A Feminist Critique and Appropriation of Mimetic Theory

The move from mimetic theory to mimetic theology is an ongoing effort which involves the appropriation of the insights of mimetic theory as the hermeneutical lens through which to read the bible and other theological sources.[1] Mimetic theology is thus structurally similar to feminist theology and other liberation theologies, which take a key insight from the social sciences as the privileged perspective within which to do theology. It is similar, too, in declaring its scriptural hermeneutic up front.[2]

Arguably, because mimetic theology privileges the perspective of the victim, whoever the victim might be, it could potentially function as a systematic umbrella under which all the particular liberation theologies fall. Indeed, Schwager argues that none of the liberation theologies offer “a thoroughly elaborated (anthropological, cultural, social, religious-scientific and theological) theory” of the victim, such as that offered by mimetic theory. [3]

With its emphasis on historical and social structures, and its hermeneutic stance of suspicion towards myth and ritual, mimetic theory can be a powerful tool for feminist theology, especially with regard to victimization of women by religious structures.[4] There are, however, a number of points on which feminist theory challenges or critiques mimetic theory.

Girard and his disciples typically propose this theory as a universal explanation of human desire, society, and violence. But when any theory is proposed as a universal narrative, feminist, anti-oppression, and postmodern scholars warn that there has never been a universal narrative that was truly universal, that did not exclude the experiences of some marginalized population.[5] Indeed, it is almost a truism of postmodern scholarship that the age of the universal master narrative is over.

The lack of any explicit attention to sex or gender based violence and victimization is itself a suspicious telltale of profound andronormativity. This is reinforced by the casual identification of women, along with food, weapons, and territory, as community goods by at least one Girardian scholar.[6]

The focus on the individual scapegoat, especially in some theological appropriations, without a corresponding level of attention to the systemic structures of oppression, is also a concern. As Vasko puts it, Girard’s theory must be “supplemented by an analysis of heterosexism and patriarchy so as to explicitly address the ways in which patterns of surrogate victimage and scapegoating have been (and continue to be) inscribed upon sexed bodies in sacred and secular spheres.” [7] I suggest that James Alison’s notion of “semi-insiders,” combined with the insights of intersectional feminism, offers a means of addressing this critique.

Intersectional feminism, and other contemporary anti-oppression work, frequently uses compound terms involving normativity, ie, prescribing according to the standards of the dominant group, and centrism, ie, ignoring or erasing the experience or existence of non-dominant groups. For example, mainstream American society is andronormative, defining the characteristics of healthy human beings as those of healthy men, and heterocentrist, assuming by default that everyone is heterosexual. Such compound terms are more precise and less judgmental than terms like sexist or racist, although they are unfortunately also less well known.

Work in this area also frequently begins with the assumption that there are multiple axes of privilege and oppression, and that any individual is privileged in some areas and disadvantaged in others. These areas frequently appear in the self-identification of perspectival approaches to theology. For example, I identify as a straight, cisgendered,[8] presently able bodied, white, Catholic Christian theist, upper middle class, woman. I am privileged in every one of these areas except my sex; in terms of religion, I am simultaneously privileged (as a theist and a Christian) and disadvantaged (as a Roman Catholic) in mainstream American society.

Mimetic scholars sometimes adopt the Greek term pharmakos to identify “those who are on the fringes of society by virtue of their social identity.” By virtue of their marginality, the pharmakos are likely scapegoat candidates: “aspects of [their] personhood that hold the widest variance from the dominant norm” are seized on as the supposed reason for expulsion.[9] Additionally, such persons tend to be physically or socially vulnerable, and thus relatively safe targets because they lack the resources or allies to fight back.

James Alison uses the more colloquial term “semi-insider” for this concept, which maps well onto the framework described above: in a world of multiple axes of privilege, all of us are semi-insiders somewhere.

Consider two examples of ecclesial import particularly in the Roman Catholic church. A gay priest is an insider by virtue of ordination, and an outsider by virtue of sexual orientation. The Catholic church quietly accepted gay priests for years; the celibate priesthood could even be seen as a socially acceptable refuge for gay men who then did not have to explain why they were unmarried. In the wake of the sex abuse scandal, gay priests were scapegoated by the bishops, and gay men were deemed unsuitable for acceptance into the priesthood.

