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Colloquium On Violence & Religion



COV&R-Bulletin No. 17 (Oct. 1999)

Report from the Annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA.

(June 3-5, 1999)

On June 3, 1999 we convened the eighth annual meeting of the Colloquium on Violence and Religion (COV&R) at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. The report that follows is based on my observations and perspective as the principal conference organizer. However I also benefitted from the sustained support of COV&R member Fred Smith, a staff member of the Carter Presidential Center's Interfaith Health Program, and of my graduate student assistant and conference manager, Maggie Kulyk (a Girardian thinker in her own right). Let me also acknowledge here the support and post-conference appreciations of so many COV&R members, including that of the Girards and of the Advisory Board. Thanks to all COV&R and Emory University members who helped make this conference the success that it was!

What They Said

"An incredibly rich and interesting meeting with not one boring minute from the beginning until the end. Life seems just a little flat now that we are back at home and can't count on hearing something new and stimulating at every meal."

"I am sure that people will be thinking of Emory as a model as they organize future meetings." "This was an extremely well-organized meeting, evident in everything from the facilities to the energy and enthusiasm of the student assistants and participants."

"I know from afar some of the scholastic resources at Emory, but I had never been there before, and am now looking forward to returning." Those are a few comments from conference participants. Many of them especially praised us for the"fabled southern hospitality" of our Student Host Committee, of the Conference Office and catering staffs, and for the expertise of my graduate assistant and conference manager, Maggie Kulyk. In addition you will find a selection of media articles enclosed.

Conference Highlights

Many of the presentations have papers posted on our website, accessible through the Religion Department homepage under "Colloquium on Violence and Religion." Please browse at your leisure. In addition the plenary sessions of the Symposium were videorecorded.

Thursday morning, June 3

Introductory Challenges

My introductory remarks were self-critical: How far are we theorists of violence ensnared by the monolithic appearance of violence, so that we ourselves lack the imagination, vision or fortitude for the kind of violence reduction that engages so many practitioners? In that regard the conference effectively challenged us to become much more publicly accountable concerning the consequences for practice of the theories of violence that we explore. In particular I pointed out both the benefits and the moral accountability of our work to such violence reduction practitioners (local but regrettably absent) as President Jimmy Carter, Ambassador Andrew Young, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu visiting at Emory this year.

Hominization & Violence

The opening volley of presentations began with Eric Gans of the UCLA French department. As a language scholar Gans argued that a key factor in "hominization"--the prehistoric process by which our species emerged from earlier primate species--was the need to defer the onset of violence by means of language. Early hominids were forced to improve on gestural and guttural communication in order to protect their young for example (with their longer maturation cycles) from in-group outbreaks of violence. The cascading effect of such violence-deferral imperatives produced a language- proficient species with increased brain size and culture-building traits and has led to present- day humans.

Primate Reconciliation

Gans was followed by Frans DeWaal of the Yerkes Primate Center. Prof. DeWaal went beyond his renown presentations on conflict resolution among monkeys and apes by insisting that "reconciliation" is not merely a religious (or Christian) theme. Rather, as he demonstrated with slides and research data, reconciliation already occurs in primate behavior and is thus a universal hominid phenomenon linking us to our cousin species. As Professor Girard remarked from the audience, the first two presentations together displayed some of the convergences as well as differences between the humanities and social sciences in terms of data selection, methods of study, styles of presentation, and modes of persuasion. Indeed the two scholars themselves were unintentionally dramatizing the separation of their disciplines until the moment when Gans, closing the distance from the other side of the stage, initiated a light-hearted embrace of DeWaal in congruence with his conciliatory theme. Much audience laughter ensued.

Thursday afternoon, June 3

Violence Reduction in New Guinea

The first cycle of sessions concluded with Bruce Knauft from our own Emory Anthropology department. Knauft presented the results of his recent research among the rainforest people in Papua New Guinea that he has studied for several years. He was especially eloquent about his ambivalent response as a researcher to the Christianization of the people and their loss of traditional culture on the one hand. On the other hand he welcomed of course the resulting decline of violence due to the churches' influence against witchhunting in the community. Knauft's frank self-disclosure and openness as a researcher paralleled my own efforts earlier that morning to be direct, forthcoming, and challenging to colleagues and students.

Concurrent Sessions

A number of concurrent sessions and practicums followed, ranging from a comparison of collegiate violence to "cargo cults" (Vehse); a Girardian treatment of the curse of Ham in Genesis 9 (Haynes); a literary analysis of legislation and violence against women in the fiction of Miriam Grace Monfredo (Johnsen); an analysis of international war and reconciliation (Brecke and Long); and a Girardian approach to business ethics and mimetic rivalries in the workplace (Grote). Each of these sessions, like the other concurrent sessions throughout the three days, featured a participant evaluation form asking the audience to evaluate the session with respect to its import for "violence reduction in theory and practice."

Thursday evening, June 3

Truth & Reconciliation

The first day of the conference concluded with an evening presentation by Charles Villa-Vicencio, a South-African theologian and researcher for his nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). Out the context of the TRC and its recently concluded hearings, Villa-Vicencio challenged conferees to consider not only the perpetrators of violence during the apartheid era, but also the hidden "perpetrator within" the rest of us who acquiesces in, tolerates, or permits such violence even in the name of liberation from, or retribution against, oppressors and informers. Particularly poignant was the audience's privilege to hear Prof. Villa-Vicencio and a fellow South African share the pathos of their respective decisions to leave or remain in their homeland during its most oppressive and genocidal years.

