Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’ ” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
René Girard was a French historian and philosopher who is most famous for his Mimetic Theory, which is based on the observable tendency of human beings to imitate the desires of others. Within this theory, which is named after the Greek word “mimesis”, meaning “to imitate”, human desire for an object is triggered by the signaling of someone else that they desire the same object. In other words, we borrow our desires from others. This mimetic desire is composed of three things: 1) a desirer; 2) an object of desire; and 3) a mediator or model who indicates a desire for the object, subsequently triggering within the desirer a desire for the same object.
Mimetic desire operates on a pre-rational level with studies showing that this reflexive desire is even observable in newborns. As a result, we are not even aware of the influence of the mediator upon our desires. Girard calls this blindness “romantic delusion”. For example, if you have a room full of children and toys (e.g., nursery), many of the children will inevitably gravitate to the same toys and begin fighting over those specific toys. Girard calls this escalation between the attempts to obtain a desired object, as well as the efforts to defend it, a “scandal”, and it usually escalates into conflict unless one side submits or dies, or an external entity intervenes.
For an example of this process, consider a simple situation where two neighbors live peacefully next to one another. One neighbor gets a chicken which lays eggs. One day, that neighbor shares an egg with the other neighbor, who cooks it and finds it to be incredibly delicious. He now desires more of the eggs so he walks next door and grabs some of the eggs. The chicken’s owner sees this and gets upset because he wants to keep the eggs his chicken produces. So, to prevent the neighbor from getting to the eggs he builds a fence, erects a cage for the chicken, gets some guard dogs, and installs cameras. In response to those efforts, the desire of the neighbor without the chicken intensifies because, in his eyes, the eggs are even more valuable now. As a result, he begins plotting ways to bypass the security and still get access to the eggs. Eventually, the arms race escalates to violence.
The mimetic conflict is acquisitive in nature and, in groups or communities, can be contagious, such as the arms race between nation states caused by attempts to erect defenses against rival states, which are seen as provocation by those rival states, which in turn erect greater defenses, eventually leading to conflict. A more pedestrian example of this is the Black Friday mob where frenzied shoppers grab anything that others may be interested in, whether they need it or not.
This is demonstrated in the Garden of Eden myth, where Adam and Eve have no interest in eating of the forbidden fruit – that is until the serpent comes along and convinces them that the fruit is, in fact, desirable. The serpent’s desire for the fruit creates the desire within Adam and Eve, opening their eyes to the fruit’s new status, so they partake of it.
Just as a crisis begins with mimetic contagion, so too must it end mimetically. The new contagion is started not by an acquisitive gesture, but by an accusatory one. Someone is blamed for the violence — the scapegoat. Questions of who or why matter less than that the accusation is imitated. As an accusation is spread by mimetic contagion across the social field, there is a natural tendency for it to converge on a single victim. The violence of “all against all” is replaced by the more economic violence of “all against one” (or, as Caiaphas is recorded in John 11:49-50 as saying, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”). The social vectors all become aligned, commonly focused on a single victim, who is eliminated.
Girard went on to postulate that the victim is later divinized and that sacrificial rituals are created as a means for the community to “let off the steam” of mimetically contagious violence. He suggests that this process was the means by which religion was born.
I could go on in describing Girard’s thoughts regarding mimetic desire, and encourage you to research the topic yourself, but I want to focus on the concept of Satan within this framework.
Because institutions and social norms are typically the intervening third party keeping widespread violence in check, they are the objectification of the mimetic influence and are largely the product of those mimetic dynamics. They are the result of these Powers so, as a result, human rulers and authorities serve the Powers, not the other way around, and frequently become the tools by which scapegoating occurs.
The central Power of mimetic dynamics is accusation, for it is through the scapegoating Power of accusation that we justify our need for an object. “What did they do to deserve that?” “I work hard and deserve to keep what I have.” “I don’t want them around because they’ll reduce my home’s value.” “They’ll steal our jobs.” “Why should they get all the benefits?”
The title of “the satan” means “the accuser”. Since so much of our society, and thus its institutions, operates according to mimetic dynamics, perhaps this is why Jesus, in John 12:31, refers to Satan as the “ruler of this world”. In his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard says the following:
The devil’s “quintessential being,” the source from which he draws his lies, is the violent contagion that has no substance to it. The devil does not have a stable foundation; he has no being at all. To clothe himself in the semblance of being, he must act as a parasite on God’s creatures. He is totally mimetic, which amounts to saying nonexistent as an individual self. The devil is also the father of lies; in certain manuscripts he is the father of “liars” because his deceitful violence has repercussions for generation after generation in human cultures. These cultures remain dependent on their founding murders and the rituals that reproduce them.
In Matthew 16:21-23, the author of Matthew has captured an interesting exchange between Peter and Jesus:
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Here Peter is rebuked and called “Satan” because he has focused on human things. He clings to his object (Jesus), intent on violence to protect that object (demonstrated by his use of violence in Gethsamene). Unwittingly, however, he has given himself over to rivalry and the human domination systems built upon that rivalry. By giving into mimetic desires, he has become the embodiment of Satan and is thus rebuked by Jesus.
Again, Girard says:
Peter becomes the object of this rebuke when he reacts negatively to the first prediction of the Passion. Disappointed by what he takes to be the excessive resignation of Jesus, the disciple tries to breathe into him his own desire, his own worldly ambition. Peter invites Jesus, in short, to take Peter himself as the model of his desire. If Jesus were to turn away from his Father to follow Peter, he and Peter both would quickly fall into mimetic rivalry, and the venture of the kingdom of God would melt away in insignificant quarrels.
