Violence emerges as a major theme of our exploration of the human condition in the first semester of Humanities I in Action. We use Rwandan survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell to provide a victim’s perspective of violence, which according to anthropologist Rene Girard causes communities to question the assumption that violence can bring about security.
Having recently read James Carroll’s brilliant study of the Holy Land and its relationship to violence in Jerusalem, Jerusalem (2011), my attention was drawn to a number of reminders on the long flight back to Hong Kong from the US about our daily brushes with violence:
- The entertainment shown in the economy cabin was the blockbuster, “The Avengers:” Captain America, Ironman, the Incredible Hulk and others violently subdued the forces of evil.
- Near me a younger sibling hurts an older sibling, for which the younger earns a verbal berating and hand slap.
- My first meal choice was between chicken and beef, which not long ago were two living creatures before they were “processed” for my benefit.
How do I remain psychologically unaffected by these common examples of violence, while at the same time taking some pride in my generally peaceful coexistence with others? Such dissociation seems necessary to maintain a sense of mental well-being. Yet such contradictions are easily observable in our culture at large. To name a few:
- The perpetrator of the Aurora, Colorado movie killings may face the death penalty.
- Reacting against the horror of child soldiers in its Kony 2012 campaign, the NGO “Invisible Children” called upon its supporters to advocate for increased US military support for the Ugandan army.
- In 2009 President Obama used the occasion of his acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize to justify his military surge in Afghanistan.
These current examples provide evidence that violence is an ever-present, if unacknowledged, fact of modern life. Yet, as I experienced in watching cable news coverage of the Aurora event, it is hard to sustain a focus on the problem of violence, for it leads to psychological distress about the human condition. How long can one ponder “senseless killings?”
Nevertheless, in two weeks time I will again begin teaching “Humanities I in Action,” the first semester of which includes study of:
- William Golding’s Lord of the Flies
- The inhumane British treatment of Aboriginal Australians, including watching the movie, “Rabbit Proof Fence.”
- Milgram and Stanford prison experiments
- Abu Ghraib prison
- Genocide unit in which Rwanda is used as a case study.
- Retributive and Restorative Justice
It is fair to say that the Humanities I in Action curriculum uses dramatic and disturbing examples of violence to consider the human predicament. Returning to begin teaching Humanities I in Action causes me to reflect how I can teach more insightfully about the nature of violence and consider solutions to this fundamental problem.
Carroll, Girard, and Pinker on Violence
In his study of violence, Carroll draws upon an array of sources. Most notably, he uses the scholarship of Rene Girard (1977), a former Stanford anthropologist and one of the most highly regarded authorities on violence. Carroll asserts the following points to help readers understand violent behavior that is seemingly never far from Jerusalem:
- Humans as meaning-makers are on a quest to find peace within themselves and peace with others. For example, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux and Chauvet only portray animals that had been killed, which Carroll believes expresses the “complicated emotion of regret” about hunting (30).
- All societies face the threat of terrifying violence caused by what Girard calls “mimetic rivalry,” which means that humans want what others want or have. This is the foundational problem all communities need to deal with.
- The solution to this threat by ancient and modern cultures alike, according to Girard, is the scapegoat mechanism: First, a particular member of a group is blamed for the community’s challenges or disharmony, then victimized and killed. Second, this victim is later remembered with mystical reverence as the savior of the group. “The victim begins as a guilty perpetrator and ends as a source of salvation. Sacrifice transforms the victim from scapegoat to god” (40).
- This victimization of one member reduces tensions within the group, restoring group harmony and producing “group ecstasy.” This renewed sense of community is what makes sacrifice holy.
- Contrary to common assumptions, religion appears to have originated out of human discomfort with violence. Sacrifice helped violent tribes to honor the life that was taken. Such acts gave communities a “collective effervescence” (38) or “group ecstasy” (43) of the hunt within the bounds of tribal life.
- According to religion scholar Jeffery Carter, “By repeating the hunt [through ritual sacrifice] . . . societies define and maintain a sense of order, stability, and community” (39). Thus, “the purpose and effect of the violent sacrifice is nonviolence, peace” (42). Ritual sacrifice is the method used by cultures throughout history to maintain this peace.
