Mimetic Principle -- Sightings

There's something seemingly attractive to retaliation or revenge. When someone hits you, then it seems appropriate to hit back. And, when you hit back, you generally raise the stakes, which in turn leads to another response, which raises the stakes. And the cycle of violence continues. Before long everyone involved has lost track of how this thing started. Indeed, it no longer matters.

Today Martin Marty discusses what he calls the mimetic principle, a principle used to justify this retaliatory cycle. In the course of the discussion he lifts up one of the more drastic calls for action, one that would ignore women, children, and non-combatants and essentially make annihilation appropriate. It is essentially riff on the Bush doctrine on preemptive war, only it's an escalated version. It's a scary thought, so take a read and let me know what you think.




The Mimetic Principle

-- Martin E. Marty

"The mimetic principle," most developed by René Girard, today captures the attention of psychologists, literary critics, war-and-peace makers, and experts in many disciplines. It builds on the desires and behavior of humans who see something they and their rivals both want. As they follow up, the price exacted by both keeps going up. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is matched by build-ups of negative emotions, strategies and arms. We see this in much of the conflict, including that related to religion, in the world today.

This is most visible among those who react to terrorists who are rooted in and related to Islamic groups. "They" take innocent lives, so "we" should do the same." We have seen that practice in Palestinian/Israeli acts of escalation and vengeance. The question for some is: Should we make a principle out of the "mimetic principle" when dealing with civilians, innocents, mothers and children who are in the path of conflict?

One of the more explicit counsels for "us" to be indiscriminate in killing those who occupy the soil or live within the states in which Islamist terrorists are active, appeared in Five Towns Jewish Times (December 11). Reproduction of and reports on it quickly spread, and within a day the Times had taken it off their web-site and blocked it on others. Google "The Appropriate Response to Islamic Terror" and you will quickly find traces of it in its brief prime. We can be glad they took it down, but also can learn from what its author, Lawrence Kulak, wrote in this 20,000-circulation paper issuing from five towns in Nassau County, but aimed at all New York and reaching beyond it.

What is "The Appropriate Response to Islamic Terror?" Kulak uses the definite article as he offers "the solution to international terror". (The underlining is mine; the stress is his.) "The only way to deal with Islamic terrorists is the same way in which they deal with their victims. Muslims believe in the literal interpretation of the Biblical doctrine of an eye for an eye...They killed our innocents, and unless we kill theirs, they will go on killing ours. The Torah, however, preaches a doctrine which...would finally put an end to all Islamic terror: if somebody is coming to kill you, rise up and kill him first."

Kulak criticizes the U. S. presidential response to 9/11 which "labeled Islam a peaceful religion that had been hijacked by radical elements." The president thus "all but rejected the possibility of taking drastic action..." Kulak is unsentimental in his "kill them all" approach: "Any and all collateral damage in the form of casualties to friends, relatives, or anyone connected to the lives of these terrorists should be swiftly ignored. Public opinion and what is written in the newspapers should also be ignored by nations seeking to avenge the death of its innocent civilians."

The problem of making a principle of this principle is that the rivals, enemies, counterparts, or counter-belligerents who read this kind of editorial--and read them they do--find occasion to raise the price, engage in more indiscriminate violence, and that, in turn inspires and impels us to raise it still higher and engage in ever more violence, "women and children" be damned--or at least thoughtlessly and painlessly annihilated. We all know that in all wars, including those we call "just" or "good," there are "collateral damages" and deaths of innocents. However, making a principle out of doing so, and especially doing so on religious grounds, only invites more violence. Then there are no eyes to trade for eyes, teeth to exact for teeth, while hatred and violence triumph.

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.

"The devil that Dostoevsky portrays… is no Archfiend, no evil genius. He is a pathetic and unprepossessing devil, a faded gentleman with a nose cold, wearing out-of-date, threadbare clothes. This is an Augustinian devil, evil by dint of the emptying out of being, evil by the privation of good in a subject." This month on the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Stephen Meredith, professor of pathology and biochemistry and molecular biology, offers a reading of the role of the devil (as character) and theodicy (as theme) in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Dr. Meredith's examination not only asks theological questions about the content of the work of literature, but, indeed, about the function such a text might play in the distinctly human struggle to make rational sense of our suffering. Formal responses will be posted December 8, 15, and 22 by Robert Bird (University of Chicago), Ralph Wood (Baylor University), and Susan McReynolds Oddo (Northwestern University).



Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.


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