Category Archives: Covetousness

René Girard: The Creed Overcomes the World

First published in the Japan Mission Journal, Autumn 2023

As soon as I began exploring the Internet from the mid 1990s, I ran into arguments against Christian belief that were couched in the following terms: ‘To believe in an objective truth, to believe that history has a meaning and a destiny, is necessarily to wish to impose that understanding on others. All such “overarching stories”– otherwise known as “meta-narratives” or “master narratives”—are necessarily intolerant and violent—the Christian Creed included. The history of Christianity proves exactly that.

This is the argument for relativism, for the impossibility—and the danger—of any Creed, any overarching ‘story of salvation.’ It is the Gospel according to postmodernism. Yet when Pope Benedict XVI launched an intellectual assault on what he called ‘the dictatorship of relativism’ in 2005, he found a firm supporter in the influential literary, anthropological, and philosophical thinker René Girard (1923-2015).

Girard upholds the objective truth of the Christian doctrine of the Atonement, but gives it an anthropological reading that renders it credible in a fresh way. He sets up the Creed against the World in a battle for the human soul. Here I shall meditate on two Girardian themes: the influence of mimetic rivalry in history, and the way in which the Gospel weans us from seeking glory from one another (showing the importance of this for young people dealing with social media today).

A native of Avignon, France, who spent the bulk of his career in the United States, Girard insisted that he was never a theologian. He was first (in chronological order) a historian, then a literary critic, then a cultural anthropologist, and then a philosopher of violence in his ground-breaking work La Violence et le Sacré.1 René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976) He came from a French intellectual tradition that was, on his father’s side, secularist and anticlerical. Nevertheless in the 1970s he came to the firm conclusion that the Jewish and Christian scriptures, known to us as the Bible, had revealed, more clearly than any other texts, a fundamental inescapable truth about human nature – a truth that lies, he argues, at the root of all violence.

This is as follows: after we have satisfied our basic physical needs we humans literally do not know what we should want. Someone else who is apparently more important than ourselves must show us what to want or desire. We are therefore, necessarily, imitative beings. We learn by copying, subliminally, the behavior we see, as soon as we begin to see. We cannot help but adopt as our own at least some of the desires that we also see—especially the desires we observe in those who appear to have greater ‘being’ or status or fame. Girard calls this copied desire ‘mimetic desire.’ He identifies it with the tendency we are warned against in the 9th and 10th commandments—not to covet what belongs to a neighbor—not to want anything that belongs to a neighbor.

To covet is not a matter of simple greed or desire; it entails an element of rivalry and imitation. The repetition of the word ‘neighbor’ is, Girard argued, all-important. It is through that lens that he interpreted the tales of violence in Scripture and indeed the entire historical record. (He had previously uncovered the dynamics of mimetic desire in studies of the modern novel, including Cervantes, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, and Proust.)2See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).

Mimetic Desire in History

Take, for example, the young 6thcentury Irish monk, Columba. His coveted object was the laboriously handwritten and unique copy of the Psalms owned and prized by his eminent neighbor St Finnian. According to one version of the story there followed from this clashing desire the collision of two Ulster Gaelic noble families in the battle of Cul Dreimne in 561—–and Columba’s penitential exile on Iona. The history of copyright law began at that point, according to Wikipedia.

Henry II of England coveted the lands of his nearest neighbors to the west, the Irish. There was a ready excuse for appropriating them: the allegedly lower moral and religious standards of us Irish back then. No eminent cleric in England, or Rome, demurred (as far as I know) when Henry performed his religious duty—by invading Ireland in 1171. Note both the ostensible religious motive for that invasion and the far more likely motive—simply wanting what your neighbor has that you do not. Those who want to see in religion the cause of all violence do not ever want to notice what almost always lies beneath.

How could Henry II of England so easily get away with that? Recall that since the fourth century Christianity had come to be allied with state actors in a contract that seemed to benefit both. Charles the Great (Charlemagne) crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800, had built that empire, avowedly, in the cause of the one true faith. He did that, often, with immense cruelty.

And then, in 1095 came the famous speech attributed to Pope Urban II at Clermont—the oration that launched the first Crusade against the Islamic world. One historical source has Urban saying the following:

Can anyone tolerate that we [Europeans] do not even share equally with the Moslems the inhabited earth? They have made Asia, which is a third of the world, their homeland…. They have also forcibly held Africa, the second portion of the world, for over 200 years. There remains Europe, the third continent. How small a portion of it is inhabited by us Christians.3Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976, p. 244

Yes of course there were very good religious reasons for heading off to Jerusalem with an army, but was the occupation of the Holy Land by the Crusaders truly all about religious zeal? Exactly the same question applies to the global Christian imperialism that set in with the voyages of discovery in the 1400s, with Portugal and Spain in the lead. In the summer of 2022 Pope Francis was faced with the so called ‘doctrine of discovery’ that justified all that.

The New Digital Imperialism

In our own time, following the rise and fall of the prestige of Christian churches (over twenty centuries) a new global empire has arisen: the empire of global electronic media. Everywhere the teenagers of today can look for proof of their own significance on screens they need never darken. The screen itself, easily portable on a mobile smartphone, is a mimetic magnet. If a friend is absorbed in her phone that surely signifies the existence of a more important social universe via the phone than can exist without one, so the phone becomes a ‘must have’, a ‘portal’ to the irresistible possibility of ‘going viral’. And yet ‘virality’ too is a scarce resource, so fractious rivalries—this time in an arena that is potentially global—are the inevitable consequence of this online mimetic competition for attention.

The result? The verdict of many studies confirms the research of an Oxford University team: screen time correlates with poor mental health and ‘the association of well-being with regularly eating potatoes was nearly as negative as the association with technology use.’ Furthermore, the renowned US psychologist Dr Jean Twenge found in 2022 that the correlation between social media consumption and mental health challenges for young girls was even stronger.

The link between social media use and poor mental health for girls was 10 times as large as what the Oxford paper identified for “screen time.” A recent paper by two Spanish statisticians also examined the Oxford researchers’ techniques and also found a much stronger link. These findings fit with Facebook’s internal research, leaked by a whistleblower and published last fall, which concluded that Instagram led to depression and body image issues, particularly among teenage girls.’ (Washington Post, 16 February 2022)

The power of ‘social media’ lies in the simplest of mistaken assumptions —that our value and importance are determined by the judgment of others. Disappointment and elation, obscurity or recognition, honor and shame are in the gift of a handheld device that tells us at a glance where we stand. Anyone can therefore fall victim to an iron law of history—the very same law that governed the rivalries of the ancient world. Wherever there is a search for status there will also be the formation of alliances in the shaming of those who are in any way vulnerable.

That many of the young are now mentally distressed and disturbed as a consequence is well established. To believe in the Internet, or in media generally, as the arbiter of a person’s worth is to fall into spiritual poverty. It is also to be in danger of entrapment in cults or conspiracy theories, completely isolated from reality. Already there have been tragic instances of youthful suicide directly related to the power of social media to determine the mood and the behavior of its most vulnerable devotees. It is not far-fetched to describe social media fixation as algorithm enslavement, and the deployers of those algorithms—aiming as they do at ‘hooking’ and retaining the attention of all who enter—as digital imperialists and enslavers.

The Creed as Antidote to Digital Imperialism

The logic of crucifixion in the ancient Roman world was also squarely based upon the proposition that the value and significance of any human life is determined by social verdict. Why take the time to make a spectacle of crucifying anyone if the expected payoff was not the consolidation of the power and status of Rome, by convincing the beholders that there could be no greater power?

And yet the crucifixion of Jesus had the opposite effect on those who firmly believed that, somehow, Jesus had not been obliterated by it. Hence the conviction of the converted Paul of Tarsus that a ‘New Creation’ was now in process, and that the power of Rome was ‘passing away.’ With its trinitarian and resurrectionist core already expressed in the Gospel of Matthew by the end of the first century, the Creedal narrative was clearly in its origins a rebuttal not only of the Lordship of the Caesars, but a portable indestructible passport through any tyranny—to be recited in time of trial as a reminder of where the greater power always lay. The survival and growth of the church in the first three centuries, despite three separate waves of persecution, is testament to a core of belief that warded off all contrary social verdicts. The Creed is the densest expression of that core, even if, under Christendom, it was later misapplied as a catalogue of dogmas serving as an instrument of clerical control.

