AAR will meet in Denver, Colorado. The call for papers will go out through the AAR website, the COV&R website, and related Twitter and Facebook feeds.