A Christian woman is an insider by virtue of baptism and an outsider by virtue of sex. As Anne Carr puts it, women “have traditionally been baptized into full membership in the redemptive community and yet are perceived as somewhat anomalous within that gathering.” [10] Arguably, the recent apostolic visitation of American nuns, the doctrinal investigation of the LCWR with its vague charges of “radical feminism,” and the criticisms of Sr. Dr. Elizabeth Johnson and Sr. Dr. Margaret Farley are all examples of scapegoating women for dissent among the laity.

Feminist analysis is concerned not only with issues of gender, but also with issues of power: more precisely, issues of power as they map onto and reinforce gendered social structures. The pharmakos, the semi-insider, the scapegoat candidate, is a mimetic concept that captures the issues of power and social structure in generality, and can be applied to analyze situations in which sex or gender are the primary axis of inclusion and power imbalance with suitable attention to the details of the concrete situation. This attention to the concrete is the work that Vasko argues must be done with regard to heterosexism, patriarchy, and sexed bodies; similar work must be done with regard to race, disability, and so forth.

The power of mimetic theory is that it provides tools that are suitable for analysis across all axes of oppression, with suitable attention to specific detail; as Susan Nowak points out in part 3 of her paper, it interprets differentiation and distinctiveness in terms of positionality, and is based on a socially constructed rather than essential ontology. This is compatible with feminist and other anti-oppression perspectives. The weakness of the existing body of work in mimetic theology is that relatively little attention has yet been given to these specific, concrete situations.

1 ”[T]he theological appropriation of Girard’s insights, that is, the development of a contemporary and authentically Christian (i.e., essentially non-violent) concept of God and Atonement remains a work in progress.” Robert J Daly, Sacrifice Unveiled the True Meaning of Christian Sacrifice (London; New York, NY: T & T Clark, 2009), 105.
2 Michael Hardin, “Out of the Fog: New Horizons for Atonement Theory,” in Stricken by God? (Abbotsford: Freshwind Pr, 2007), 60.
3 Józef Niewiadomski and Wolfgang Palaver, Dramatische Erlösungslehre : Ein Symposion, Innsbrucker Theologische Studien (Innsbruck: Tyrolia Verlag, 1992) 354-5}, quoted in Michael Kirwan, Discovering Girard (Cambridge, Mass: Cowley, 2005), 107.
4 Susan Nowak, “The Girardian Theory and Feminism: Critique and Appropriation,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 1, no. 1 (1994), 20-22.
5 Nowak, 25}
6 (”[Prohibitions] generally pertain to objects that the community cannot divide peacefully: women, food, weapons, and the best places to live.” Robert G. Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred: Poetics of Violence in Mark (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994), 143, emphasis mine. Note also that the blurring of distinctions between animals and humans, and between the sexes, is framed equivalently on 137.
7 Vasko, Elisabeth T., “LGBT Bullying at the Crossroads of Christian Theology: Girard, Surrogate Victimage, and Sexual Scapegoating,” in Violence, Transformation, and the Sacred: They Shall Be Called Children of God, ed. Pfeil, Margaret R. and Winright, Tobias L., College Theology Society Annual Volume (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2011), 39.
8 that is, the gender I was assigned at birth matches my gender as I experience it
9 Vasko, 41
10 Anne E Carr, Transforming Grace: Christian Tradition and Women’s Experience (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), 180

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10 Responses to A Feminist Critique and Appropriation of Mimetic Theory

  1. As always, you write with clarity and precision. I am most interested (and distressed by) your attempt to self-identify. Haven’t you left out your age, your place of birth, your birth order, your current geographical location, what languages you speak or know, your personality type, etc.? In other words, isn’t this attempt to pinpoint one’s identity in this fashion an endless (if not pointless) task? Besides, the gift of a classical education is precisely to enable one to overcome the limitations of one’s position or location, so that “nothing that is human is alien to me.”