Now, with clerical control receding into history, the essence of the Creed—the proclamation that Jesus has been resurrected and vindicated by the Father, and raised to the status of supreme judge of the living and the dead—is ready for rediscovery as a rebuttal of the fallacy that anyone but Jesus is valid final judge of any one of us, and therefore as rejection of the orgy of judgmentalism—and of ‘viral’ global ambition—that plagues the Internet. No one should ever consider the verdicts of YouTube or Instagram or TikTok or any other online arena to be definitive of the value of anyone, least of all of oneself.

What has the Experience of Media Shaming taught Irish clergy?

An Irish Catholic Church that has fallen from high social prestige to social disgrace in little over a generation has so far adjusted poorly to this situation. Clergy whose vocations began before ‘the fall’ were themselves teenagers when their own corporation was a power-broker of both honor and shame in Ireland. Resentment and even anger (much of it justified) can be their default reaction to the reversal of fortunes they have experienced.

There is another option: to look again at that human tendency to see ‘honor’ as truly at the mercy of other humans, and to identify this as the driving force of all ascent to social superiority, in all eras, and as the ‘worldliness’ that Jesus came to conquer. The Gospel story exposes that mistake, and the fallibility of human judgment even when all are in agreement. So perhaps we may see the disgracing of the Irish church, at the hands of a secularizing media, as deliverance in disguise. It was to protect its social eminence, its ‘reputation,’ that the clerical institution failed to be truly Christian in its protection of Catholic children. Now their own ‘humiliation by media’ may free them to celebrate and re-affirm the Creed—the shortest summary of the story of Jesus, and of Catholic belief—in the face of a secularism that direly needs it.

Certainly there must be many Irish (and Japanese) teenagers ready for saving from the mistake of believing their dignity is decided by the Internet, so intensely controlled merely by ‘the market.’ Our Creed, rightly understood, can be an instrument of that rescue. It is a calling for all of us to take up that instrument and use it to overcome this new form of enslavement.


[1] René Girard, 1972. La Violence et le Sacré. (Paris: Grasset, 1972); Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[2] See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961); Desire, Deceit, and the Novel (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
[3] Quoted in P Johnson, A History of Christianity, (London: Penguin, 1976), p. 244.

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What do we mean by the Kingdom of God?

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life April 2002

Christian orthodoxy has always seen Christ as king as well as prophet and priest – a king who will personally and visibly reign some day, following the second coming. In the meantime there is ‘the kingdom of God’ which Vatican 2 identifies with the church, understood as ‘the people of God’.

When Jesus said ‘the kingdom of God is within’ and ‘at hand’ and that we should ‘seek’ it we can link this idea to the second birth that comes with baptism by the Holy Spirit. That is to say, a Christian spirituality can build a kingdom within us where Christ reigns as Lord, one that can gradually change also our outward cultural and social reality, moving the church and human society gradually towards a second visible coming of Christ.

But how do we envisage Christ reigning then? ‘Kingdom’ now seems a very archaic concept – especially in a context where the mystique of royalty has been totally destroyed by media intrusion into the all-too human frailties of the Windsors. No advanced country in the world is now ruled by a hereditary monarchy with real executive power – and this seems sensible. And so the ‘kingdom’ language of the Bible is one of those aspects of Christianity that make it seem fusty and culturally antiquated – the doomed intellectual property of a backward looking patriarchy. Must we Christians believe that God is stuck in an ancient and medieval mindset that will insist upon returning us some day to something like the kingdom of David or Solomon or Charlemagne, only more magnificent and triumphant, with Christ holding court in some fixed, earthly location and directing a centralised governmental system?

I believe not. I believe that if we read and ponder holistically the Biblical accounts of the kingdom of Israel, as well as the Gospel references to the kingdom of God, we find a dynamic that is actually predictive of a modern global egalitarian society – but one that lacks the imperfections of the most advanced we now have.

First, God did not impose an earthly kingdom upon Israel – but granted it reluctantly and apparently with the intention of letting Israel learn from the experience. The first book of Samuel tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” 1 Sam 8:4,5

Notice ‘such as all the other nations have’. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of mimetic desire, or covetousness – the desire to possess that which is possessed by others – because they possess it. The perceived greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led Israel to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had – one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court. The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible connotation: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to conceptualise the kingdom of God, begin with, say, the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God.

The essence of that inferiority was their origin in an inferior spirituality – mimetic desire – and this is confirmed by the accounts of the central flaws of the three great kings – Saul, David and Solomon. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and he became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into mimetic rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with mimetic desire.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. Renown is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had again become his undoing. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’s time.

Sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being upon whom an exaggerated dignity and military expectation was then conferred – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from those subjects who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the Lord will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

What is being described here is subjection: a loss of dignity and freedom. The sons who ran in front of the chariot would be the first to die in battle – for the glory of the person they served. Samuel’s critique of ancient kingship could have served perfectly the antimonarchist causes of revolutionary America and republican France nearly three millennia later.

If an inability to overcome the compulsion of mimetic desire was always associated with the visible kingdoms of Israel, then the original invisible kingdom had never been surpassed. It is against this background that we need to observe Jesus’ dealings with kingship – especially his rejection of the option of building such a visible kingdom in the only way that was feasible in the ancient world: by conquest.

This decision began with the second temptation in the desert, and was finally decisively rejected at Gethsemane. Jesus’ reply to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” can thus be interpreted as “That over which I rule is not one of those earthly kingdoms which arise out of mimetic desire and conflict”. And this means it cannot be like the kingdom of David either. It is the same ‘kingdom’ that Israel had abandoned in the time of Samuel, with Jesus in the Samuel, i.e. the prophetic, role. That is to say, it is really an anti-kingdom – one that contradicted the pattern whereby the subject would die for the glory of the king.

We must not make the mistake of supposing that an earthly kingdom ruled by a visible Jesus must necessarily be free of mimetic desire and envy – i.e. of imperfection – for the Gospel tells us otherwise. “Which of us is the greatest?” the apostles repeatedly ask of him, with the sons of Zebedee aiming at a heavenly elevation also. If the kingdom of God is to be free of mimetic desire, there simply cannot be a human pyramid of esteem with Jesus at its summit – for no matter how perfect the king, people would then jealously compete for closeness to him, supposing their own dignity rested upon that, as humans have throughout history. Earthly kingship creates inevitably a pyramid of dignity, in which a ‘wannabe’ fixation deprives everyone else of a sense of her/his own dignity (the source of all those English dreams of tea with the Queen).

The only ‘kingdom’ that can be free of mimetic desire is one in which all accept their own equal dignity. It will therefore be unlike any earthly kingdom of the past, and superior – in terms of egalitarianism – to the most advanced democratic societies today. It is a future society in which dignity is equally distributed – far superior to the ‘meritocracy’ aimed at by our current political elites, for mimetic desire is rampant there also. It follows that power also will be distributed rather than concentrated as in all absolute monarchies.

This is part of the meaning of the passion and death of Christ: he is bringing down the pyramid of esteem, establishing a relationship between humans that is based upon equal mutual respect – the meaning of the washing of the feet. The continual eucharistic division of the body of Christ means that wherever the ‘subject’ is, there is Jesus also. Each of us is equally close, so none lacks dignity.

With globalisation our perception of human space is shifting. In the ancient world people supposed they lived upon a planar disc with real physical boundaries. There had to be a boundary out there, an ‘edge’, encircling human space. This is why Alexander set out to travel to that boundary – the end of the earth – conquering as he went. The human idea of kingship was therefore linked to the notion of a bounded planar surface, over which human heroes fought for arch dominion. The notion that Jerusalem lay at the centre of that surface persisted into the late Middle Ages in Europe.

The idea of earthly kingship was also linked to that of a vertical hierarchy of heavenly dignity, in which the earthly king’s elevation ‘above’ his subjects reflected the even greater dignity of God in the perfection of heaven.

If we interpret the Genesis story of ‘the fall’ as related to human mimetic envy of God in Heaven (‘you shall be as Gods’), we can then interpret the story of Jesus as a revelation whose central teaching is that God is not to be envied – because he is prepared to accept the humiliation of the world. And this in turn means that our conception of Christ as King must be one that rejects the typical earthly kingly pyramid. Somehow he will always be equidistant from us all, so that all are equally honoured.

The Eucharist achieves this, of course, by allowing within sacred space a perfect equality of contact with the king. The Ascension we can see then not so much as a departure, but as a necessary step towards a sacramental banquet in which all Christians are equally admitted to the divine presence, which can also, through the Eucharist and the Spirit, reign within. In this way God raises all into his being equally – undermining the power of mimetic desire.

