Peace, Unity, Purity Reflection


A Proposal to Use Girardian Anthropology to Analyze and Resolve the Present Challenge to the “Peace, Unity and Purity of the Church”

Rev. Britton W. Johnston



 It is almost a cliché these days to say that we need new creative solutions that involve “thinking outside the box.” But too often when such solutions present themselves we find ourselves rejecting them precisely because they are “outside the box”: too outrageous, strange, ridiculous!

I hope that will not be the fate of this suggestion. It will indeed seem strange to just about everyone. Yet if we give it a chance, we may find that it offers a clear way out of the conflict in which our denomination (indeed, the whole culture of mainline protestantism) finds itself.

 I suggest that we approach the so-called “liberal/conservative” split in the church anthropologically. If we visit the origins of religion itself we may find it easier to chart a course out of this thicket. In particular, I suggest that we consider the “mimetic theory” of René Girard as an anthropological principle to guide us. A brief introduction:

 According to Girard, human beings are fundamentally “mimetic,” that is, we cannot help but imitate one another. From this instinct we acquire language, social skills, culture, etc. Mimesis also gives us our desires. We acquire our desires by imitating the desires of others. This is not all bad, except that it causes us to want the same things as others, meaning that we come into conflict with them over the objects of our desire.

 We very quickly become rivals with the very people who teach us what to desire. This rivalry is in turn imitated and (at the primitive level of early hominization) we become violently enraged. This wrath in a community of humans becomes a conflict of all against all, threatening to destroy everyone involved.

 The solution that our species stumbled upon, according to Girard, is the practice of scapegoating. Somehow in the midst of the chaos, the crowd aligns itself against one individual. When that individual is killed, the crowd finds that it is at peace, in full agreement. This is the origin of religion and culture, according to Girard. The function of religion is to control the primary threat to human existence, our own violence.

 Religion uses various strategies to accomplish this task. The primary one is ritual sacrifice. When the mimetic crisis develops in the community, the priest leads the community in a reenactment of the original crisis and collective murder. This however can be dangerous, as the reenactment can easily turn into the real thing. Sacrifices, though necessary, should therefore be kept to a minimum. Secondary strategies are called for.

 Substitutes for human sacrifice, such as animal sacrifice or circumcision are developed and practiced. Another secondary strategy is sacred taboo. By establishing rules of identity and behavior, the primitive society slows the development of the mimetic crisis. I will say more about this later.

According to Girard, the biblical revelation is the original revelation that the victim of a sacrifice is not responsible for the mimetic crisis. Although the passion story is structurally identical with any number of pagan myths, it is different in two very profound ways: first, the victim in this case is clearly innocent, the crowd being guilty. Second, the return of the victim in resurrection is depicted as a forgiving theophany rather than a vengeful one. On these two differences turns all of human history.

 One corollary of Girard’s anthropology that is important for the challenge facing the church today is the principle of “doubling.” It is common, when two people enter into rivalry over an object of desire, that they will imitate each other’s behavior. It will usually reach the point where the two parties of the conflict are virtually indistinguishable from the point of view of an outside observer, even though from the point of view of the combatants, the “other” is wholly opposite and totally different. The  phenomenon can occur with groups of people as well as individuals. Within each group there is solidarity because they are united against the “other” side; but each side is a virtual mirror image of the other.

 The tragedy of today’s traditional protestant churches is precisely this doubling phenomenon. Liberals and conservatives are grouped one against the other, seeing each other as radically different when in fact they share the same ultimate concerns and manifest the same behavior (although there is the difference that the conservative side is being funded by class interests wishing to keep the church tied up in conflict so as to silence its prophetic voice for justice in the society. Fundamentalism, in the great tradition of William Jennings Bryan, was once a populist anti-corporate movement; it has been co-opted. These class interests could just as easily have chosen to co-opt the liberals, as John D. Rockefeller may have done by funding Harry Emerson Fosdick.).


 The principle of creation from the beginning of the Bible is the principle of difference. In the first chapter of Genesis, we do not have a description of a creatio ex nihilo, but an account of the imposition of difference on the primordial waters of chaos. The day is separated from the night; boundaries are set between the sea and dry land; the plants and animals are separated out, “each according to its kind.” The original creation was the ordering of chaos through the establishment of differences.

 Why is this important? According to Girard’s mimetic theory, the primordial waters is an archetypal image representing the pre-cultural mimetic sacrificial crisis. The (pre)human community is in a state of crisis brought about by the imitation of everyone by everyone. This has produced a confusing maelstrom of desire, rivalry, hostility and violence within which life is impossible. Like a swimmer tossed in the chaos of a riptide, everyone finds it impossible to distinguish up from down, left from right, light from dark.

