I’ve been thinking about guns. Not the ones I wish I had instead of the stick-like things that emerge from my upper torso, but the ones that have been facilitating all the shootings that have been the subject of grisly news reports and impassioned Facebook pleas for gun control lately. Not just the shootings in recent months. Over half of the deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. in the last 50 years have happened in the past decade.
I have to make a confession: the killings reported in the news have not disturbed me enough. What I mean is that I don’t always feel shocked, the stories don’t necessarily stop me in my tracks or make me unable to go about my daily routine. These things happen, it’s horrible and tragic, but that’s just part of this sort of messed up but ultimately not-that-bad world. True, people are killed in Chicago all the time, some very close to where I live, but even that fact is crazily easy to ignore and distance myself from.
In order to address that distancing, let me temporarily go an even further distance via intellectual abstraction: René Girard is a French thinker who dabbles, but deeply so, in philosophy, literary criticism, anthropology, and Christian theology. Some say he will one day be recognized as one of the most influential thinkers of our time (don’t worry I’ve barely heard of him either). In any case, one of his big insights is that violence is not merely a disturbing yet increasingly rare and more or less tune-out-able background phenomenon. It’s absolutely central and touches every one of us. Understanding how it works is the key that unlocks the greatest mysteries of human life.
For Girard, violence in the human realm arises not out of our differences from each other, but out of our tendency toward excessive sameness. The cliché that if only we realized how alike we all are we would live in harmony is a bunch of b.s. Humans tend to copy each other; what our parents want, what the other kids on the playground want, we want. Girard calls it mimetic desire. Imitation is how we learn (modern neuroscience also seems to be showing this to be the case), but the rub is that it’s also what leads to conflict, competition, and even killing. If we start to want the same things, suddenly we become rivals.
All this rivalry leads to social tension and Girard thinks the way this tension is released and prevented from developing into full blown chaos, from the first groups of humans up to our own time, is through a scapegoat—a person (and later in ritual forms, an animal), or a group that is somehow set apart to take on the guilt and blame for everything going wrong. If all the rivals find a scapegoat to blame their strife on, they can find temporary peace and non-competitive unity. But the cycle inevitably starts up again because the basic orientation of mimetic desire and violent rivalry has not fundamentally been overcome.
Girard agrees with the famous 19th century atheist Friedrich Nietzsche that Christianity (and the strands of Jewish tradition it drew from and transformed) had something peculiar about it, something that set it apart from the strategies of other forms of life and culture. Where Nietzsche saw Christianity’s despicable weakness, Girard sees it’s paradoxical power: in proclaiming Jesus’s innocent scapegoat murder as the story with the greatest claim on our existential attention, Christianity exposes the scapegoat strategy as hopeless and incapable of giving us any true peace, whether in our individual or collective hearts. What it proposes instead is a photonegative of the way we’re programmed to see (whether by society or the basic nature of human desire or some mixture of the two): that we in fact are all guilty of trying to let ourselves off the hook by blaming and harming scapegoats, which are in fact innocent victims. We are all perpetrators of violence, whether physical, verbal, or psychological, through our desires to defeat our rivals and blame those below us when we’re not getting what we want. The only way to become free from this hostile and self-deluding tendency is to recognize the violence in our hearts we’ve hidden from our own view by placing outside ourselves, and to recognize our need for forgiveness. And to be able to accept that we are nonetheless acceptable.
How does all this relate to guns? Though part of me thinks The Onion recently said all there is to say about the problem of gun violence in America, I also think that Girard’s theory speaks to many facets of it that include but also go deeper than debates over any specific policy. Start with my tendency to distance myself from violence I hear or read about – I think that it’s a peculiar twist on the scapegoat mechanism that I assume many people share (otherwise we would have a much louder popular outcry). In my case, I think I’ve found a scapegoat in the form of the “world” itself – I blame the inevitable awfulness and incomprehensibility of some small corners of the world for the violence that occurs, and I thus am able to return to some safety and calm, some restoration of order, some reassurance that overall the world, including me, is more or less okay, or at least not bad enough to do anything drastic in that moment.
What’s the alternative? To really get struck by the weight of the horror that innocent victims are being sacrificed at the altar of a society that allows easily portable mass killing machines to circulate freely in our fragile fleshly midst to satisfy its desire for scapegoats. A widespread reason people want to be able to own guns (let’s leave hunting and recreational shooting aside for now) – is because they have a perception that there are “bad guys” lurking out there who are responsible for the general insecurity and danger they sense in society. It’s far easier to blame imagined bad guys (and let’s be honest, to imagine the thrill of killing someone who you had no choice but to kill because they were bad and attacking you or something).
What’s the alternative? To get hit by the innocence of the victims who are the murdered, bleeding scapegoats for unstable young men’s frustrations and pain, and for a culture that churns out models of success and happiness that are demeaning for both the winners and losers.
What’s the alternative? To not fall for the scapegoating of those who would only blame the NRA, as if a vigorous enough attack on those who advocate for gun rights would absolve us of the responsibility of doing the arduous work of mounting a powerful resistance to its lobby.
What’s the alternative? To stop the sly, so subtle it’s hard to sniff out scapegoating people like me engage in when we don’t slow down and take time to feel how we are intimately bound up with every innocent life lost, as ones who bear part of the blame, even through our inaction and distraction with the pursuit of desires that are not even our own.
What is the alternative? A powerful story that is truer in its unlikelihood than what usually passes for the “hard truths” of our violent world can become the focal point for a transformed way of being, in which we snap out of the autopilot mode of copycat desire and false blame into a much more vivid but also more perilous reality. Perilous because of the pain of seeing clearly our share in perpetuating a world of micro- and macro-violence, the tiny slights and lapses in our dealings with others, the ways we contribute to or fail to resist large mechanisms of oppression.
But more vivid because after this passage through peril we just might be carried into a realm of durable peace, liberated at last from the ever restless, quiet violence that forms the foundation of our fake “freedoms”—whether we’re partial to the sort that allows us to live in a way that conceals the brute reality of violence from the safety of our position in society, or the sort that defines it as the ability to conceal and carry a machine designed for no other purpose than to add another blasted, scraped-out body to the pile of history’s bloodied scapegoats.
post by Neil Ellingson, Co-pastor of Root and Branch Church in Chicago