Now conscious human space has no fixed boundaries, for we know the surface upon which we live is spherical, always returning to meet itself. Thus, the surface of the earth can have no centre, so that no location upon it is more privileged and prestigious than any other.

Furthermore we now look out upon an enfolding heavenly space so vast that the notion of human dominion there is ludicrous. And so we can envisage also a global – and even extra-terrestrial – human society in which, with the continual breaking of bread and body, there is a perfect equality of dignity, and therefore no need for conflict or concentrations of military power.

It is profoundly mysterious that there should be in texts that were written in the ancient planar world a clear revelation of a divine preference for a ‘kingdom’ that would look beyond any existing in that world, to provide what the global human family now needs, and will always need. That is, a Lordship that claims authority first and last in the human heart, that excludes no-one, and that promises freedom and equal dignity to all.

In an earthly community of this kind, people would not notice someone who came by, gently, seeking their company rather than their obeisance, their freedom rather than their subjection. He would not be challenged – for all people would be in the habit of accepting strangers this way.

Here is an early Irish poem that dreams of the future kingdom of Heaven:

CREATION OF HEAVEN

King, you created heaven according to your delight,
a place that is safe and pure, its air filled with the songs of angels.
It is like a strong mighty city, which no enemy can invade,
with walls as high as mountains.
It is like an open window, in which all can move freely,
with people arriving from earth but never leaving.
It is huge, ten times the size of earth,
so that every creature ever born can find a place.
It is small, no bigger than a village,
where all are friends, and none is a stranger.
In the centre is a palace, its walls made of emerald
and its gates of amethyst; and on each gate is hung a golden cross.
The roof is ruby, and at each pinnacle stands an eagle
covered in gold, its eyes of sapphire.
Inside the palace it is always daylight, and the air cool, neither hot nor cold; and there is a perfect green lawn, with a blue stream running across it.
At the edge of this lawn are trees and shrubs, always in blossom,
white, pink and purple, spreading a sweet fragrance everywhere.
Round the lawn walks a King, not dressed in fine robes,
but in a simple white tunic, smiling, and embracing those he meets.
And people from outside are constantly entering the palace,
mingling one with another, and then leaving.
Everyone in heaven is free to come to the palace,
and then to take with them its perfect peaceful joy;
and in this way the whole of heaven is infused with the joy of the palace.

(Celtic Prayers, R Van de Weyer, Abingdon Press)

It’s clear that the unknown author of this poem was someone within whom the Lord reigned already spiritually, and who understood that a perfect equality and lack of rivalry would eventually characterise his people. The word ‘subjects’ is out of place to describe these, for there is no subjection, only liberation. With such a ‘kingdom’ the most radical egalitarian and democrat could find no fault.

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What underlies René Girard’s ‘Mimetic Desire’

The lowly character Pip in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ – in his social encounter with the grand Miss Havisham and her haughty ward Estella in Satis House.

What underlies ‘mimetic’ desire – the desire that we unconsciously copy from someone else, and make our own?  This question was posed by myself to Duncan Morrow in a conference centred on the thought of René Girard in Corrymeela, Northern Ireland, in November 2017.

Necessarily confined by his need to deal also with other questions in a short time-frame in this seminar situation, Duncan’s response was concise in my memory of it. Arguing against the romantic Enlightenment conception of the individual person as a completely autonomous actor, he emphasised the necessarily relational development of the ‘self’. Referencing the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, Duncan proposed (I believe) that the desiring ‘self’ is always participating and developing within a network of relationships in both time and space. He drew a simple lattice of intersecting lines to illustrate this. He then circled some of the nodes of this lattice as points of encounter with others that will necessarily impact upon us, and therefore upon what we will desire. (Figure 1)

Figure 2 – The social network

This was helpful to me, as I had already reached an understanding of mimetic desire as ‘socially mediated’.  However, I was struck by what seemed the ‘coolness’ or ‘lack of drama’ in this brief account of social interaction. I felt that I was being invited to believe that in these encounters there could be no question about the equality of dignity of the actors – that such events would always be as ‘comfortable’ as a conversation in Corrymeela.

Looking back I think this impression must have been partly a product of the two-dimensional illustration of that lattice. I wanted to go on to explore another interior dimension, that element of ‘drama’ – of ‘felt inadequacy and inequality’ – that is present in so many of our social interactions. I could not do that right then as other members of the group had other questions waiting.

And so I propose to explore it now, by introducing what I tend to call the universe of uncertainty, honour and shame in which we all emotionally dwell. I will begin with a very short story of my own early mimetic desire.

My issue with soap

Some years before my own arrival on this planet in 1943, as the son of a Dublin civil servant, my mother’s younger sister had taken the eye of a prominent Dublin obstetrician. I grew up some miles away from a slightly younger cousin, the son of this doctor. Occasionally I visited his home in a far more select Dublin neighbourhood.

To this day my use of a particular brand of soap was determined by my finding it, on one of those days, in the far more luxurious bathroom of that house. Its shape and colour and weight and scent lingered with me, at the age of about twelve I think, and gave birth to the desire that I was later able to satisfy.

‘We are afflicted with a congenital uncertainty as to our own value.’ So concluded the philosopher Alain de Botton in 20041Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15. I can think of no better short summary of my own considered view of our deepest human problem. As this chronic uncertainty tends to put us in flight from shame and in search of honour (both socially ‘mediated’) it lends itself to a perception of society as necessarily and righteously ‘judgmental’ – as having both the power and authority to determine our ‘worthiness’.

In that household of my cousin I had an acute sensitivity to my own social inequality, my lack of what is called ‘status’. I was not thinking in those terms at that time, but I was lacking in something important: this was painfully obvious to me. That I might make up at least part of the deficit by using that particular commodity seemed logical enough. No dramatic reverse had ever happened to me in that house – merely a condescension that was usually kindly. However, just that element of condescension, and my mother’s deferential yet slightly resentful behaviour towards my aunt and uncle, had been more than enough to make me want to ease the shame of my felt inferiority by that means.

Charles Dickens and Mimetic Desire

A far more dramatic story— also to do with a visit to a grander house – is told in Dickens’s Great Expectations (1861). Raised in a smithy by a tyrannical sister and her submissive husband Joe Gargery, the young Pip – just beginning his apprenticeship in the smithy – is brought one day to the decaying but still impressive Satis House, to play with the ward of the very strange Miss Havisham.

This well-dressed young lady, the ‘very pretty’ Estella, disdains to play cards with Pip at Miss Havisham’s request – although she is of the same age. She comments on his ‘coarse hands’ and ‘thick boots’. Later she leaves him alone in a courtyard in the dismal Satis House, and Pip recalls:

I took the opportunity of being alone in the courtyard to look at my coarse hands and my common boots. My opinion of those accessories was not favourable. They had never troubled me before, but they troubled me now, as vulgar appendages. I determined to ask Joe why he had ever taught me to call those picture-cards Jacks, which ought to be called knaves. I wished Joe had been rather more genteelly brought up, and then I should have been so too.

When Estella returns to give him some food in that yard, without looking at him ‘as if I were a dog in disgrace’, Pip feels deep humiliation:

My sister’s bringing up had made me sensitive. In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.2Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8

Discerning on many subsequent similar visits to Satis House that the increasingly beautiful Estella is deliberately being schooled by Miss Havisham to attract and reject many suitors, Pip comes to desire not only Estella but the gentrified status that could allow him to court her. The novel pivots on that desire. Pip has become entrapped not only in the web spun by Miss Havisham but in the wider social web that had captured and unbalanced her.

Earlier, in Little Dorrit (1855), Dickens had made even more plain his understanding of this social conditioning. Briefly, the elderly William Dorrit has been locked up in the Marshalsea prison for so long, for debt, that he has become – at least hopefully in his own eyes – a worthy object of veneration. He deals with the shame of his indebtedness by affecting the role of monarch of the prison. He affects also the belief that visitors to the prison will feel privileged to pay tribute in small gifts of money for his upkeep. He converses with these as though bestowing honour upon respectful envoys from foreign lands.

His daughter Amy – Little Dorrit – had been born in and has grown up in the Marshalsea – and is stunned when an investigation reveals that, to a vast fortune trapped in legal confusion in the world outside, her own father, William Dorrit, is the true heir. Released from the Marshalsea in splendour, the family undertakes a European Grand Tour.