Friday morning, June 4

War as Sacrifice

The second day began with a challenging and much debated treatment of the Nazis and the WWII holocaust based on a theory of warfare as "sacrificial" rite. Richard Koenigsberg, director of the Library of Social Science, reflected on a series of parallel developments that rendered Nazi soldiers increasingly similar to their Jewish victims. Perhaps most astonishing among Koenigsberg's data was the little-known fact (for example) that the number of German soldiers killed in the war approximated the number of Jews killed: six million. Citing other such convergences he argued that the ostensible goals of that war and others are subordinate to their sacrificial imperatives: to generate unity by requiring all groups in the state to place their lives at the disposal of the state. Although the requirements of such sacrifice may vary greatly for each group, a perverse unity is finally achieved as they all become identified with one another by virtue of the fact that they all perform their designated sacrifice. It is fair to say that the audience was outraged by this theory's structural atrophy distinctions and erasure of moral differences between victims and perpetrators. However there was also an appreciation of Koenigsberg's mimetic portrayal of the simulacra that violence creates between victims and perpetrators.

Concurrent Sessions

Concurrent sessions that morning included a nonsacrificial and "perichoretic" theology of the cross (Flores); a literary analysis of scapegoating motifs in Faulkner's "United States of Lyncherdom" (Kratter); a Girardian analysis of restorative justice (Osborne); a nonscapegoating model of prison ministry (Kirkegaard and Northey); and an analysis of ritual structures involving ostracism and revenge in school violence (Perlmutter; especially timely in view of the still recent shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado). Two concurrent workshops in the afternoon dealt with (1) an alternative (non-Girardian) psychosocial model of human cultural development called "Spiral Dynamics," presented by Don Beck of the National Values Center, and (2) a workshop on the "psychology of mimetic theory" based directly on Girardian thought and conducted by COV&R psychologists Tom Pace and Rusty Palmer with psychiatrist Jean-Michel Oughourlian (an interlocutor in Girard's most definitive statement of his theory, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World).

Friday evening, June 4

Plenary Address: René Girard

That evening René Girard provided his traditional cautionary view of mimetic theory and its implications for issues of violence and violence reduction. Girard chose as his text the biblical saying of Jesus, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword," (Matthew 10.34). Joining his own ironic wit to that of Matthew's Jesus, he reminded the audience that violence theories do not necessarily reduce violence. As when agents of nonviolence (like Jesus) expose its deep structures, violence may take even more extreme forms in order to produce the cathartic effects that it typically and perniciously confers in religion and culture. Such exposs of violence may produce "sacrificial crises" that aggravate rather than ameliorate violence. In this connection Girard implicitly challenged conferees to heed Jesus' admonition stated earlier in the same gospel passage: "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10.16). For contemporary theorists and practitioners this means not to be naive or credulous about the relationship between violence theory and violence reduction, but neither to be cynical or quietist, Girard also averred.

Saturday morning, June 5

Utopian Challenge

Regina Schwartz opened the last day of the conference with an address that attempted, among other goals, to correct her misrepresentation as a "Bible-bashing atheist." Schwartz's best-known work is The Curse of Cain: The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. In the July 3, 1997 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education she was sensationalized as an English professor who "explores the 'dark side' of monotheism" by locating "the seeds of future violence

in the Bible" (A17). A highly critical review of Schwartz's book is anticipated from Emory's own Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament professor in the Candler School of Theology, in an upcoming issue of Commonweal, a journal of public affairs, religion and the humanities.

Schwartz's presence at the conference was all the more intriguing because her work contrasts implicitly with that of Girard. For Girard, as a biblical interpreter, avoids attributing violence either directly to the God of the Bible or indirectly to biblical monotheism. He assigns it instead to the "primitive sacred" that counterfeits the true God (cf. also "the struggle between the two voices of God in Torah" developed by Michael Lerner in Jewish Renewal.) In this regard Schwartz has been described as hermeneutically ambivalent: "Schwartz is swaying on a fence. Even while she almost (but not quite) says that biblical monotheism is the cause of violence, she almost (but not quite) realizes that biblical monotheism is the origin of her own ability to denounce violence--the Bible the unique text that reveals the structure of violence in sibling rivalry and victimization rather than covering it over" (James Alison review in First Things 78, December 1997; 48-52) At our conference Schwartz came farther off that fence by calling for "utopian" constructions of the Bible for our time.

Saturday morning and afternoon, June 5

Concluding Emphases

The remaining concurrent sessions of the conference included a panel exploring convergences between the work of literary theorist Kenneth Burke and that of Girard on scapegoating (Goodhart and Mishler); the theology of the Fall as a biological problem (Hamerton-Kelly); a "popular communication" model of Girard's work (Hewett); and an application of Girard's theory of sacrifice to the operation of the death penalty in the United States (Atty. Mahoney). Saturday evening concluded the conference with a "liturgical consummation" featuring an innovative and interreligious rite of reconciliation (Adams), followed by a dessert reception.

Earlier that afternoon an organizational consummation also occurred: at the COV&R business meeting new officers and board members were elected and--most significant as regards the conference theme--a consensus emerged. By consensus it was agreed that a professional society such as COV&R should be more visible and serviceable in the public domain, on behalf of the public's need for more intelligent and discerning approaches to the treatment of violence, and as an expression of members' desire to more integrally link theory and practice.

Post-conference Options

Finally, the Religion Department is considering an initiative to maintain a violence and religion focus in the department, perhaps bearing some institutional affiliation with COV&R if mutually agreeable. You may be hear more from us on such topics in the semesters ahead, especially in view of the increasing interest in the University on issues of mediation and reconciliation. The Department may also explore the possibilities of foundation funding for post-conference research (for example, a national survey of faith-based and interfaith resources for violence reduction) and related intiatives.

Thee Smith,

Assoc. Professor of Religion, Emory University

See also the Colloqiuim website: