Killing Idols – Commemorating René Girard’s Spirituality

“In the end, she’s just a mere mortal, just like all the rest of us, just like me…” It’s something we hear quite often, explicitly or implicitly, when people talk about “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” of this world. Why is it that we often like to read what tabloid newspapers write about these people? Why is it that we often like to gossip about our local or global heroes or celebrities? What kind of desire is satisfied that we enjoy this kind of thing?

Well, for one thing, we’re living in a world of internal mediation (René Girard). Modern democracy got rid of a social hierarchy – in principle that is – and now everyone can take everyone else as a model or mediator for personal ambitions. Premodern societies would not allow “the lower ranks” to compare themselves to the higher-ups, thus trying to keep an internal order and stability. Today, however, everyone can rival the position of everyone else, based on the premise of equal rights and chances for all. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) sharply characterizes this situation and its potential destructive consequences in his work Leviathan, at the dawn of modernity:

“From this equality of ability ariseth equality of hope in the attaining of our ends. And therefore, if any two men desire the same thing which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and, in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation and sometimes their delectation only, endeavour to destroy or subdue one another.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XIII).

“Competition of riches, honour, command, or other power, inclineth to contention, enmity, and war; because the way of one competitor, to the attaining of his desire, is to kill, subdue, supplant, or repel the other. Particularly, competition of praise inclineth to a reverence of antiquity. For men contend with the living, not with the dead, to these ascribing more than due, that they may obscure the glory of the other.” – Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (XI).

StarsWe constantly receive the message that “everything is possible with hard work and perseverance”. On the other hand we also experience that some people seem “ahead of others”. These so-called “winners” are often admired, but in other circumstances they’re envied (also by some of their admirers!) as they seem to frustrate the ambitions they awaken in other people. One way to deal with the frustrations arising out of the comparison with “the people ahead of others” is to downplay their status or success by convincing ourselves that “they are just like us” – mere mortals, with flaws, everyday struggles and problems. Or by convincing ourselves that “they are even less like us, we’re superior to them” – in moral terms, for instance, by portraying them as “decadent” or “corrupt”. One could say that the sociological function of the tabloid newspaper or of gossip in general is precisely that. It helps us deal with the fact that we are not part of the world of “the rich, the famous and/or the geniuses” by comforting ourselves with the thought that those people are, at least, “just like us”.

they're not like usBy downplaying the status of “stars” we try to elevate our own position, we try to reach the status we desire. We try to surpass the status we initially (sometimes subconsciously) admired and idolized, then came to envy and eventually resented. In yet other words, the position of others we sometimes initially idolized is replaced by a feeling of superiority of ourselves. Instead of idolizing the image of others, we idolize a certain self-image. That’s why we quite easily distance ourselves from those others who are perceived as “marginal people” – be it criminals, poor people, crazy people, certain sick people, refugees, drug addicts, or “sinners”. Contrary to our often initial reaction to “the stars” in the tabloids, our first response to a confrontation with “the marginal people” is often the feeling that “they are not like us”.

In both instances our sense of identity and self-idolatry arise from our spontaneous tendency to compare ourselves to others (made possible by our mimetic – i.e. imitative – abilities). One of the main reasons why people are scandalized by Jesus of Nazareth is that he constantly challenges these narcissistic self-concepts. See, for instance, Luke 18:9-14:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In short, the narcissist – like the Pharisee in the parable of Jesus – distances himself from “the bad guys” (they’re not like me) while he downplays the geniuses around him (they’re like me), in order to idolize his self-image. Our ideologies and all sorts of so-called “spirituality” or “meditation” are often at the service of the untruthful, non-realistic ideas of ourselves. They make us “feel good” and “happy”, like some antidepressant pills we take, and they alienate us from ourselves and others. The ideology of a terrorist group like ISIS is but one extreme example of a false spirituality. “Snobbery” and the “bourgeois mentality” another. On the other hand, every true spirituality has to do with some kind of permanent crisis of the narcissistic self-concept or “Ego”. It shatters our self-righteousness and complacency, and makes us realize that we are never perfect, never complete, never finished.

While all of this might seem devastating at first, it is also liberating, especially when experienced in the realm of forgiveness. Once you realize that you are not that unique, that you are more like “the sinners” (the majority of mankind) than you would acknowledge previously, and that you are less like “the righteous” than you thought you were, you become less ashamed of yourself. If there is shame in this realization, then it is the shame of the hurt you brought to others while you were practicing the idolatry of a certain (self-)image. “To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” thus might be the beginning of a restoration of the love in and between ourselves and others.