In Venice eventually, staying in a luxurious rented villa, Amy is troubled to observe that:

A perfect fury for making acquaintances on whom to impress their riches and importance has seized the House of Dorrit… It appeared on the whole, to Little Dorrit herself, that this same society in which they now lived greatly resembled a superior sort of Marshalsea.3Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

In just these two sentences Dickens reveals that William Dorrit’s real prison had not been the Marshalsea, or even London. He had carried it with him to Venice in his own head. It was the prison of his own fixed conviction that his dignity and value were absolutely at the mercy of the judgement of others, of society. His suddenly acquired wealth could not in itself convince him of his own dignity: it needed to be observed, appreciated, recorded – at the summit of that Victorian social pyramid – for Dorrit himself to be convinced of his own value as a person.

It seems to me therefore that to illustrate the perceived judgemental authority of that social network, in time and space – the network that convinces us that honour is not a ‘given’, and that shame attaches to the nakedness of owning nothing – we need to add something to that lattice in Figure 1. That ‘something’ should convey this perception by our ‘little selves’ that ‘society’ regards us not with affection or even disinterest, but appraisingly and with imminent scorn.

Figure 2 – The appraising social eye

To try to convey this I did some searching among the images provided on the Internet for ‘scales of justice’ and ‘observing eye’ – and overlapped two of them, as follows (Figure 2):

What if we now zoom in on one of those ‘nodes’ of encounter in the experiential lattice in Figure 1 – to note that in critical social situations we are subjectively ‘under judgement’ as illustrated above?

It remains only to superimpose the second image upon the first to complete a rendering of the power of the social network to influence our mimeticism. (Figure 3)

Figure 3 – The appraising social network

From early experience of parental presentation to relatives (to warble agonisingly in an unreliable soprano in my case!) to the teacher’s assessment of our intellect in the classroom, to that first job interview and, in later years, to the end-of-year honours’ list, are our lives not always a series of ‘trials’? Always uncertain of the outcomes, is it not our fate to be poised always somewhere between the City of Shame and the City of Honour? And do we not typically seek to acquire whatever will ward off the disaster of social contempt – unless we can sometime find a means of ‘relativising’ society itself?

Somewhere in my encounters with Girardian literature I am sure I came across a quote from René that explicitly acknowledged that role of the fear of shame – in not only determining the object and intensity of our desire, but in explaining our reluctance to acknowledge that imitation has played a part in that. To my annoyance I cannot now locate that passage. I shall be indebted if anyone can help – and even more pleased with other references to this underlying dimension of honour and shame in choosing our models for us – and in determining the intensity of our desires – in the development of mimetic theory.

I strongly suspect that it is this same experiential dimension of judgement, honour and shame that for so long concealed the full meaning of the verb ‘to covet’ from Christian clergy – and that underlies much of the remaining resistance to mimetic theory in our own time. That a major ‘sin’ could have become obscured to the view of Christian moral theologians for so many centuries – to be uncovered by a lay student of secular literature in the late 1950s – is not something that those schooled entirely in theology and related religious disciplines would necessarily feel honoured to acknowledge.

Sean O’Conaill, Contagion, Feb. 2018

Notes

  1. Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton, Penguin, 2004, p. 15
  2. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens, Chapter 8
  3. Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens, Book II, Chapter VII

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‘The Chain That Binds the Earth’ – Novel now on sale

This project preoccupied me for months:  the experiment of a novel that would test the power of Girardian mimetic theory to explain to young people a wide range of modern ills – from the global threat to the environment to violence of all kinds – including school bullying.

The project arose out of a realisation that were I still in the classroom I would be proposing that we do often unconsciously absorb the desires of others  – as a tool to explain such events as the assassination of Julius Caesar, the burning of Joan of Arc, the World Wars of the 20th century, the Cold War – and the Troubles of Northern Ireland.

Would it have been feasible to do so?  Do young people already notice ‘unconscious copying’ as a dominant feature of human behaviour, and even as a potential source of conflict?

The second crucial factor heading me in the direction of fiction was the simple fact that my classroom days are over.  Now in my seventies I am retired from formal teaching – but very much committed still to what lies behind all teaching:  the task of maintaining a living tradition of insight into so much of what ails us, and especially of passing that insight on to young people concerned for the future of the planet.

So could I write a story that would have eleven-year-olds stumble upon the significance of our human weakness for adopting the desires of others, and then have them argue their case in their own school context?

I have tried to do that, in any case.  It is for young people themselves to tell me if I have succeeded.  My very first young readers of a late draft have been enthusiastic, but I have no way of knowing how representative they are.

As I was obliged to self-publish this story, the initial retail cost of the paperback version on Amazon is too high.    I am setting out to make copies available soon at what they cost me, ordered in quantities at a discount.  I will update this page to log progress in this attempt.

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Mimetic Desire: The Importance of René Girard I

At the age of ten – c. 1953 – I threw an especially odious tantrum. Already an avid reader, I had the notion even then of becoming a writer of some kind. I had also decided that the first successful step of my ascent to literary grandeur must be the ownership of a very particular fountain pen, heavily advertised at that time. When my parents told me they couldn’t afford this I sulked hideously for a week over my blighted career.

I remember this now because my complaint had absolutely nothing to do with any ‘ism’ that I was aware of – least of all ‘materialism’. The plastic, rubber, metal and other constituent materials of that gleaming object were not of the slightest interest to me. I had instead, and not for the last time, fallen victim to magical thinking – the attribution to a cloned advertised object of the power to enhance my own personal ‘nobody’ status. That particular pen alone, I had convinced myself, would surely make me a famous writer. The very inferior pen I already owned, although made of the same materials, was surely the reason I hadn’t yet written a novel and wasn’t already a celebrity.

Reflection on this, on other similar episodes in later life – and on the way that advertising works generally – has convinced me that the church’s standard diagnosis of the global plague of material accumulation is hopelessly off centre and misdirected. The charge of materialism implies to me that the feverish purchasing of inessential objects is driven by a deep interest in matter per se, or maybe even by a belief that nothing but matter exists. Nothing could be further from the reality that I have observed. The diagnosis of ‘materialism’ is totally ineffectual because none of us can see that we are actually guilty of it.

What is fundamentally wrong with us has nothing to do with any materialist philosophy, or with entirely innocent matter. Our basic acquisitive complaint – and it seems to be almost congenital – is deep and recurrent doubt as to our own personal value, accompanied by a deep desire to enhance it. Reinforced by media, and too often by other aspects of our surrounding culture, it is this complaint above all that makes us vulnerable to ‘iconic’ advertised objects designed to ‘change your life’.

Brand Bullying

Ireland’s Breda O’Brien once told the story of a friend exasperated by a teenage son. This boy had rebelled when his mother had tried to persuade him that it would be foolish for her to spend an extra €50 simply to enable him to wear the logo of a more expensive branded jacket. When she asked him why on earth she should do that he said, instantly: “Because I’m worth it!” A clever slogan designed to enhance the pulling power of an entirely different class of branded goods had lodged fast in this boy’s consciousness – to be deployed later to bully his own poor mother!

Here again, obviously, this boy was totally uninterested in the constituent material of the jacket. The brand logo – a simple memorable image – had become ‘iconic’ for him, a mysterious guarantee of the personal value and status that an unbranded item of exactly the same material could not give its owner.

This is not simply undifferentiated ‘wanting’ or ‘desiring’ either. Simple lack of food causes an entirely specific kind of wanting and desire, for which we have the precise name ‘physical hunger’. The wanting that fixates upon a particular ‘iconic’ object also surely deserves a specific and descriptive name, a name that isn’t ‘materialism’ either. (Isn’t food, even the Eucharist, material, after all, and clothing also – and don’t we need both?)

Mysteriously we don’t have in common use today a precise name for this particular desire for ‘iconic’ objects.

René Girard and Mimetic Desire

Thankfully, however, this kind of wanting now has a fully descriptive name, learned gratefully by me from the work of the American-French Catholic academician René Girard. He uses the pinpoint term ‘mimetic desire’ for that specific kind of desire that unconsciously mimics the observed desire of someone else – someone we mistakenly believe to be more highly valuable than ourselves. The power of most of the world’s multinationals is based on a deep understanding of how our mimetic desire can be manipulated to buy ‘designer’ objects of every kind – from clothing to cars, from lipsticks to the very latest smartphone or tablet computer.