 According to Girard, the first strategy to resolve this crisis is human sacrifice. But in the Hebrew scriptures, humanity begins to move away from human sacrifice. In order to defer the sacrificial crisis, the Hebrew strategy is to put in place a strong system of sacred difference. Difference defers or delays the sacrifice by blocking the development of mimetic rivalry. It works because when boundaries are drawn between people, they tend to imitate each other less strongly. We are most strongly mimetic toward those whom we perceive to be like us. If we see the other as different, we are less likely to want what they want, dress as they dress, and so forth. Thus we are less likely to come into mimetic rivalry with people who are different. Consider an ice cube tray, the kind that has the removable dividers. If you fill it with water without the dividers and try to carry it across the kitchen, chances are that the water will spill. But if you insert the dividers into the water before carrying it, you find it is much easier to carry it without spilling. Differences in culture are analogous to this. They prevent the free flow of mimetic rivalry from building up to a chaotic loss of control.

 But wait – what about racism, discrimination against people with disabilities, wars against different peoples, etc.? Difference appears to be the very thing that makes us violent. Girard’s theory accounts for this by noting that when difference is the cause of violent, it is because such violence unites people against the ones who are “different.” So even in such cases as these, difference has the effect of reducing violence within the society, exporting it to an “outsider.”

 The Hebrew scriptures, especially the Priestly documents, are filled with this concern for the maintenance of boundaries of all kinds. The categories “clean” and “unclean” have to do with the contrast between those things that stay within the cultural boundaries set for them (clean), and those things that do not (unclean). The skin of the body, for example, is such a boundary. Eruptions of the skin are unclean because they violate that boundary (leprosy). Likewise, menstruation and childbirth create uncleanness because they cause what was inside the skin to come out of it. In the case of clean and unclean animals, we have a similar concern. The Hebrews held that there are two kinds of livestock: those that have cloven hooves and chew the cud (cattle, sheep, goats) and those with single hooves that do not chew the cud (horses & donkeys). Pigs have separate toes, but do not chew the cud; thus they violate the proper categories (boundaries) and are unclean. Similarly, there are two types of creatures: those that creep upon the ground, and those that swim in the sea. Therefore those creatures that live on the ground at the bottom of the sea (shellfish), or those creatures that live on the margin between the land and the sea (frogs) are unclean.

 These rules are projections onto nature of a Hebrew cultural imperative, namely, that there must be differences among human beings in order for there to be peace. Laws, names, tribes, land boundaries, genealogies, gender roles, and hierarchies are forms of differentiation which tend to delay the development of mimetic crises, and thus to reduce the need for human sacrifice.

 The trouble with difference of course is that it is itself violent. These differences, being cultural (although they are almost always asserted to be “natural” or “divine”), must be enforced from time to time. The enforcement involves some infliction of pain, often the pain of death. This tends to create a fairly stable cultural system. The differences have the effect of slowing the development of the mimetic crisis, and in addition they make it possible to intervene (with a sacrifice) before a crisis develops. The first person to violate the boundary becomes the obvious choice as victim for a sacrificial ritual (like stoning). This same person is also the first sign that a mimetic crisis might be developing. Thus a well-developed system of differentiation — a torah, if you will — is an effective means of maintaining a stable society with a minimum of human sacrifice. But it does not eliminate human sacrifice.

 One of the effects of the Gospel is to reveal these systems of sacred difference to be provisional rather than absolute. This is precisely the argument Paul had with his judaizing opponents in places like Galatia. Paul insisted that the Law (the system of sacred differentiation) had been superseded by the revelation of the gospel. Paul’s opponents insisted that the rules were still absolute, even applying to gentile converts. Paul’s realization regarding the law is at the heart of the Protestant Reformation and of the modern liberal world view arising therefrom. Modernism and postmodernism both consist largely of the endeavor to reveal and deconstruct ever deeper layers of our culture’s system of differentiation, as violent and unnecessary. The roots of this enterprise can be traced ultimately back to the gospel itself. Thus the liberal agenda to include women, marginalized ethnic groups, gays and lesbians, etc., must be recognized as a deeply biblical endeavor.

 It must also be recognized, however, that postmodern antinomianism (the deconstruction of differences is the essence of antinomianism) is a profoundly dangerous endeavor. When a culture is deprived of sacrifice and difference, the result is a cultural crisis. Such was the crisis that occurred when the second Jerusalem temple was destroyed:

 For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be.

— Mark 13:19

 The modernist assault on difference produced just such apocalypses, from the two world wars to the communist revolutions in Russia, China, and Cambodia, to the tribal slaughter in Rwanda. The deconstruction of difference in the 19th century led to the holocausts of the 20th. The legalism of evangelical conservatives, so confidently dismissed by liberals as oppressive or superstitious, deserves respect. It is rooted in the awareness that to deconstruct the cultural standards is to play with fire and flood.

 Desire: Natural or Unnatural? (Desire and Difference)

 A key insight of Girard’s mimetic theory is that we acquire our desires from each other. This principle is an insult to the modern world view, whose individualism leads to the assumption that our desires come from somewhere “within” us, and therefore are a part of our “nature.” (Watch out for claims about what is “natural.” They are always efforts to assert a cultural difference, and they are always backed up by resentment and/or violence.) What about such natural desires as sex, food, etc.? According to mimetic theory, such appetites do exist, but they are so thoroughly commandeered by mimetic desire as to be completely overwhelmed by it. Except in the most extreme circumstances of bare survival, appetite has no non-cultural function in humans.

 One of the great disasters of the modern liberal world view, according to Girard, is what he refers to as the “romantic lie.” This is the illusion that our desires come from within ourselves rather than from others. As the modern “enlightenment” deconstructed the sacred social order, the resulting loss of authority led to the notion, promoted by many romantic poets and philosophers, that the most important authority was human desire itself. Romanticism was based largely on the naive notion that human desire was intrinsic, natural and harmless. True human liberation could be achieved, thought the Romantics, if only we could throw off the shackles of law imposed upon us by a power-mad priesthood. This dangerous delusion is still with us — especially among postmodern liberals.

 Girard’s mimetic theory helps us to see that this supposed “liberation” is actually the most debased slavery. As rules and hierarchies are broken down, humans will imitate one another more and more compulsively, and the resulting mimetic rivalry can be (has been) catastrophic. This is the anthropological dilemma to which the gospel has brought us. Liberals are right to recognize the violence inherent in hierarchy and law; conservatives are right to recognize the profound danger inherent in unbridled human desire. How can the two insights be reconciled?

 The Conservative Strategy Thus Far

 Conservative Evangelicals have taken the position that we must establish a bulwark of difference and hold the line, using biblical guidelines as the standard for doing so. So, for example, they argue that homosexuality must not be sanctified by ordaining or marrying “practicing” homosexuals. Although this seems like a common-sense strategy, it is actually naive and cannot succeed. Ethical philosophers, such as Alisdair MacIntyre and Jeffrey Stout, have considered this strategy. MacIntyre is notable for his effort to recommend the classical idea of “virtue” as a standard for our culture. However sensible his idea might seem, it is untenable because all such establishment of moral rules (which are really only systems of differentiation) require violence to maintain them. As mimetic theory would suggest, only sacrifice can restore such rules; but sacrifice has been ruled out by the gospel itself. Sacrifice has lost its power; this is part of what it means that Satan has fallen “like lightning from heaven.”

 The Bible itself subverts all structures of sacred differentiation. Therefore to attempt to use the Bible as the authoritative basis to restore such structures is a self-defeating enterprise. Evangelicals must find a different approach.

 The Liberal Strategy

 Postmodern liberals have grasped hold of the profound insight that moral rules are cultural constructs. They have run with this insight, deconstructing these rules in the effort to reveal the liberating truth. In the process, they have depended on a notion of primordial human innocence to give them confidence that these rules can be removed without danger. The liberal position is based on the (romantic) faith that human desire is “natural” and therefore innocent and good. Liberal theology these days is peppered with the language of the “goodness of creation.” This is purest folly.

 Postmodern liberals must come to the realization that their project of deconstruction must apply to desire as well as to difference. Without the deconstruction of desire, liberalism constitutes a grave danger to human survival. After all, it should be recognized that from the French revolution to the communist revolutions to Hutu nationalism to National Socialism itself, it has been romantic “progressives,” — not “conservatives” — who have been the most bloodthirsty killers in the history of the world. Unless liberals give up their “original blessing” delusion that desire is purely innocent, they will one day be begging the mountains “fall on us!”


 Everybody is mistaken about sex. There is no way to be “right” about it, it is such a hopeless tangle of mimesis, culture and instinct. But if we can’t be right about sex, perhaps we can be aware of the ways in which we are wrong. I propose to do this favor for both the liberals and the conservatives among us.

The Liberals’ Error 

A leftist pastor once suggested to me that all our rules and hangups about sex ought to be eliminated so that the natural goodness of our sexuality could be expressed. If only we could do that, we could live in peace, with no hangups, just getting what we wanted. It didn’t take me long to disillusion him. I asked him if he didn’t think that without any rules, we would get into violent rivalry over the most attractive sex partners? He allowed that we would. The rules about sexuality were restored in an instant.

 The liberal error about sexuality is the article of faith that desire is autonomous and innocent. “It is good that I am gay because God made me this way,” is a common claim among homosexual activists. However merciful its motivation, this is an unbiblical, specious claim based on the “romantic lie.” Discourse about human sexuality must be elevated above such simplistic slogans.

 The current arguments about homosexuality often center on the question whether it is innate or chosen. If it is chosen, then the gay person is morally responsible for it, and therefore challenged to change on moral grounds. If on the other hand it is innate, then the gay person should be considered morally innocent and provision should be made in the culture to accommodate his / her sexual needs. It is unfortunate that the discussion has degenerated to this dichotomy, because it makes it harder to broaden the discussion. If someone challenges the notion of a genetic origin of homosexuality, they are labeled homophobic. If they reject the notion that homosexuality is “a chosen lifestyle,” the evangelicals relegate them to the “liberal side.” What I am proposing here is that we consider that homosexuality may be neither chosen nor genetic. The evidence for a genetic origin is weak at best. If there is a genetic factor, it probably does not directly cause homosexuality, but increases the likelihood that gayness will develop given certain environmental factors. By the same token, the notion that someone chooses to be gay is clearly absurd. A person can no more choose to be gay than a person can choose to be good at math.

 René Girard suggests that homosexuality arises as an adaptation to mimetic conflicts in sexual relations. When for some reason the competition for sexual partners becomes too threatening, sexual desire is shifted from the original object (the person of the opposite sex) to the rival. The result is same-sex attraction. Even among mimetic theory enthusiasts, this proposal of Girard’s is controversial. But whether or not this is precisely the mechanism that produces homosexuality, this mimetic analysis suggests that a fresh approach to such questions is available. Mimetic analysis would also suggest that such departures from the cultural norm will appear more prominently in times of the breakdown of cultural differentiation. The increase (or increased visibility) of homosexuality in a culture should be seen as a sign of such breakdown, but NOT the cause of it. The gay person is like the canary in the mineshaft. Do you punish the canary, or do you set to work clearing the air?

 With mimetic theory, it is nearly meaningless to speak of human behaviors that are “normal” or “deviant.” The only thing that matters is whether a given behavior intensifies rivalry or relieves it. Homosexuality can be considered a redemptive phenomenon if its effect is to reduce the rivalries produced by an increase of heterosexual rivalries. For example, an egalitarian homosexuality can be considered a superior kind of sexuality if the predominant form of heterosexuality in a society oppresses women – a proposal put forward several years ago by radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin.

The Conservatives’ Error

 The conservative error respecting sexuality is to assert that so-called “biblical” standards are divine absolutes. The gospel renders such sexual rules, along with the rest of the law, provisional. Such rules do not save us. At best, they can only be guidelines useful for the provisional ordering of society and the praise of God. This is the biblical revelation.

 Conservatives’ efforts to establish standards of sexual behavior as sacred and eternal are doomed from the start. They are defeated already because they contradict the clear witness of the gospel with respect to the nature of law; and they are defeated because these rules have already been breached by the culture without immediate consequences. The attempt to restore a rule once it has been breached is virtually impossible without a significant amount of violence.

 The conservatives share with the liberals the belief that there is an “intrinsically human” form of human sexuality. But where liberals insist that desire is “natural” (i.e., sacred), conservatives insist that sex within marriage is divine (also sacred). If we are honest about the New Testament witness, however, we must admit that it considers marriage a kind of compromise with the world: “This I say by way of concession, not command….it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (1 Cor. 7:6, 9b) and “they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven.” (Mark 12:25b) and “there is no one who has left house or wife…for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back…in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30)

 The mimetic forces swirling around sexuality produce all kinds of madness: objectification of attractive people; contempt for unattractive ones; competition for partners; deceptions about our motivations; perverse substitutes for interpersonal sex when rivalries become overwhelming (such as pornography, fetishes, child molestation); defining certain people as attractive and others as unattractive; economic benefits allocated according to sexual attractiveness…. In fact, sexuality is so rife with rivalry, imitation, and competition that it is redeemable by none of our rules or ideologies, but only by the grace of God. The “biblical standards” for sexuality serve at best as a means to minimize the misery produced by human sexuality; they can hardly be considered to redeem it. “Healthy” human sexuality is, for all intents and purposes, nonexistent. Conservative notions that heterosexual relations within marriage are somehow divinely ordained are simply delusional. Heterosexual and homosexual alike, married or celibate, we are all sexually broken. Even those of us who have managed to have happy and fulfilling romantic relationships do so as a matter of defeating rivals in a competition for partners. As it turns out, mimetic analysis brings us full circle back to something approximating Augustine’s understanding of human sexuality. It is so broken that it may be better for us to stay away from it if possible.

