Sunday, June 6, 2010
Israelis, Palestinians, and Rene Girard
A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of presenting a paper for the “Theology and Peace Conference” held on the campus of North Park University. I was invited to give the paper by my friend Michael Hardin, seminary alumnus, member of the Theology and Peace board, and author of The Jesus Driven Life. Theology and Peace seeks to apply the insights of Rene Girard to the theology and life of the Christian Church. Throughout his long and prestigious academic career Girard has developed and promoted his theory of “mimetic rivalry” and “scapegoating”. He has argued that human beings learn what is desirable from other human beings. That is, we imitate the desires of others. Introduce a new toy into a group of happily playing toddlers. They may ignore the new toy until one of them expresses an interest in it. The once ignored toy is suddenly intensely interesting. Screeching and hair pulling is likely to follow.
Girard argues that primitive society suffered from the violence of mimetic rivalry. Limited resources and unlimited desires resulted in a war of all against all. Humans finally realized that perpetual violence was not conducive to survival and sought a means to check the violence and bloodshed. At some point in the murky past they seized on the notion of a scapegoat. If one person or group of persons could be blamed for the violence and punished or destroyed the violence would be diverted and dissipated. The “scapegoats” needn’t be guilty of any great crime. They could be people at the margins of society, odd men and women out. Or they could be randomly selected from the community. All that was necessary was that the society unified itself against them and literally or metaphorically sacrificed them. The sacrifice of the scapegoat would bring temporary unity and peace until the next “mimetic crisis” required additional sacrifices.
Girard develops his theory in a series of brilliant works including, most notably, The Scapegoat and I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Converted to Roman Catholicism as an adult, Girard immediately saw the application of his theory to the death of Jesus. He argued that in effect Jesus is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He exposes the mechanism for what it is: a crude but effective means of bringing temporary peace by focusing the hatred and loathing of the majority on a despised minority. As a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus the veil of secrecy is lifted and the mechanism’s effectiveness begins to wane. It becomes clear that the victim of scapegoating is not guilty or at least not so guilty as to merit destruction. For human beings to find genuine peace scapegoating and its attendant sacrifices must be rejected and love of God and neighbor must be pursued.
This week the Middle East has been once again in the news. The Israelis bumbled into a public relations disaster when they boarded a ship bringing supplies to blockaded Gaza. The raid on the flotilla produced a howl of protest around the world. Israeli leaders responded as belligerently as their opponents in the Middle East, Europe and the United States. I was reminded of another conference I attended at North Park. This meeting focused on “Christian Zionism,” that is, Christians who support the state of Israel. I was asked to give a short talk at the end of the meetings summing up the conference. I cited the work of Girard and suggested that the crisis in Israel was not likely to be addressed until both sides stopped “scapegoating” the other. Israel has become the source of all evil in the Arab world and thus a source of unity between otherwise fractious states. The Palestinians and their suicide bombers have provided the Israeli leaders with a convenient source of unity and outrage.
In the United States the left tends to excoriate Israel and throw its support behind the Palestinians. The right tends to attack the Palestinians and stand solidly behind Israel. Israel and the Palestinians become additional proxies in the ongoing fruitless and idiotic conflict between right and left. That Israel is genuinely threatened and that the Palestinians are genuinely suffering seems not as significant as winning points against your opponent. The reflexive support of one or the other regardless of their actions serves neither party well. It only serves the propaganda needs of people on either extreme of the issue. It only furthers the scapegoating violence.
My Orthodox Rabbi friend has children and grandchildren in Israel. He longs for them to grow up in peace and safety. He wants them to be able to sip coffee at a café without fearing for their lives. He wants them to be able to worship and live with freedom. There are many grandfathers in Gaza who want the same for their children and grandchildren. They want them to live free from the threat of violence, from the bitterness of sanctions, blockades, walls and checkpoints. As long as their leaders eagerly use hatred and fear of the other to sustain their power and undergird their moral authority, that is, as long as they scapegoat the other, both of their hopes seem forlorn.
Christians are not to scapegoat. We, perhaps more than others, should see its perniciousness. Our own history is a sordid tale of scapegoating violence. It has taken us years to see clearly that the gospel does not sacrifice the victim, but sets the victim free. Christians refuse the crudity of scapegoating. We refuse to blame the liberals or the conservatives, the African Americans or the Jews, the Catholics or the Fundamentalists, the Muslims or the Atheists. We refuse the cheap and easy assumption of evil at the margins, the smug assignment of blame and disdain. We do not sacrifice—we love. Can we, together, contribute to the peace of Jerusalem? Sadly, if this week is any indication, I doubt it.