Girard and Imitatio Christi

Reading Girard again brought to my mind the significance of the oft-neglected theme of imitatio Christi. Girard argues that human desire, both good and evil, is mimetic in character. It is not spontaneous and autonomous. He claims that mimetic desire is intrinsically good. If desire were not mimetic, it would be ‘forever fixed on predetermined objects’ and would be more instinctual than free.

As human beings we engage in unconscious imitation of others. We are interdividuals, rather than detached individuals. However, such imitation can easily spiral into rivalry as we begin to struggle over particular objects that both we and our mimetic partners desire. We can get locked into vicious cycles of escalating antagonism. As these cycles reach their zenith we find that rivals hardly differ from each other any more.

The pent-up aggression of these cycles is defused by the setting in motion of the scapegoat mechanism. Rather than the terrifying war of all on all created by mimetic rivalry, the scapegoat mechanism, by transferring the disorder to a particular victim, transforms the war of all on all into the war of all on the one. Through the process of scapegoating peace and unanimity are restored. Old rivalries that seemed intractable disolve and are replaced with friendships.

This peace born of violence ‘is based on the mythic process of conjuring away man’s violence by endlessly projecting it upon new victims.’ The denial of violence necessitates continual violence; the truth can only be suppressed this way. This peace is secured on the foundation of concealed graves. The truth of the resurrection unsettles this. Nothing strikes fear into Satan and threatens his world order more than the idea of concealed graves breaking open. The fog of myth lies like a shroud over the bodies of the scapegoats, preventing us from arriving at the truth of their violent murders.

This scapegoating process is hard-wired into the mimetic economy of Satan. Those who have the wrong models for desire will soon become trapped in the cycles that this creates and will live in a society founded on violence. Societies and people within them will go to great lengths to conceal their guilt and deny their complicity in violence. They will even scapegoat scapegoaters as a means of doing this.

Within the Church we are to be those who acknowledge that we are naturally those who are complicit in the satanic mimetic economy that led to the crucifixion of our Lord. Just as Peter and the other disciples knew and acknowledged the power of the mimetic contagion of the Good Friday crowd to overwhelm them and turn them into deniers and forsakers of Christ, we face up to the fact that we are persecuters of Christ. We have been and are complicit in scapegoating processes in so many different ways.

However, rather than cover our sins in the fog of myth and misrepresentation, we seek to bring our sins into the light. A new unity and peace is formed in the Spirit of truth. This new community is the greatest threat to the city of darkness. The cities of darkness are founded upon the dark veil that their myths have spread over their founding and sustaining murders. If the lie at the foundation is revealed then the whole society will crumble. False peace is no longer so easy to come by as the scapegoating mechanism no longer works when the lie at the heart is brought into the light. Christ came not to bring peace on earth, but the sword. Once the light has come into the world and the deeds of darkness are revealed, there are only a few options left. The deeds of darkness must become ever more subtle and shrouded, the society must gradually descend into hellish violence or it must repent.

Once we have appreciated the huge significance of mimetic desire, we will appreciate that our salvation would have been incomplete had Christ not established a new mimetic economy that differs from the mimetic economy of Satan.

The NT is full of the language of imitation. We are called to imitate Christ and to serve as examples for others to imitate. We are encouraged to imitate people who are exemplary in their following of Christ and the prophets and OT saints who went before us. In the gospels Jesus frequently presents people to his disciples as positive and negative examples. Unfortunately the language of imitation of Christ has largely fallen by the wayside in many Protestant circles as it tends to fall on the wrong side of the works/grace dichotomy.

I am arguing that the claim that Christ left us with an example to follow (e.g. John 13:15; 1 Peter 2:21) should be given deep soteriological weight. Where would we be if Christ had not done this? By the perfect example that Christ has left us with the mimetic economy of Satan is clearly revealed for what it is and a new mimetic economy is established for us in its place.

Mimetic economies do not work well by means of doctrine alone. We need flesh and blood examples. We need the example of Christ lived out before our eyes. We need to imitate others who imitate Christ. We need the Church. Were it not for the role models that the Church gives us we would soon be trapped within the mimetic economy of Satan. By the establishing of examples and the inspiration of witnesses the Spirit of Christ forms us as an alternative mimetic economy.

It saddens me to see that many churches do not seem to appreciate the importance of being exposed to Christian examples, of having Christian role models. This is an argument for getting to grips with biblical typology so that we can learn how to let the text mould our telling of our lives. It is an argument for patterns of discipleship that focus less on indoctrination and more on mentoring and training by example. It is an argument for dispensing with the superfluity of stratified groups in many churches and beginning to take intergenerational discipleship seriously. It is also an argument for reading good Christian biographies, and perhaps even for starting to celebrate the odd saint’s day. The lives of the saints are one of the great gifts that God has given the Church; we need to pay more attention to them. As our desires are shaped by many positive Christian role models, we might well find that we become models ourselves.

Within the Church we are trained in the imitation of Christ by means of various rites and within our general life as a body. We die with Christ in Baptism. We celebrate His death in the Eucharist. We forgive one another’s sins. We bear one another’s burdens. We are given typological examples from the Word to pattern our lives after. These things are not merely ‘ethical’ and secondary. They are essential to Christian salvation.

We need to recapture the concept of imitatio Christi as central to Christian salvation. As we do so I believe that we will have taken an important step towards a more nuanced understanding of the faith/works distinction and the great importance of Christian ethics as part of God’s salvation. We will also see something more of the soteriological significance of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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5 Responses to Girard and Imitatio Christi

  1. MichaelO says:

    This is interesting in that the first city (of men) is built upon the shed blood of the righteous Abel – as it is recorded in Genesis – and yet w/out the acknowledgment and responsibility of the act, while the City of God (seen through the Church) is built upon the shed blood of the Righteous Jesus, but w/ this difference – that the murder is not covered up, but acknowledged and responsibility is assumed by the people (implicated in the murder.) It’s like the cry of the righteous Abel’s blood crying for justice finally finds peace and justice in Christ and the Church.
    Maybe something also to ponder here in this crime of history – that exposes all other crimes – is that it seems like the Father’s plan and promise for Israel – under Torah – to be a priesthood to all the nations does actually find an interesting fulfillment in the murder of the Son of God in this way: that through the murderous hands of an unrighteous, corrupted priesthood the Father still used them to fulfill their calling – demonstrating His righteousness in providing for His people – and not only Israel but the whole world – by having this priesthood lay hands on the Lamb of God at his arrest and trial – in a momentary alliance w/ Gentile Rome – thus transferring all the foulness,deceit and wickedness of man onto the Lamb carted away outside the gates for execution. All this unbeknownst to Israel – that they were actually fulfilling the prophecy of the blessing of all the nations in the slaying of that troublemaker from Nazareth! There unrighteousness was exposed while God’s righteousness was vindicated!

  2. Al says:

    Thanks for your comments, Michael. I have addressed some of these issues at more length in this post.

  3. MichaelO says:

    Wonderful article on the Atonement Al! Very clear and helpful.

    – Also, Jim Jordan’s comments at the end were very helpful as well. I’ll have to dig into his recommendation of Rushdooney’s work *Politics of Guilt and Pity.*

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  5. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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