    I’m not sure how this affects your thesis. You can let us know, as you learn what you think by writing.

    • Thanks for your comment and helpful questions, and apologies for the delayed reply: I’ve been thinking!

      The item that I thought of, but decided to exclude on the grounds that I had to stop somewhere, was citizenship status.This type of identification is aimed not at characteristics that shape my personality, but rather specifically at characteristics that influence the reality I experience as I navigate through our social world. For example, as a white person, I’m not pulled over by the police for driving-while-white; as an able-bodied person, I can easily navigate space that have steps and narrow hallways; as a Christian, I automatically get some of my religion’s major holidays off work; as a Catholic, I don’t automatically get other religious holidays off work; as a woman, my opinions are frequently discounted and my competence questioned; as a cisgendered woman, I don’t have to worry about being challenged or attacked when I enter a women’s restroom.

      I name the areas in which I am privileged to remind myself that my perspective is limited by all the things I don’t have to worry about; that there are many people who do face challenges because they are not privileged in these areas, and I need to listen to them, learn from them, and support them in working to change the systems that disadvantage them. I name the areas in which I am disadvantaged to identify the systemic aspects of society that are stacked against me, in hopes of changing those systems, too.

      This is connected to my thesis through several themes, I think: ecclesial structures that systemically disadvantage certain groups, and scapegoating dynamics that put semi-insiders at risk. The status of women, laypeople, and LGBT people in the church are concrete examples here. Also at the practical, pastoral level, church communities that experience conflicts because of demographic changes, such as historically Euro-immigrant churches that have become majority Hispanic churches.

      You quoted, “nothing that is human is alien to me.” That is the ideal; but in practice, this sadly frequently fails, to become instead an attitude that “nothing that is alien to me is human.” I believe that many of the men who transported African slaves and eradicated Native American tribes, for example, had been given a classical education.

      I’ll quote and expand on St Paul, instead: Neither Greek nor Jew, neither slave nor free, neither woman nor man, neither straight nor gay, neither cisgendered nor transgendered, neither able-bodied nor disabled, neither white nor black, neither upper class nor lower class, but we are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul could not have written his powerful statement of catholicity without naming the powerful social divisions which become united in Christ.

  2. Paul had the classical education of his day and of his culture, plus an encounter with the Christ. Obviously, it takes on some as well.

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  5. erik buys says:

    “The lack of any explicit attention to sex or gender based violence and victimization is itself a suspicious telltale of profound andronormativity. This is reinforced by the casual identification of women, along with food, weapons, and territory, as community goods by at least one Girardian scholar.”

    Maybe this could be nuanced. The identification of women as “objects” is done from within the structure that is criticized, also by Robert Hamerton-Kelly. Sadly, it is a fact that women were approached as objects and Hamerton-Kelly points to that fact without condoning it, I think. He too criticizes the structure that reduces women to objects.

    I’ve written on this as well, maybe this might interest you:



    Kind regards!

    • Erik, thanks for your comment. Yes, Hamerton-Kelly does criticize the structure as a whole, but I maintain that it is simply not possible to have authored the unglossed phrase “objects that the community cannot divide peacefully: women, food, weapons, and the best places to live” (p 143) except under the influence of the deep andronormativity that unthinkingly takes human to mean man by default.

      In the absence of such unthinking andronormativity, if one found that one had somehow written such a phrase, one would, at minimum, gloss it somehow: with a footnote or comment about the status of women in the community, and perhaps adding scare quotes around “women” to indicate that, of course, women aren’t actually objects.

      I would expect more than that, though, in a text that was propounding an anthropology. I would expect a discussion of how mimetic theory addresses the interactions between a class of people considered “people” and another class of people whom they consider “objects.” Or at least a reference to such a discussion elsewhere.

      If I missed such a gloss or comment, please do point it out to me; but I looked for one pretty hard because I was so shocked, as a reader, to suddenly find myself classed with food and weapons rather than as a member of the community.

      I had read your Uncanny Valley essay and thought it was excellent: thank you for writing it! It helped me wrap my brain about that “monstrous blurring” concept Girard writes about. I’ll take a look at the other when I get a chance.

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