 Perhaps if we just admit that in the matter of sexuality, nobody is right, then we can reduce the polemic about it just a bit.

 Ordination as the Sacred Precinct

 Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the LORD, such as he had not commanded them. And fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

— Leviticus 10:1-2

When they came to the threshing floor of Nacon Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.

— 2 Samuel 6:6-7

 Girardian analysis of these texts suggests that they are mythologized accounts of lynchings. According to Girard, sacred objects, places and rituals are places of heightened mimetic tension. If the priest fails to manage the ritual properly, he can become the sacrifice himself. The wrath of the crowd “breaks out” upon him rather than being discharged upon the designated sacrificial victim. Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah each made the mistake of handling the sacred carelessly, and they died for it at the hands of a mob in a fit of sacred frenzy.

 In spite of our Reformed claims that we have a “priesthood of all believers,” we still treat the ordination of Word and Sacrament as if it were sacred in the primitive sense. Those who draw near to it unworthily are punished. Reformed theology contradicts this. According to our confessions of faith, the minister is no more holy than the baptized Christian. But an almost instinctive vestige of the sacred adheres to the role of minister.

 Marriage and ordination are virtually the only two remaining sacred institutions in our culture. This is precisely why we are fighting over who has the right to approach the sacred precinct. To a significant extent, the existence of sacredness depends upon its exclusiveness.

 O LORD, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right….

Psalm 15:1-2a

 Only the ritually pure may approach the sacred. Therefore both liberals and conservatives recognize that to authorize “practicing” homosexuals to be ordained or married is to legitimize homosexuality itself in the eyes of the culture. The strong feelings around this issue are identical in kind, if not in degree, with the “wrath” that broke out against Uzzah and the sons of Aaron.

 This is contrary to our theological tradition. Going back to Calvin himself, our tradition has explicitly rejected notions of the sacredness (in the primitive sense) of both marriage and ordination. The call to both liberal and conservative alike in this circumstance is to repent of our superstition about the meaning of ordination. Those who are ordained are called to a task, NOT to a sacred priesthood. Ordination should not be considered to have any power to confer legitimacy on any kind of lifestyle or character. It should be seen only as a recognition of the gifts needed for the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

 Gay activists want access to the sacred in part as a means to legitimize their sexual identity. Conservatives want to exclude them from the sacred so as to preserve its sacredness. In fact, both goals are unworthy. We should have no interest in the sacred at all. If gays and lesbians gain the right to ordination, they will find that their inclusion weakens the very sacredness in which they sought to participate (since sacredness depends on exclusiveness). They will have arrived at the party only to find that everyone has gone home. Conservatives, on the other hand, should recognize that the gospel they proclaim demands that they relinquish their concern for the sacred.

 A Simple Proposal

 Reformed tradition is all we need to resolve this conflict. We are a moderate, pragmatic people. We recognize that we will never have perfect faith and so we have rules about how to live together. We also recognize that we are called to a stronger faith, so we try to keep the rules flexible. We have law and we bind ourselves to it, but we understand it to be provisional and subject to reformation. We are unimpressed by sacredness (even though like most moderns, we yearn for it).

 This is precisely the course we must steer. Conservatives must stop trying to use church law, which is inherently provisional and non-sacred, to enforce sacred taboos (differences). They should know better than to hold to such superstitions. Liberals must respect church law and stop defying it. By doing so, they only undermine the legitimacy they seek. If church law has no meaning, why do they bother with ordination at all? If church law is meaningful, why do they defy the ordination standards? Liberals likewise ought to know better than to hold to such superstitions as the sacred authority of human desire.

 The matter of sexuality is as it has always been — a confused muddle. It is an illusion to think that we can devise clear principles for sexual morality that will lead to a just, loving and healthy sexuality. We can only hope to limit the chaos of our sexuality prayerfully, pragmatically, graciously, in community and guided by the wisdom of experienced Christians. Not by hard and fast rules. Not by naive assumptions about the goodness of human desire. Moderately. In other words, like Presbyterians!

 Britton W. Johnston

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