Despite our obvious need to understand and resist this phenomenon, I have yet to hear a Mass homily on this problem of truly contagious mimetic desire. How has it come about that our clergy do not notice or speak insightfully about a pervasive problem of modern culture – a problem that is obviously also moral and spiritual?

This question becomes even more interesting in light of René Girard’s compelling argument that mimetic desire is the very problem denoted by the biblical word covetousness. How come that no homilist in my experience has ever noted that in the decalogue the triple warning against coveting links this sin in every case to something possessed by a neighbour, i.e. by someone we know? Surely that ox of the decalogue was the sleekest and strongest one, the one that belonged to the richest farmer in the community. Proud possession by someone else is crucial to the transmission of mimetic desire. It is usually the higher perceived status of the owner that transfers addictive desirability to the desired object. This is why celebrities are paid millions to use and to be photographed in association with big brand logos.

There is a further reason our homilists need to notice this. Girard shows convincingly that when mimetic desire becomes focused by two or more people upon anything that cannot be shared, real violence looms.  For Girard the Bible is the world’s greatest literary source of illustrations of this. Cain killed Abel because he concluded that Abel’s animal sacrifice had won God’s preference before Cain’s own sacrifice of grain. Desiring the intangible divine preference that Abel apparently now possessed, and the unattainable status that went with it, Cain went mad with jealousy and killed his brother.

Similarly Saul hated the young David as soon as David had won the greater admiration of the women of Israel.  Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery out of mimetic desire for the ‘coat of many colours’ – the garment that marked him as his father, Jacob’s, favourite. Absalom rose in rebellion against his father David out of mimetic desire for the kingdom of Israel. And the land of Israel’s ‘milk and honey’ – the produce of its richest soil – made it mimetically desirable to its neighbours, such as the Babylonians and later the Romans. There was even a near outbreak of violence among the apostles themselves, when they visualised one of their number being granted the highest status in heaven, next to Jesus himself. This is a clear echo of the story of original violence between brothers.

The Bible even tells us that the desire of the people of Israel to have a king was a contagious borrowing of an institution that ‘all the other nations have’. (1 Sam 8: 4,5) Could the reason for that particular mimetic desire be that surrounding kings were apparently better at the high-prestige art of warfare?

As for violence and mimetic desire in Irish history, what about the extraordinary tale of the Cathach, the copy of the Psalter made by the young Colmcille from another copy owned by St Finnian?  It was this quarrel of two saints that reputedly led to the war that ended in Colmcille’s self-exile on Iona.

Centuries later it was rivalrous desire for the kingdom of Leinster that led to the conflict that brought the Normans to Ireland – and the competing desires of England, France and Spain led to many further troubles.  Far more recently, Charles J. Haughey’s absorption of the desires of 18th century Irish landlords led to the greatest scandal in living Irish political memory.

In the case of conflict in Northern Ireland, the legend of the red hand of Ulster is obviously also about mimetic desire.  What else do we need to explain the irreconcilability of the competing nationalisms that still plague the north-east?  Surely it is a mistake to point the finger exclusively at either of the competing traditions when essentially the same desire drives both – for possession of the security that goes with sovereign authority.

As for ‘consumerism’, today’s mass production of desirable objects has allowed the many rather than the few to possess apparently identical objects, hiding from us the full violent potential of mimetic desire in day-to-day life  (unless at end-of-year sales!). However, teenagers have been murdered in the US for possession of top-brand sneakers. And the sweat-house production of branded clothing in the developing world – an almost inevitable product of globalisation – has caused inexcusable violence to exploited workers, for example in the building of criminally unstable factories. Chinese factory workers have sometimes been driven to suicide by the terms of employment in factories that produce our highest status electronic goods.   Profit-driven multinationals, their managers dependent upon the favour of investors, seem too often indifferent to the pressures this creates for employees at the manufacturing base.  And those managers and investors too are likely to be mimetically driven – to afford higher-status homes, transport, personal technology and ‘bling’.  A world driven by unseen mimetic desire will necessarily be an abusive and unjust one.

René Girard has been writing about mimetic desire, and its connection with all kinds of violence, since the early 1970s. He has gathered around his mimetic theory a community of distinguished academics in the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science, philosophy, literary criticism, history and theology.  Probably no other living intellectual has been so influential in so many fields.  Having delved as a historian into just a fraction of this work I am convinced that Girard’s insight is set to have profound consequences for the future of Christianity, as well as for the social sciences and the arts – and even the second level school curriculum.  It is not going too far to say that Girard has brought the secular Enlightenment back to its roots in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and that his work is set to transform the relationship between the churches and the secular world.

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The Story of the West: VI – Mastering Contagious Desire

Sean O’Conaill  © Reality Mar 2007

Why did a second-generation Irish nationalist leader set out to mimic in the late 1900s the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Irish ascendancy landlords, with disastrous and tragic consequences for his own reputation and his family? Why is the baseball cap worn around the world – even in cold weather? Why are people so fascinated by celebrity? Why do the youngest children so quickly learn to recognise corporate logos, and to desire what they decorate?

All of these questions were summed up in just one simple question that was asked in the Chinese spiritual classic, the Tao Te Ching, centuries before Christ:

“Why do we desire what others desire?”

To put it another way, why is desire so often contagious? A full answer to this question would give the human family a chance of overcoming, or at least containing, the crises of over-consumption and violence that now threaten the survival of our planet and our species. It is over-consumption that makes resources scarce, and it will be desire for the same scarce resources (e.g. oil) that is likely to fuel the worst violence of the near future.

No one has explored this question of contagious desire with greater energy or brilliance than the French Catholic academic, René Girard.

Beginning as a literary critic in the 1970s Girard noted that some of the West’s greatest modern writers, from Cervantes and Shakespeare to Dostoevsky, Stendhal and Gide were fascinated by our tendency to ‘catch’ desire from one another. He then noticed that the Bible had begun this western fascination (e.g. in the story of Solomon and the child claimed by two women). From there Girard branched out into anthropology and philosophy, developing a theory of religion that is now influencing academics throughout the world.*

Insisting that in the biblical warning not to covet ‘anything our neighbour owns’ there is a naming of this dangerous human tendency, Girard calls it by a more descriptive name – mimetic desire: a tendency to mimic, often unconsciously, the desire of someone else. Noting that a group of children presented with a choice of toys will almost inevitably begin squabbling over the possession of just one of them, Girard also locates our problem of violence in this tendency.

He also argues, however, that our tendency towards mimicry or imitation is also a gift that allows every new generation to ‘pick up’ everything learned by the preceding generation. The tendency of males to imitate older males, and of females to imitate older females, is an essential attribute that allows us to learn how to become self-supporting adults, mastering a huge range of complex tasks and bodies of knowledge.

But the huge danger of our habit of mimicry becomes obvious as soon as we enter the realm of appropriation – taking hold of something as our own. If the appropriated object is scarce or unique, in grasping it we will tend to confront one another – and violence can then follow. And when just one blow is struck to assert ownership of such an object, our gift for mimicry takes on an entirely different character – one that can destroy an entire community. This is the origin, Girard believes, of, for example, the blood feud that can still be found in many cultures.

This insight alone – that in speaking against covetousness the Bible is warning the human family against a pervasive tendency that now threatens our survival – is hugely important for Christianity – as well as for Judaism and Islam, which share the same text. The tendency for so many religious teachers in all three traditions to focus heavily upon sexual morality has helped the enemies of all religious faith to argue that religion is largely irrelevant to the problems of the moment – and even that the biblical injunctions to ‘increase and multiply’ and to dominate the earth are a source of the global environmental crisis.

On the other hand, if ‘covetousness’ identifies the human habit that betrays us into not only over-consumption but violence, the phrase ‘Judeo-Christian morality’ encompasses the only lifestyle that can take us past the problems of the moment – a lifestyle that is virtually forced upon us by our present crisis anyway.

But Girard’s understanding of covetousness does far more than this. It gives us a means of explaining, in terms that secularism can understand, the whole relevance of the orthodox Christian belief system that is summarised in the Nicene and ‘Apostles’ Creeds.

The Creeds, finally formulated by the fourth century, are centred on the story of Jesus, placing it in a cosmic salvational context. Because the ‘vertical’ picture of the universe depicted in the Creeds has been exploded by modern science, there has been a tendency in much recent theology to find those Creeds absurd and embarrassing.

But if Girard is right, the Creeds can be understood in an entirely different way: as relating a story intended to save us from ourselves – from this habit of manic and foolish imitation of lifestyles that now threaten to destroy us.

Almost all the ‘great men’ of history aspired to be ‘great’ – i.e. to acquire ‘renown’ by climbing to positions of dominance or influence, as Alexander did. Their life story begins with this ascent. Almost always, however, this rise is followed by a fall – through what the Greeks called hubris or arrogance.

Ireland has been riveted by just such a story over the past decade – the tragic story of Charles J Haughey. But in historical terms that story is mundane rather than sensational. From Alexander and Julius Caesar through Napoleon I to George W Bush and Tony Blair, the desire for ‘greatness’ has betrayed us humans into violence and excess. This has led in our own time to what The Economist now calls ‘an authority crisis’ – a growth of cynicism and disillusionment in relation to leaders and institutions in the West generally.

The story told in the creeds follows an entirely different arc – an inverted arc. It is, incredibly, a story of worldly failure rather than success – of someone who sought the company of the poor and the excluded rather than of the wealthy and powerful – and was crucified as a consequence. It defies logic that this story should ever have been told at all – especially as a story of eventual triumph.

The stories of good Christians throughout history explain why. Instead of setting out to win the favour of social elites they have done what Jesus did – they have sought out and served the poor. St Francis of Assisi is a typical example: so are Jean Vanier1This article  was written in 2007, thirteen years before the revelation in 2020 that Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche movement, was also an abuser of the trust of some of the able-bodied women who looked to him for spiritual guidance. and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Ireland’s Michael McGoldrick in our own time.

The story of the Creed is a story of both humility and triumph – and its message is that God loves and rewards humility.

That is exactly what the West needs to hear – because it has brought the world to a great crisis through its own vanity.

Vanity can be defined as a presumption of entitlement to superiority, priority or admiration. It is the attitude that then leads us into covetousness – a desire to possess whatever is possessed by those who dominate the ‘the world’. In our era it is TV that tells us who these people are, and what they possess – and so our world becomes a pyramid of desire also.

Those who can see those TV pictures, but are shut out of western prosperity – for example, educated young men in the impoverished parts of the Arab world – acquire other problematic attitudes: jealousy and envy – a feeling of resentment against those who possess what they cannot. Nothing else is needed to explain the anger that fuels the ‘War on Terror’.

Vanity, covetousness, jealousy, envy, anger – we still need these terms to explain human behaviour and to place the responsibility for dealing with these problems squarely where it belongs – upon ourselves. After almost three centuries of failure to build a perfect world without reference to sin, the most perceptive secular writers are rediscovering the attributes that are the opposite of sin: humility, frugality, mutual respect, simplicity, co-operation, peace. These are the characteristics of the Kingdom of God – preached most eloquently by the one who best exemplified them: Jesus of Nazareth.

The world is in crisis because the West above all has still to realise the full gift it received in the Christian tradition – a gift the whole world is now ready for. It is for western Christians of all traditions to realise the full scope of this gift, and to become adept at explaining the problems they see around them in terms of a truly holistic Christian morality.

This does not mean that we need to abandon our perception of the dangers of Christianity’s most consistent target: sexual indiscipline and infidelity. It means simply that we need to add to this perception an equally discerning analysis of vanity and covetousness. To be persuasive we will need to begin ourselves to see the dangers of imitating models of ostentatious consumption – and then to imitate in these matters also the one we say we love.

And when we read in Genesis that the temptation to Eve was to envy God himself, we will learn to associate Original Sin with vanity and covetousness rather than with the gift of sexuality.

As the global crisis deepens, so will the suffering of humanity – but so also will our perception of salvation. We will see that it is in one kind of imitation only that real global salvation will lie: not the imitation of the wealthy but the imitation of the one who was uniquely humble – the imitation of Christ.

* For a good introduction to Girard, as well as a good bibliography, read:Discovering Girard, Michael Kirwan; Darton, Longman and Todd 2004; ISBN 0-232-52526-9.

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Revitalising the Catholic Church in Ireland: VI – The World and the Kingdom of God

Sean O’Conaill © Reality 2004 

Christians have always seen Christ as a king who will reign visibly some day, but what kind of ‘king’ would he be? How would his ‘kingdom’ differ from a modern state? And in the meantime, how should the idea of ‘the kingdom of God’ influence the way we think about the secular world?

These questions are particularly relevant at a time when western political life seems increasingly corrupt. Modern media place a searing spotlight on all prominent people, revealing their private as well as public weaknesses. The flaws of nearby royalty are now common knowledge, so that the whole idea of a ‘kingdom’ is also out of fashion. We associate it with snobbery and inequality, and we cling to the ideal of a truly equal society. Does this mean we should forget about the whole idea of a ‘Kingdom of God’?

The answer is a definite ‘no’ – because we need to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom’ to have any hope of building a truly equal and just and peaceful society – especially here in Ireland.

The first thing to note about Jesus is that he differed in a quite remarkable way from the great kings of Israel: he never entered into rivalry with anyone, or sought to exercise an authority based upon force, or even the threat of force. Nor did he ever establish a court from which to overawe people and dominate politically. He had already acquired the only status that mattered to him: closeness to the Lord God of Israel.

The most interesting thing about the kingdom of Saul, David and Solomon is that it was seen by the God of Samuel as a rejection of his own kingdom. The Bible tells us:

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” (1 Sam 8:4,5)

Notice that these elders wanted a kingdom such as all the other nations have. This tells us something of crucial importance – that the earthly kingdom of Israel arose out of covetousness – the desire to possess something possessed by others – because they possess it. The supposed greater power of the surrounding monarchical systems – especially that of the Philistines – led the Israelite elders to envy them, to suppose that it was these systems that gave them this greater power, and to undervalue the system they already had. This was one in which prophets and judges ruled in a relationship of equality and familiarity rather than hierarchy and splendour.

The text goes on to tell us that Samuel was displeased by that request, but that the Lord God told him:

“Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”

So, according to the text, the kingdom of Israel essentially involved the rejection of an earlier ‘kingdom of God’ over which the Lord ‘reigned’ through the prophet Samuel, but without placing Samuel on some sacred plane above other men – a ‘kingdom’ that God preferred, and one without a palace or court.

The word ‘kingdom’ in that context obviously has the widest possible meaning: that over which there is some kind of rule or dominion. We ought not, therefore, when attempting to understand Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’, begin with the military kingdom of David or Solomon – for these were inferior to the original kingdom of God. Nor should we suppose that the kingdom of God is incompatible with a modern democracy.

The Bible is also unsparing in its account of the flaws of the three great kings of Israel. Despite their anointing they all suffered from the very sin that lay at the root of the foundation of that kingdom – mimetic desire or covetousness. David’s victory over Goliath made him the hero of the women of Israel, who accorded less glory to Saul – and Saul became murderously jealous. In other words he entered into rivalry with David for esteem – as did Absalom later, with equally tragic consequences. But David disgraced himself also by committing murder in order to possess Bathsheba – the wife of a subject. The fact that she was already married meant that David’s essential weakness also was associated with covetousness.

As for Solomon, he became renowned for his wisdom and, according to the text, ultimately preferred this renown to fidelity to the God who had given him this gift. ‘Renown’ is simply wider esteem. The need of the man of eminence to be esteemed by other humans had become his undoing also. And this same weakness was the root source of the brutality of the Herods in Jesus’ time.

The whole idea of sacred kingship essentially turned a mere human being into a mystical being – with the consequence that the individual so honoured usually became virtually obsessed with his own reputation or ‘glory’. Another consequence was the inevitable withdrawal of dignity from the people – those ‘subjects’ who could never expect to come close to this semi-sacred being. Here again the book of Samuel is highly specific:

“This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.” 1 Sam 8:11-18

This is a remarkable account of the consequences of earthly kingship – giving essentially the same reasons for the rejection of monarchy as the American subjects of George III were to use in 1776 – about three thousand years after the foundation of the kingdom of Israel. People eventually resent being treated as inferior by other people who are obviously as flawed as they are.

Here we find the essential difference between Jesus’ ‘kingdom of God’ and any state built originally in the world by force: it is built first of all within the person, by a spiritual process. Those who live in it are governed by their love of the king who placed it there, not by fear of the consequences of disobedience. Equality is part of its essence. As Thomas Merton observed, the Gospels lead us to a state of mind and heart in which ‘there are no strangers’.

We should remember this when trying to picture any future ‘kingdom of God’ – even one in which Christ visibly reigns. God does not desire our subjection. Indeed God will endure personal humiliation rather than reign through fear: why else would he have tolerated crucifixion in preference to the use of force?