René Girard explains how this realization in forgiveness  (that people are more like “sinners” than they would acknowledge) is at the core of the conversion experience of Peter, Paul and the other disciples of Jesus. What enables Peter, Paul and others to become “saints” thus precisely and paradoxically is their realization that they are not “saints” (i.e. that they are far from ever being “perfect”). This truly spiritual experience, which enables people to face reality, is also the experience that guided René Girard himself throughout his life. René Girard gets to the essence of what a conversion to Christ should be all about in his explanation of the denial of Peter (click to watch):

An anecdote of C.S. Lewis (who converted from atheism to Christianity, as is well-known) also illustrates quite nicely how the acknowledgement that we are more like the so-called “bad people who bring misery upon themselves” restores neighborly love – thus is the inspiration of Christ:

C S LewisOne day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, “What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don’t you know he’s just going to squander all that on ale (beer)?” Lewis paused and replied, “That’s all I was going to do with it.”

“To kill the idol of self-complacent narcissism” also opens up the possibility of further personal growth (contrary to the situation of the self-complacent person who thinks he “has arrived”) and a more truthful connection to reality as a whole. Indeed, our mimetic ability might stir some frustrations as we compare ourselves to others and find that we cannot achieve what they achieved, but it also allows us to discover the other as “other” than ourselves. Instead of reducing the other to a mere idol or puppet at the service of non-realistic ideas of ourselves (be it ideas of unworthiness or superiority, or both), we then also might discover the other as a source of inspiration. Once we find ourselves loved for who we are, we can enjoy the talents of others without feeling threatened, or without the tendency to downplay the unique gift they bring to the table. Instead of bowing to the false (because untruthful) transcendence of narcissistic self-concepts, we can then be inspired by the other who is not like us – and in that sense truly transcends us. The paradox is that this kind of relationship allows the other and ourselves to be uniquely “our own”. To put it simply: I don’t have to be the next Lionel Messi in soccer to be inspired by the dedication he brings to his craft. I can imitate his kind of dedication in my own “field” without becoming him, or rivaling him. On the contrary, loyal to my own unique “vocation” I can take his genius as a model, becoming more “who I am” than before. In short, next to all the variants of idolatry and detestation in our relationship to others, there is the attitude of inspiration and being inspired. The first find their source in love for one’s self-image, the second in love for oneself and others.

So yes, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Blaise Pascal, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, Francis of Assisi, Jesus of Nazareth and the Buddha are geniuses. They are “not like us”, they are “not like me”. And yes, they are “mortals” one way or the other, but they also gave something to the world from a realm “that lasts”. To be inspired by them is to be inspired to a life of an often demanding and difficult, but also enduring and eventually fulfilling love. A love that allows us “to find our own voice and genius” and enables us “to add something that lasts, even if it’s not directly visible or measurable”.

René Girard (December 25, 1923 – November 4, 2015), his person and his work, testified to Love in unique and humble ways. He will be among the sources of inspiration, together with “all God’s children” – the meek and lowly in heart.

between zero and hero: mere men

“As you get older you will learn that loyalty is a virtue too important to be lavished on individual personalities.”

(From That Hideous Strength, by C.S. Lewis).

When I was a child, back in the eighties, my friends and I used to play this hero or superman game. We would identify with some action figure we considered super-dooper and, well, “fight” each other. Or at least we would mimic a fight from an action movie we secretly watched behind our parents back. Most of us were allowed to watch some violence in cartoons, but weren’t allowed to see the real deal – or so we thought… So Rambo and Rocky were out of the question. This prohibition only added to the mystique of these films and ignited our desire to watch them at all costs. It also made the movie characters larger than life, still, if that was even possible.

I remember that we weren’t quite fully aware of the fictitious nature of most heroes. So Sylvester Stallone was different from Rambo and Rocky, as Arnold Schwarzenegger differed from, say, Conan the BarbarianMr. T and B.A. Baracus likewise might have had the same look, but were not to be mistaken for each other. Besides, for some strange reason still unknown to us, we could watch the A-Team. Other cardboard characters in our “realm of the gods” were real cartoon (hmm, “real cartoon”) characters like He-Man or G.I. Joe. And Bruce Lee was the ultimate legend, of course.

It was a simpler world then, for me and my friends. There were good guys and bad guys. Heroes and villains. The Cold War hadn’t quite finished, and as children from Europe’s West we would team up with the valiant knights of the USA against the evil empire of the USSR. For instance, together with Rocky we would fight the Russian monstrous man-machine Drago in Rocky IV. Or we would cheer Rambo to outsmart the Soviets with aid of the Taliban in Rambo III (imagine that – how policies change according to newly found “common enemies”!). We had yet to learn that “the Russians love their children too”, although Sting already sang this as far back as 1985.

