Sean O’Conaill © The Furrow 2003
As part of his ‘progressive’ assault on the Old Testament, the retired Episcopal bishop of Newark, J S Spong, inquires scornfully “Who nowadays covets his neighbour’s ox or donkey?”
But if we are to believe the French Catholic anthropologist René Girard* the whole of Christian revelation pivots on covetousness, whose full meaning we have almost lost.
According to Girard covetousness is not simply what the Catechism describes as a disordered desire for possessions per se – the desire for more – but a desire acquired specifically from our neighbour, a desire to possess what he possesses because he possesses it. So, a covetable ox would be one that belonged to someone able to afford a better one than we could. And the car we will covet is the one that belongs to the corporate high flyer who can afford the model that we cannot. In this interpretation, covetousness is the root of the very modern vice described as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
To re-establish this understanding of covetousness Girard gives it the more descriptive name mimetic desire – desire that unconsciously mimics that of someone else. One of these days a new wave of adolescent mimetic desire will begin as streaming video cell phones make all previous models obsolete.
As the modern global economy is centred on this human weakness, this understanding of covetousness has radical implications for Christian thought on – for example – the future of the human environment. The accepted Christian explanation for over-consumption is materialism – an intellectual bias. But no car manufacturer makes a selling point of the chemical elements that constitute its products. Instead we are invited to believe that the car will enhance our status or give us access to a more exclusive lifestyle – and this is what mimetic desire is all about.
Even more provocative, however, is Girard’s insistence that covetousness is the root source of all human violence, and that this is central to biblical revelation. The archetypal biblical act of violence – that committed by Cain – had to do with Cain’s desire for the divine preference that had apparently been given to Abel. Similarly, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery because Jacob favoured Joseph above them. Saul hated David because the women of Israel preferred the boy hero – dispossessing Saul of this privilege. Absalom’s fate too had to do with rivalry – mimetic desire for the status that belonged to his father’s role as king. And so on.
In the ancient world, Girard argues, the internal social tensions and resentments provoked by mimetic desire were the original source of sacrificial religion. Not having the judicial and policing systems characteristic of modern societies, primitive societies were in real danger of collapsing into an orgy of reciprocal (i.e. mimetic) violence. In such a crisis the universal cultural mechanism that came into play was scapegoating violence – the accusation that a given marginal individual, a stranger or cripple, say, was the source of the crisis or contagion. Such an accusation would focus the aggression of all upon someone whose death or expulsion would end the cycle, because he or she had no connections who would retaliate.
This, Girard believes, was the real origin of human, and later animal, sacrifice – which was simply the ritualization of scapegoating murder as a means of containing violence. He sees the four Gospels as texts that uniquely reveal the scapegoating process in all of its essential injustice. Caiaphas’ assertion that the death of Jesus would ‘save the nation’ was the archetypal formula that justified the scapegoating of an individual to restore communal peace.
In this analysis, the episode of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ assumes a new significance. In suggesting that the one without sin could cast the first stone Jesus was identifying and confronting the real purpose of the accusation – to make the woman bear the punishment due to all for their sins. And this in turn makes perfectly comprehensible the traditional Christian understanding of the meaning of the crucifixion – as an acceptance by Jesus of the role of punishment-bearer for all humanity.
More important, it suggests a Christology centred upon Jesus’s freedom from – and exposure of – mimetic desire. Far from coveting the role of High Priest, Jesus had stepped down into the Jordan with the sinners. Then in the desert he had resisted the temptations to political and religious supremacy. Afterwards he had scandalized the religious establishment by associating with the dregs of Galilean society, assaulted the ‘for show’ aspects of much religion, and then made an assault upon the Temple system by freely forgiving sins without sacrifice. Supposing Jesus to be a rival, Caiaphas had focused the scapegoating mechanism on him. Had covetousness been Jesus’s motivation, he would have attempted to reverse this process, focusing contempt upon Caiaphas. The fact that he didn’t reveals instead not only Caiaphas’s hidden thoughts – but also ‘things hidden since the foundation of the world’ (Matt 13:35) – this for Girard is the scapegoating process itself.
It is the Bible’s stark revelation of the origins of violence in mimetic desire that makes it, for Girard, supreme in ancient literatures. The Greeks, by contrast, could not confront the reality of scapegoating – in, for example, Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia in the Greeks’ mimetic pursuit of Helen, or in the tale of Oedipus. ‘Plague’ for Girard is the standard historical metaphor for contagious internal violence – used for example to justify Christian scapegoating pogroms of Jews in the middle ages – so the real reason for Oedipus’s expulsion from Thebes is revealed by the fact that Oedipus was both a cripple and a stranger. He was the perfect victim of the scapegoating process intended to focus and expel that plague. Even in the era of the great Greek playwrights, Greek religion included the ritual assassination of the pharmakos, a lowly victim selected for this precise purpose – but neither Greek drama nor classical Greek philosophy dared to confront this injustice directly.
And this understanding of the Christ event gives it the uniqueness that modern relativism threatens to strip away completely. None of the other great religions both exposes mimetic desire as the major source of violence, and confronts its effects in the scapegoating process.
