An Introduction to Mimetic Theory

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MIMETIC THEORY (RENÉ GIRARD) – FIVE-PART VIDEO SERIES (11 VIDEOS)

The following five-part video series provides a preliminary understanding of human culture from the perspective of mimetic theory, which was first developed by René Girard (1923-2015).

I made the first parts to give an overview of some basic cultural facts. The later parts of the video series deal with mimetic theory’s explanation of those facts, ending with the role of the Judeo-Christian heritage in making that type of explanation possible. The last part of the series (PART V) clarifies how the Judeo-Christian traditions result in either a radical atheism or a radically new understanding of “God”.

CLICK HERE TO READ SOME INTRODUCTORY REMARKS FOR EACH VIDEO AND TO SEE AN OVERVIEW OF THEIR CONTENT (PDF)

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE MUSIC USED IN THE SERIES (PDF)

SCHEMA SACRALISERINGSPROCES + VOORBEELDEN (PDF)

NEDERLANDSTALIGE VERWERKINGSTAKEN BIJ DE VIDEOSERIE (PDF)

An older, three-part video series on mimetic theory is also available below.

PART I – THE SPELL OF THE SACRED

Nederlandstalige versie:

PART II – THE DANCE OF THE SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II-III

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER IV

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER V

Nederlandstalige versie:

PART III – THE MYTHICAL REFLECTION OF THE AMBIGUOUS SACRED (3 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER III-IV

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER V-VI

Nederlandstalige versie:

PART IV – THE ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL FACTS EXPLAINED (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I-II

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER III-IV

Nederlandstalige versie:

PART V – THE GOSPEL REVELATION OF THE MYTHICAL LIE (2 VIDEOS)

CHAPTER I

Nederlandstalige versie:

CHAPTER II

Nederlandstalige versie:

WATCH ALSO: GIRARD ON THE ORIGIN OF RELIGION (CLICK HERE)

CLICK HERE FOR FAQs (FROM RAVEN FOUNDATION)

KLIK HIER VOOR VERTALING VAN FAQs OVER MT

I compiled the following, older documentary film On the Origin of Cultures, in three parts, introducing some major topics of mimetic theory and René Girard’s thinking. Transcription of the videos (in English & Dutch) is available below, beneath PART III.

PART I of the film explores the fundamental role of mimesis (imitation) in human development on several levels (biological, psychological, sociological, cultural). René Girard’s originality lies in his  introduction of a connection between this old philosophical concept and human desire. He speaks of a certain mimetic desire and ascribes to it a vital role in our social interaction. It explains our often competitive and envious tendencies. More specifically, Girard considers mimetic desire as the source for a type of conflict that is foundational to the way human culture originates and develops. In his view the primal cultural institutions are religious. Following a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, Girard first considers religion as a means to organize our social fabric, and to manage violence within communities.

The more specific question the first part of this documentary tries to answer is the following: where do sacrifices, as rituals belonging to the first signs of human culture, originally come from? How can they be explained? Click to watch:

PART II starts off with a summary and then further insists on the fundamental role of the so-called scapegoat mechanism at the origin of religious and cultural phenomena.

PART III explores the world of mythology and human storytelling in the light of Girard’s theory on certain types of culture founding conflicts and scapegoat mechanisms. Girard comes to surprising conclusions regarding storytelling in Judeo-Christian Scripture. 

CLICK HERE FOR FULL VIDEO TRANSCRIPTION (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN VERTALING (PDF)

KLIK HIER VOOR EEN OVERZICHT (PDF)

CURSUSMATERIAAL AFGELEID VAN VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK-‘N-ROLL

COURSE MATERIAL BASED ON VROUWEN, JEZUS EN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL

“Ga, en zondig voortaan niet meer…”

Een oproep tot herbronning binnen de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk naar aanleiding van de recente stellingnamen van de Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer aangaande homoseksuele relaties.

Bezeten

In de evangeliën staat een eigenaardig verhaal over een bezeten man die zichzelf slaat met stenen (Marcus 5, 1-20). De manier waarop hij zichzelf behandelt, blijkt onder andere een imitatie te zijn van de manier waarop zijn stadsgenoten hem behandelen. Hij verblijft tussen de graven. Hij is duidelijk ‘dood’ voor zijn gemeenschap. Als je omgeving jou veroordeelt en waardeloos acht, vergroot de kans dat je jezelf ook niet langer respecteert.

De meerdere persoonlijkheden die de man in hun greep hebben, vormen de keerzijde van dat gebrek aan zelfliefde. Ze worden geboren uit een wanhopig streven naar waardering. Niets mag echter baten. Geen enkele identiteit lijkt bij anderen in de smaak te vallen. Het angstvallige verlangen naar sociale erkenning bereikt dus het tegenovergestelde van wat het beoogt: wie erdoor bevangen is, wint de wereld niet voor zich, maar geraakt juist meer en meer geïsoleerd (Marcus 8, 35-36).

Het evangelie verhaalt dat de bezeten man zich in die toestand van zelfverlies bevindt tot hij Jezus ontmoet. Jezus bevrijdt de man van een kuddementaliteit die bepaalt wat waarde heeft en wat niet. Hij biedt hem het vertrouwen om, in weerwil van die mentaliteit, zichzelf opnieuw te waarderen. De liefde die door Jezus wordt belichaamd, stelt de man in staat om zichzelf te beminnen.