Growing up, I learned that the battle between good and evil is not really a battle of “us” (the good guys) versus “them” (the bad guys), but should actually be located in the individual.The battle of the handsome He-Man versus the atrocious Skeletor became understandable as a metaphor for an inner struggle in every man’s heart or soul. After all, “we all have our demons to fight”, don’t we? Freudian psycho-analysis would call this battle the source of an ever fragile equilibrium the Ich has to maintain between Es and Über-Ich.

All of a sudden, the world wasn’t that simple anymore. We couldn’t just locate evil outside of ourselves anymore and banish it, like some scapegoat in the desert. Moreover, the heroes we identified with as children turned out to posses some bad character traits as well. It all boils down to your point of view. I once read a testimony from a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust wherein she states that the most scandalous experience she had back then, was the realization that her tormentor was a human being, just like herself – after seeing him in a gentle mood with his family. Or, to put things slightly different, Superman only appears beneficial among his own kin. From the perspective of his opponents and victims, he is the devil. So to follow some kind of Superman in all circumstances – even if it’s the Superman you imagine yourself to be – is a shady affair. You could become a monster in trying to turn yourself into a hero…

“Yesterday he was a god; today he is a devil; tomorrow he’ll be a man again; that’s all.”

(From The Three Clerks, by Anthony Trollope).

The challenge that arises from this identity crisis is to accept that you yourself and the people you look up to are not the noble heroes you imagined, nor is your opponent or enemy the monster you always thought. Mercy and forgiveness can only come from this kind of acceptance, from the realization that it is okay to be “mere men”. For the longest time humanity has convinced itself that people should strife for perfection no matter what, that people should resemble some godly ideal.

The ancient Greek philosophers basically defended the idea that it’s nature’s law that “man becomes god.” Christianity tells the shocking story that “God becomes man.” Meaning that it’s not even necessary to participate in a battle between “angels and demons” to sustain some sense of identity. Beyond psycho-analytical identity constructions, you are loved just the same. The paradoxical miracle of accepting yourself as “not being a hero”, is that you can truly become a saving grace for others. For it is when we keep on believing the illusion that we can somehow heroically protect ourselves and our own from all harm and that “evil does not happen but far from our quarters”, that we remain blind for the evil that happens on our very doorstep.

When pedophilia scandals came to light in the Catholic Church of Belgium as well, following reports from child abuse by churchmen from around the world and with the infamous case of Bishop Roger Vangheluwe serving as a trigger, one of my colleagues was scandalized because I claimed that we all bear some sort of responsibility in these cases. Let’s face it, when push comes to shove, we often do have the tendency to look the other way and to let others – you know, “professionals” – deal with “sensitive cases”. But even psychiatrists and health care workers, it seems, aren’t to be trusted. The Netherlands were recently shocked by Rieke Samson’s report on child abuse in youth care. And in Belgium there was psychiatrist Walter Vandereycken’s case. He allegedly abused some of his adult female patients.

It’s very easy to express disgust for criminals and wrongdoers, and to feel some relief for “not being part of the corrupt group” that let them have their way. But I think, considering the spread of child abuse cases, that the Gospel is right for revealing the painful truth that we are all, more often than not, like the apostle Peter whose loyalty is refuted by Jesus (Matthew 26:34): “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Indeed, when Jesus becomes a victim of the authorities, Peter looks the other way in order to keep himself from getting contaminated with the troubles of his friend.

So it comes as no surprise then that it was easier for the BBC to run a documentary about child abuse in the Catholic Church (The Shame of the Catholic Church), than to give green light for a documentary about the systematic child abuse of one of its celebrity TV-personalities, the late Jimmy Savile. It’s all too human, sadly. But evil is and can be everywhere, also in our own quarters. We might be tempted again to exorcize that evil and restore our sense of identity by “sending a scapegoat into the desert” or by executing large scale witch hunts, but that won’t heal the damage done. It will only increase people’s solicitude to be “on the right side of the line” between good and evil. It will create further mistrust between people and complicate relationships, especially between educators and children. Educators might start to promote a culture of distance between themselves and children, which will again allow malicious minds to gain an aura of inaccessibility and power – and the problem of child abuse might continue by the very measures that tried to avoid it.

