Girard on the Imitation of Christ

René Girard on imitatio Christi. Excerpt from Girard’s essay “Violence Renounced: Response by René Girard,” chapter 14 of Violence Renounced, edited by Willard M. Swartley, Pandora Press, 2000, pages 310-311.

In his own essay, Willard Swartley handles a theme with important implications both for mimetic theory and Christian theology: imitation in the letters of Paul. He observes that Protestant theologians traditionally have de-emphasized imitatio Christi, fearing that it might lead to an emphasis on works at the expense of faith.

This neglect of imitation is difficult to justify in view of the fact that not only the Gospels but Paul himself, whose importance for Protestant theology is paramount, insists on the positive role of imitation in Christian life. Swartley shows that the mimetic understanding of desire can help us better grasp the role of imitation in Paul.

According to the mimetic theory, no existence is free from imitation, and the alternative to imitating Christ or Christ-like models is the imitation of our neighbors whose rivalrous impulses are usually as easily aroused as our own. As soon as we pattern our desires on our neighbors’ desires, we all desire the same objects and we become entangled in mimetic rivalries.

Comically as well as tragically, human beings keep turning each other into obstacles to the fulfillment of the very passions they keep transmitting mimetically to one another. This is why peaceful relations among neighbors are rare.

The mutual entrapment of mimetic desires has its own name in the New Testament, skandalon, the best translation of which is the old “stumbling block.” It designates an obstacle so fascinating that the more it repels the more it attracts and vice-versa. Skandalon is a metaphor for the paradox of a mimetic desire that keeps intensifying as a result of being thwarted by its own model. This phenomenon explains the addictive nature of mimetic rivalry and its formidable potential for violence and destruction. Scandals are discussed at length by Jesus himself in the synoptic Gospels.

Paul does not discuss the word as such, but he uses it with tremendous effectiveness. He keeps warning his readers that the imitation of Christ is necessary to avoid scandals. Instead of desiring avidly and selfishly, Jesus imitates the pure generosity of his Father who “makes his sun shine and his rain fall on the just as on the unjust.” As soon as we sincerely imitate Jesus instead of our neighbors, the power of scandals vanishes.

Paul often makes the two-sidedness of mimetic desire visible by juxtaposing the bad imitation of rivalrous models and the good imitation of Christ. Since Paul imitates Jesus just as faithfully as Jesus imitates his Father, he is almost as good a model as Jesus himself and since he is still around, unlike Jesus, he advises his converts to imitate him. This recommendation is not a symptom of Paul’s narcissism, or of his “will to power”; it is practical advice to people who get bogged down in scandals.

Swartley quotes a passage that marvelously summarizes Paul’s entire doctrine:

Give no offense [do not become a scandal] to Jews or to Greeks or to the Church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved. Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. (1 Cor. 10:31-11:1)

The effort to show that the imitation of Christ protects us from mimetic rivalries is very much needed to counteract the tendency to suppress the problematic of imitation, under the influence of the pseudo-individualism that dominates our time and multiplies scandals endlessly.

And yet, more than ever today, theologians avoid the word imitation. Dazzled by the worldly prestige of hyperindividualism, they blind themselves to the prevalence of bad imitation and ressentiment at the moment of their greatest triumphs.

Even people sympathetic to the mimetic theory sometimes resort to language tricks to avoid this dreadful word imitation. It is impossible to reconcile the mimetic theory with fashionable ideologies which are nothing but symptoms of the very disease the mimetic theory alone truly defines. We should not try to minimize the clash between the mimetic perspective and these ideologies. The favorite substitute for imitation is mimesis, an excellent word, no doubt, but only because it means the same thing as imitation. Being Greek, it sounds better to our snobbish (mimetic) ears than its lowly Latin and English equivalent.

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