Redekop’s Mimetic Structures of Violence and of Blessing: as applied to the church and particularly to the sex abuse scandal

Vern Neufeld Redekop, “Mimetic Structures of Violence and of Blessing: Creating a Discursive Framework for Reconciliation,” Theoforum 33, no. 3 (January 1, 2002): 311–335.

This outstanding paper first concisely describes structures of violence and of blessing (life-giving creativity) purely in terms of mimetic theory, then identifies and develops these concepts as found in scripture and explored in the recent work of mimetic theologians. The material on violence is somewhat more detailed and breaks little new ground to those already familiar with Girard’s work, although sufficiently well presented as to be valuable nonetheless; the material on blessing synthesizes and further develops the work of Girard’s successors who increasingly turn to mimetic theory seeking solutions to, rather than descriptions of, the problem of violence.

I would not hesitate to recommend it as an introduction to mimetic theory and theology: it is accessibly brief, extremely clear, and contains a wealth of references for further reading.

Redekop presents both a purely secular account, and one which is scripturally grounded and theologically developed, in order to support the work of reconciliation between Christians and those suspicious of Christianity. In so doing, he has written a paper which is immediately applicable to mimetic ecclesiology, including resources for responding to critiques that it is an ecclesiology from below that not only begins, but also ends, with the social sciences.

The concept of mimetic structures provides a language with which to discuss the institutional church, and ecclesial structures and communities more generally. Redekop defines structures as “diachronic [ie, persistent and developing over time] relational patterns of interaction [in which] similar dynamics can be seen in different contexts [and] the same kind of action recurs within the same relational system … Patterns of action and interaction take on a life of their own over time.” (313, 315) Drawing on human needs theory and hegemonic structural analysis as well as mimetic theory, he identifies mimetic structures as those in which people satisfy their identity needs, mimetically influenced not only by the individuals with whom they interact, but also the structural context in which they live.

Mimetic structures of violence are ordered towards violence: they construct meaning, identity, and agency over against the Other, either by direct mimetic rivalry or indirect, pervasive domination of an oppressed group. “Within mimetic structures of violence there is an ontological rift in which the very humanity of the Other is denied.” (315) Even a shared sense of victimization is a manifestation of the underlying orientation towards violence. Redekop summarizes:

Mimetic structures of violence then are diachronic relational structures in which people threaten the need satisfiers of their Others; as they seek mimetically to acquire whatever advantage they can at the expense of their Others, they systematically dominate others, and nurture a mythology of chosen glories and chosen traumas that intensify an ongoing ontological rift.(315)

Mimetic structures of blessing are ordered towards mutual well-being and the common good: they construct meaning, identity and agency in relational terms. Instead of violence and acquisitiveness, people imitate the “reciprocal action of intending, wishing for, and acting towards the mutual well-being of self and other,” (315) as developed in Rebecca Adams’ work on mimetic intersubjectivity: when the object desired by one’s mimetic model is not an object, but the well-being of one’s self, then one imitates the model by similarly desiring the model’s well-being.[1] This form of mimesis is pacific and creative, rather than violent and acquisitive; it operates from a worldview of God-gifted abundance rather than zero-sum scarcity.

These descriptions make it easy to see that, according to traditional Christian teaching, the fallen world operates according to mimetic structures of violence, and the church is called to function within this world as a mimetic structure of blessing, a sacrament of the life-giving Reign of God. As Redekop describes:

Within mimetic structures of blessing, identity-need satisfiers are framed in such a way that satisfaction includes the well-being of the Other as well as the common good. Mimetic desire leads to mutual well-being and the introduction of institutions that satisfy many. Instead of scapegoating there is the creative introduction of positively centred processes directed towards supraordinate goals. Steps are taken within mimetic structures of blessing to bring hegemonic structures to consciousness and to take action, not only to deconstruct domination, but to create temporal safeguards against their recurrence.(316)

This description is well aligned with traditional elements of Catholic teaching concerning human flourishing and the common good.

Its final point regarding temporal safeguards against the recurrence of problematic patterns is particularly pertinent in light of the recent and ongoing sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, in which both victims and gay priests have been systematically othered and subjugated to satisfy the identity needs of those most closely identified with the institutional church. This group most obviously includes bishops and affiliated employees of the institutional church who instigated and perpetuated the silencing of victims to avoid tarnishing the reputation of the church, and who scapegoated gay priests and expelled gay seminarians in an attempt to purify the church from “filth”[2]; but it also includes ordinary Catholics whose mimetic relationship to the institutional church or its authority figures causes them to disbelieve and disparage victims as liars motivated by hatred for the church or by financial greed.[3]

Note that simply inverting this pattern so as to heroize the victims and demonize their perpetrators, the institutional church, and its authority figures, is also a mimetic structure of violence, and is equally proscribed by the norms of mimetic theory.

Just as mimetic theology interprets the Bible as a “text in travail,” so mimetic ecclesiology perceives the church as an institution in travail, struggling with the mimetic structures of violence within which it remains entangled: due to its history and at its interfaces with the world. The sex abuse scandal provides a clear case study in which we can identify ecclesial patterns corresponding to the guilty victim who deserved his expulsion (the original violent pattern), the innocent victim who cries out for vengeance (the inverted violent pattern), and the innocent victim who does not seek vengeance (the structure of blessing to which we are called).

Mimetic ecclesiology is an inaugurated ecclesiology: the church is the church founded by Christ and animated by the Holy Spirit insofar as it stands with victims, speaks for victims while repudiating vengeance, and incarnates mimetic structures of blessing which work to amplify the desire for, and to bring about, the well-being of all persons, and which thereby spread the Good News and bring about the reign of God.

[1] Adams, Rebecca, “Loving Mimesis and Girard’s ‘Scapegoat of the Text’: A Creative Reassessment of Mimetic Desire,” in Violence Renounced, Studies in Peace and Scripture 4 (Telford, PA: Pandora, 2000), 277–307.

[2] A description used by Pope Benedict in his 2005 Good Friday sermon

[3] I was most shocked to encounter this perspective from an elderly relative who was highly esteemed in the family for her love and compassion, and whose daughter was active in Voice of the Faithful.

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1 Response to Redekop’s Mimetic Structures of Violence and of Blessing: as applied to the church and particularly to the sex abuse scandal

  1. Pingback: Redekop’s Mimetic Structures of Blessing and Reconciliation | Gaudete Theology

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