Mimetic Rivalry

“I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). French anthropological philosopher René Girard argued that all conflict, competition and rivalry originate in mimetic desire (also called mimetic rivalry).[1] This rivalry eventually produces, often violent, conflict on an individual or social level that demands the scapegoating of another individual or group to temporarily resolve the conflict. It allows us to cover our sins for a season, but the conflict always reemerges and demands another sacrifice.

The writer of Ecclesiastes suggested in his quest to resolve the omnipotence of God with the apparent vanity of everything in life that the only reason people work is due to this mimetic rivalry. We want the best boat, house, or clothes. Our neighbors, therefore, pressure us to make more, spend more, and save more so that we can match or excel their success. This, the author says, is vanity.

Small, neighborhood squabbles could potentially lead to violence if it were not for this scapegoat mechanism. That is, without some sort of bond such as religion, nationality, or football team, for instance, in which an “us” versus “them” mentality is established, there would be nothing to stop the squabble from getting out of hand.

For instance, Herod’s rivalry with Phillip, as depicted in Mark, is due to mimetic rivalry. The scapegoat in that instance is John the Baptist. He was the necessary sacrifice to resolve the tension between the two houses.

Later, the struggle between Rome and Judea created by the zealot movement is temporarily resolved by the leaders of both parties through the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus’ death as an innocent but falsely blamed victim stands as a revelation and critique of the scapegoat mechanism and calls us to abandon mimetic rivalry based upon these temporal, fleshly desires. Jesus’ sacrifice, however, only resolved the tension for a season, and tensions between the two parties continued to grow. After scapegoating the Christians for forty years, the sacrifice was no longer accepted, and Jerusalem was destroyed. This stands for us as an eternal example of the problems with mimetic rivalry, but it is one that has been largely ignored.

If we are to truly embrace the message of the gospel, then we will put away these “us” versus “them” roadblocks as Paul encourages in Galatians 3:29 and Romans 14. In Christ, it is no longer about Jew or Greek, bond or free, male or female, Sabbath observers or Sunday observers, but it is about walking in love towards everyone with an emphasis on servitude, gentleness, and humility.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Girard

One Reply to “Mimetic Rivalry”

  1. Rene Girard is virtually a prophet whose inspired reading of cultural processes gave him pause to re-examine the biblical record, and come in from the cold of agnosticism into faith.

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