Vanquishing violence, growing mercy—Steven Pinker and Rene Girard

Last Saturday I had this article published in the Edmonton Journal’s Religion page.

Intrusions of Grace, 19 Nov 2011, Edmonton Journal(sm)My friend Peter wrote to say, “I read your article in today’s journal, and as usual I am always intrigued by your thoughts…In terms of content, I found your views somewhat apocalyptic – something I have had cause to wonder about given my perception that there seems to be a lack of balanced perspective going on in today’s topics du jour. I recall as a young man returning from my military trips delivering aid through Africa and the Asian sub-content with a profound sense of how fortunate we are where we live, and how little many who live here appreciate or understand that good fortune. This has led me more recently to wonder why it is we have such good fortune, while others don’t, and I become more and more convinced it is due to the evolution of our politics. I know many disagree with that, and attribute our good fortune to exploitation of others, but I don’t believe that stands up to scrutiny when one looks at countries in the last 50 – 60 years that have moved towards a similar political system and those that have moved away – contrast North and South Korea for example, India and Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Ghana, and so on. I didn’t mean to get diverted onto this topic, but given the tone of your article, I thought you might find the attached article and book a refreshing antidote to the gloom visited on us 24 hours a day.”

Here’s my far too lengthy response: (Besides being lengthy it also takes a theological turn; just wanted to warn you. Feel free to stop reading anytime.)

First of all, it’s gratifying to remember how our military was known for peace keeping and delivering aid. The last decade seems to have blotted out this memory.

Secondly, that even bad democracies are better than good totalitarian states, and that this has in part contributed to our good fortune, I think is accurate. However, that our fortune hasn’t on some level been due to exploitation, I think is inaccurate. I would only point to our own country’s historical expropriation of land and exploitation of First Nations people. There are more examples.

Most intriguing however was the essay (I’ve discovered more essays) and the book Peter referenced.

In "Our Better Angels,” author Steven Pinker has shown through some pretty exhaustive research and an accumulation of data that violence, contrary to our belief and intuition, has actually decreased over the centuries. We’ve taken it for granted that the 20 century has been the bloodiest ever, but according to Pinker, we may be living in the most peaceful time in human history.

Of course, there are several ways to interpret data. Mr. Pinker’s choice is to view data on violence in relative terms, and not in absolute terms. The principal behind this, as one blogger put it, is that 10 people killing 4 is less violent than 4 people killing 2—which for many of us without the data, is hard to accept since over 100 million people were killed in 20th century terrorist attacks, genocides and wars. Still as Pinker has shown, violent death per capita, has fallen.

However, there are those that say his research is hardly broad enough and dispute his findings. And there are some who dispute his interpretation.

Personally I find it impossible to draw hard conclusions when it comes to statistics on violence. Because violence is more than a body count. Consider the intensity of violence (Hiroshima, Holocaust), the new impersonal violence of drones, consider war’s injuries, physical and psychological, which apparently isn’t part of the data. And as well, forms of cultural and religious violence are still prevalent; gang violence is rising, and domestic violence, violence against women is only beginning to be addressed.

So concerning per capita death, our intuitions may be off. But considering violence on a broad scale, probably not. Here is a 2002 study by the World Health Organization on a more comprehensive view of violence; it doesn’t dispute Pinker’s findings, but would dispute his interpretation.

That Pinker may be ideologically driven to support a particular view of human progress may or may not be true, but to look for instances of light, as he does, is hardly a bad thing in this climate. An attempt at balance that my friend rightly pointed out.

Whatever the case, it’s important not to dismiss Pinker’s work. The last paragraph of the (forwarded) article by Steven Pinker is most intriguing to me:

“But the phenomenon does force us to rethink our understanding of violence. Man’s inhumanity to man has long been a subject for moralization. With the knowledge that something has driven it dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” If our behavior has improved so much since the days of the Bible, we must be doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.”

Earlier, Pinker talks about the rise of empathy, the possibility that evolution could have even bequeathed us with an "empathy" gene.

I like Pinker’s reversal of the question. Because asking why there is peace—or if I can rephrase, why in our state of apparent perpetual war, are there outbreaks of peace—gets at the kernel of anthropologist Rene Girard’s theory of desire. A theory I’ve dropped into Grow Mercy since the outset of this blog. And a theory that casts new light on Christian revelation, or better; through it, Christian revelation is more fully revealed—and as such, it introduces ourselves to ourselves.

Here’s a story by Brian MacDonald that encapsulates Girard’s theory:

“Picture two young children playing happily on their porch, a pile of toys beside them. The older child pulls a G.I. Joe from the pile and immediately, his younger brother cries out, “No, my toy!”, pushes him out of the way, and grabs it. The older child, who was not very interested in the toy when he picked it up, now conceives a passionate need for it and attempts to wrest it back. Soon a full fight ensues, with the toy forgotten and the two boys busy pummelling each other.

As the fight intensifies, the overweight child next door wanders into their yard and comes up to them, looking for someone to play with. At that point, one of the two rivals looks up and says, “Oh, there’s old fat butt!” “Yeah,” says his brother. “Big fat butt!” The two, having forgotten the toy, now forget their fight and run the child back home. Harmony has been restored between the two brothers, though the neighbor is now indoors crying.”

With a bit of imagination we can easily see how this little story operates on communal and national levels. We form social groupings—often without even being aware of it—through scapegoating, through being over and against the Other—other groups, other nations etc. Think of junior high school, the office cliques, the Balkan wars and the sudden nationalistic fracturing of countries.

MacDonald goes on:

“It would not be much of an exaggeration to say that Girard builds his whole theory of human nature and human culture through a close analysis of the dynamics operating in this story. Most human desires are not “original” or spontaneous, he argues, but are created by imitating another whom he calls the “model.” When the model claims an object, that tells another that it is desirable—and that he must have it instead of him. Girard calls this “mimetic” (or imitative) desire. In the subsequent rivalry, the two parties will come to forget the object and will come to desire the conflict for itself. Harmony will only be restored if the conflicting parties can vent their anger on a common enemy or “scapegoat.

With the lucidity characteristic of French thought before the “deconstructionist” writers, and a consistency reminiscent of Calvin, Girard shows, throughout the body of his work, how his theory of “mimetic” desire can illuminate and unify an extraordinarily disparate set of human phenomena. It can explain everything from sacrifice to conflict, from mythology to Christianity.”

The theory of mimetic desire also explains Pinker’s findings, which of course are not original to Pinker. For example, it takes into account the anthropological and archaeological data that there probably wasn’t an idyllic era of tranquillity, but that ritualistic tribal and national violence, covered by mythical interpretations, was a near if not entirely a universal phenomenon.

But Girard’s hypothesis—his anthropological reading of the bible and the gospels—also takes into account what Pinker says about the seeming increase of empathy, while at the same time explaining the volatility of our world.

It may sound odd to say that gospel revelation is responsible for both the rise of consciousness of the victim, the ‘outbreaks of peace’, as well as the greater volatility of social violence. But the gospel story revealed the innocence of the victim, revealed the workings of the mechanism and so dealt it a death blow—because it only work effectively when undetected. The “peace” once gained through the surrogate victim, the mutual enemy, is now, in this stage of our evolution, entirely precarious, because we see through it.

Pinker of course is an atheist and would no doubt scoff at this suggestion. And yet, to honestly take in the arch of the past two millennia, we should see that in no other time has the victim been as visible in art and literature, in our judicial policies and politics. There has been an evolution of empathy. We no longer believe that it was the sins of parents that caused blindness in their child.

Victims for the most part are spared blame, we don’t believe they deserve their state. This evolution, the process of hominization, our calling into humanity, had its culmination in the gospel story. It was this that exposed our common culpability for scapegoating. This mechanism which is the founding principle of religion and culture, was exploded by Jesus, who gave himself to it, in order to forever expose it.

But in exposing it, it lost its power. Scapegoating no longer works, or at least, it no longer lasts. And this is both Good News and dangerous news—a precarious freedom requiring great responsibility.

Of course the richness of Girard’s research and mimetic theory goes far beyond what can be said here, except to say that Pinker’s research, like Girard’s, suggests humanity was founded on violence. Girard simply goes further and shows that the process of hominization, or the calling of humanity into freedom, is an evolution away from the generative principle of social grouping.

Along the way he offends human progress secularists through his realism and warnings, and by his adoption of the gospel as the key that demythologizes our justifications of sacrificial violence.

But as much or more, he offends Christians who hold to a traditional (since Anselm) propitiationary theory of atonement: The reversion to a sacrificial reading of scripture, that sees Jesus’ death as an appeasing sacrifice to a wrathful God. Our failure to see Jesus as a “sacrifice” that exploded the sacrificial systems, instead of another Aztec-like sacrifice, only on a grand scale, has been the tragedy of Christendom. And it is why Christians are still able to justify violence and war.

The life, death and resurrection of Jesus was the ultimate overthrowing of religion and sacrifice, the ultimate intrusion of mercy that should have resulted in the growth of mercy, because it revealed a God entirely free of wrath and violence and sacrificial hankering—and the possibility of true peace on earth.


  1. Whether violence has in fact decreased or increased, I think we can all agree that it’s still a violent, bleeding, hungry, sad, angry world. That we enjoy relative peace and prosperity in our part of the world, and that we offer humanitarian help to societies that don’t, is nice–but not really the point, to me. The point that matters to me is that complacency yields no progress whatsoever. Denial is comfortable, yes, but when we as a species are still sick–and we are–progress toward real health will only be made by acknowledging the fact. The fact that human pain exists mostly elsewhere, and focusing on the idea that things are potentially better all around than they once were, makes it too easy to be romantic in our thinking and stall progress completely.

    One more point—I agree with you Peter that our good fortune in this part of the world is at least in part due to the evolution of our politics (albeit now also corrupted politics.) But I think it’s hubris to conclude that we deserve full credit for our prosperity. We have indisputably also exploited others and often simply immorally taken what we want. Many civilizations in the past have made the mistake of hubris, only to have humility forced on them with time. I think it behooves us to remember this.

    Keep writing Steve, even if you mostly lose me when you take theological turns.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment Connie, and for singling out our present need to never be complacent, or be fooled into a false security. Pinker, to his credit, does warn against this as well, but not as clearly or forcefully as you do.

  3. spot on synthesis. do you know anybody that has given a more thorough and academic sorting of these two authors? i’m considering doing a research paper analyzing pinker via girard’s battling to the end. the former optimistic account is pretty far off from the latter, which some have considered girard’s most pessimistic work.

  4. Thank you Chris. I’m sorry, I don’t think I can steer you to any such sorting, not that I’ve run across anyway. Girard’s last book certainly can be read as pessimistic, but it’s really only a working through (using Clausewitz) of everything he’s been saying about the reciprocity of violence. And of course, the seemingly impossible solution of global renunciation raises the apocalyptic spectre, but for the coming down of the kingdom of God, or rather, the unfolding of the already present kingdom, something Girard, against pessimism, hopes for.

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