It follows that we need to ponder on ‘the kingdom of God’ to understand the mysteries of our own time – especially the mystery of inequality. Why is it that almost three centuries after equality became the central goal of western political life our societies are still deeply flawed by snobbery and inequality?

Again the bible tells us clearly: we want to be ‘as Gods’ – that is, superior to one another. A perfect political illustration of this is the history of the British Labour party over the last century. Founded to achieve the socialist ideals of people like George Bernard Shaw it became ‘New Labour’ in the 1990s, bound to the ‘meritocratic’ ideals of Tony Blair.

A ‘meritocrat’ is someone very like the said Tony – a clever chap who has ‘risen to the top’ because he supposedly ‘merits’ it. It is clear that to rise to the top there must be a ‘top’ to begin with, so ‘meritocracy’ is based upon the acceptance of inequality. And so it is not essentially different from ‘aristocracy’, which means simply rule of the best.

Irish political life demonstrates the same paradox over the same period. In Ireland in 1922 a political elite emerged out of a violent revolution, promising to cherish all of the nation’s children equally. It now secures its own privileges by a taxation system that favours the wealthy. One of its most outstanding second generation products scandalised the country by aping the aristocratic lifestyle of a member of the 18th century Irish ascendancy, complete with country house and lavish entertainment – all financed by corruption.

If this could happen to the revolutionary parties that emerged out of the period 1916-22, there is absolutely no reason to believe it will not happen to parties emerging out of more recent violence. Today’s populist revolutionaries almost inevitably become tomorrow’s aristocratic elite.

The root of inequality lies in the very same ‘sin’ that founded the kingdom of Israel: covetousness, or mimetic desire – we choose our goals and objectives by imitation of those who seem superior. Which means in turn that deep down we are dissatisfied with ourselves, unsure of our own value. We are prisoners of ‘the world’, our own enveloping culture – nowadays represented by the media which tell us who the ‘superior’ people are, and what they own – so that we can know what we should desire.

And this is why ‘the kingdom of God’ is such a crucial concept – because in consciously seeking it we seek also a consciousness of our own value as Christians, followers of Christ. As a brother or sister of Christ we have a dignity that is greater than any honour ‘the world’ can confer – and a true equality also.

We acquire this title and this dignity through our baptism. The unfortunate tendency of our church leadership to confer other supposed honours upon themselves – honours accessible only through ordination – has undermined the dignity of Christian baptism. It has also deprived lay Catholics of the awareness that they are equally invited into the closest possible relationship with God through Jesus of Nazareth.

All Christians are now called to develop a ‘kingdom’ spirituality, and to explain to the secular world why inequality arises out of worldliness – the search for status.

If our Catholic leadership is to respond to that call it must begin by ending the radical inequality within the Church, and by honouring the dignity with which baptism endows every lay person.

That inequality represents not the will of God, but the corruption of our church by clericalism – the belief that ordination confers a higher status than baptism. It is also the root of all the problems that now beset us.

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The Lost Sin

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)

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Christianity and the Environment

Sean O’Conaill © Doctrine and Life 2003

The scientific and technological revolutions that have transformed the earth over the past three centuries began in western Europe and were spread quickly across the globe by European migration, colonisation, trade and imperialism.  They were accompanied by a secularisation of thought in reaction against a Christian clerical intellectual monopoly, and when the secular mind came to consider in the late twentieth century the origins of the environmental catastrophe then threatening, one available option was to scapegoat the Judeo-Christian tradition for the rapacious aspects of western expansion and power.

Had not Genesis exhorted humans to ‘increase, multiply and subdue the earth’ ?  Had not Christendom exterminated a European paganism more in harmony with nature?  Had not European capitalism been grounded in the Protestant work ethic?  Had not the industrial revolution been funded by the proceeds of Christian imperialist expansion, driven by a Christian missionary as well as a commercial zeal?  Wasn’t the global western empire that provided the global market essential for mass production born initially out of a Christian evangelical sense of global mission?

There is a little truth in some of this, but it would be far more true to say that the wellspring of western spirituality, the Jewish and Christian texts we know as the Bible, were both a forewarning of the crisis now upon us, and the only diagnostic tool the human family possesses that can take us to the root of the problem, and provide a solution.  For the fact is that we humans have always been rapacious and acquisitive, and this has always caused us problems.  It is not merely coincidental, but providential, that the West’s central repository of spiritual insight should so clearly identify the source of that rapacity, and the most likely means of escape from it.

First, the essential theme of Genesis, and of the Bible throughout, is the goodness of Creation.  This stands in opposition to much of the mythology of mankind which suggests that Creation is malevolent.  It is now believed that Genesis was Judaism’s response to the Babylonian myth, the Enuma Elish, whose primary God was worshipped for matricide.  Tiamat, mother of all the Gods, had plotted their destruction for the noise they made, only to be thwarted by Marduk, whose dismemberment of her created the cosmos.  This central theme of a malevolent origin to everything is what lies behind much human violence – including much of the subjugatory rhetoric of western expansion.

For the fact is that Christendom represented not the victory of Christianity in the west, but a fateful compromise between Christianity and violence.  It was the gift of Constantine and other military despots, not of Christ – and Constantine was far closer to Marduk than Yahweh, the Jewish God (as Constantine well illustrated by asphyxiating his wife in a steam-filled room).

Not only does Genesis repetitively insist upon the goodness of creation – it tells us also that the fate of the earth is bound up with the fate of humankind – and that human goodness alone can save it.  As the level of the global ocean rises with the melting of the icecaps we do indeed need, like Noah, to look to the problem of rescuing as much of the biological inheritance as we can, and of developing lifestyles that lean least heavily upon our biosphere.

So Genesis insists that Creation is interested in us, cherishes us and looks to us for the salvation of the earth.  And the rest of the Old Testament insists that Creation will make and remake covenants with us to that end.  The text that most powerfully expresses the creative power of God – the book of Job – suggests that this alone is sufficient to reconcile us with our own sufferings and humiliation, the pain of being.  So overwhelmed is Job by the fertility of the creative process that in the end he falls silent, taken out of himself.

So Creation is, first, good, and, second, patient – unwilling to leave us to our fate.  But, third, it reveals to us the source of our rapacity – our unwillingness to be less than Gods.

In the ancient world, long before capitalism developed the power to overwhelm the earth, military conquest was the quickest route to glory, the sign of Godhood.  Living as he thought upon a planar disc with boundaries – the ends of the earth – Alexander drove eastwards to find them, conquering as he went.  His military successes convinced him of his own divinity.

The positive legacy of the Alexandrian epic has concealed the negative: the identification of heroism with violence.  This has plagued western culture ever since.  Yet the Jewish texts clearly identify the spiritual fault that lies behind it: the desire to be ‘as Gods’, that is to have what Gods have – including power and adulation.  Named as covetousness in the Decalogue, this desire for the possessions of another is based upon the unarticulated perception that we can somehow acquire the being, or dignity, or worth, of another by possessing those things that appear to distinguish that other.  To emphasise that we are not simply talking about ‘greed’ it’s best to call this problem mimetic desire – desire based upon unconscious imitation.

That violence should be a more striking consequence of mimetic desire in the ancient world than environmental destruction is due to the simple fact that modern mass production was both impossible and inconceivable then.

But the Decalogue makes clear that covetousness has to do with envy of our neighbour, and that we can covet any of his possessions.  It is against this backdrop that we need to place the New Testament story of Jesus – the man who would not reign as king.  His very birth was beset with danger, as it threatened Herod with the loss of what gave him his self-esteem, his priority as King.  This repetition of the story of Saul demonstrates the fact that mimetically inspired violence was the key feature of ancient culture – a flaw so repetitive and predictable, yet so unobserved, that it might well have plagued this planet forever.

What broke the spell was the unprecedented resistance to mimetic desire of Jesus himself.  His humble birth did not set the scene for a subsequent rise to fame and glory – the basic plot of many another ancient tale.  It established a pattern of rejection of mimetic behaviour from first to last.  The refusal of the offers of promotion to the summit of either the religious or political pyramids of the ancient world – the temptations in the desert – was followed by a teaching mission that led ultimately to the accusation ‘we know you do not regard the rank of anyone – so tell us is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’  And those teachings refer far more often to the problem of spiritual presumption, which was linked then with social status, than to what later became the fixation of hierarchs: sexual sin.

