In our weekly newsletter, Worshipful Thoughts, I brought up a French philosopher named René Girard. Girard expansively wrote about many things, but some of his most influential work was on how leadership functioned. Two ideas, in particular, have significantly influenced theologians and those who think about how leadership works.
In case you didn’t read this week’s newsletter, I will mention these two ideas again. First, Girard developed this idea called “memetic desire.” The word “mimetic” is related to the word mimic. It’s basically about mimicking a pattern or design. When Girard combined memetic and desire, he introduced a term that described how what we desired was frequently based on what we observed others desiring.
We’re used to this in the consumer realm. If someone suggests that a particular item is desirable, sometimes we’re convinced it’s desirable, too. If we desire to be more like the person who is suggesting this item is desirable, the general desire increases. This idea partially describes how an idea or product’s popularity goes viral. It’s not just about the value we place in the idea or product but the way we desire to be like the person who pointed towards this idea or product that helps give energy to the popularity and acceptance of this idea or product.
Girard suggested this was incredibly potent in the relationship between leaders and followers. For example, when we choose or accept a leader, it’s hard to tell how much of that is because we like the leader’s ideas or we like the leader.
For those who run election campaigns, one of the things they study is “likeability.” If a candidate is going to be elected to office, their ideas will take them only so far. They have to be liked, too, so those hired to promote specific candidates will try to help them become likable. Tim Sanders, the author of a book titled “The Likeability Factor,” narrowed likeability to four main qualities. It’s about a person’s perceived friendliness, relevance, empathy, and realness.
Girard suggested that our liking of a leader would influence those who were followers to desire what the leader wanted; to adopt their vision of the world. As long as we continued to like the leader and be compelled to desire what the leader desired, the leader would stay in power.
There was something else that Girard saw, too. When you go back to those four factors of likability I mentioned before – friendliness, relevance, empathy, and realness – it also points towards something else. If we see those factors in someone else, we also see that person as being on our side. If those factors start to be questioned, it frequently means we’re starting to wonder if that person is on our side anymore.
Observing this, Girard started to notice how scapegoating would come into play. The idea of scapegoating was rooted in an old Hebrew ritual where a community’s sins would be symbolically placed on a goat. Then, that goat would be chased out into the wilderness to die. Girard noticed a similar pattern with leaders where, in moments of distress, the leader would scapegoat others or be scapegoated. He also described it as the leader having to sacrifice others to maintain their leadership, or their followers would sacrifice them.
Once you start to take and see what Girard saw, it’s hard not to see it or apply it. It’s the difference between descriptively recognizing responsibility and deflectively assigning blame. It happens across the political spectrum and on all levels of leadership.
If a political vote doesn’t go the way a leader wants it to, it’s not because those in leadership failed to get the votes; it’s those darn Democrats or Republicans. If the economy goes south, it’s not a failure of leadership; it’s because of the policies of the liberals or the conservatives. If there are problems in our community, it’s because of immigrants or those against immigration. If the Church is in decline, it’s because of the hateful rhetoric of the religious right or the wishy-washniess of the religious left.
Scapegoating moves beyond descriptively talking about our differences and deflectively suggesting the problem is another group of people. When leaders bring this sort of thing up, they say, “I am not the problem. Those people are.” They avoid becoming the scapegoat and suggest another person or group should be the scapegoat. They suggest that, through one means or another, they are not the ones that should be eliminated but that someone else should.
Scapegoating is at the root of almost every “ism:” sexism, racism, classism, and heterosexism are a few examples but, unfortunately, only a start. Religious and cultural groups are frequently a target, and right now, the degree of anti-Jewish rhetoric being bandied about by political celebrities is reaching a dangerous, feverish pitch. We’ve already seen increased violence and attempted violence against our Jewish siblings. Unfortunately, too many people with considerable influence rationalize that violence or even suggest that more violence is necessary. Using scapegoating, political celebrities deflect attention from their failures by blaming others. Riding on the waves of those actions, the profiles of those who regularly advocate anti-Jewish violence are also increasing.
This moment is one of those moments when it’s essential to reach out to our Jewish neighbors, friends, and relatives to see how they are doing and see if there’s a way we can help. Antisemitism has never gone away, but the volume of antisemitic statements has rarely been louder, and the degree of violence being suggested is increasing daily.
This is one of those times, too, when it’s essential for those of us in the Church to recognize that antisemitism draws some of its strength from parts of our Christian roots and theology. We need to recognize some of those ways whereby suggesting that Christian practices and beliefs improve on Jewish practices and beliefs have been an antisemitic way of suggesting the superiority of the Church and the inferiority of all other religious groups, especially our Jewish siblings. Are there differences? Sure. Is it OK for us to disagree sometimes? Of course. But we share roots in much of the same wisdom and foundations. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are part of the same family tree.
Today’s scriptures are Jewish scriptures that speak toward leaders’ essential qualities. For example, the text from Isaiah speaks toward leadership that is hoped to emerge from hard times. Leadership that, on the other side of hardship and conflict, helps establish a reign of peace and safety. The text from the Psalm speaks towards what the composer of this song saw as the most positive qualities of Solomon and their hopes for Solomon; a leader who would stand up for the oppressed and bring an end to violence. We also project some of these understandings and hopes on Jesus in the Christian tradition. This is one of the reasons why these verses are included in Advent readings.
These verses also point towards the need to resist some of the tendencies towards the memetic desire of which Girard spoke. Instead of desiring what a leader we like desires, these texts point towards the qualities a community might seek out in a leader. Or another way to say it is that the community is seeking a leader that desires to help the community become what it believes God is calling it to be. Instead of preserving their leadership as the goal, the goal of a leader is a functional one that helps the community fulfill its vocation as a creation of God.
As you heard during the lighting of the Advent candle, the theme for the 2nd Sunday of Advent is “peace.” Ensuring we are a community and world where justice, hope, and non-violence reign is the work of peace. It is the work God calls us to and, I believe, why God created us. During this Advent season, may we re-center ourselves on this calling to peacemaking as we re-center ourselves on the One who lived it and gave their life to it. Amen.
The Rev. Mike Denton is the designated pastor of South Congregational Church (UCC) in Pittsfield, MA. Join us for worship at 10 am on Sundays! Click here if you’d like to donate to the church and its ministries!