The Devil in the Mirror

The Devil in the Mirror by Ben Garrett
Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett

Blogger at Basileus
Ben is an independent communications and strategy consultant to churches and social enterprises. A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, his interests are asset-based community development, liberation theology, critical theory, Christian anarchism, trauma studies, and mountain biking. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, with his wife Candra and dog Winnie.
Ben Garrett

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10 minutes. 1,100 Shots fired. 546 injured. 59 dead. In terms of the numbers alone the Las Vegas Shooting was nightmarish on a grand scale. It was hailed as the largest mass shooting in American history (it wasn’t). It sent our country into its normal flurry of arguments about guns: who should be able to have them, what kinds, how do we get them, etc.

Lurking beneath this perennial debate was a horror that was only hinted at, a horror we have ceased to talk about now that we are a few months removed. What terrified me about the shooting (and perhaps what has terrified those professionals who would normally be on the case) is the fact that we do not know why Stephen Paddock killed all those people.

Before he even had a name he had a multiplicity of possible motives. Was he a right-wing killer angered by the changing landscape of the world? Perhaps a progressive crusader? What if he was a righteously aggrieved African American revenging himself upon a murderous America? Was he a violent muslim extremist or an individual who wished to scare muslims into submission? We did not know.

More horrifying still is the plausibility of each of these scenarios. In following the investigation of the shooter’s motive it became clear to me that we live in a world where every “side” of every issue is not only capable of violence but has actually committed violence in the quite recent past.

Perhaps this realization strikes you as naive. You might be saying, “Of course people of every persuasion have killed, Ben. That’s what people do.” Fair enough. You are right. It is precisely this that terrifies me. The idea that this is what people do—naturally, like clockwork—is what disturbs me so greatly. This realization is scary enough in the present. What truly makes me afraid is what our present reality assures about the future because of the tendency of this kind of violence to escalate.

Rene Girard was a thinker firmly in the “violence is what people do” camp. However, like any good thinker, he sought to understand not only why it was that people are violent, but what the precise mechanics are of, specifically, collective violence.[i] His investigation led him to the development of the now highly influential “mimetic theory of desire.”[ii]

Girard maintains that people learn to desire by seeing what other people desire. This leads irrevocably towards competition because it necessarily creates situations in which multiple people desire the same object. In some cases this competition is resolvable, for instance the object is multiple, like apples. In other cases the competition escalates to the point of violence because neither desirer is willing to renounce “their claim” upon the object.

Girard looks through myth and history to find that these violent escalations create a moral equivalence. The ever-escalating violence between competing desirers makes it so that there is no longer any “good guy” or “bad guy”. There is only a long history of wounds. Here moral appeals for the right to possess the desired object fail because each side is wicked (and not in an abstract sense). Each side has become wicked by the violence they have done to each other. Ultimately, the only way to resolve the conflict is for one side to kill the other.

A contemporary example of this process can be found in Ian Palmer’s documentary Knuckle. The film records the endless series of bare-knuckle boxing matches fought between two Irish, gypsy families. The fights are triggered by an endless series of taunting videos sent back and forth between the families. The stories about the origin of the feud are convoluted and varied. Now that we are multiple generations in, the children grow up simply wanting to fight the other family because it is what their fathers did and do. Perhaps once upon a time there was a reason for the fighting but now the two sides fight as a matter of identity. For Girard the mechanism of mimetic violence is practically totalizing. Once the process begins and sides are drawn, violence is essentially inevitable.

There is, however, one exception. Girard located a single historical case in which the senselessness of mimetic violence is revealed. He finds this unmasking (an apocalypse if there ever was one) in the story of Jesus.

In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion Girard sees the arbitrariness of the mimetic process revealed from the perspective of a genuinely innocent victim.[iii] Jesus offers no resistance to those who wish to do him harm. While those in charge of Palestine accuse Jesus of all sorts of criminal activity, Jesus does not fight back. In this way, Jesus shows that those who wish to paint him as dangerous and deserving of death are frauds. By refusing to engage in the cycle of violence, Jesus shows how banal and blind the process is. Girard sees in Jesus’ story hope for humankind because Jesus shows us that we need not be bound to an endless cycle of mimetic violence.

While Jesus points to the way we might escape ceaseless and meaningless bloodshed, Christians throughout history have been all too willing to participate in the process. Christians in the contemporary United States might think ourselves rid of this horrible past, yet the way in which churches are structured presents ideal soil for mimetic hate to thrive.

In the mid part of the 20th century Donald McGavran’s theories about church growth spread like wildfire through churches in the United States.[iv] For McGavran, church growth was a science[v] with certain principles that govern its processes. One of these, repeated on numerous occasions, is that people do not like to cross barriers of race, ethnicity, or class when becoming church members. Rather, they like to join groups of Christians who are relatively similar to themselves. Thus, Christians ought not challenge people’s stereotypes, class position, cultural assumptions, etc., when trying to grow a church. This McGavran called the homogeneous unit principle (HUP).

The HUP was controversial even in McGavran’s day. It seemed to many that McGavran was giving a pass to destructive, systemic ideas and ways of being in the name of increasing church membership numbers. McGavran’s response to this was to suggest that while crossing these barriers must never be emphasized for joining Christian fellowship, Christians should expect to disciple these sinful attitudes and structures out of their churches. Unfortunately, McGavran gives little to no attention outlining how this discipleship (or really any other form of discipleship beyond training church-member recruiters) is supposed to work.

Today we find ourselves very much in the position one would expect given the dominance McGavran’s theories have enjoyed across denominations and church planting networks. As Dr. King observed, Sunday mornings are still the most segregated hours of American life. Perhaps pastors or denominational leaders (particularly more progressive ones) might protest that they reject McGavran’s theories and have nothing to do with his church growth movement. What is striking about the numbers regarding racial diversity in American religious groups is how little theology matters when it comes to diversity. Indeed, some of the least diverse congregations are amongst the most theologically progressive denominations.

What is crucial to understand is that regardless of whether pastors or denominations espouse McGavran’s theories nearly all churches in the United States are structured according to McGavran’s theories. The way churches fund themselves is by attracting paying members. Paying members are entirely subject to the HUP. You ought not challenge or overly offend your audience. You cannot demand upon entry certain kinds of repentance. The way must be wide and not overly rocky.

You can tell McGavran’s theories operate de facto in another way. If you ask pastors (and lay people) what church is for, they will often say, with true sincerity, high-minded things like discipleship, growing closer to God and neighbor, etc. However, if you ask churches what they measure, they will talk about numbers of people and giving units. When asked about measuring things like discipleship or spiritual growth, the comment is often that doing so would be too tricky and intangible.[vi] As Adrienne Maree Brown points out in her excellent book Emergent Strategy, what you pay attention to grows. It would seem that our churches are growing the wrong things. 

If we bring back Girard to observe the contemporary church with us, what we see is highly disturbing. We observe all across the nation thousands of homogenous units. Our churches are communities of highly undifferentiated individuals who are encountering little in the way of intellectual or communal diversity in the realm of the sacred.[vii] We have the perfect breeding ground for groups who are capable of producing hundreds of individuals who can easily blame “them” for all the problems of the world. One of the great ironies of our time (perhaps of history) is that it is precisely at the table where Christ broke bread with his betrayer that Christians are huddling together with people who differ from them in almost no meaningful way.

If we are to escape the cycles of violence we are both in and hurtling toward, Christians need to radically rethink church. In Colossians 1:19-22, Paul describes God’s plan in Christ as being a plan of reconciliation: universal reconciliation. Paul says that through Christ’s blood God is reconciling Godself to all creation. Here Paul and Girard would certainly find common cause. Jesus’ death and resurrection open up the possible end of the cycle of violence, towards a future of reconciliation. Christians are meant to be people of that future. In early Christianity, churches were understood to be places where heaven manifested itself on earth. Church was a place to experience heaven so that it could be recreated throughout the lives of Christians. We must find ways to create this kind of space again, a space that shows a different way of being than the destructive us vs. them in which we are immersed. We need to reshape the church so that it will reshape us.



[i] I would argue that all of the instances above, perhaps with the exception of the Las Vegas Shooting Itself, are instances of collective violence because of the way in which it appears a community is supporting these instances of violence in one way or another.


[ii] See Girard’s works The Scapegoat and Violence and The Sacred.


[iii] The mimetic process is also called scapegoating by Girard because each side blames the other for all its problems. Each group scapegoats the other. For Girard, Jesus is the scapegoat that reveals the evil of the scapegoating process.


[iv] See Chapter 6 of Molly Wothern’s excellent Apostles of Reason for this story.


[v] This is a crucial and much repeated point in his Understanding Church Growth.


[vi] It is tricky and intangible but not impossible.


[vii] It is worth noting here that sacred comes from the latin word for blood. I mean to say that when it comes to the bloodiest issues we are only interacting with people like us.


Photo by Brannon Naito