May 3, 2023, 6:00 AM

Franciscan Fractal: “Mimetic Violence”

A commentary on today’s culture through the eyes of St. Francis

But [the crowd] covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him [Stephen]. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him... Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. Acts 7:57-58, 60

For St. Francis, rocks were used for building and rebuilding chapels. Stones formed a solid foundation that would be incorporated into structures that would lead to places of worship and transformation. History has shown, however, that rocks have also been used in almost every culture as weapons to maim and kill others with whom you disagreed. St. Francis' solitary life helped him avoid the violence that others exhibited when they thought themselves to be “right” and others “wrong.”

St. Stephen was an apt example of one within the church who did encounter violence. He died a martyr believing that Jesus showed us the face of God. Rulers in the establishment (the Sanhedrin) saw this a threat to their ability to define who God was. Their reaction? Kill the messenger. In their minds, this would silence any opposition to their way of interpreting the world and God. Above all, silencing a dissenter would keep them in power and maintain the status quo.

As I look at the world today, violence continues and is no less deadly. People justify killing others because they articulate a different view of how the world should operate. Hunger, lack of financial resources, territorial disputes are caused by someone else. Someone is at fault and must be blamed. The result is that people and their leaders go to war to kill in an attempt to “silence” the opposition, and propagate their own world view through power and control.

The tragedy does not end there. Given enough time, those who were conquered and “silenced” regroup and retaliate, committing the same crimes as the initiators of the original violence. Like a ping-pong ball, the violence goes back and forth between individuals and the two groups. French historian, literary critic, and philosopher René Girard coined the term for this back-and-forth movement as “mimetic violence.” I hit you and you hit back. The problem is that hitting never heals.

Mimetic violence was recently brought home to me as I watched a five-hour French documentary recapping World War I with actual video footage of the war. The trench warfare, military tactics, and use of human fodder back then were the same strategies that are being used today in the Russian-Ukrainian war. World War I (the war to end all wars) was fought over a hundred years ago, yet the same territorial and domination issues are still being played out in mimetic fashion.

The ultimate solution to the violence of today’s wars rests in the power of a risen Christ, and starts on an individual level with each of us taking personal responsibility. Dying-to-self as Christ did is the core of what ends mimetic violence. A person ends the cycle of violence by giving up personal gain for the good of another. Only in this way does violence have a chance to cease. That, I admit, is never easy.

All dying-to-self requires the deep love of God. Such love begins with all of us loving those with whom we intensely disagree. And, when necessary, confront. If we experience violence in confrontation, may our response include the words of St. Stephen, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Prayers and Blessings,

Fr. John