French sociologist Rene Girard said that all human conflicts are built around something called “mimetic desire.” Here’s how it works. Suppose two brothers are happily playing in their front yard. The older one grabs a toy soldier from their pile of toys and begins playing with it. The younger one immediately wants it—not because of its inherent worth, but simply because his brother has it. This makes the older brother want it even more, and before very long the two are engaged in a huge fist fight.
Luckily, though, the neighborhood whipping boy, Jerry, happens to walk by at that moment. Jerry wears glasses and is chubby. The two boys forget all about their argument and run off together to torment Jerry.
This is called scapegoating. Conflicts are resolved when two parties put away their differences in the interest of pummeling some weaker entity.
According to Girard, all human civilizations were founded on the murder of an innocent victim, a fact that is reflected in some of our oldest mythologies: the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the story of the founding of Rome in which Romulus kills his brother Remus.
As Brian Zahnd says, “From Cain to Cortez to Kit Carson, empires have been built on the blood of slain victims.” From the beginning desire has drawn nations and groups into conflict with each other. Ironically, as their conflicts escalate, as they come to hate each other more and more, they become virtually identical.
A massive study was undertaken in universities in the U. S. and U. S. S. R. at the end of the Cold War. Students took the RWA test and answered a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who the “bad guy” in this global conflict: Who started the arms race? Would the U. S. launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union if it could? Would the Soviet Union do the same?
They found that in both countries the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most other people did. They were certain that their side was the side of the angels.
What this revealed is that the most “zealous” people on both sides of the conflict were, psychologically, the same. Altemeyer says, “If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.”
This is why, although it’s seldom obvious to those involved in the conflict, observers have noticed striking similarities between Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists, two groups that could not hate each other more. In their hatred they have come to mirror each other almost perfectly. In the words of U2:
“They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
When you become the monster
So the monster will not break you.”
Ultimately the only way to quell this ever-escalating conflict is to re-direct it towards someone or something both parties can hate equally. “It is murder of the victim,” says James Warren, “that . . . founds the group itself, bringing the community into existence; and then its repetition as sacrifice keeps the group together by effectively discharging internal hostilities, thus helping to prevent their explosive accumulation.”
My cult leader understood the dynamics of this very well, which is why he kept me in the group for as long as he did. He knew that the easiest and quickest way to create unity among a diverse and contentious group of people is to unite them around a hated object. Soon after I left he began punishing and expelling others, but the group’s cohesion quickly began to evaporate without a unanimously-agreed-upon target of hate.
But because the community (or ministry, or nation) wants to avoid facing the fact that it’s sacrificing an innocent victim, it distinguishes itself from the victim by accusing her of some heinous crime. The members of the group come to view her as completely different from them. The process of “otherizing” the victim allows them to sacrifice her without feeling any guilt. “Sacrificial ritual,” says Warren, “exists to help everyone deny that it is really one’s fellows that one wishes to lynch. All that hostility needs to be displaced onto a scapegoat who appears monstrously different.”
And that’s exactly what we do. Today. Now. Here in America. We demonize people.
AIDS victims. Minorities.
The impoverished, destitute, single mothers, the homeless.
Religious people of all persuasions.
We hate them; attack them; make up lies about them, label them filthy and disgusting, and then refuse to hear a word to the contrary. There’s no need to shed blood when you’ve crushed someone’s spirit. When we dehumanize someone, we are participating in the process that makes murder possible.
The Wild Man of the Gadarenes
So what’s to be done?
What can be done against such reckless hate?
In three of the four Gospels there’s a fascinating story about a demon-possessed man who encounters Jesus. He roams through the country of the Gadarenes cutting himself with stones; and whenever they try to subdue him, he breaks the chains and runs free.
When Jesus tries to address the demons that torment him, and asks their name, they tell him, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”
But the key to the whole passage is found in the response of the townspeople. For once Jesus heals him, once they find him sitting “clothed, and in his right mind,” they come to Jesus and “with one voice” beg him to leave their town.
Just like the legion of demons: a collective that speaks with one voice. The two are mirrors of each other.
If we read closely enough into the story, if we try to imagine what might’ve really been going on here, we realize that the demon-possessed man wasn’t really possessed. The town was.
Why did he act so insane?
Because he had internalized their aggression towards him. He cut himself with stones—as though trying to enact an execution ceremony.
There were times during those eight months as I sat in my room alone wondering if I would ever see my friends, or anyone again, when I really thought I must have been the most evil person in the world. I spent hours crying and praying. I had weird visions. I stopped eating. It’s like I was trying to inflict on myself all the pain the group thought I deserved. I had accepted their dark evaluation and hated and tortured myself accordingly, symbolically acting out their violence through self-abuse.
That’s what this man did. And the truth is, the town needed him around, just as the group needed me. That’s why they drove Jesus away. Yes, they were upset about the pigs, but more than that, they were upset because he had taken away the only thing that made them happy, the town punching bag, the hapless recipient of their violence, the outcast and ostracized man who served the purpose of being “weird” and “evil” so the community could feel “normal” and “good.”
The Gadarenes were themselves possessed by the scapegoat mechanism.
But the madman was cured—not through an exorcism, but by love.
Because for the first time in his life someone had looked into his face and shown him that he was understood and accepted; had offered him the only thing that can really destroy the mechanisms of hate and de-humanization: nonviolent love and compassion.
Someone loved him. Someone was merciful and empathetic.
And that was all the cure he needed.