The Chain that Binds the Earth, written by Sean O’CONAILL, is a novel for young adults that turns out to be a must read for their parents and teachers as well. Set in Northern Ireland after the Troubles, the violence of that time haunts the lives of the parents, and so also, the children. As we journey through a school year with four fourteen-year-olds attending an exemplary Catholic school, we encounter the way in which the sins of the parents are visited upon their children. Cruel, sometimes violent, bullying is a constant part of the children’s lives yet remains invisible to the adults who love them.
Mimetic theory is, of course, a theory of violence and religion. It has proved a valuable tool for those working toward a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland. Roel KAPTEIN and Duncan MORROW in particular have used mimetic theory to analyze the conflict and create a workable pathway out of it. Hope that the lessons of the Troubles could benefit other areas afflicted with religious/political violence has led to exchanges with peacemakers in the Middle East. Applying the structure of the sacrificial mechanism to such conflicts illuminates the resistance of the participants to conflict resolution. The necessity of an enemy to cultural cohesion means that scapegoating is so enmeshed with group identity that to do without it feels like death.
For those of us who work with children and youth, the mimetic theory allows us to understand bullying as a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating. Pernicious because it is a scapegoat mechanism wrapped inside a larger one. Bullying among children is a spot on imitation of the larger cultural phenomenon of scapegoating, something too easily denied by adults. Because we associate bullying with children, adults are often unable to see their own culpability and so blame children for the problem. In other words, children are the convenient scapegoats of a scapegoating culture, helping to sustain the blindness necessary for the system to function.
O’CONAILL does a good job of dramatizing the various and random ways in which scapegoats are chosen as we follow a series of bullying incidents. These encounters carry the threat of violence, which is often realized, and adult readers will wince at the ignorance of the teachers to what is happening on their watch. We wince because we recognize the truth of this fictional account, especially the way in which O’CONAILL connects the bullying in the school to the scapegoating violence perpetrated and endured by the adults. The children are sadly victims of the sins of their parents and O’CONAILL clearly intends this to be a message for all of Northern Ireland to hear. The novel warns that violence risks replicating itself in the next generation, but it is also the next generation that can, perhaps, reverse the trend. It is the scapegoats, after all, who have the clearest understanding of the lies and deliberate blindness that sustain the system. This truth is what James ALISON refers to as the “intelligence of the victim” and it is this very intelligence that motivates O’CONAILL’s characters.
These children want answers. Why does bullying happen? Why do we want what other people have, especially when what they have makes us feel small or less important? Does this type of wanting have anything to do with bullying? And they especially want to know why their teachers can’t answer any of their questions! Before long they are making a connection between the commandment not to covet and the world of desiring they see all around them. They invent a term, “copy-wanting”, for what we know as mimetic desire.
The children see what the adults around them cannot – that all sorts of problems in the world begin with copy-wanting, which they define as “wanting something that someone else has because you think it makes them better than you.” Wanting to be better than others even appears to be behind the bullying that’s going on in their class, especially from one Gavan McGuire. Gavan picks on a number of classmates for a variety of reasons: stuttering or being adopted, overweight or shy. Johnny and his friends, Margaret, Mary and Eddy see that Gavan enjoys feeling like top dog and putting others down gives him the lift his ego craves.
The foursome calls themselves bridgers with a small b, an idea that begins with the main character, Johnny Mullan, and spreads to his friends. Johnny is from a Catholic family living in the Protestant section of town – on the wrong side of the bridge, as it turns out. He crosses the bridge by bus every day to attend his Catholic school with the other wrong-siders Margaret, Mary and Eddy. Each is troubled by issues that defy easy answers, from crime to the environment to the sheer number and variety of obstacles in the way of peace. But they are united by two things: a deep desire to stop bullying in their school and their prayerful search for a solution to the world’s problems.
When they get picked on by Gavan and his fellow bullies, or when they see someone else in their class being ridiculed or taunted, they are tempted to dish the abuse right back. But that only seems to make things worse and besides, they don’t want to turn into bullies themselves. Luckily, prayer comes as naturally to these friends as does their passion for knowledge.
O’CONAILL offers us prayer seasoned with youthful imagination, which may be what adult prayer sometimes lacks. There is nothing dry or rote about the inner dialogues these children have with God. In response to their prayerful longing for help, guides visit them in their dreams. Ordinary in appearance yet magical in their knowledge and insight, the guides teach them how to respond to bullies. In the moment when the bully seems to have the upper hand, when you want to run away or strike back, pause before responding. The dream visitors advise that they take a moment to pray for the “power of the bridge”. A response will come that builds a bridge between the bully, the bullied and the confused and frightened bystanders.
Soon the friends are interrupting the abusive bullying and protecting the most vulnerable in their class. Humor seems to work well as does agreeing with the bully but adding a twist to the meaning of their taunt, almost the way parables work. The victims are amazed and grateful, but the bullies sulk away promising revenge. Revenge is a dangerous business when you live on the wrong side of the bridge, and we soon discover that the worst bully in the class, Gavan McGuire, comes from a family that scapegoated Johnny’s father during the Troubles when Johnny’s dad was only 14 himself.
O’CONAILL was born in Dublin and taught history in Catholic schools in Northern Ireland for thirty years. The problem of festering scapegoating in schools as well as the inability of Ireland’s religious educators to come to the aid of the children prompted him to speak directly to young people about mimetic theory. With his fictionalized account of parents and their children wrestling with the consequences of the Troubles, O’CONAILL has found a way to share the wisdom of mimetic theory with children and perhaps most poignantly, through the children offer hope to the adults who love them.
Based in Chicago, USA, Suzanne Ross edits the website of the Raven Foundation – which declares itself “committed to making religion reasonable, violence unthinkable and peace a possibility by spreading awareness of the transformative power of mimetic theory.”
This review appears in the December 2015 issue of the Bulletin of the international Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R).