Bevrijd

Jezus geeft ook de sleutel om die liefde in allerlei mogelijke situaties te ontketenen (Marcus 12, 30-31): “Bemin God en je naaste als jezelf.” Voor de Jood die Jezus is, houdt het eerste deel van dat dubbelgebod eigenlijk een radicaal verbod in. “God beminnen”, het eerste en belangrijkste van de tien geboden, betekent zoveel als “niets vergoddelijken” (Exodus 20, 4-5a)  of, in niet-religieuze taal: “niets verabsoluteren”.

De menselijke identiteit wordt op het eerste gezicht bepaald door een samenspel van biologische en culturele factoren, door nature en nurture. Jezus beweert echter dat we niet volledig afhangen van biologische impulsen en culturele normen. In zijn ogen zijn we ook “kind van God”. Daarmee bedoelt hij: kind van een liefde die niet gebonden is aan ‘natuurlijke’ of ‘culturele’ criteria.

Dat heeft waarlijk emancipatorische gevolgen. De bekende Nederlandse hersenonderzoeker Dick Swaab wijst bijvoorbeeld op een biologische aanleg voor pedofilie, maar dat betekent natuurlijk niet dat pedo-seksuele handelingen geoorloofd moeten zijn, zelfs niet als een of andere culturele context die toelaat. De ontmoeting met de ander is altijd ook een ontmoeting met een realiteit die anders is dan wat in het gezichtsveld van de eigen neiging of verbeelding verschijnt. In die zin roept de ander op tot een liefde die mensen bevrijdt van wat ze ‘moeten’ volgens lichamelijke impulsen en van wat ze ‘mogen’ volgens sociale normen.

De ander liefhebben is een werkelijkheid liefhebben die voorbij natuurlijke behoeftes, sociaal aangewakkerde verlangens of een cultureel gevormde verbeelding ligt. Paradoxaal genoeg brengt de overgave aan die liefde mensen tot zichzelf. Een pedofiele priester die ingaat tegen zijn neiging om kinderen seksueel te benaderen, is niet langer onderworpen aan een verwoestende affectieve dynamiek waarin hij ook zichzelf verliest. Hetzelfde geldt voor een alcoholverslaafde die zich uit liefde voor zijn naasten laat behandelen, ondanks bijvoorbeeld een gedoogcultuur aangaande alcoholgebruik in zijn werkomgeving. Overigens dient een samenleving de meest kwetsbaren tegen zichzelf te beschermen. Dat gaat van gedwongen opnames tot regelgeving in verband met seksualiteit. Immers, zelfs als een kind zogezegd instemt met seksuele handelingen door een volwassene, heeft die instemming meer dan waarschijnlijk te maken met manipulaties van de kant van de volwassene. In die lijn moet ook bijvoorbeeld regelgeving betreffende euthanasie bij minderjarigen van grote omzichtigheid getuigen.

Kortom, de liefde voor de ander als ander ondergraaft de verabsolutering van om het even welke lichamelijke neiging of cultureel en historisch bepaalde norm. Daardoor ontdekt ook degene die liefheeft zichzelf als toch nog “anders dan de optelsom van genetisch materiaal en opvoeding”. Wat de mens ten diepste bezielt, overstijgt dan ook wat zichtbaar en meetbaar is. De joods-christelijke traditie noemt die transcendentie “God”.

Realiteitsbesef

In de evangeliën schept Jezus voortdurend ruimte voor die bevrijdende transcendentie en het daarmee gepaard gaande grotere realiteitsbesef. Dat blijkt onder andere uit het welbekende verhaal over zijn ontmoeting met een overspelige vrouw (Johannes 8, 1-11). Op de vraag van een woedende menigte of die vrouw, naar aloude wetsgetrouwe gewoonte, moet gestenigd worden, antwoordt Jezus: “Wie zonder zonde is, mag de eerste steen werpen.” Dat is een geniaal antwoord. Jezus offert de bestaande orde immers niet zomaar op om, zoals veel machtswellustelingen voor en na hem, zijn eigen wetten te stellen. Integendeel, hij heroriënteert de bestaande regels naar een liefdesdynamiek die in plaats van slachtoffers ‘authentiek leven’ wil.

Wie na die woorden van Jezus nog een steen werpt, zou impliciet van zichzelf beweren perfect te zijn. Die persoon zou dus zichzelf vergoddelijken, en dat is een overtreding van het belangrijkste gebod in de joodse traditie. Jezus brengt de omstanders ertoe om “God te beminnen”, en dat wil zeggen dat ze zichzelf en hun culturele identiteit niet langer vergoddelijken.  Uiteindelijk is er niemand van de omstanders die de vrouw nog veroordeelt. Een realistischer kijk op eigen zwakheden en tekortkomingen, en de ermee gepaard gaande grotere zelfliefde, leidt blijkbaar tot het geven van ‘ademruimte’ aan anderen. Als je jezelf niet vergoddelijkt, kan je wel degelijk “je naaste beminnen als jezelf”.