- As long as a group never understands the scapegoat mechanism, this phenomenon continues.
Carroll asserts that one of the great gifts of the Jewish people is that through their experience of suffering during the Babylonian Exile, the scapegoat mechanism became unveiled, revealing the nature of violence from the perspective of the victim. While violence is commonly ascribed to God in the Old Testament, through the Jewish and Christian scriptures God comes to take the side of the victims over the victimizers. For Girard, “The gods of violence were disenfranchised when the God of love was revealed” (93).
According to Carroll, this great reversal of perspective gave birth to conscience, which literally means to “know with.” Humans came to see that scapegoating is cruel and barbaric, violating the precious life of individuals for the sake of the collective. In coming to sympathize with the victims, the myth of redemptive violence was punctured.
How then have many human societies lost their appetite for violence? In Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence, Steven Pinker (2011) documents the precipitous reduction in violence, whether the time scale is measured in millennia, centuries, or decades. Pinker provides a thorough explanation – focusing on the Enlightenment values of reason and human rights – detailing why violence is waning and peace is winning in many parts of the world.
Curricular Resources and Considerations
Since the theme of violence plays such a significant role in the first semester of Humanities I in Action, it seems important to spend more time to understand studying violence and its alternatives. This is a list of ideas that I will consider employing this year:
- Shirley Jackson’s short story, “The Lottery” to pique student interest and generate discussion about the various possible causes of violence.
- The Kony 2012 campaign, which, among other concerns, encourages a militarization of Central Africa. (To see my mini-unit on this topic from last year, click here.)
- “The Pathfinder:” This 1987 Norwegian film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign film, includes an excellent 20-minute segment in which a rural Sami community uses rituals to deal with the guilt of killing a bear to provide food for its members. Tensions within the group are lessened by the hunting ritual. Other aspects of this dramatic film may be useful, too, such as the sacrificial death of their shamanic leader, Raste.
- “The Human Zoo” (BBC) by Phil Zimbardo, which uses engaging reality TV format to consider questions of conformity and violence. Both the Milgram and Stanford experiments are briefly featured in this three-part series.
- War is a Force that Gives us Meaning (2002) by Pulitzer Prize-winning war journalist Chris Hedges.
- Last year I used Immaculee Ilabagiza’s Left to Tell, a memoir that tells the author’s survival during the Rwandan genocide. Students gave the book high marks for its dramatic story and readability. I found that it reinforced our study of Rwandan history as well as our watching of the excellent film, “Shooting Dogs.” Most importantly with regard to Girard, Immaculee provides the victim’s view of genocide, and then finds the spiritual strength to forgive the killers of her family.
We will read Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and I am beginning to consider new questions in approaching the novel:
- How does the boys’ group behavior conform to or call into question Girard’s theories?
- How are the deaths of Simon and Piggy “made holy” by the boys?
- How does the final scene with the captain of the rescue cruiser exemplify the contradictions between civilization and violence in modernity?
I also plan to repeat a “funeral” for Simon that I did last year, asking students to what degree and why do their eulogies “make holy” his sacrifice? (I plan to include a description of this activity in a future blog.)
It is hoped that front loading this year’s curriculum with insights from Carroll and Girard as well as the materials above will generate more discussion and critical thinking than in years past about this key focus of our first semester of study.
Living and teaching in one of the safest cities in the world, violence is usually only experienced second-hand through television or the Internet. While we read about it, are entertained by it, and participate in systems that perpetuate it, violence is generally submerged beneath our daily consciousness. Lingering out of sight, it joins that vague constellation of unlikely events that tragically happens to distant others. Yet upon reflection, violence undoubtedly lies at the core of so many of the most intractable and threatening global issues. To take one concern, when one considers the diabolic potential of nuclear weapons, whether employed by state actors or terrorists, understanding the ways that make for peace could determine our human destiny.
There has been no direct discussion of the study of peace in this social conscience blog. Under its various monikers (e.g., peace and conflict; peace and justice; restorative justice), this developing area of study seems especially valuable and pertinent to achieving the goals of social conscience education. I hope to look for more connections between peace studies and topics in future blog entries.