As long as we are more preoccupied to safeguard our own “goodness” by blaming each other for all the “badness”, we won’t be able to help any one victim.

To give up on an easy manicheistic duality between good and evil is very difficult. Make no mistake, many of the people who were on Lance Armstrong’s side when he provided the Tour de France with himself as a new legend in cycling publicly loathe him now. He’s gained money for lots of people, and we just love heroic athletes. But ever since he was revealed as a cheat, we’re on the search for new, “real” heroes. And the vicious circle goes on, for no mere man is capable of being that legendary. Maybe he’ll be remembered more positively when he passes away as a tragic old man and long forgotten sports hero. It’s what happened to Michael Jackson and so many other celebrities. Before he died, the general public didn’t care about Jackson’s music anymore, focusing instead on allegations of child abuse and other scandals Jackson was involved in. Dead, he again became the attractive idol he once was. René Girard’s mimetic theory explains parts of our awe for (and idolization of) the dead from deeply embedded and culturally transmitted experiences surrounding victims of mob violence, whose death formerly brought peace and unity to communities.

Mimetic mechanisms time and again trick us into participating in the creation of “heroes” and “monsters” (who are often our former heroes). We constitute the crowd that applauds the emperor’s new clothes, until a child tells us that he really has no clothes. And then Lance walks on, proud as we have taught him to be, and we, doing everything not to lose face, convince ourselves that we somehow knew or didn’t know (depending on our position) of his deception all along…

One can only pray that people like football coach Jerry Sandusky, who abused several boys, are also taken care of by relatives. Else fallen heroes mainly serve as markers to identify and to judge what and who is “good” and what and who is “bad”. To forget that our “heroes” or “zeros” are mostly “mere men”, is to forget our own humanity. It means that we will imitate the crowd that claims to be “righteous”. It means that we will identify with the hero we imagine ourselves to be to destroy “the bad guys” outside ourselves. It means that we will unwittingly become monsters ourselves, equal to the monster we were trying to destroy – its double. Shouldn’t we be preoccupied with Sandusky’s victims instead of Sandusky himself? To listen to the voice of the Victim in our midst, instead of the thousands of godly heroes in our head that put “us” against “them”, well… that’ll be the day…

For insofar as there is jealousy, strife, and factions among you, aren’t you fleshly, and don’t you walk in the ways of men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” aren’t you fleshly? […] Therefore let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come. All are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

(1 Corinthians 3:3-4 & 3:21-23).

Big Brother is watching you

BIG SCANDAL!

My usually sedate hometown was startled last week by the discovery of a ‘celebrity sex tape’: our female mayor allegedly had been secretly videotaped by some Polish tourists during a vacation in Spain four years ago. She was caught having sex with her then boyfriend, in a public area, more specifically on a tower. The passersby filmed from a distance, zooming in on the two lovebirds. Although there is no nudity involved, every adult can suspect the couple is doing something more than merely enjoying the view from a high building. All the ingredients were there for a typical tabloid character assassination.

The tape already circulated on the internet, but only last week some people from our small city stumbled upon it. What was to be expected, happened: immediately our mayor became the laughing stock of specially created Facebook groups, she got a new, not really flattering nickname, and a carnival song was made about the event. Of course some people, including politicians and some media, demanded her resignation. I was (and actually still am) in doubt about the whole situation. I’ve been asking myself whether the reactions towards our mayor are in proportion to her misbehavior. The bottom line is that she could be charged with public indecency. However, this doesn’t happen. I guess Spain has got more important things to spend its tax money on. Hence people somewhat take the law into their own hands. They take matters ‘to the streets’, the virtual ones of the internet, and the real ones of their hometown – whose carnival festivities are UNESCO World Heritage, and are known for their mockery of all kinds of people, especially of local politicians.

As I tried to make clear in a previous post, carnival festivities have all the features of old rituals which are eventually rooted in scapegoat phenomena. I have some reasons to believe that what happens to our mayor is exactly that: a scapegoat phenomenon. People who use their time and energy to publicly make fun of her, blame their own actions entirely on the way their victim, our mayor, behaved. In other words, they make our mayor a scapegoat, unwittingly transforming themselves into persecutors. They say She had it coming, she asked for it”, while technically, in purely juridical terms, that’s not exactly the case. There is no proof whatsoever that she asked to be videotaped and to be put ‘online’. The passersby are still responsible for their own actions. They were not obliged to film her, as we are not obliged to mock her.