If we emphasise the humanity of Jesus, we also emphasise the mystery:  from where did he acquire the psychological strength to undertake so suicidal a mission, ending in a lonely and shameful death?   And even more imponderable – from where did his followers, who had deserted him in the end, receive the strength later to advance his cause, at similar cost to themselves?  The answer to both questions is the same:  all were equally free of that need for other-esteem that underlies all mimetic desire.  It was this that ensured that the mission of the early church was directed to ‘the poor in spirit’ of the Roman Empire – those who thought least of themselves because the world too thought so little of them.

And this in turn is why covetousness became the ‘lost sin’ of the post-Constantinian Church.  The promotion of Bishops to wealth and social influence meant that for the next sixteen hundred years the role of successor to the apostles became itself a covetable title.

How then could those bishops generally convey a spirituality centred upon the equal worthiness of all, and God’s solicitude for the least regarded?  Instead, Augustine’s spirituality of dread of sexual weakness won primacy, and how convenient that was for men who need only practice sexual discretion and aristocratic aloofness to remain worthy of social respect.  The table fellowship of Jesus and the original apostles – the most important social sacrament of the early church – passed into history, while episcopacy became part of the patronage of the social elite.

This transition is vital if we are to understand why it was that the Christian churches, and especially the Catholic Church, came so late to the addressing of the problem of the environment.  For centuries churchmen supposed that Christ’s primary purpose was to rescue the human family from ‘concupiscence’, rather than to challenge the human pyramid of esteem that arises out of, and is sustained by, mimetic desire.    This fixation stayed with most of the Christian missionaries who followed on the heels of Columbus and the other merchant adventurers who made the global ocean a European lake in the period 1480-1660.  The baptism of slaves would somehow make up for their exploitation, and the exporting of European covetousness around the globe need not be radically challenged.  Especially since this would challenge the ‘order’ created globally by European power.

Inevitably the theology of the Middle Ages had distanced the God who for Jesus and the Apostles had dwelt within – which meant in turn that the spirituality that had grounded the egalitarianism of the early church was also almost lost.  Abba was scapegoated with the crucifixion by the Anselmian doctrine of atonement, and ‘salvation’ became merely an after-death experience.  To achieve it one merely must not die in sexual sin – while covetousness simply didn’t measure up as a moral problem, and its true meaning was virtually invisible.

This applied equally to the Protestant Reformation, with the result that England and Holland could pioneer the basic institutions of capitalism and plough energy into an industrial revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  The ability to mass produce goods held out the prospect of wealth for all.  The rise of secularism in this era also diverted the churches from the need to ponder the acquisitive drive and its origins – which came to be attributed to ‘materialism’ – an ideology – and therefore something to be combated intellectually rather than spiritually.  And of course, because of this misperception, the assault upon ‘materialism’ has been a total failure.

This remains the situation to this day.  Modern advertising discovered mimetic desire before the churches did – associating all consumer products with social success, with celebrity, or with an enviable ‘lifestyle’.  The cloned images of celebrities wearing or using or driving or consuming this or that regale us at every turn, while ecclesiastics housed mostly in palaces maunder on about materialism to nil effect.  Their problem is that were they to divine the real source of mimetic desire – lack of self-esteem – and to remember that Jesus resolved this problem by joining the people of low self-esteem – the poor in spirit – they would be obliged to do likewise.  (It is good to see the beginnings of a realisation of this among a minority of bishops.)

The basic foundation of the Judeo-Christian tradition is that the only secure sense of our own value comes from a spiritual relationship with God.  The history of the Jewish people seems to prove that they learned more about God from hardship, exile and privation than from worldly success – and this suggests that the environmental crisis may grow much deeper before many will begin to address its cause.

Yet the man who invited us to consider the lilies of the field, who assured us that we are loved whatever we own, must eventually be seen as the one who did more than anyone else in human history to question the basic irrationality of considering some people more ‘worth it’ than others, and of amassing wealth to prove it.  We cannot add a cubit to our height, and the sun and rain fall on rich and poor alike.  God’s love is unconditional, and it is from the experience of his love for us as individuals that liberation from mimetic desire will eventually flow.

This is crucial to tackling all of today’s major problems – including the environmental crisis.  Over-consumption is directly related to the dearth of self-respect that media consumption inevitably creates – as it prepares the viewer for the advertisements that intersperse the celebrity coverage, the advertisements that tempt us to believe that personal significance can be purchased.

It is above all the Christian Gospels that offer the best hope of mass discernment of the trap of mimetic desire – before the environmental catastrophe becomes unstoppable.  More clearly than any other texts they address the very fault upon which western ambition is based, and point to our salvation – the triune God who honours simplicity by dwelling within.

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Ireland’s Moral Ground Zero

Sean O’Conaill © The Irish Times Jan 2003

A new year has always been considered a good time for a new beginning.  Never did Ireland have a greater need of one, for there has never been a darker time.

True, in former centuries there have been periods of far greater violence and horror – but always then there was a residual trust in ourselves, a sense that our pain had to do with an alien presence which, once removed, would bring an endless idyll of peace and justice.

These times in Ireland we have totally lost that illusion.  Leadership in the major political party, and in the major church – in a free Ireland – has been fully revealed as fundamentally self-interested, insensitive and inept.  From the high point of national emancipation in 1922 Ireland descended to what must surely be its moral ground zero in 2002.

In May a general election was timed to allow the party in government to present a largely fictitious forecast of the economic climate that would prevail by the end of the year – bankrupting further the esteem in which politicians in Ireland are now held.

In October, Ireland’s only ecclesiastical prince declared on TV that he had failed to show basic Christian pastoral love for the victims of clerical child abuse in his own diocese because he had ‘so much to do’.   More recently it has become clear that we cannot trust him to remember that he told one victim that the rules he had agreed with great fanfare for the handling of child abuse cases in 1996 were mere guidelines, inferior to Canon Law.

Such behaviour corrodes the respect that is owed to the holders of high office – and diminishes the office itself.  We now know that the arrogance of power is not something to which we Irish are somehow genetically or spiritually immune.  We also know that the great gifts supposedly won in 1922 for the Irish people – of freedom and equal dignity for every citizen – are as much in danger from home grown careerists as they ever were from the agents of another state.

Irish politicians who ape the self-interest (and sometimes the cupidity) of the old ascendancy, and Irish churchmen who suppose that the Gospel can be properly exemplified by ‘princes’ in ‘palaces’, are teaching us these times a lesson we must learn quickly if we are not to suffer more of the same.   We are now witnessing the internal moral collapse of the ancien regimes that the rest of Europe went through in the decades before 1789 – a process delayed by our British problem.  Irish nationalism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that Irishmen themselves could never be as corrupt or arrogant as the old ascendancy.  Irish Catholicism’s fundamental naivity was in supposing that an empowered Irish clergy would forever disprove the Catholic adage that power itself tends to corrupt.

So, despite all evidence, we are actually far better off than we were a decade ago – because we are no longer naive.  We simply need to face the truth – that we Irish are as prone to the old creeping disease of aristocracy (‘Me First’) in state and church as every other society – and move on from there.

We are re-learning, in other words, that the price of freedom – and equality – is indeed eternal vigilance – even over ourselves.

And we would be most unwise to suppose that because churchmen too have erred, their basic texts must also be tainted.  In July last year  in the USA the Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan attempted a diagnosis of the disease that had undone some of the largest concerns in his own country, beginning with ENRON.  That disease was, he said, ‘infectious greed’ – the tendency for people in a time of economic expansion to grab whatever opportunities present themselves.  ‘Infectious greed’ is clearly none other than the biblical sin of covetousness – the desire to keep pace with our neighbour’s good fortune.

The ongoing technological revolutions provide an endless stream of covetable goods, so we are all tempted, and we fail.  Politicians covet place and position – and the money to achieve both – and they fail.

Ecclesiastics can covet something also – eminence within the clerical elite, so the title ‘Your Eminence’ is an eminently covetable one.  So, along with ‘prince’ and every other worldly title, it should be abandoned in the cause of that ceaseless reform that another Cardinal, Newman, advocated for his church.  So called ‘cafeteria Catholicism’ was patented by the first Catholic bishop to accept the worldly privilege of social elevation.  When Catholic churchmen have all learned to share the same level ground with everyone else – as at least one Irish bishop thankfully has – they will quickly find the time they need to care for those their church has wronged – and even in time recover the integrity and moral authority of their office.

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