Even if we don’t swallow Girard whole, his exposure of the theme of mimetic desire in the Bible, and of the origins of much human conflict in competing mimetic desires, is extraordinarily suggestive in the context of our modern predicament about sin in general. The Augustinian analysis of sin as centred upon concupiscence, inherited through sexual generation, is clearly a dead end that discredits orthodox Christianity – especially in the context of the current clerical sex abuse scandals. Meanwhile all around us – and even in the church – we can see the appalling effects of human competitive self-advancement. This fault alone threatens to make the planet uninhabitable.
So an understanding of Jesus as the one person who completely overcame covetousness, and exposed it as the source of social injustice and victimisation generally, is extraordinarily timely. It suggests that Christian revelation is centrally about exposing the source of the greatest modern evils – runaway consumption, environmental crisis, and violence – in a way that can be understood in completely secular terms. Nothing could be more pervasive in modern society than mimetic desire, or more dangerous to humankind.
In the Jubilee year the ‘artist’ known as Madonna declared her intention to become better known than God. Remembering that celebrity was indeed a distinctive possession of ancient Gods we can interpret even original sin in mimetic terms – the desire to possess what Gods possess (‘You shall be as Gods’ – Gen 3:5) – and to see the mimetic pursuit of celebrity, now rampant globally, as evidence of this universal flaw.
But this in turn has radical implications for the role of the papacy – which went out of its way to create a global personality cult centred upon John Paul II. The logic behind this seemed secure enough – that the better known the Pope became, the more pervasive would be Christian principles. But Time magazine made John Paul II man of the year twice, while demolishing creedal Christianity in a series of feature articles. And John Paul has himself recently wondered why the western church generally has rejected so much of the church’s official teaching on sexuality. The pope’s failure to convert the west on the issue of abortion speaks for itself. Celebrity as such is patently no guarantee of moral impact – while the pursuit of it is clearly a very modern pathology.
Moreover, it appears to be connected to some of the most outrageous acts of violence committed in the west in recent years. David Copeland, the bomber who devastated gay bars in London in April 1999 declared: “If no-one knows who you are, you never existed.” Eric Harris, one of the duo responsible for the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, was fascinated by Hitler’s celebrity and complained about his own failure to climb the school pyramid of esteem (his family had to move home frequently to follow his serviceman father). More recently Robert Steinhaeuser told a friend that he too would be famous some day – shortly before shooting sixteen in a school in Bavaria when he was prevented from sitting final exams.
All of this suggests that the contrast between rampant media celebrity and the lack of attention received by many young people today due to adult careerism is a deadly combination that is simply not addressed by any of the Church’s most cherished ethical causes. Could the reason for this again be a Christian failure to perceive the lost sin of covetousness, and its impact upon modernity?
As someone who has lived through 32 years of violence in Northern Ireland I judge mimetic desire to be an essential component of that also. It fuelled the initial civil rights movement by arguing, with much justice, that the Unionist political monopoly was the source of greater Protestant prosperity. This meant that educated Catholic ambition came to have a political, and destabilising, focus. Mimetic desire was always present in Irish separatist nationalism – a desire for exclusive ownership of the island. (Just as it was always a component of the European imperialism that had brought English power to Ireland in the first place.) It also explains the protestant paramilitary backlash – a bid to wrest media attention from the exclusive possession of the NI minority. And nothing could be more mimetic than the stone and bomb throwing along Belfast interfaces these days. To paraphrase Girard, nothing could be more like a Catholic republican youth throwing a stone than a Protestant loyalist youth picking up the same stone and throwing it back.
Mimetic desire is also clearly a component of the present global ‘war on terrorism’, as the Islamic world surveys the enormous economic and military supremacy of the west. And the Kashmir issue is a classic instance of mimetic rivalry.
But all of this in turn raises the question of how such an obvious human flaw could ever have been overlooked by the Church’s episcopal magisterium. Could the reason be simply its acceptance of social elevation in the period after Constantine the Great? What bishop could then have described Constantine’s military ascent as driven by covetousness? And bishops who now enjoyed the wealth and social eminence of the pagan priesthood would scarcely want to be made aware of ecclesiastical ambition as a spiritual flaw. Nor would the younger sons of the landed nobility of the ancien regime who dominated the episcopacy at the dawn of modernity. Nor would those bishops whose careerism Cardinal Gantin deplored as recently as 1999.
Indeed the present humiliations of many western bishops suggests that we may now be close to the end of an arc of episcopal social ascent, then descent, stretching through the whole ‘Christendom’ era, and affecting the Catholic episcopacy generally. Perhaps we must wait for the descent of all bishops to the ground the rest of us occupy before we can expect a Catholic revival. Especially if we can then make our faith relevant to the aspirations, as well as the problems, of the young.
There is much to be said for the recovery of the full meaning of covetousness as mimetic desire – but how will the hierarchical church respond to the possibility that it has been editing the Decalogue, to the detriment of the faith, for over sixteen centuries?
(*René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Orbis Books, NY, 2001)