Here Peter becomes the sower of scandals, the Satan who diverts human beings from God for the sake of rivalistic models. Satan sows the scandals and reaps the whirlwind of mimetic crises. It is his opportunity to show what he is capable of doing.
In a sermon for Lent given by Paul J. Nuechterlein, the danger of “human things” is clearly described:
Bear with me just another minute. This is going to seem confusing, but remember the stakes are very high: we need to understand how human thinking can be satanic thinking. The ancient tradition of Satan has several elements. One is that Satan is a trickster. And the greatest trick that Satan can play on us is to disguise himself as God. In terms of what we have said, thus far, we might say that Satan disguises himself like a chooser. God is a chooser; Satan disguises himself like a chooser. But who is Satan really? In the ancient folklore, Satan is the Accuser. He is the one who brings accusations against people. He is the Prosecuting Attorney, if you will, charged to bring a conviction against the bad people of the world. Satan disguises himself like God, the Chooser; but Satan also is the Accuser. How does he pull this off? How can he both be the Accuser and disguise himself like the God, the Chooser? By dividing the world between those chosen and those accused of evil-doing and therefore rejected. Satan unifies those who think themselves chosen against those accused. When Satan accuses and we convict, then the rest of us who aren’t accused feel chosen. We all feel good because the bad guys have been singled out and eliminated, leaving the rest of us good guys. Satan begins the game of setting us against each other, and we get caught up in it. God is choosing us good guys, we think, to do away with the bad guys. In other words, Satan tricks us into thinking that God has chosen us specially to be the good guys in this world by accusing the bad guys. Everyone goes home happy.
Everyone, except God, that is, because God’s choosing is unconditional, remember? God does not choose anyone by accusing someone else. That’s Satan’s trick, and it’s a good one, because we have bought into it, lock, stock, and barrel, haven’t we? Isn’t that the human thinking Jesus is trying to help Peter to see? Isn’t that why Jesus calls Peter Satan? Because Peter has bought into a view of the Messiah that has the Messiah come to stand in the place of the Accuser, one who will put the bad people in their place, and the good people in their place. But that is not the place Jesus has come to take. No, as matter of fact, Peter, with his human, satanic thinking has it completely backwards. No, Jesus, as he has just told his disciples, has come to take the place of the Accused. On the cross, Satan will have worked his trick as the Accuser to a new level, and Jesus — God’s chosen, Beloved Son — will be the condemned accused. And Jesus — right from the cross — will, instead of giving in and accusing others, Jesus will instead forgive them. Not accuse them but forgive them, for they know not what they do. Satan has them, has us, tricked. Thank God that God’s choosing is unconditional. God’s love for us is unconditional.
Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. Traditionally, Lent is a period of 40 days of fasting leading to the week of Easter, and is representative of the 40 days of fasting Jesus performed in the desert prior to beginning his public ministry.
The scripture at the beginning of this post represents Satan’s mimetic temptation of Jesus that took place in the desert during those 40 days. “If you are the Son of God…” He is accusing Jesus through insinuation, and baiting Jesus to enter into human systems of rivalry by taking control of the domination systems of his day. Jesus, by rejecting the human system of power, remains true to his vocation to be the image of God.
Jesus’ rejection of mimetic powers stands in contrast to our frequent willingness to submit ourselves to those powers. Rarely do we even notice we are doing so. It is only after reflection that we realize our participation in such activity. In doing so we bring Satan into this world; we embody him; and we become his image. In this way he becomes our father. Perhaps this is our original sin – our common nature that is an enemy of God. It is amplified when we engage in the herd mentality of social media, making scapegoats of those with whom we disagree. This can happen on all sides as our desire to be “right” escalates into outrage, until finally, we dehumanize our rivals and make them into scapegoats, which temporarily satiates our desire for someone to “pay”.
This mimetic contagion is what Jesus rejected. It was upon Jesus that all of the mimetic powers were concentrated; where the outrage of the crowd was focused; and where the full power of the domination systems of the day was displayed. Jesus brought all of those forces to one point: the cross. And he slayed them. He poured himself out in love as the scapegoat. He suffered the wrath of the mimetic powers on behalf of Israel without becoming an accuser himself. He demonstrated what it truly means to be Israel; to be God’s light to the world. In bearing the true image of God he revealed to us the nature of God.
Perhaps Jesus saved us by ushering in God’s new creation. Perhaps that is part of what is meant when we say Jesus died for our sins, for he showed us how to slay our human nature. He gave us the key to being part of that new creation – the kingdom of God. We are to love like he did, and in response, God will pour out the Holy Spirit upon us. Perhaps it is by the godly institution of love that we combat the mimetic Satan.
When accused three times by others (who were embodying the Accuser), Peter chose self-preservation. In contrast, when accused three times by Satan, Jesus chose to serve the Father. Those two vignettes stand at the two ends of Jesus’ public ministry as recorded in Matthew, but it is in John’s Gospel that we see Jesus’ response to Peter. Rather than accuse him of desertion, Jesus instead invites Peter to love as he did; to embrace the vocation of Israel. Again, he refuses to accuse.
Perhaps on this Ash Wednesday we can think for a moment about the temptation Jesus endured in his 40 day fast – the temptation to become an accuser and embrace human domination systems. And then we can consider how we might follow his example.
- What are some of the ways we are affected by mimetic desires?
- What do you think of Girard’s theory of Satan as a force who comes into being when we embody him through our actions?