Op het einde zegt Jezus tegen de vrouw: “Ik veroordeel u ook niet. Ga nu maar, en zondig voortaan niet meer.” De vraag is wat Jezus in deze context precies bedoelt met ‘zondigen’. In het verhaal over de bezeten man die zichzelf stenigt is dat overduidelijk. Omdat die man de negatieve blik van zijn omgeving op hem overneemt, is hij niet in staat om van zichzelf te houden. Daardoor kan hij ook voor anderen geen zegen zijn. De ‘zonde’ is in dit geval dus de verabsolutering van sociale normen en het gebrek aan zelfliefde en liefde voor anderen die er het gevolg van zijn. Jezus bevrijdt de man van dat kwaad en schenkt hem het vertrouwen om opnieuw van zichzelf te houden.

In het geval van de overspelige vrouw bevrijdt Jezus in de eerste plaats de omstanders van hun ‘zonde’, zijnde een verabsolutering van hun patriarchale culturele normen. Daardoor krijgt een vrouw die ooit is uitgehuwelijkt meer ruimte. Het is niet denkbeeldig dat haar eigen echtgenoot haar slecht behandelt en dat ze bij een geliefde voor wie ze wel zelf kiest respect vindt. ‘Leven in zonde’ zou dan betekenen: jezelf opnieuw onderwerpen aan de culturele normen die je echtgenoot gebruikt om macht over jou uit te oefenen. ‘Niet meer zondigen’ is dan: kiezen voor de geliefde van wie je respect krijgt, en vanuit dat herwonnen zelfrespect ‘vruchtbaar’ zijn voor anderen. De overspelige vrouw hoeft zichzelf niet langer te veroordelen, temeer daar Jezus ook haar omgeving heeft bekeerd tot de liefde die haar niet veroordeelt. Kortom, “ga nu maar, en zondig voortaan niet meer” betekent in dat opzicht: “Ga maar ten volle voor de situatie waarin je jezelf kan respecteren.”

Dood

In navolging van het optreden van die Jezus uit de evangeliën moet de Rooms-Katholieke Kerk erover waken om zichzelf niet te vergoddelijken. Zij mag haar eigen leer niet verabsoluteren. De Kerk en haar historisch gegroeide wetten zijn zelf niet God. Ook de Bijbel is zelf niet God. Kerk en Bijbel zijn op hun best wegen naar de bevrijdende liefde die zich in Jezus belichaamt. Vanwege die belichaming wordt hij ‘Christus’ genoemd en spreken zijn volgelingen over zichzelf als ‘christenen’ (en bijvoorbeeld niet als ‘bijbelsen’).

De recente verklaringen van de katholieke Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer aangaande homoseksuele relaties doen in het licht van Jezus’ optreden de vraag rijzen waar de ‘zonde’ zich precies situeert. “God liefhebben” doe je volgens het dubbelgebod ook “met heel je verstand”. Als de Congregatie zich beroept op de Bijbel, moet ze dat dus ook op een contextuele (historisch-kritische) manier doen. Die contextualisering behoort trouwens tot de traditie van de Kerk zelf. Als de Bijbel al homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt, dan is dat om dezelfde reden als waarom ze heteroseksuele relaties veroordeelt: het gaat om seksuele belevingen die de menselijke integriteit zouden aantasten. Verkrachtingen binnen (gearrangeerde) huwelijken zijn daarvan een voorbeeld. In dat geval zijn echtscheidingen aangewezen.

Een cultureel bepaalde morele opvatting die homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt als zondig (zoals recentelijk die van de Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer), is eveneens een broedplaats van discriminatie en geweld – ook van sommige mensen naar zichzelf toe. De ‘zonde’ situeert zich dus op het niveau van de opvatting die homoseksuele relaties veroordeelt. Die opvatting druist in tegen een liefdesdynamiek die mensen ten volle wil doen leven. Ze voeren naar ‘de dood’ (zie 1 Johannes 3, 14): “De mens zonder liefde is nog in het gebied van de dood” – zoals de man die zichzelf stenigt (zie hoger) “tussen de graven” verblijft. Kortom, in het licht van het evangelie is het een ‘zonde’ om homoseksuele relaties ‘zondig’ te noemen.

Leven

Een ethiek die mensen ertoe aanzet om zichzelf te ‘stenigen’ en hen verhindert om zichzelf te respecteren, moet te allen tijde onder kritiek geplaatst kunnen worden. Zeker als een gemeenschap trouw wil blijven aan haar roeping om de liefde van Christus gestalte te geven. In de Bijbel wordt niets God genoemd behalve die liefde (1 Johannes 4, 8). En die is zo radicaal dat ze de maatstaf vormt voor elke cultureel en historisch bepaalde norm om menselijke relaties vorm te geven. Ze zegt dat “regels er zijn voor de mens en niet omgekeerd” (Marcus 2, 27). Hoewel de liefde zich dus moet concretiseren via regels en normen, is ze zelf niet aan die regels gebonden. In die zin relativeert ze elke vergankelijke culturele ordening.

