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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 12 (March 1997)


Assmann, Hugo (ed), tzenbilder und Opfer: René Girard im Gesprääch mit der Befreiungstheologie. Thaur/Austria: Druck- und Verlagshaus Thaur; Münster/Germany: LIT Verlag, 1996. Pp. 310 (tr. of René Girard com teóólogos da libertaççao. Um diáálogo sobre íídolos e sacrifíícios, 1991).

This second volume in the German BMT series, "Contributions to the Mimetic Theory", is a translation from the Portuguese of the proceedings of a conference in Sao Paulo in June 1990, at which Ren Girard conversed with a number of liberation theologians. Very much a prime mover here is Hugo Assmann, who more than any other Latin American thinker has been influenced by the mimetic theory. His enthusiasm is evident in his own contributions: a commentary on the proceedings of the four-day conference and one of the papers attempting to establish the parameters for the dialogue.

In one intervention Leonardo Boff thanks René Girard for his "great intellectual holiness"; he is in fact recording his gratitude that Girard is not yet another European (especially French) intellectual who has come to offer his grand theory, and that the hoped-for dialogue and convergence of interests between Girard's mimetic theory and the theology of liberation was in fact being fulfilled. One can almost hear sighs of relief; after all, Girard has explicity and repeatedly set himself against 'liberation' as a helpful paradigm because of its tendency to project all our ills onto an external and oppressive "other" who serves nicely as a scapegoat (usually he has Freudian theory in mind, but Marx also fits the bill). In one sense it is a pity that the conference took place only months after the fall of communism in the Eastern bloc, too early to take in the implications of the new world order. Girard grasps this nettle early on by asking the participants how their political stance is affected by these events, to be reassured by them that their critique is flexible enough to recognise that emancipation from communism in Central and Eastern Europe is indeed in many aspects a genuine grace.

And so the conference unfolds, with an apparently genuine warmth and sense of collaboration, and with little trace of jargon or polemic. Part One is concerned with establishing a context for the discussion: as the title ("Idols and Sacrifice") suggests, a strong convergence is discovered between the biblical critique of idolatry (a persistent theme in liberation theology) and 'sacrifice-ideology', though the differences between the two in terms of their epistemological starting points is made clear. The presentations in Part Two deal with particular themes: the socio-political discussions centre on the notion of the market as an idol and as a 'self-regulating' sacrificial system, but there are anthropological and biblical perspectives also on Wisdom literature (Gilberto Gorgulho), Christology (Luis Carlos Susin), the gospel of Matthew (Ely Cesar), and others, as well as a pastoral reflection on AIDS/HIV ministry (James Alison).

Part Three consists of highlights from the discussions, though readers of this review will be most interested in the several longer contributions from Girard himself, especially the autobiographical fragments: his family background (Catholic mother, anti-clerical father), his distance from the Church until the age of thirty-eight, a religious conversion that went strictly hand in hand with his intellectual one, his development of the mimetic theory. Interesting also, in the context of discussions about victimisation, his experience of discrimination as a student in Paris on account of his Midi accent, an experience which was only clarified for him when he observed the struggle of blacks in the United States. He rejoices in his 'Latin sensibility' for cameraderie and seems to be very much at home in this 'return' to a Latin context.

René Girard welcomes especially the fact that the concern of liberationists to engage with reality leaves them untempted by the excessive preoccupation with texts which leads to deconstructive nihilism. For him, a resounding 'no' to sacrificial ideology (upon which the conference partipants are united) and a rejection of this extreme methodological strategy must go hand in hand. Early on, he offers a summary of the mimetic theory; later, in a longer contribution, he helps to establish the kind of context in which the mimetic theory contributes to a liberationist project. He is fully in agreement with the convergence between the notions of sacrificial ideology and idolatry, but speaks more broadly of the mimetic theory as contributing to a theory of salvation (it is interesting that earlier Girard speaks of Raymund Schwager as one of the very few thinkers not to have distorted his theory). He spells out some of the pastoral implications; the 'transparency' of the theory, which is such a handicap in intellectual circles which value complexity, becomes an advantage when ordinary people without academic formation can easily grasp what is being talked about. Finally, it is an instrument of demystification, more radical than those of Marx or psychoanalysis, though he recognises the possibility of a mimetic rivalry between these systems!

Girard acknowledges the deeply Christian commitment of his interlocutors, and is even able to empathise, from his own experience, with the tension between liberation theology and the official Church, which he attributes partly to media sensationalism, though he suggests there are mimetic elements in this conflict also. Interestingly, in his one fairly explicit criticism of liberation theology, he urges its practitioners to grow in respect and understanding towards popular forms of religious expression, and expresses his concern that it may have lost an 'external sign' of its witness.

But this translation is welcome not simply for the comments of Renéé Girard himself. To my knowledge it is the first sustained examination of the mimetic theory outside a North American or European academic context. Is this the tentative beginning of a continued dialogue? Some of the hardest questions being asked were about basic anthropological presuppositions: original sin and original grace, about the possible grounds for optimism concerning human transformation, and these are surely perennial issues. What is also evident, even from this tentative beginning, are the mutual advantages of such a dialogue, insofar as the mimetic theory seeks to be established on a wider basis than its present, 'first-world' foundation, and as the theology of liberation needs to find its way around the theoretical and practical impasses caused not least by the emergence of a more complex political and social world order.

Michael Kirwan S.J.