Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth
Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence
By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.
Part 50: The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17; Deut 5:6-21)
In this essay series (see essays 2-8, 24-28), I have argued that the biological and social sciences have demonstrated that humans have innate biological desires, such as for food when hungry, and psychological desires, particularly self-esteem, which is a salve against innate fears related to injury and death. We identify our specific objects of desire, such as what foods to eat or what we must do to gain self-esteem, by mimesis, that is, by observing what other people want. Since we want what others want or have, mimesis leads to rivalries, which in turn result in violence and scapegoating. Most of the other essays in this series have explored how the Bible has similarly revealed the scapegoating mechanism, which seems miraculous, because the scapegoating mechanism, by its very nature, is hidden from human view. Indeed, the modern sciences that have demonstrated the scapegoating mechanism are arguably indebted to the Bible for revealing this universal practice.
Earlier essays discussed how the Hebrew Scriptures show that the ancient Hebrews were moving towards understanding the scapegoating mechanism. According to Girardian thought, this was a profound challenge, because the scapegoating mechanism has been the means by which humans come together and develop culture. From the foundation of human civilization, the scapegoating mechanism has been necessary to unify communities in times of crisis. For scapegoating to work, people must not recognize that the victim is innocent, or at least not as guilty as they believe. If the lie about the victim’s guilt were revealed, scapegoating would lose its ability to keep communities together. Intuitively, people have always understood that scapegoating is the glue that maintains peace and order, and I think this is why so many prophets have been and continue to be killed – they have exposed the scandal of sacred violence that has always tried to pass itself off as “righteousness” and “justice.”
I think we can regard human history as like a person who, advancing from childhood to adulthood, can only gradually come to understand the truth. The ancient Hebrews, fully immersed in a world grounded on the scapegoating mechanism, were not ready to fully appreciate the scapegoating mechanism. Consequently, they needed rules to help them avoid the mimetic desires that lead to scapegoating. The Ten Commandments embody these rules effectively.
From a Girardian perspective, the Ten Commandments almost read like a summary textbook of mimetic theory and how to avoid the consequences of mimetic rivalry. Commandments 6-9 prohibit killing, adultery, stealing, and bearing false witness. These acts fuel mimetic, reciprocal violence, which result in either communal schisms or, more commonly, scapegoating violence (see essay 6).
It is not enough to prohibit acts that involve or quickly lead to violence. We are so quickly consumed with a sense of righteous indignation that we often see our violence as justice. Therefore, the tenth Commandment gets to the root of the problem – envy. We are instructed not to envy our neighbor’s possessions, and envy (derived from mimetic desire) is what leads to resentments and hostilities. Jesus said we should love our enemies as ourselves, and when we do this we cease to envy their personal strengths and their material possessions, and our resentments against them vanish.
Next week, we will explore the first two Commandments and the ancient Hebrews’ greatest insights about God – that God is unitary and that we are to love God.
Go on to
Part 51: The First and Second Commandments
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