Vandaar dat, volgens Jezus, in de onvergankelijke leven-gevende dimensie van de liefde “mensen niet trouwen en ook niet worden uitgehuwelijkt” (Marcus 12, 25). In dezelfde lijn wijst Paulus op de betrekkelijkheid van de gebruiken waarmee de ene gemeenschap zich van een andere afgrenst. De liefde, belichaamd in Christus, maakt alle mensen tot één volk en doorbreekt culturele grenzen (Galaten 5, 6): “Want in Christus Jezus is niet de besnijdenis of de onbesnedenheid van belang, maar het geloof dat werkzaam is door de liefde.” Paulus ziet in Christus een liefde werkzaam die de hele schepping herijkt en die alle sociale begrenzingen, voortkomende uit aloude machtsspelletjes zowel binnen als tussen gemeenschappen, op losse schroeven zet (Kolossenzen 3, 10-11): “Bekleed u met de nieuwe mens, die wordt vernieuwd tot het ware inzicht, naar het beeld van zijn schepper. Dan is er geen sprake meer van Griek of Jood, besnedene of onbesnedene, barbaar, Skyth, slaaf, vrije mens. Maar alles in allen is Christus.”

Augustinus van Hippo (354-430), een van de belangrijkste kerkvaders, vat de kern van de houding waartoe de mens in navolging van Christus is geroepen. De mens die leeft vanuit Christus’ bevrijdende liefde heeft geen wetten nodig om te weten wat hij in de immer wisselende omstandigheden van een historisch gesitueerd bestaan moet doen of (niet) mag doen. Die ‘waarachtig levende’ mens geeft de juiste plaats aan ‘de wetten’. Hij interpreteert ze niet naar ‘de letter’ maar naar ‘de geest’ (2 Korintiërs 3, 5-6; Romeinen 2, 29), waarbij de liefde primeert en richting geeft. Augustinus schrijft dus allesbehalve toevallig (Ep.Io.tr. 7, 8): “Bemin en doe dan wat je wilt.” Als christenen dienen we ons telkens weer te laven aan die bron van liefde. Ja, dat geldt ook voor de katholieke Congregatie voor de Geloofsleer.

“Go, and sin no more…”

A call for renewal of the Catholic Church in response to the recent statements on homosexual relationships by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Possessed

There is a peculiar story in the Gospels about a possessed man who beats himself with stones (Mark 5:1-20). The way he treats himself turns out to be, among other things, an imitation of the way his fellow townsmen treat him. He lives in the tombs. It is clear that he is dead to his community. When your community condemns you and deems you worthless, it is very likely that you will no longer respect yourself either.

The flip side of the man’s lack of self-love consists of multiple personalities taking hold of him. They are born out of a desperate search for appreciation. However, nothing works. None of the identities seem to appeal to others. An anxious desire for social recognition thus achieves the opposite of what it sets out to do: those who are captivated by it do not “win the world,” but rather become more and more isolated (Mark 8:35-36).

The Gospel relates that the possessed man finds himself in this state of self-denial until he meets Jesus. Jesus frees the man from a herd mentality that determines what is (not) valuable. Jesus offers him the confidence, in defiance of that mentality, to value himself again. The love embodied by Jesus enables the man to love himself.

Liberated

Jesus also gives the key to unleashing that love in all kinds of situations (Mark 12:30-31): “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.” As a Jew, Jesus knows that the first part of that double commandment actually implies a radical prohibition. “Love God,” the first and most important of the ten commandments, means as much as “do not deify anything” (Exodus 20:4-5a) or, in non-religious language, “do not absolutize anything.”

At first glance, human identity is determined by an interplay between biological and cultural factors – in short, by nature and nurture. Jesus, however, asserts that we are not entirely dependent on biological impulses and cultural norms. In his view, we are also “children of God.” By this he means: children of a love that is not bound by transient natural or cultural criteria.

Understanding human identity in that way truly has emancipatory implications. For instance, the well-known Dutch brain researcher Dick Swaab points to a biological predisposition for pedophilia, but that does not mean that pedo-sexual acts should be permissible, even if some cultural contexts allow them. The encounter with the other always also is an encounter with a reality that is different from what appears from the perspective of one’s own inclination or cultural imagination. In that sense, the other calls for a love that frees people from what they “must” do according to bodily impulses and from what they “may” do according to social norms.

To love the other is to love a reality beyond natural needs or culturally determined desires. Paradoxically, people who surrender themselves to that love become free and thus find themselves. A pedophile priest who goes against his inclination to approach children sexually is no longer subject to destructive affective dynamics in which he also loses himself. The same applies to an alcoholic who allows himself to be treated out of care for his loved ones, despite, perhaps, a culture of tolerance regarding alcohol consumption in his work environment. Moreover, a society must protect the most vulnerable from harming themselves. That responsibility goes from compulsory admissions to regulations on sexuality. After all, even if a child allegedly consents to sexual acts by an adult, that consent is more than likely related to manipulations on the part of the adult. Legislation on euthanasia concerning minors should also be subject to great caution for similar reasons.

In short, love for the other as other undermines the absolutization of any bodily inclination or culturally and historically determined norm. The one who loves also discovers himself as “different from (or ‘other than’) the total sum of genetics and education.” What truly animates a human being transcends what is visible and measurable. The Judeo-Christian tradition calls this transcendence “God.”

Reality Check

In the Gospels, Jesus continually makes room for that liberating transcendence and the greater sense of reality that comes with it. This is evident, among other things, in the well-known story of his encounter with an adulterous woman (John 8:1-11). An enraged crowd asks Jesus if that woman should be stoned to death – as she should according to time-honored laws and customs. Jesus replies, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That is a brilliant reply. Jesus does not simply sacrifice the existing order to set his own laws, like many power-hungry people before and after him. On the contrary, he reorients the existing rules toward a dynamic of love that wants “authentic life” instead of victims.

