Adventures in Theology--The Lottery

In the last two years or so, I have been in the process of digging deep and trying to figure out this religion thing and how I fit into it.  It has been disorienting in many ways, but finding that the standard traditional Catholic apologetics have not been working has been an impetus to seek out other voices.  And, as it turns out, there is a ton of interesting stuff out there, things that have changed the way I look at Christianity.

There is a ton of good stuff to be found, but the biggest revelation has been the work of a French literary critic/anthropologist/theologian Rene Girard.  I tried reading Girard a couple of times in the past, and it never really "clicked" until about six months ago when I finished his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning.  His ideas are not easy, and his works are in translation from French, but it is worth the effort to dig through it.  In the next couple of posts, I am going to try to work through how I understand Girard's thought, and it's consequences for thinking about religion in general, and Christianity in particular.


In order to make sense of Rene Girard's theory of atonement, you have to take a somewhat extended detour into his account of anthropology.  And the best place to see this anthropology is in Shirley Jackson's short story The Lottery.

The Lottery tells the story of an unnamed town in an unnamed area somewhere in America.  On an unnamed day, there is great excitement, and great tension, because it is the day of the Lottery.  Everyone in town gathers in the town square, and one representative per family comes forward to draw a piece of paper from the box,  This is done with great solemnity.  No one is really sure why they do this--someone mentions that other towns have given up the lottery, which is greeted with derision by the old man and vague references to the lottery ensuring good crops for the year.  After everyone has drawn, one man has drawn the paper with the black mark.  His wife begins to become hysterical, saying that the process is not fair, that the rules were not followed, etc.  Nevertheless, now everyone in the man's family, including the kids, redraws.  The wife draws the black mark again, and her panic grows.  And justifiably so, since the entire town (including her children), with frenzied energy, stone her against the side of a building.

In this horrible, shocking story, Girard would say we see human culture in its exposed, primordial form.  Culture, Girard argues, is inevitably grounded in ritualized collective violence directed at a single victim.  That violence is camouflaged in various ways, such that we don't think we are reenacting The Lottery.  But, Girard says, we are.

To see how this works, Girard starts with the premise that the fundamental nature of human beings is that we imitate.  All human learning is ultimately about imitation--we learn to walk and learn language by imitating those around us.  This imitation also extends to desire.  Rather than the rationalist, Enlightenment idea that the autonomous Self reaches out to desire things in the environment, Girard says that we imitate the desires of the other.  We see someone (the Model) desiring something (the Object), and we (the Subject) begin to desire that same thing.  On the surface, this creates a triangle between the Subject, Model, and Object--like a love triangle.  Girard calls this process "memetic desire."

Again, think about a baby.  Babies have non-conscious instincts to eat and to put things in their mouths.  But babies have to learn what sorts of things they should eat--what they desire.  If you've ever tried to feed a baby babyfood, you know that the best way to get a baby to eat the food is to eat some of it yourself and look pleased.  The baby sees your desire (or, more likely, your fake desire in this case) and imitates it.  

In the babyfood example, this memetic process is completely harmless--good for the baby and fine for the feeder.  But in other contexts, this triangle creates a real problem.  Once the Subject desires the Object via imitating the Model, the Model sees the desire of the Subject and imitates that.  The script is now flipped--the Model becomes the Subject, and visa versa.  This reinforces the desire of the original Model.  And the logic of this process causes the desires of the two sides to cycle back and forth, reinforcing and escalating each other's desires.  Girard calls this "memetic rivalry."

Think about kids playing with toys.  The older child has a toy that he or she doesn't seem to care about--until the younger child comes in to play with it.  That desire of the younger child inflames the desires of the older child, which in turn reinforces the desires of the younger child.  Now the kids are fighting.  That's memetic rivalry.

Two other things about this memetic rivalry.  First, it doesn't stay limited to two people.  Anyone else who happens to observe either party locked in memetic desire is liable to get swept up in imitating the desires of one or both parties.  This creates a series of interlocking triangles of mimetic rivalry, spreading rivalry through a community like a virus.  

Second, the Object is really a red herring.  Ultimately, it is the desire itself that is being imitated, not any sort of inherent pull created by the object itself.  Since the Object really doesn't matter, it is often the case that the Object that the parties are fighting over will shift and change over time.  Or the Object might completely drop out of the equation.  Have you ever had an argument with someone, only to realize two-thirds of the way through that you don't remember what you are fighting over?  Girard would say that this is pure memetic rivalry.  At the end of the day, you are never really fighting over anything particular at all. 

So, we have people locked in memetic rivalry, and that rivalry is spreading through the community like a plague.  If it is allowed to continue, this rivalry will lead to unrestrained violence--the "War of All Against All," as Thomas Hobbes put it in Leviathan.  But it is at this point, as the tension in the community reaches a dangerous level, that Girard tells us something strange happens.  All of this memetic rivalry rolling around in the community becomes focused and directed toward either a single person or small group.  He, she, or they, become the focus of all of this memetic rivalry that has been building up in the community.  This energy is released in a violent explosion--the target is either killed or cast out of the group.  In doing so, the rest of the community's memetic rivalry is discharged, and they experience catharsis, a reduction in tensions.  Things return to normal--until memetic rivalry builds up again, and the process needs to be repeated.