Carroll, J. (2011). Jerusalem, Jerusalem: How an ancient city ignited our modern world. Boston: Mariner.
Girard, R. (1977). Violence and the sacred. Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Hedges, C. (2002). War is a force that gives us meaning. Oxford: PublicAffairs
Ilibagiza, Immaculée (with Steve Erwin) (2006). Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House.
Pinker, S. (2011). Better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking.
1. Video: Australian theologian Scott Cowdell briefly explains Girard’s theories in an engaging way (9 minutes).
2. Video: Interview with Rene Girard about mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism (7 min).
3. Brian MacDonald’s blog post includes an insightful interview with Girard as well as a useful parable that summarizes Girard’s theories:
Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummeling each other.
As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!” The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying.
4. For a relatively brief scholarly introduction to and critique of Rene Girard’s work, see Peter Stork’s online chapter.
5. Father Robert Barron comments on “Hunger Games,” and ties the film into “The Lottery,” Aztec practices of human sacrifice, and other historical examples.
6. Richard Rohr comment on Girardian violence:
Jesus: Forgiving Victim
Monday, July 4, 2016
It seems we always find some way to avoid the transformation of our pain. There’s the way of fight. Fighters are looking for the evil, the sinner, the unjust one, the oppressor, the bad person “over there.” He or she “righteously” attacks, hates, or even kills the wrong-doer, while feeling heroic for doing so (see John 16:2). Philosopher René Girard sees this tendency to scapegoat others as the central story line of human history. Why? Because it works, and it is largely an immediate and an unconscious egoic response. The scapegoat mechanism was almost perfectly ritualized by the Israelites (see Leviticus 16:20-22). They enacted placing their sins on a poor goat and sending it off into the wilderness to die, thus the name, scapegoat.
We are all tempted to project our problems on someone or something else rather than dealing with it in ourselves. The zealot—and we’ve all been one at different times—is actually relieved by having someone to hate, because it takes away his or her inner shame and anxiety and provides a false sense of innocence. As long as the evil is “over there” and we can keep our focus on changing or expelling someone else (as the true contaminating element), then we feel at peace. But this is not the peace of Christ, which “the world cannot give” (see John 14:27). Instead, it is the simplistic, only temporary peace that the world tries to create.
Playing the victim is a way to deal with pain indirectly. You blame someone else, and your pain becomes your personal ticket to power because it gives you a false sense of moral superiority and having been offended. You don’t have to grow up, you don’t have to pray, you don’t have to let go, you don’t have to forgive or surrender—you just have to accuse someone else of being worse than you are. And sadly that becomes your very fragile identity, which always needs more reinforcement.
Another way to avoid the path of transformation is the way of flight. Those with the instinct to flee will deny or ignore pain by naively dividing the world up through purity codes and worthiness systems. They keep the problem on the level of words, ideas, and absolute laws separating good and evil. He or she refuses to live in the real world of shadow and contradiction. They divide the world into total good guys and complete bad guys, a comfortable but untrue worldview of black and white. This approach comprises most fundamentalist and early stage religion. It refuses to carry the cross of imperfection, failure, and sin in itself. It is always others who must be excluded so I can be pure and holy.
Each of these patterns perpetuate pain and violence rather than bring true healing.
The crucified and resurrected Jesus shows us how to transform pain without denying, blaming, or projecting it elsewhere. In fact, there is no “elsewhere.” Jesus is the victim in an entirely new way because he receives our hatred and does not return it, nor does he play the victim for his own empowerment. He suffers and does not make the others suffer because of it. He absorbs the mystery of human sin and transforms it rather than passing it on. He does not use his suffering and death as power over others to punish them, but as power for others to transform them. Jesus is the forgiving victim, which really is the only hope of our world, because most of us sooner or late will be victimized on some level. It is the familiar story line of an unjust and often cruel humanity.
The risen, victorious Jesus gives us a history and hopeful future that moves beyond predictable violence. He destroys death not by canceling it out; but by making a trophy of it. Jesus introduces the revolutionary idea of restorative justice, which is a totally divine idea and possibility. Any notion of retributive justice only perpetuates the problem, and pulls God down to our finite level. Jesus says in effect, “I’m going to use my death to love all perpetrators even more.”