Whoever throws a stone after those words of Jesus would implicitly claim of himself to be perfect. That person would thus deify himself, and that is a violation of the most important commandment in the Jewish tradition. Jesus reminds the bystanders “to love God,” which means “to stop deifying” themselves and their cultural identity.  In the end, none of the bystanders condemns the woman. A more realistic view of one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings, and the accompanying greater self-love, apparently lead to giving others breathing room. If you do not deify yourself, you can indeed “love your neighbor as yourself.”

At the end, Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The question is what exactly is meant by “sin” in this context. The story of the possessed man who stones himself leaves no doubt in that regard. Because that man imitates the negative view of those around him, he is unable to love himself. As a result, he is no blessing to others either. So the “sin” in this case is the absolutization of social norms and the lack of self-love and love for others that result from it. Jesus frees the man from that type of evil and gives him the confidence to love himself again.

In the case of the adulterous woman, Jesus first of all frees the bystanders from their sin. Their “sin” really is an absolutization of their patriarchal cultural norms. As Jesus liberates the bystanders from their old ways, a woman who has been given in marriage receives more freedom as well. It is very well possible that her own husband treats her badly, while the other man treats her with respect. “Living in sin” would then mean: re-submitting yourself to the cultural norms your spouse uses to exert power over you. “To sin no more,” by contrast, would mean: to seek the presence of the beloved one who does respect you, and to become a blessing for others as a consequence of a regained self-respect. The adulteress no longer has to condemn herself, especially since Jesus has also converted those around her to the love that does not condemn her. In short, “go now, and sin no more…” means, in this context, “Just go for the situation in which you can respect yourself.”

Death

If the Roman Catholic Church wants to imitate Jesus as he is known from the Gospels, it must be careful not to deify itself. It must not absolutize its own teaching. The Church and its historically developed laws are not themselves God. Nor is the Bible itself God. Church and Bible are, at their best, paths to the liberating love that is embodied by Jesus. Because of that embodiment, he is called the Christ. That is also why his followers speak of themselves as “Christians” (and not, for example, as “Biblians”).

The recent statements of the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding homosexual relationships as so-called “sinful,” again raise the question where exactly the “sin” is located. “Loving God” according to the double commandment is also done “with all your mind.” Therefore, when the Congregation appeals to the Bible, it must do so in a contextual way, if not historical-critical. Contextual readings of the Bible, by the way, belong to the tradition of the Church itself. As it turns out, the Bible condemns homosexual relationships for the same reason that it condemns heterosexual relationships: it always concerns sexual relationships that are said to threaten human integrity. Rape within (arranged) marriages is an example thereof. In that case, a divorce is appropriate, perhaps even more so if it goes against a patriarchal culture that sustains violent dynamics in marriages.

A culturally determined moral view that condemns homosexual relationships as sinful (such as the one recently expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) is also a breeding ground for discrimination and violence – even of self-directed violence. In this case, “sin” is thus situated at the level of the view that condemns homosexual relationships. That view goes against a dynamic of love that wants people to be fully alive. It leads to “death” – oppression of oneself and others. See 1 John 3:14: “Anyone who does not love remains in death,” like the possessed man who lives in the tombs (see higher). In short, it is a sin to call homosexual relationships sinful.

Life

An ethic that prompts people to “stone” themselves and prevents them from respecting themselves, must be severely criticized. Especially if a community wants to remain faithful to its calling to imitate the love embodied by Christ. In the Bible, nothing is called God except that love (1 John 4:8). It is so radical that it is the measure of every culturally and historically determined standard for shaping human relationships. It claims that “rules are made for man and not vice versa” (Mark 2:27). Thus, although love must concretize itself through rules and norms, it is not itself bound by those rules. In that sense, it considers relative every transitory cultural arrangement.

Hence, according to Jesus, in the imperishable life-giving dimension of love “people neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Mark 12:25). In the same vein, Paul points to the relativity of the customs by which one community demarcates itself from another. Love, embodied by Christ, makes all humans one people and breaks down cultural boundaries (Galatians 5:6), “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” In Christ, Paul sees a love at work that recalibrates the whole of creation and which challenges all social boundaries that arise from power games – both within and between communities (Colossians 3:10-11): “Put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.”

Merry Christmas!

I created the following Christmas meditation/wish video first for the Jesuit high school where I am teaching religion (Sint-Jozefscollege – SJC – Aalst, Belgium). The two versions below, one in English and one in Dutch, are slightly edited and personalized.

I hope these meditations might help you to reflect upon The Mystery of the Word Becoming Flesh:

Nederlandstalige versie:

The music is an instrumental version of the Christmas hymn Of the Father’s Heart/Love Begotten, a translation of Corde Natus Ex Parentis (by Marcus Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, 348-405), which was first set to music in the 11th Century (Divinum Mysterium, Sanctus trope).

For more information on the paintings used, click here (pdf).

Merry Christmas to all!

White Privilege on the Right and the Left – A Lesson from Malcolm X

White Privilege Forgotten by the Right

Another Brick in the Wall Lyric (Pink Floyd)

I’ve had students defend their rather negative attitude at school like this:

“High school is a time for rebellion. As a high school kid, you should disobey your teachers in order to discover yourself. Perhaps most of all, high school is a time for pranks and practical jokes.”

Anthropological considerations aside, from a socio-economic perspective this type of attitude towards high school is often a sign of privilege. Some parents even encourage their children to “experiment” at the very spot where their offspring should be preparing for the future. And by experimenting they don’t mean developing philosophical thought experiments or exploring a scientific hypothesis. They rather refer to a kind of mischief that is supposed to build a strong character and personality. When teachers complain about the conduct of their children, those types of parents either pretend to agree with the teachers or they try to excuse the misconduct by using phrases like “we’ve all been young” and “with youth comes youthful indiscretion…” Those parents know that what their children don’t learn at school, they will learn from high paid tutors who eventually get them into university.

James Baldwin Quote on Imitation

Apart from developing the weak spine of a spoilt brat, adolescents who grew up that way didn’t do anything else but imitate the kind of behavior that is advertised in pop culture time and again. We all develop an identity by mimetic (i.e. imitative) processes, of course, but it is quite ironic that the high school rascal thinks of himself as an original and daring character. This is the typical narcissism of the youngster who thinks of himself as a hero and doesn’t see that there is nothing heroic about “transgressing rules” at most of today’s permissive high schools. He is unable to love the reality of his situation, but is all the more in love with an unrealistic self-image of which he wants the confirmation by his peers. In the end, however, his eventual professional ambitions are often not “original” at all, as they turn out to be imitations of the ambitions of his parents and their social network.

Malcolm X on Education

When children come from a poor neighborhood and have to walk 10 miles a day to the nearest school, they don’t have the luxury to waste the precious time and money that their community invests in providing a good education. As it happens, some of those disadvantaged children end up at schools surrounded by rich kids who behave like so-called high school rebels. However, the poor child who starts imitating his “rebellious” classmates does not have the resources to compensate for the potential voids in his education as a consequence of his so-called rebellious behavior. There is not an army of high paid tutors waiting at home.

Moreover, in the process of growing up the disadvantaged kid will also start noticing that his mischief is separated from the same mischief committed by privileged youth of the same age group. Indeed some rich parents who do excuse the misconduct of their own children as “youthful indiscretion” will condemn the same behavior as “juvenile delinquency” when it is performed by so-called uneducated poor people, even more so when these are people of color. Racism runs deep. Add to this the fact that a lot of socio-economic problems today in communities of colored people are the consequence of a history dominated by white elites, and it becomes clear why a movement against discrimination calls itself Black Lives Matter to create “privilege for all” and not predominantly “white”.

James Baldwin Quote on the Paradox of Education

People on the political right should be more aware of the double standard behind blaming disadvantaged people for their own miserable situation. The fact of the matter is that opportunities are not equal for all. Some enjoy the privilege of getting away with so-called “youthful indiscretions”, for instance, while others are incarcerated for the very same youthful sins. Those types of privilege are often forgotten by the political right. Also, if we would truly live in a meritocratic society, and not just on paper, the likes of Donald Trump would never make it into the US presidential office (even if they were backed by powerful elites who were planning to use that type of president to push their own agenda).

Condoleezza Rice on Victimhood

In a worst case scenario, the downtrodden develop a deep-seated feeling of ressentiment. They develop an aversion to the ambitions they previously imitated from their privileged peers. They comfort themselves by getting a sense of self-worth in groups that claim to oppose everything privileged people stand for. As a privileged elite points to their mistakes and blames them for their miserable condition, while at the same time that privileged elite can afford making similar mistakes without having to pay for them, they are easily manipulated by recruiters who abuse their sense of victimhood. They fall for the basic story of every manipulator: “They reject you, but I see your potential…” Thus they become the slaves of false Messiahs who promise to deliver them from victimhood, but who actually keep the victimary status alive to gain power over their followers. Gangs thrive upon ressentiment, from ISIS to the Black Disciples to groups of Neo-Nazis.

It is important to realize that the violence originating from ressentiment cannot be disconnected from instances of systemic violence and oppression as described above. Ressentiment ultimately results from a comparison by people who feel disadvantaged, one way or the other, with people who are at least perceived as privileged. Although privileged people often cannot be held personally responsible for racism and other types of discrimination, there are historically grown structural injustices, which result in some people literally having more chances than others. So gang members are indeed personally responsible for pulling the trigger in acts of violence, but the way society is structured as a whole often hands them the weapons. As for the latter, we all bear some responsibility, if just for our voting habits.

To realize the depth of historically grown structural injustices, it is good to listen to the following speech of Kimberly Jones (be sure to watch the video below of Desiree Barnes against looters to get a complete picture of what this article is all about). Jones ends her powerful statement by saying “They are lucky that as black people what we are looking for is equality and not revenge…”:

White Privilege Forgotten by the Left

While the political right often remains blind to instances of deeply ingrained, historically grown systemic violence and social oppression, the political left often does not want to hear about individual freedom and responsibility. Since on many issues I tend to belong to a community of “white liberals” more than to a community of “white conservatives”, I will write in the first-person plural to develop a self-critical reflection. That is not to say I wouldn’t lean to the right as well sometimes. I guess I’m left in the middle.

Anyway, we liberal white folk, we think love for our neighbor should always include a recognition of our neighbor’s potential traumas. Especially in education we should be aware of the violence in its many guises children carry with them. We are all victims, one way or the other, be it of socio-economic circumstances, bullying, verbal and physical abuse, learning disabilities or mental disorders. Although the recognition of that reality is crucial to become a self-responsible person, it becomes a danger when it is used to simply excuse children for not taking part in the educational process as they should.

There is a significant difference in approaching children as being somewhat determined by their problems or as being free to learn despite their problems. In other words, there is a difference in approaching children as mere victims or as people with potential (think of the Pygmalion or Rosenthal effect in this regard). Not being demanding is not a sign of love and respect in education. You might become popular and powerful among young people in that way, but in the meantime you deny them the dignity to develop their talents. In fact, you become the double of those severe teachers who are only strict to gain a sense of power as well. It does happen, although perhaps more or less unconsciously, that the question to let a pupil pass during deliberations eventually has more to do with a powerplay between teachers than with the interest of pupils themselves. In any case, children from a privileged background will once again find ways to compensate for voids in their education as a consequence of an all too soft approach, while disadvantaged peers in the same educational situation remain the victims of oppressive circumstances. The political left often forgets that type of privilege. Again some people can afford being spoilt during the educational process, while others can’t.

Malcolm X Quote on White Liberal

We, white privileged liberals, should be aware of potentially similar dynamics in our assessment of systemic injustices experienced by people of color. Malcolm X (1925-1965) criticized a liberal approach that turns out to simply abuse the victimhood of colored people in a fight over power with white conservatives. He came to the conclusion that many white liberals, consciously or not, have an interest in maintaining that victimhood. Presenting themselves as liberators of a problem they will in fact never solve, those liberals time and again become false Messiahs who gain power and wealth by locking up their followers in an idea of victimhood. In 1963, Malcolm X formulated it this way:

“In this crooked game of power politics here in America, the Negro, namely the race problem, integration and civil rights issues are all nothing but tools, used by the whites who call themselves liberals against another group of whites who call themselves conservatives, either to get into power or to retain power. Among whites here in America, the political teams are no longer divided into Democrats and Republicans. The whites who are now struggling for control of the American political throne are divided into liberal and conservative camps. The white liberals from both parties cross party lines to work together toward the same goal, and white conservatives from both parties do likewise.

The white liberal differs from the white conservative only in one way; the liberal is more deceitful, more hypocritical, than the conservative. Both want power, but the white liberal is the one who has perfected the art of posing as the Negro’s friend and benefactor and by winning the friendship and support of the Negro, the white liberal is able to use the Negro as a pawn or a weapon in this political football game, that is constantly raging between the white liberals and the white conservatives. The American Negro is nothing but a political football.”

For more, listen to:

Against this quite cynical stance of Malcolm X I would argue that the majority of us, white liberals, is genuinely touched by the fate of disadvantaged people, especially oppressed people of color. We feel for them. We sympathize with their just cause to better their socio-economic situation. We are prepared to stand next to them in the fight against racism. Because of the prevalence of drug abuse, poverty and crime in some of their neighborhoods, we understand that it is often very difficult for young black people to fully participate in a good educational process. Hell, we know that some of our own children, growing up in the best of circumstances, wouldn’t take their chances at school if it wasn’t for the high paid tutors to pull them through. Let alone that they would be able to take their chances if they would grow up like some of their disadvantaged black counterparts.

Blaming those black youngsters for their own situation would thus be hypocritical. This is all the more so because the system we receive our privilege from is the same system that keeps them oppressed. Moreover, as privileged white folk we are always partly responsible for maintaining that system and its inherent oppressive violence. That’s why we quite easily refer to socio-economic circumstances when we are confronted with criminal conduct of black youth. We are convinced that at least some of that conduct may be excused, since it is to be partially understood as a consequence of our own violence. And so it happens that by taking up the cause of the disadvantaged fellow citizen, we clear our conscience. We take the moral high ground by judging everything and everyone we perceive as oppressive or racist, while maintaining the same privilege and wealth as them.

Reflexes of the Privileged – The White Conservative in the White Liberal

On the surface we, white liberals, might seem very different from white racists who openly look down on poor and oppressed people of color. However, we don’t really change our white privileged mindset if we merely approach those downtrodden as “helpless victims” who cannot achieve anything without “white” help. At the same time we rave about Steven Pinker’s claim that the world becomes less violent because we rarely ever have to deal with violence directly. We rave about Rutger Bregman’s observation that most people are good until we have to personally deal with those good people doing bad things. In that case we very conveniently refer to the latter as “psychos” – or we use some other convenient monstrous depiction.

James Baldwin Quote on Real Change

The same goes for our attitude towards people we perceive as having a “free spirit”. We rightfully celebrate someone like James Baldwin (1924-1987) as an icon of the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement. However, we despise the 25 year old gay colleague who falls in love with a 17 year old adolescent. Perhaps this means that we would have only gossiped about James Baldwin if he would have been that colleague, because that is exactly what happened to him at 25.

This ambiguous attitude depends on the (physical or mental) distance between ourselves and the others we compare ourselves with. French American thinker René Girard (1923-2015) points out that others can become our heroes in a process of external mediation. This means that others who are somewhat external to our day-to-day life can become models or heroes we admire, and that they mediate some of our ambitions and (secret) dreams.

When those same others become part of the internal circle of our life, however, the dynamic of comparison may turn them into rivals. In a process of internal mediation our models easily become obstacles in the pursuit of our ambitions. They are often perceived as threats to our own position or way of life. That’s why we can stand the free spirited James Baldwin who is far away, and not the same free spirited person who is close by. The latter is often too intimidating. Just his mere presence is already experienced as competing with everything we unwittingly hold dear.

And so we listen to Charlie Parker (1920-1955) and Billie Holiday (1915-1959) in our hipster coffee houses, yet walk around the struggling musician, addicted to heroin, on the way home from work. We pity the poor young man who seems unable to escape a life of crime, yet condemn a poor young man from mixed descent like Diego Maradona, who did become successful and maintained his parents’ family from age 15. We Billie Holiday Quote on Plantationcuddle the rascal as long as he remains on the streets, but when he rises to the level (or beyond) our privileged situation we tend to look down on him. We actually don’t understand that you can take the man out of the street, but never completely the street out of the man, although we do pay lip service to that sentence. Someone like Maradona is a hero of the poor and the oppressed, first and foremost.

The fact that we often feel sympathy for the poor and the oppressed but sometimes look down on their heroes, is a sign of our complacent, paternalistic and condescending supremacy. Maybe we do want to remain saviors, so the problem we want to save people from has to also remain. Disadvantaged communities don’t need this type of false Messiahs. Therefore, we privileged liberals should realize that we often are more concerned with taking down our conservative “enemy” than with actually focusing on the victims of systemic injustices in our institutions. We should truly reflect on the fact and its implications that our lives, spent in the privileged layers of society, have more in common with the lives of our privileged conservative neighbors than with the lives of the disadvantaged. As long as we use movements like Black Lives Matter in a polarized political powerplay that actually drowns the potential for a policy of social reform, we will remain the folk that Malcolm X characterized so sharply.

Taking Matters into Own Hands

On February 14, 2018, 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz shoots 17 people at his former high school in Parkland, Florida. He has already attempted suicide by then. His autism is one of the factors that makes him a target of heavy harassment throughout his youth. His story makes clear that it is not his autism per se that makes him violent to himself and to others, but the social rejection he experiences by bullies, time and again.

David Dorn

On June 2, 2020, a young man shoots David Dorn in front of a pawnshop in St. Louis. David Dorn is a 77-year-old African-American retired police captain. During the social unrest after the police murder of George Floyd, he tries to protect a friend’s pawnshop from looters. It becomes fatal to him. 24-year-old Stephan Cannon is arrested a week later on suspicion of murder.

What Nikolas Cruz and Stephan Cannon have in common is the experience of social rejection. Something like that has similar effects on the brain as physical violence. The former experiences systematic rejection because of his autism, the latter experiences systemic rejection because of his skin color. Both forms of rejection are to be condemned. Unfortunately, neither Cruz nor Cannon seem to experience this condemnation. As a result, they ultimately share another violent reality: they make innocent others, i.e. scapegoats pay for the frustrations they both experience in the course of their lives.

It might be tempting to further isolate perpetrators such as Cruz and Cannon and to explain their violent actions on the basis of a hyper-individual problem from which they would suffer. However, this is all too easy and actually indicates a cowardly attitude. The way communities are made up does play a role in the way individuals behave. In other words, each community has a share and a responsibility in the violence perpetrated by some individuals. Again, a social environment might not pull the trigger, but it often does hand the weapons (see above). This is not to say that perpetrators of violence themselves bear no overwhelming responsibility. Cruz and Cannon do have a freedom of choice. In the end, they pull the trigger – or not.

It is important that Black Lives Matter acknowledges that someone like Stephan Cannon is also one of those blacks who feel rejected in a society dominated by white privilege. Stephan Cannon’s violence, as a revenge against the violence of social discrimination, is an actual imitation and continuation of white supremacy violence. It is precisely for this reason that Black Lives Matter, in addition to making an analysis of the causes of revenge against innocent third parties, must also clearly condemn this form of violence. If it doesn’t, it puts that condemnation in the hands of its opponents. The latter can then continue to live with the illusion that they have nothing to do with the frustrations of a young criminal. In that case, a society dominated by white privilege remains blind to its own violence. The condemnation of violence is therefore not a side issue in the struggles of movements such as Black Lives Matter. It belongs to their essence, at least if they don’t want to become part of the violent hatred they thought they were opposing.

So it is important that protesters against injustices listen to people like Desiree Barnes (a former Obama aide, by the way):

Alphonso Jackson Quote on Victimization and Blame

Malcolm X did not advocate violence as a necessary means to solve the problem of racial injustices. Following Malcolm X, oppressed people of color are not helped by an approach that turns perpetrators of violence from their communities into mere victims of other violence. It only turns those communities as a whole into the poor victims privileged liberals paternalistically love to use in their rivalry over power against privileged conservatives. Again, if movements like Black Lives Matter do not condemn violence against innocent bystanders, those conservatives will easily put the blame for violence on the side of protesters and remain blind to the reality of systemic violent oppression.

In short, following Malcolm X and other African-American voices on the matter at hand, black people in America should not look at themselves through the eyes of some of the white conservatives or white liberals, who often treat them as criminals or victims respectively. They should look at themselves as people with the potential to create a more just society, who can take matters into their own hands, and who can become agents of change.

James Baldwin Quote on Higher Dreams

 

James Baldwin Quote on Love for America

Malcolm X Quote on Human Beings

 

Malcolm X Quote on White Liberal