In other words, exactly what happens in The Lottery.  The community needs to release its stored memetic rivalry.  Some, ultimately arbitrary, sacrifice is chosen, and the community experiences catharsis through her death.  No one really know why they are doing it, but they know that it "works" on some level.  It is a kind of collective madness, but a madness that preserves the community's peace and integrity.

The Lottery is a great story because it reveals what is really going on at the heart of human culture.  But some might object that we do not routinely hold lotteries and execute random people in modern culture.  That's true, says Girard; we don't have overt lotteries and executions, for two reasons.  First, we in the 21st Century are all under the influence of the Judeo-Christian revelation, even if we are not Jews or Christians--more about that in future posts.  But the second reason is that we cover our tracks and camouflage what we are doing.  We do things that may not look like The Lottery, but if we peel off the covering we see the hidden, obscene core.

Let's go back to the community on the brink of the War of All Against All.  While we can see with our 10,000 foot perspective that the Objects of memetic rivalry don't really matter, they matter a great deal to the people who are in the midst of the rivalry.  When the rivalry coalesces around the ultimate victim, it is going to do so in the context of a ostensible dispute.  

Suppose I am in the midst of memetic rivalry with Bob, officially over the affections of Sue.  Bob's problem with me is that he believes that I "stole" Sue's affections--maybe Bob and Sue were dating before and she left Bob for me.  Sure, ultimately what matters is the rivalry between Bob and I, and not anything specific with regard to Sue, but it will seem to both of us that the dispute is absolutely about Sue and the concrete circumstances of our situation.  Now the community coalesces around Bob and against me--I am the one who is going to be sacrificed.  As part of that process, everyone will imitate Bob's rivalry with me, along with all of the justifications Bob has for that rivalry.  In other words, the community is going to adopt Bob's rationale for why I am the problem, which is that I stole Sue's affections.  Far from being a random, arbitrary victim, I am going to be justly punished because of the bad thing I did in stealing Sue from Bob.  Or rather, that is what the community is going to tell itself.  Even though in reality I was chosen arbitrarily (and, thus, this is just like The Lottery), the community will act as if this is something altogether different--the righteous act of the community enforcing the important moral norm of not stealing someone else's girlfriend.  The sacrifice is hidden.

Girard began his academic career as a literary theorist, and he developed these ideas of memetic desire, rivalry, and hidden sacrifice by looking at novels and other works of literature.  Take the Greek tragedy of Oedipus.  In Sophocles's telling, Oedipus (without him knowing it) killed his father and married his mother.  Some time afterward, a plague hits Thebes, and the cause of the plague is discovered to be Oedipus's crimes.  So, he is cast out of the community, and the plague ends.  Everyone focuses on the "killing your father and marrying your mother" bit, but for Girard, that's just the BS justification the community of Thebes employed to cover their tracks.  Oedipus was sacrificed to make the plague (i.e. memetic rivalry) go away, ultimately for no reason at all other than the logic of sacrifice.  All of the lurid details are a smoke-screen to hide the crime from public view.

There is one more level to the hiding, and that is the role of ritual and the sacred.  Let's pick up again from my unfortunate end as a result of my rivalry with Bob over Sue.  My death discharged the memetic rivalry for a time, but only for a time.  Now the rivalry is building up again, approaching another crisis.  Some smart person will realize, "hey, I remember when this happened before--back when that Mike guy was fooling around with Sue, and then we killed him for it.  Something about that must be the solution to our current tensions."  My story, and in particular my death, now becomes a symbol of the solution to the memetic crisis.  And our clever person will find a way to try to restage my death to try to reconnect with some of that tension-releasing juice.  Maybe they will find someone else who has stolen the affections of another, and sacrifice him or her in a direct reenactment of the original story.  Maybe they will try to access my death in a more abstract way, replaying it through ritual.  Maybe both.  In this way, over time, my story becomes covered in layers and layers of myth and symbolism, further obscuring the ultimate truth of my sacrifice.

In this light, the logic of The Lottery comes into view.  At some point in this community's life, there was a sacrifice of a victim that temporarily healed the community of its rivalry.  To recover that magic, the community returned again and again to that well of "healing."  Over time, this process became ritualized and formalized.  People have no idea why they are doing what they are doing, but they have some inchoate sense that it is "working" in a way they cannot grasp.  In time, this lottery could evolve such that the actual killing was replaced with a symbolic substitute--maybe an animal, maybe some kind of effigy.  But that would not change the underlying logic of what is going on and why it is being done.  And these layers don't remove the violence that is the heart of the process.  It just cloaks it, so we don't see it.  

Perversely, over time the original sacrifice could be seen as a god, the one who has the power to bring order to the community.  After all, I did it once original in the flesh, and potentially countless times after that through the filter of various levels of abstraction and ritualization.  Girard argues that all ancient religion, gods, and mythology originate in and perpetuate this logic of sacrifice.  Ancients religions are not idle superstitions--they are a kind of technology, used to regulate and channel memetic rivarly so that it does not destroy the community.  And, if you believe some of Girard's disciples, our modern, "rational" political, social, and economic systems are just refined versions of the same ancient religion, used for the same purposes. 

For Girard, this logic of sacrifice is fundamental to our community life--we gang up and sacrifice a victim, even though we don't know what we are doing or why we are doing it.  And it is against this backdrop of sacrifice that we encounter the Scriptures.


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