In this issue: exciting news about our summer meeting, information on the fall Theology & Peace gathering, a letter from the Netherlands, plus reviews of books by Anthony Bartlett and Marcia Pally.
Theology & Peace will convene a gathering, sponsored by the Raven Foundation, at the Scarritt Bennett Center, a conference and urban retreat center on ten peaceful acres just off Nashville’s Music Row. As organizer Sue Wright puts it, “This gathering will be a significant event! Given the war in Ukraine, the political polarization in the United States, and the environmental threat to all life on the planet, the work of Theology & Peace has never been more important. We hope to gather as many folks as we can! We wholeheartedly encourage our COV&R friends to participate! We’ll do serious work during the day, then relax and enjoy each other’s company in the evenings!” Stay tuned to the Theology & Peace website for more information.
Letter from…The Netherlands
Girard for a Prophetic Trialogue
Dutch Girard Society
This 2022 war-torn Lent, I felt urged to evaluate my Girard-inspired interreligious efforts ever since I returned to Africa with his study on sacred violence in my bag, some 50 years ago. Our age is dripping with blood resulting from a three-way rivalry in Gospel interpretations. Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam are rife with hateful rivalry as they honor Jesus’ message. The former is mainly built on Paul’s theologia crucis, which dominates the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while Eastern Orthodoxy stresses the theology of eschatological glory, highlighted by the Fourth Gospel. But there is the third tradition of the Q-text, a source used notably by Matthew and Luke, which focuses Jesus’ prophetic message of agape. Muhammad, who had seen the Christians’ infighting, drew (partly) on this third source of sayings by Jesus (Isa in the Quran’s Arabic). Girard’s theory and evangelic concerns made me reflect on the rivalries issuing from these differences.
Before reading Girard, I had seen priests in Ghana use a faulty etymology to read the divine name Mawu as “the Unsurpassable.” Then, reading Violence and the Sacred as I prepared a pastoral center in Central Africa, I noted insensibility for the ethnological curiosity of a patrilineal Banda-tribe using the word eyi (meaning: mother) to express superiority and mastership. Later, while lecturing on such peculiarities in Girardian perspective, I was asked, as a secretary to the foreign affairs unit of the Dutch Council of Churches, to help in world-wide mediation efforts, from South-Africa and Israel to the Balkans.
The Balkans’ rivaling three brother-nations, each claiming to be the true, God-fearing adepts of Jesus/Isa, led me to ruminate on Girard’s view of the Bible’s prophetic message. I did value St. Paul, translating his saving encounter with the risen Crucified near Damascus as a theologia crucis, yet I sensed how, bound to Platonic and other metaphysics, this theology rooted Western hierarchical structures in a sacrificial reading of Jesus’ reconciliation of sinners to the Absolute. Both the Reformation and the secularizing Enlightenment stayed in this groove, although the Pauline-Synoptic hermeneutics were recognized as one-sidedly underrating the Johannine tradition, so dear to Eastern Europe.
When I was asked to help Polish students apply Girard’s mimetic theory to Catholic sacramentology, we pondered the split of New Testament studies along tripartite lines, calling for a re-harmonization. We understood Jesus’ order to imitate his Eucharistic gesture to mean a partaking in his self-donation as mutual food, rather than the consumption of his saving sacrificial graces; his Cana wedding-sign didn’t intend to free sexuality of “inherent sinfulness” by some ritual blessing, but to engage in liberating gendered links from the Eden Fall into rivalries; baptism means breaking with the narcissistic grip of one’s self-image; and ordained ministry is a daily exposure to contentious servitude. While sacraments thus disclosed their prophetic depth, we were shocked by the Christian divide along Poland’s Eastern border getting a murderous face, as the Kremlin chose to blow up Poland’s presidential plane, with the President and 95 top-functionaries on board, bound for the 2010 ceremony at Smolensk’s memorial for 22,000 Polish POWs Russia executed in WW II. This widely ignored clue to Putin’s further designs—a revenge for the Polish Catholic Pope’s role in the Warsaw Pact’s demise—fed on an age-old Christian feud and on a church-backed, embittered design to save Eastern-Europe from the West’s deviated faith. While the West hailed uprisings in Ukraine, Belarus and Arab lands, Putin’s resolve got stiffened in religious rhetoric.
I leave it for others to apply mimetic theory to the atrocities that now sully our screens; I just want to spell out some of our subsequent Girardian musings. Given exegetical studies’ move away from research on the historical Jesus to redactional themes in various NT-texts—although this had Mohammed cry foul for falsifying Jesus’ Gospel/Injil—we noted that Synoptic and Johannine visions were increasingly complemented by findings from the Q-tradition. Mark’s gospel itself, counting as the prime synoptic text, shows a tripartite blend, with an atonement model that modified the sacrificial take on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. While citing Isaiah, it leans heavily on Daniel’s vision of God replacing the Temple by His own eschatological presence in His “new people,” celebrating the divine liturgy and living in a charitable ummah—as advocated by the Qur’an. It made us perceive a triad of Orthodox faith singing the divine glory, Muslim-type charitable solidarity, and a Western future-oriented hope of Christ’s redemption, including its humanist reformulation. A three-way biblical hermeneutics, with Q-accents proving pivotal. An ecumenical call to halt the bickering about the new Jerusalem’s prophetic ideals. Keeping Girard’s innovation of the human sciences in mind, while seeing the global weight shift to the Pacific, we perceived this call for a Jesus-inspired trialogue.
Meanwhile, the Dutch Girard group reflected on Islam’s denial of Jesus’ sacrificial death and explored Sir Muhammad Iqbal’s compatibility to mimetic theory. About a century ago, this Muslim reformer, seeking to remedy his people’s lethargy, had reconstructed Islamic thought in line with Western sciences, with Bergson, and with Whitehead’s process-thinking. His texts about selfhood seemed open to the interdividual positive mimesis of Girardian-Augustinian ilk, stressing God’s work in us to turn us into mutually inspirational models, not unlike the neo-patristic personalism in Orthodox authors like Zizioulas. Here again, a Girardian outlook on a trialogue emerged, integrating the three hermeneutics. While valuing the paschal symbol of Jesus’ saving presence in the Eucharist, it resents opposing the atonement rhetoric of sacrificial redemption vs. the celebration of God’s eschatological presence. Referring to the Abrahamic-Mosaic covenant-tradition, it rather reads the blood of Mark 14: 24 not as a redemption of past guilt, but as a purifying symbol in building the self-in-community by undoing mimetic rivalry.
Sensitizing people by Jesus/Isa’s inspiration for a constructive bonding in the spiritual union of God’s creative force and compassionate grace may thus form the way to integrate the Gospel/Injil’s three hermeneutic lines. And the West’s recent affronts with the Orthodox and Muslim co-heirs of the Jewish prophetic message may hopefully be remedied with the help of mimetic theory soothing these rivalries and enabling such a timely trialogue. A dream worthy of turning into an agenda!
For inquiries about writing a book review or submitting a book for review,
contact the book review editor, Matthew Packer.
Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence
Charles Sturt University
Anthony Bartlett, Signs of Change: The Bible’s Evolution of Divine Nonviolence, Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2021, Pages: xxix + 214 pages.
This new volume by Anthony Bartlett is the fruit of sustained biblical reflection and teaching over many years. It follows on from its companion volume, Theology Beyond Metaphysics (Cascade, 2020), and Bartlett’s published articles on Heidegger’s critique of metaphysics.
Bartlett’s goal in the earlier work was to reimagine revelation and conversion semiotically, following breakthrough insights about the nature of signs that he draws from C. S. Peirce and Umberto Eco. Our world changes as our sign systems change, and the change that Bartlett champions is nonviolence. Specifically, he seeks to offload the long-established cultural burden of divine violence, which has provided a warrant for so much self-justifying human violence. We can become new creatures of this new sign system, beyond the mistaken identification of holiness with purity and exclusion.
Such violence is typically associated with the capricious and genocidal deity regularly encountered in infamous Hebrew Bible/Old Testament texts. But Bartlett is convinced that this seldom-disputed take on God is actually being offloaded by both Testaments. The Bible represents the evolutionary emergence of a radically new way of being, beyond scapegoating violence and its implicit place at the root of culture that Girard theorized. The Bible, which Girard called a “text in travail,” shows how founding, sustaining violence is being gradually revealed and undermined.
The emergence of this new voice happened slowly across the period of Hebrew Scripture. Genesis and Exodus set the tone with programmatic set pieces challenging violent rivalry and vendetta through forgiveness. Job upends the wrathfully underwritten social control of Deuteronomy, while the powerless Ruth rises to prominence. Daniel and Jonah variously testify to nonviolent compassion, while the suffering Servant of 2nd Isaiah introduces God’s nonviolence into a context that would normally give rise to anything but that.