I must admit I find the situation somewhat hilarious myself, but I think we shouldn’t exploit it to the point of ‘public shame’. I can imagine myself, or someone else for that matter, telling some anecdote about an embarrassing moment in my life (at the doctor’s office, anyone?), as I can imagine our mayor joking about something awkward that happened in her life. It all makes a good laugh. But to use the kind of mistake our mayor made to demand someone’s resignation, seems out of proportion to me. Even more so because she is only partly responsible for what happened. She didn’t steal anything, nor committed adultery, nor killed anyone. She was caught in an act many lovers could have been caught in.

There was a time (indeed, “was”) when lovebirds drove to an abandoned public area to make love to each other. It’s one of the more recognizable moments in American Graffiti, a movie by George Lucas. When a couple makes love in a car, near a river, two people pass by, but they leave the couple to itself.

This scene is contrasted by yet another early movie of George Lucas, THX 1138, which seems to be a perfect reflection of our current situation. Like 1984, the famous novel by George Orwell, THX 1138 portrays a future society where people are constantly watched by each other and by cameras. The film shows a totalitarian regime, a world without freedom, where people constantly have to fear their neighbor might give away their ‘mistakes’. In THX 1138, a couple is making love while being watched by a band of ‘Big Brothers’, who eventually convict the couple.

The troubling thing is we don’t need a war to end up in a situation like the one described in George Orwell’s 1984, or portrayed in THX 1138, although the atrocities of war facilitate certain social reflexes. For example, after the second world war people publicly shamed women who were known to have a German, Nazi boyfriend. These women were accused of ‘collaboration’, and since official, legal charges take a lot of time to be followed through, impatient crowds took the matter into their own hands. As said, apparently you don’t need stores of rage and vengefulness, built by a traumatizing war, to seduce people to mock someone. You just need a person who ‘stands out from the crowd’ a bit, a ‘public figure’. A mayor, or some other ‘celebrity’. Kurt Cobain, late front-man of grunge pioneers Nirvana, describes it well when he reflects on how the media constantly try to find sensational stories about him and his lover, Courtney Love: “I think we’re just easy scapegoats… We turn into cartoon characters.” Being an easy scapegoat is one of the burdens of being a celebrity, which allegedly made Kurt Cobain commit suicide at the age of 27. But you don’t have to be a celebrity to be harassed, mocked and bullied. Tyler Clementi, a promising young man, was secretly videotaped by his classmates while having a sexual encounter with another man. The video was posted on the internet, as a ‘joke’. Eventually Tyler jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge, September 22, 2010. He was only eighteen years old.

There’s no place in this world for over-sensitive people. So it seems. To quote Charlie Chaplin from his magnificent speech in his equally magnificent film The Great Dictator: “Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness hard and unkind.” Indeed, we seem to use our knowledge to gain power over others and to “turn them into cartoon characters”. Yet I still believe we have a choice, as ‘free’ individuals, not to give in to processes of victimization and of scapegoating. We can give in to the power of a Love that wants to know the person ‘behind the cartoon’, that is concerned with personalities ‘beyond labels’. To ‘murder’ a person is to ‘steal’ his or her ‘nakedness’, his or her soul… We have a choice not to do that…

Alice Nahon, a Flemish poet from Antwerp, puts it this way (free translation):

“Before you go to sleep,

Look into your own heart,

And ask yourself:

Did I hurt someone’s heart

In the time between dawn and dusk?”

 

In Dutch:

‘t Is goed in ‘t eigen hert te kijken

Nog even voor het slapen gaan

Of ik van dageraad tot avond

Geen enkel hert heb zeer gedaan.

I’m a weak person and a coward in many ways, and I need this advice every day. I once met a drunk man on a bus who made racist remarks to a black woman. He asked me to hold his bottle of whiskey for him, while he kept harassing the lady. I remember the rage in his eyes, and the way he asked my approval of his behavior. I was too afraid to stand up against what he was doing. I forced myself to laugh. At the next stop, I got off the bus, 4 miles from home (around 6 kilometers), and continued walking. To this day I feel ashamed and sad about what happened then. From this experience I learned that it is necessary to question the deeper motivations of our actions at any time, in order not to commit evil where we see ‘no harm’, and where we think we are entitled to ‘defend ourselves’ or even ‘assert ourselves’… ‘creatively’. Not all of our actions are as innocent as they might seem. I don’t want to point fingers. I just made the next video compilation to reflect on what we are capable of as human beings – and I need this reflection as much, or even more so, as you do, dear reader.

Please click the following image to watch the video, and feel free to post comments (the quote on ‘common people’ is by alternative rock band Pulp, from their song by the same name)

– CLICK TO WATCH: