The Way of Mimetic Participation
by Andrew Marr, OSB
After Elijah crossed the Jordan with Elisha, he asked his disciple what gift he wished to receive from his master before his master was taken from him. Elisha boldly asked to inherit a double share of Elisha's spirit. Not surprisingly, Elijah replied that the request was a difficult one, but maybe, maybe, it would be granted by God. As avid readers of the Bible know, the request was granted. Elisha saw the fiery chariot take his master away. Then, picking up the same cloak that him been thrown over him when he was first called to follow Elijah, Elisha retraced the journey, parting the waters of the Jordan with the cloak as his master had done.
Should we be edified by Elisha's request? Is there a chance he was asking for more than a little too much? In what Girard calls acquisitive mimesis, two or more people imitate each other by desiring the same object. When the rivalry intensifies, the object disappears. Now, having gotten beyond wanting the same thing, each wants to be the other person. Wendy Doniger vividly demonstrates this development of the collapse of identity in mimetic rivalry in her analysis of numerous myths of the substituted double in her book Splitting the Difference. A typical scenario is that a deity who has become a rival for a man's wife disguises himself as the husband in order to gain access to the wife's bed. The rival cannot have the woman as long as he is himself; he can have her only when he has become his rival.
Elijah and Elisha, however, were not fighting over a woman or over any other precious objects as far as we know. But the master-disciple relationship has its own potential for acquisitive mimesis. As Girard points out, the disciple may gratify the master by imitating him, BUT "if the imitation is too perfect, and the imitator threatens to surpass the model, the master will completely change his attitude and begin to display jealousy, mistrust and hostility." (Things Hidden p. 290) This is the classic mimetic double bind: imitate me--don't imitate me. Is Elisha not only lusting for the position of Elijah as the leader of the prophets, but he is also lusting after the very being of Elijah? And double that being at that?
The request, in itself, sounds audacious in the extreme. We are not likely to take it well if somebody asks us for our being, for our very substance as a person. The request conjures the haunting fear of vampires. If we do not actually fear the possibility of having the blood sucked out of us, we may well fear that there are people will somehow suck the inner life out of us, leaving us drained of everything that constitutes our personhood. We perceive the self to be an elusive entity that we must protect from anybody who might attempt to steal it from us. Or, we may perceive the self as an elusive entity that has already been stolen from us and we want it back. Indeed, this is the deepest outcry of the victim. However deep the pain of being robbed of one's possessions, labor and resources, it is the pain of being robbed of one's identity that is infinitely more painful. This, for example, is the pain inflicted on the Africans who were taken away from their homes and shipped across the ocean to enslavement on a strange continent.
Elijah, however, does not seem threatened by the request. On the contrary, he seems quite willing that Elisha be granted the double portion of his spirit, that Elisha receive his inner being and become the person he himself was. However, Elijah's personal spirit is not his to grant. By referring the request to God, Elijah frees the request from possible imprisonment in the relationship between the two of them. They need not fight over the spirit of Elijah, let alone a double portion of his spirit. Rather, Elijah commends his spirit, his inner being to God, and allows God to decide what to do with it. As for Elisha, he receives Elijah's spirit, not directly from Elijah himself, but from God.
The subsequent narratives about Elisha flesh out the personhood he received from Elijah. Like Elijah, he parts the water of the Jordan, produces a flask of oil for a poor widow and raises a dead boy to life. He also sends one of the sons of the prophets to anoint Jehu Son of Nimshi as king of Israel, an outstanding errand inherited from Elijah. It seems that Elisha's life has been overshadowed the way his head was covered over by Elijah's mantle at the time of his calling. But there are also significant differences. Most important, Elisha seems to be much more involved with the brotherhood of prophets and society as a whole. He pours salt into the water for the benefit of a city, removes the poison from a pot of food for his fellow prophets, miraculously retrieves a borrowed axe head from the water, and tells the Syrian Naaman how he can be cured of leprosy. Miracles such as de-poisoning a pot and raising an axe head out of the water are often scorned as trivial, hardly worth the doing. The humble circumstances of these miracles is important, however. In them, the prophet Elisha shows a concern for the day-to-day living of his fellow prophets. It matters to him if a borrowed axe head is lost. Elisha is catching on to the fact that the hairs on our heads are counted. The inner being of Elijah that Elisha has received is not a possession he can hoard; it is a personal dynamism that expends itself in service to others. This is not the sort of gift that a greedy person would ask for. The foil to Elisha here is his disciple Gehazi. Far from wanting a double portion of his master's spirit, he only wants the material rewards that Elisha declines. His eyes are on the treasure Naaman offered the prophet, not the prophet who was his master. In going after Naaman, Gehazi rode off in the opposite direction than Elisha, just as his life itself was going in the opposite direction. Gehazi got the riches he coveted and, as a bonus, received a chronic case of leprosy.
In the Elisha story, then, we can see a progression from external mimesis to what Robin Collins calls "mimetic participation." To begin with, Elisha follows after Elijah after he has been called. Just before Elijah's death, Elisha walks with his master through what is presented as a liturgical journey. At each stage, Elijah tells his disciple to remain while he goes on to Bethel, Jericho, and then across the Jordan. Each time Elisha says: "As the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will not leave you." (2 Kings 2:2) The act of walking with the master is not a trivial detail. The phrase "to walk in the way" stood for the imitative following of one's master. By walking in Elijah's footsteps, Elisha is given the opportunity to ask for the next, deeper stage of participating in the being of his master. When he receives the double share of Elijah's spirit that he asked for, he has, within himself, the inner power, given by God of Elijah and is able to do what Elijah did and much more.
Immediately after feeding the five thousand in the wilderness, Jesus "made his disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side." (Mk. 6:45) Then Jesus went into the hills to pray while the disciples got themselves caught in a storm on the lake. Later, when Jesus came across the water, the disciples mistook him for a ghost and cried out. That is, they failed to recognize Jesus. Yes, it was dark out there, but one would think they knew Jesus pretty well by this time and might have recognized him when he was close up, but they didn't. After Jesus gets into the boat, Mark adds: "they were utterly astounded for they did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened." (Mk. 6: 52) In contrast to the Elijah-Elisha story, this episode smacks of bungled following.
To begin with, the disciples did not follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Instead, they got into the boat. True, Mark says that Jesus "ordered" the disciples to go on ahead of him. However, Elijah ordered Elisha to remain behind while he went on the next stage of his journey, but Elisha replied, "As the Lord lives and yourself live, I will not leave you." This has me wondering if perhaps Jesus' disciples also should have countered Jesus' order to get into the boat by saying: "As the Lord lives and you yourself live, we will not leave you." If they had, they could have spent a much calmer night in prayer with their master. Being tossed about by the storm at sea is quite an apt message for a disciple who goes off in a different direction rather than follow the master.
How were the disciples' hearts hardened so as to prevent their understanding about the loaves? Let us look again at how the disciples reacted at the time of the miracle. Jesus went to a "lonely place" so as to be alone with his disciples only to be met by a "great throng." Jesus, however much he may have wished for some relief, reacted with compassion "because they were like sheep without a shepherd." Mark says nothing about the disciples' reaction at this point, but subsequent events give us a pretty good guess. When evening came and with it dinner time, the disciples asked Jesus to send everybody away. Instead, Jesus asked them to feed the people from their own stores of food, although they didn't have much. At no time does Mark give the slightest hint that the disciples were edified by the feeding of the crowd or that they repented of their earlier attitude. In fact, conspicuous by its absence is that stock phrase of Mark that ends so many miracle narratives: "They were amazed." Just a few verses later, the disciples were amazed when Jesus walked on the stormy water and then got into the boat with them. The feeding of the five thousand apparently did not amaze them. Their hearts were hardened. This hardness of heart receives doubled emphasis with the repeat of this miracle. This time, Jesus' expression of sympathy for the physical hunger of the people is even more emphatic: "If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way." (Mk. 8:3) In spite of that fact that Jesus had already fed one multitude, the disciples ask how they can feed so many, although they have seven loaves this time instead of five and some more fish to boot. Needless to say, for the second time, nobody is amazed at this miracle. Afterwards, again for the second time, the disciples are in a boat with Jesus and, for the second time, are berated for their hardness of heart and lack of understanding.
Judging from these reflections, it is becoming clear that "exterior mimesis" is not enough. In itself, it isn't anything at all. The disciples imitated Jesus by distributing the food when asked (explicit in Mk. 7: 41) but this action did not soften their hearts. Their hearts did not imitate Jesus through feeling compassion for the sheep without a shepherd or in sympathizing with the people who would faint on the way if they were sent home hungry. At this point, they seem to have no interest in receiving even a single share of Jesus' spirit, let alone double.
Hard on the heels of the two feedings of a crowd, Mark begins the cycle of Jesus' predictions of his suffering and death coupled with the wrangling of the disciples over who is the greatest or who will sit at Jesus' right hand in glory. Again, the contrast with the Elijah-Elisha story is instructive. Elisha is focused on his master Elijah. Jesus' disciples are focused on each other. The result of Elisha's focus is that he is not fighting with the other prophets over position, which is precisely what Jesus' disciples are doing. Given Elisha's audacious request, one might suspect that he is practicing a superior strategy for getting to be the top dog. After all, the strategy works. He receives the double share of Elijah's spirit and he becomes new leader of the band of prophets. However, we do not see Elisha lording it over the other prophets. The miracles he performs for the brotherhood demonstrate a willingness to serve this community. If the disciples were to become similarly focused on Jesus himself, there would be no room for their rivalry. Their hearts would soften to the point where they could follow the movements of Jesus' own heart, a heart far too large to leave anybody anything to fight over. Abundance of food and abundance of love go together.
One of my speculative questions at this point is this: if one of the disciples had gone off to pray with Jesus after the first feeding of a crowd and if that disciple had received even a partial share of Jesus' spirit at that time, might that disciple not have renounced his quarrel with his fellows over who is the greatest? It turns out that Mark goes on to answer this question. Right after the first Passion Saying and before the second and third, Jesus goes up a high mountain and this time, three of the disciples follow him up. While there, they see Jesus transfigured before them. A voice from Heaven reaffirms that Jesus is the beloved son the disciples should listen to. One might think that surely Jesus' followers had just received a double portion of Jesus' spirit! Peter sure thought it was great being there! The Second Epistle of Peter refers to this incident to demonstrate that he is not following "cleverly devised myths" but is an eyewitness of Jesus' majesty who has received "honor and glory from God" when he heard the voice "borne from heaven" while on the holy mountain. (2 Pet. 1: 16-18) What is more, it is the "honor and glory from God" that makes it possible for to become "partakers of the divine nature." (2 Pet. 1:4)
Unfortunately, the grace of Jesus' Transfiguration did not do the trick, at least not at the time it happened. They still had no better an understanding of Jesus' passion sayings than they had before. Each time Jesus predicted his passion, their fighting over who was the greatest only got worse. Moreover, it was James and John, two of the disciples who were on the mountain to see the transfigured Jesus who asked for the throne in glory at Jesus' right. Their hearts were still hardened.
Unlike Elisha, the disciples did not receive the double share of Jesus' spirit right at the time Jesus died. While Elisha stayed by his master, the disciples ran away. Who knows what they might have seen of God's glory if they hadn't? In all fairness to the disciples, though, it was harder to stay with a master who was being persecuted by everybody than it was to stay with a venerated master who was about to be taken up alive into heaven. Unlike Elisha, they never asked for a double portion of Jesus' spirit. When Jesus promised them that gift, they gave no indication that they wanted it. They gathered in the upper room, not to receive Jesus' spirit, but to protect themselves. They got the spirit anyway because Jesus came and breathed on them. Whereas Elijah was willing that Elisha receive a double share of his spirit, Jesus positively wanted to give that gift, and not to one follower only but to twelve followers, and then to more followers than there are stars in the sky. For Jesus, his inner being was not something to protect from psychic vampires, but something to give away. Just as Elisha duplicated many of the miracles of Elijah, the disciples went on to duplicate many of the miracles of Jesus. Instead of fighting about who is the greatest, they performed the ministry of Jesus. All this took place because they became partakers of the divine nature after all.
We have arrived at what Robin Collins calls "mimetic participation" which grounds his "incarnational theory" of the Atonement. ( "Girard and Atonement: an Incarnational Theory of Mimetic Participation,: by Robin Collins; Violence Renounced (VR), edited by Willard M. Swartley; Pandora Press; Telford, PA; 2000, p. 140) Collins defines his incarnational theory as "postulating that salvation consists in an ongoing participation in the life of God as it exists in Christ, as indicated by Jesus' metaphor of the vine and branches (John 15:5) and many other New Testament passages, such as John 6: 53-56; Col. 3:4; 2 Peter 1:4)" That is, salvation consists of receiving a double portion of Christ's spirit.
This theory is posed as an alternative to any model of the Atonement the includes a notion of God's wrath as a component, such as the suggestion that God was fed up with all wicked human beings and somebody had to be punished and it was okay if it was God's beloved Son who took the wrap. The imitation model first popularized by Peter Abelard avoids the pitfall of presenting God in a vengeful light, but the notion that Jesus saves us by setting a good example of how to behave seems far too weak to account for our redemption. Girard's mimetic theory, however, does give this model more depth by showing that much more is involved than external acts of following. Just as gravity is not a substance in itself but is a field consisting of the mass of two or more moving bodies, sin is not a metaphysical substance despoiling human nature, but rather consists of the gravity that pulls humans into a dysfunctional mimetic process that leads to escalating violence. The example of even one counter movement, such as a lone sheriff standing up to a lynch mob, can be enough to send the mimetic movement into a far better direction. How much more would the example of Jesus have this power!
Contrary to common illusions, there is no such thing as merely external imitation. Collins reminds us that our subjectivity is "to a large extent mimetically picked up from others." (VR, p. 140) That is, the subjectivity of other people is inside of us all the time. When mimetic rivalry becomes intense, our rival is an especially strong presence within us. We say such a person is "under our skin." Victims of abuse feel that they have been invaded by the other abuser. A crowd takes on a life of its own that takes possession of each individual within it. The opinions of other people exert pressure inside of us, making it difficult to hold to a contrary opinion. The defiantly alienated person may feel exempt from this contagion though one's isolation, but such a person is constantly embroiled with other people in the very act of resisting their presence inside his own. The protagonist of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground is a perfect illustration of this dilemma. On the more positive side, people who encourage us and love us are also very much within us. When two or more people cooperate on a project, there is an intermingling of selves. A master will willingly share his or her inner being with all disciples and the disciples will accept the personal presence of the master as an empowering gift. It is because the personal self is always intermingled with that of others in one way or another that a "live and let live" attitude does not work the way many of us think it should. This expression implies that other people can be relegated to some place external to us where they won't bother us. On the contrary, we must either willingly accept the subjectivity of another or wilfully reject it. Putting on the subjectivity of Christ, then, entails accepting all of the intentions of Christ where "our own subjectivity is redemptively transformed as the intentional states in Christ are creatively individualized and integrated into our own." (VR, p. 140)
This does not mean that there is no personal subjectivity whatever. There is still a personal responsibility to make decisions in relation to the presence of the subjectivity of others within us. We can be overpowered at times by violent abusers or by a crowd, but ordinarily, there is some ability to make choices along the lines of whether or not we will cooperate or compete with other people. Likewise we can make choices as to whether or not we will enter into the subjectivity of Christ. For Jesus' disciples, it would have meant sharing Jesus' will that the multitude be fed rather than sent away hungry. More important, it would have meant sharing in Jesus' intention to allow himself to be handed over to the chief priests and scribes who would put him to death. Put this way, it sounds simple. But the disciples failed completely during Jesus' lifetime and we would be wise not to be smug about their failure as we read our bibles in the comfort of our armchairs. After all, "this new subjectivity created in Jesus is radically at odds with and hence undercuts the "fallen" subjectivity of humanity. To elaborate, most of us try to avoid confronting our own vulnerability, dependence, brokenness, and alienation." (VR p. 141) No wonder human willpower is not enough. Indeed, "in this theory the Holy Spirit is conceived of as supernaturally empowering the transmission of Christ's subjectivity in the normal psychological and linguistic channels." (VR p. 141) Collins is quite clear that what is needed is a cooperation of our human will with the operation of the Holy Spirit within us on the model of Philippians 2: 12-13. The two practices that are most often seen as the means where the Holy Spirit brings the subjectivity of Christ into us are the Eucharist and contemplative prayer. Revisiting the stories of the two feedings in the wilderness and the Transfiguration will help us explore these two means.
The eucharistic overtones in the synoptic accounts of the feeding of the four thousand and the five thousand are unmistakable enough. Jesus had the people sit down in orderly rows, broke bread before the crowd, gave thanks, and then distributed it with the help of the disciples. These gestures have parallels at the Last Supper. John, however, has a different take on this miracle and he develops the eucharistic theme at some length.
The "eucharistic" discourses, however, are given a dark context that must be taken into account. There is only one positive note about the people who are fed and that comes early on and it applies to only one person. This is the boy who had five barley loaves and two fish. This time, the disciples don't offer anything of their own; instead they offer the bread and fish of somebody else. And they assume that the boy's food is hopelessly inadequate. This boy gives what the disciples do not and Jesus shows what he can do with so little. Afterwards, "when the people had seen the sign which [Jesus] had done," they proclaimed Jesus to be the "prophet who is to come into the world." Worse, they were about to seize Jesus and make him king. Far from imitating Jesus by extending the sharing of food in the wilderness, they wanted to channel this power in the direction of dominating other people. Jesus wisely hastens to make his escape.
The crowd follows Jesus, but in an incredibly clumsy fashion. They saw that "there had been only one boat there, and Jesus had not entered the boat with his disciples, but that his disciples had gone away alone." When some boats from Tiberius came "near the place where Jesus had given thanks," they got into those boat and "went to Capernaum following Jesus." (Jn. 6:22-24) This little narrative encapsulates their turning away from the meaning of the bread and their continued seeking of the wrong thing. Not surprisingly, Jesus greets them with a rebuke which extends throughout the eucharistic discourses that follow: "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life which the Son of Man will give to you." (Jn. 6: 27) Incredibly, the people ask Jesus what sign he will perform that they may believe him. Speak about not being amazed at the feeding of a crowd!
Jesus slides gently into the disclosure that he himself is the bread from heaven. He promises those that "come to him" that in an unspecified way they will not hunger. He promises his listeners that if they come to him he will not cast any of them out. At this point, the "Jews" enter the narrative and the crowd drops out of the picture. There are numerous theories about who "the Jews" in John's Gospel refer to. Here, it suffices to say that, distinct from the crowd that misunderstands Jesus, "the Jews" comprise an actively hostile group that is consciously out to get him. The "Jews" murmur at Jesus: how can this man be "bread from heaven," bread superior to the manna given in the desert? In response to "the Jews," Jesus caps the reiteration of his claim to be"living bread" with the amplification that "if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh." (Jn. 6: 51) When the "Jews," not surprisingly, murmur at this claim, Jesus turns everything up a few more notches. He speaks not only of offering his flesh to eat, but also offers his blood to drink. Moreover, Jesus switches from the normal verb for eating, phagein, to the stronger verb trogein which has a much coarser connotation as it can refer to the munching and gnawing of animals and less than gentile eating habits on the part of humans. And yet, intermixed with these gross statements, are Jesus' assurances that he will dwell within those who eat and drink of him and that those who feed on him will dwell in him. That is, by feeding on Jesus, we become participants in his subjectivity.
Paul Nuechterlein (in "Holy Communion" from the Spring 1996 issue of Contagion) suggests that Jesus is presenting the negative side of sacrifice in contradistinction of the footwashing pf chapter 13, which shows the positive, servant style of sacrifice. The verses that include the indwelling theme, verses cited by Collins as illustrating his point, suggest that this line should not be drawn so sharply, but Nuechterlein has helped us greatly by showing up the darkness that overshadows these apparently edifying statements in John 6. The crux of our problem is that our instinct is to isolate the indwelling theme from its context and take it as both a means and an end in itself. We mistakenly sanitize the presence of Christ within us the way we sanitize the eating of the Eucharist when we use hosts that don't look like bread, don't taste like it, and then melt in the mouth. What I am suggesting here is that, like Peter and the other disciples, we want the presence of a Jesus who gained the adulation of everybody rather than a Jesus who offended everybody to the point that they tore him apart and devoured him. We want Jesus without the cross! What is so offensive about this discourse is that Jesus pushes us right up against our tendency to eat up the flesh of others. The real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament is not a mere metaphysical substance. The real presence of Jesus who dwells in us when we feed on him is the real Jesus who willed to be the victim of our own sacrificial behavior. Jesus told "the Jews" that if they gnawed on him like animals, they would receive "eternal life." The catch is that we must realize that we are among "the Jews" who chomp on the humanity of other people only to find that we have swallowed the non-sacrificial life-giving personhood of Jesus! We all find it easy to overlook our own sacrificial behavior and project it on others. That is surely the reason why, in this troubling discourse, Jesus pushes our own violence in our faces so that so that we can own up to it and then participate in the life beyond sacrificial behavior that God intended for us at the dawn of creation.
Only if we get the context of Jesus' promise to dwell within us right at this point is there a chance we can get it right in the latter half of the Gospel. These discourses, capped by the lengthy prayer in chapter 17, sound like the voice of paradise. The lofty promise that we and the persons of the Holy Trinity will set up house together goes on so long that we can easily forget that all of this is said right when the Roman cohort is assembling to come and arrest Jesus. Forgetting this context is all the easier when substantial portions of this section are used as stand-alone Gospel readings. Once again, we must remember that the Jesus who sets up house within us is the Jesus who will be ignominiously carted away by the respectable authorities. What an embarrassing house guest!
The same point is illustrated yet again in Mark's narrative of the Transfiguration and so it can be restated briefly. Second Peter's reference to this event (2 Pet. 1:4) is on Robin Collins' list of verses attesting to our opportunity to share in the subjectivity of Christ. It is also the chief proof-text for the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of deification, a doctrine which is not about imitating Christ, but living in Christ. Again, we truly imitate Christ when we receive, into ourselves, the inner being of Christ. In order to see this light, we must be transfigured ourselves so that we shine with the light that we see in the face of Christ.
Once again, however, we must pause to note our tendency to overlook the context of Jesus' Transfiguration. I have already pointed out that this event took place directly after Jesus' first prediction of his suffering and death and it is followed by three more predictions of the same thing. That is to say, the Jesus who transfigures us with the light of Mount Tabor is the Jesus who is nabbed by the authorities, dragged off to court and sentenced to death. Some transfiguration! Meanwhile, the wonders of prayer are often presented as an encounter with a Jesus who is uncontaminated by suffering and the cross. Prayer and meditation become exercises to relieve stress and achieve inner peace. Jesus becomes a transcendental floating pillow that leaves humanity far behind. Unfortunately, if we seek peace by this route, we are not likely to get it for the simple reason that we will, again, overlook our own sacrificial behavior. The real Jesus will indeed transfigure our lives with a light beyond our comprehension, but it will be the light that reveals the truth of victimization and our participation in that truth. This light is more troubling than it is peaceful, but it is the way of peace that Jesus has spread before us.
In another important essay on this theme of mimetic participation in the book Violence Renounced Willard Swartley states this truth well and succinctly:
The image that functions as the object of desire is the exalted Lord Jesus who, significantly (see 1 Cor. 4) is never unhooked from the suffering Jesus Christ. But this also means that the model of mimetic desire in the new creation is not only the Jesus of suffering, forgiving, and humble service, but also the exalted, vindicated Jesus, victorious over the powers of evil. (Swartley, Willard: "Discipleship and Imitation of Jesus: the Mimesis of New Creation," VR, p. 237)The image of the Transfiguration, then, should encourage us that, although we may feel overwhelmed by the revelation of the depth and complexity of our sacrificial behavior, we are destined to be far more overwhelmed by the deifying light that shone on Jesus' face. Perhaps this light will look like the chariots of Israel that signaled Elisha's receiving a double portion of Elijah's spirit. If we receive this double portion of Jesus' spirit then, far from wanting to feed off of others, we will seek to give life out of our inner being as if we were bread.