Jesus’s decisive transforming praxis is set out in terms of decisive semiotic transformation, with Bartlett regarding Paul as the supreme interpreter of this Christ event. Following Douglas Campbell, in The Deliverance of God, Bartlett shows how Paul (seen as the author of Ephesians and Colossians) upends divine wrath with his teaching on justification. Indeed, Bartlett identifies justification by works as the same thing as divine violence, because it is only attained at the expense of the other. Paul’s total rejection of that idea, celebrating instead the justification of the ungodly in Christ, undoes a whole sacred cosmology.
Bartlett concludes his New Testament reflection with the Book of Revelation and its slain lamb. Rather than a further instance of scapegoating the innocent, Bartlett reads this image as a great final instance of how the New Testament exposes that entire misunderstanding.
Concerning Girard, it is very interesting to see how Bartlett responds both sympathetically and critically. Girard is behind everything he does, and those familiar with Girard’s biblical interpretation will be at home reading Bartlett. The crucial place of biblical hermeneutics in mimetic theory is affirmed by Bartlett. Mimetic theory is seen to exemplify the way that textual signs mediate transformed reality according to the semiosis that he commends. But Bartlett does not regard Girard as fully committed to the radicality of his own semiosis.
“Although Girard derived a great deal from semiotics,” as Bartlett acknowledges, “…his claimed method was rational and scientific.… What Girard’s thought was processing was not so much the gospel (he always protested he was not a theologian) but what we might call anthropo-mimetics, a rational analysis of the human world as such. In contrast, the gospel is eruptive and self-validating” (xx). Hence, Bartlett concludes that “at the heart of the Girardian project lies an effect he did not take account of, but which is crucial for the results he intuits” (xxi).
Bartlett thus seeks to develop mimetic theory by exploring the phenomenology of its transforming impact (if we could call it that), as mediated by scripture. Bartlett knows that Girard does not claim to be only a rationalist and social scientist, however—the false sacred is only undone by the real sacred, the Holy, thanks to an agency and an intelligence beyond what the human system of meaning-making can contribute. Girard is clear about this. But the nature of that transforming process goes largely untheorized by Girard, apart from pointing to the role of new models of desire and the Holy Spirit’s work as “advocate for the defence” of victims.
So, we can certainly thank Tony Bartlett for raising an issue in Girardian studies that would repay further research. Someone out there should write a Contagion article on this challenge that Bartlett brings to Girard. We can chiefly thank him, however, for his powerful reclaiming of the Bible for the cause of human liberation from self-justifying divine violence. He joins James Alison at the forefront of bringing the Bible back to life.
White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism: How Did We Get Here?
University of Northern Iowa
Marcia Pally, White Evangelicals and Right-Wing Populism: How Did We Get Here? Routledge Focus on Religion Series, Routledge, 2022, Pages: 140
In this contribution to “Focus on Religion,” the Routledge book series on religion and contemporary politics, Girardian scholar Marcia Pally sets out to answer how white evangelicals in the United States, who for three hundred years contributed to American progressivism, have become right-wing populists. Although Pally’s answer to the question “How did we get here?” is not explicitly grounded in Girard’s mimetic theory, her analysis, beginning with her definition of “populism” and continuing throughout the book, is informed by it. As a result, this book should be of significant interest to readers of the Bulletin.
Laying groundwork for her argument, Pally relies on the “Bebbington Quadrilateral,” a definition of evangelicalism developed by David Bebbington. “Evangelicalism” consists of Biblicism (all truths are found in the Bible), crucicentrism (a focus on atonement through the cross), conversionism (humans need to be converted), and activism (one responds to the gospel through action). According to Pally, “populism” is defined as “a way of understanding and responding to economic, status loss, and way-of-life duress that finds solution in us-them binaries.” In what scholars of mimetic theory recognize as scapegoating, an “us” group sets out to constrain, attack, or expel the offending “them” in order to eliminate the cause of its duress. For example, the “them” may be recent immigrants or African-Americans. Binaries of populism can draw both from the political right (real people vs. an elite) and the political left (workers vs. the rich).
Pally argues that a shift in perspective to an us-them binary not only is a common response to duress but also a tragic one. Duress distorts understanding and taints solutions, sustaining and even magnifying not only the duress but also the emergent us-them dynamic. These misrepresentations are mimetic (although Pally does not label the process as such): Duress “makes one’s understanding of the past (historico-cultural resources) and of present circumstances into a reflection of itself, creating a prism of anxieties, fears, and self-protective anger.” As a result, as always happens with scapegoating, conflict is not resolved and distressed communities fall into repetitive rounds of us-them conflict. Pally will argue that, in the U.S., we’re stuck in that blame-cycle in our present politics. The cultural influence on populism is well known; what is distinctive in Pally’s approach is her attention to the early American experience.
Pally traces the roots of contemporary evangelicalism to early America when its adherents’ forebears responded to religious persecution they had endured in Europe by forming strong community bonds, demonstrating wariness of authorities, and bounding off outsiders, while also emphasizing personal responsibility in order not to rely on “fallen” governments. Today, suspicion of outsiders and authority, especially government power, are the “linchpin of American right-wing populism.” Yet, as Pally will demonstrate in the primary argument of her book, suspicion of government and wariness toward outsiders did not have to result in us-them polarities that now fracture the American landscape. A skeptical mindset about government could apply to government per se, not to a government overseen by one group’s political opponents. Imbued with such an understanding, people could focus on developing policies that mitigate the damaging effects of government per se, rather than on ridding government of their opponents, who are characterized as a monolithic, threatening “them.” And people could focus on building bonds of mutual support and self-reliance absent a suspicious and defensive posture. Pally will show in the remainder of the book that it is only under duress that these historically constructive features of “American vibrancy,” are transformed, resulting in the conflict-prone, suspicion-fueled, us-them dynamics that feature prominently among white evangelicals who increasingly exhibit an outsized presence on the American political landscape. Citing Arizona State University political scientist Amit Ron and Senior Global Futures Scholar Majia Nadesan, Pally notes, “‘people do not react to populism because they belong to any particular group; they support it because they find it appealing.’”
Pally’s goal in the book is to account for that appeal among white evangelicals. In Chapters 1 and 2, she explains how populism draws on a “pool of ideas” circulating in history and culture from early America to the present, which helps populism seem “reasonable, even ‘natural.’” The duresses to which populism aims to respond are the focus of Chapter 3: employment challenges, anxiety over challenges to traditional ways of life posed by “changes in technology, the globalized economy, gender roles, and demographics.” Pally’s discussion is robust and supported by an extensive bibliography. She considers also how evangelicals feel marginalized in a nation that is increasingly secular, multicultural, and socially liberal. Pally extends this discussion in chapters 5, 6 and 7, during which she looks at white evangelicals’ political positions (e.g. small government, industry deregulation, gun rights, and “biblical” gender roles) as well as at the role of white evangelicals in slavery, white supremacy, segregation, and refugee/immigration issues.
Pally does not see “a direct progression” from the Civil War to the Klan to today’s Christian right; nevertheless, because a “reservoir of racial animus” exists that constitutes a pool of beliefs and practices “available to be animated and inform present attitudes and socio-politics,” the past does inform the present. This happens because populism—an existential response to a lived threat that creates an us-them binary—is a constant that links that past and present.
Pally’s investigations in Chapter 4 and 8 are among the most intriguing of the book. She argues that white evangelicals are “heirs” to a particular historico-cultural background traceable to early America, through the Civil War, to the present that prepares them, under conditions of duress, to mobilize binary, us-them possibilities. Quoting political scientists J. Sides, M. Tesler, and L. Vavreck, she describes populism’s appeal to white evangelicals as “hunting where the ducks are.” By contrast, in Chapter 8, she sheds light on white evangelicals who participate in progressive and centrist activism, demonstrating that the evangelical landscape has a more varied terrain that some imagine. Of particular concern to Pally is that the distorted reception of the historical cultural narrative among the larger body of white evangelicals, a misrepresentation fueled by their duress and distress, hobbles efforts other white evangelicals are making to identify and implement solutions to this duress. Wanting to advance a progressive vision that also is rooted in early American history, they must first neutralize defensiveness among other white evangelicals.
Reading Pally’s book through a Girardian lens, I find fascinating what I take to be her assumption that, by definition, populism is what Girard describes in Deceit, Desire, and the Novel as a metaphysical illness—a response to a lack of being that fuels human desire—which manifests in scapegoating. Indeed, populism is a distinct and exceedingly dangerous variant of that disease to which Girard has claimed all humans are vulnerable. She writes that populism not only reflects an outcome of the experience of duress (economic, way-of-life, loss of status) but also a way of understanding duress and seeking solutions. Under conditions of duress, persons vulnerable to populism experience loss as threatening. What has happened to them is not fair; moreover, they have fallen “below” those who are “above.” The dynamics of response among those drawn to populism are framed by desire. According to Pally, populists don’t crave status itself; rather they want what they have lost to others. Resentment drives populism. Perceiving that those in power, who could restore to populists what they have lost, are not working for them, populists look to others to close an “efficacy gap” between their desire to have their concerns addressed by government and other authorities and their feelings that they are being ignored or that the leaders are ineffectual. Populist leaders portray themselves as responsive to their followers’ desires and are trusted to make good on their promises. Not only do these leaders speak of a “we” to which they are making this promise, but also they identify over against this “we” an enemy “them.” The populist leader will restore to his followers what Girard would describe as the fullness of being, ridding them of their profound sense of vulnerability and redressing their “efficacy deficiency.” However, because the solutions promised by the leader do not address the “existential” nature of the followers’ grievances and misrecognize the source of loss by pinning blame on a scapegoated “other,” populist solutions will not relieve duress. Rather, the solutions will continue to feed them, increasing polarization that divides the “us” from the “thems” and hobbling political and legislative efforts to address the economic and cultural factors that fuel the frustration of desire among the populists.
If white evangelical populism is an expression of metaphysical illness, as described by Girard and argued by Pally, what of the white evangelicals Pally describes in Chapter 8 who are not bound up in a defensive stance and therefore do not respond to external threats with us-them binary thinking that is increasingly open to violence as a solution to duress? Pally sees reason to hope in umbrella terms—Kingdom Ethics and Christian Humanism—espoused by nonpopulist white evangelical leaders. These leaders emphasize a servant relationship that counters a defensive and suspicious posture toward government and society. As described by David Gushee, these leaders seek common ground and support a “distinctive Christian identity, action based on hope and not fear, critical distance form earthly powers…the common good, and efforts to practice what we preach.” Pally works back from 2021 to 1970 in order to show how, at multiple inflection points, non-populist white evangelical thought was not a reactive antithesis to current populism; rather, it drew energy from its deep roots in forms of evangelical Christianity not oriented around an us-them binary. Pally’s detailed commentary—a “who’s who” of white evangelicals engaged in the critique of their fellow evangelical Christians’ populism—is a helpful introduction for individuals like me for whom the leaders and their organizations previously have been unknown. Chapter 8 is especially important for the uninformed, lest critics of white evangelical populism, condemning with broad brush strokes everyone who self-describes as a white evangelical, hide from view openings within evangelical Christianity for non-populist activism.
In her conclusion, Pally addresses the question of how white evangelicals, who share Scripture, history, and much doctrine, come to drastically different interpretations and views of the world in which they live. Why does one group beset by duress respond with us-them binary thinking oriented toward scapegoating and the other toward inclusive servant leadership? Pally reminds us that, throughout her discussion, she has described populism as, by definition, a dysfunctional response to an existential threat. It is the product of a political and religious history that, in Girardian language, constitutes a metaphysical disease. Features of this history that emerged in early America and contributed to American vibrancy—self-reliance, localism, well-reasoned wariness of government overreach and of outsiders—were skewed under duress and transformed by us-them dynamics. The result was and remains a distorted understanding of the past and the present, of the origin of threats and the means to ease “embattled pain and self-protective ire,” and a misplaced faith in solutions that cannot effect relief because they are distorted by the experience of duress. Quoting John McCormick, Pally concludes her book stating that populism is, first of all, “a cry of pain.” Evangelical Christians can move forward, she suggests, when they address that trauma with what Katelyn Beaty describes as “‘their commitment to hospitality, compassion, solidarity with the poor, generous giving, and embolden verbal proclamation of the gospel.’”
Pally’s book is a valuable contribution to the Routledge Focus on Religion series, succeeding in accomplishing exactly what the series promises: In a compact argument, packed with bibliographic support, the book addresses a pressing issue in the arena of religion and politics, offering readers a concise introduction to white evangelical populism and information sufficient to prepare readers to read and reflect further on their own.