Violence and difference.

During the troubles in Northern Ireland all those many years ago, those of us on the sidelines looked on with incredulity at what was happening between Protestants and Catholics. The news was dominated by images of bombings and fires and assassinations, and, from this distance, no one was quite sure which side was doing these terrible things or why; radical Catholic and Protestant groups seemed to be pretty much indistinguishable from each other in their barbarity, their strategies and their modus operandi.

And so it is with all conflict.

Rene Girard describes conflict as "a subtle destroyer of the differential meaning it seems to inflate", and when I first read that sentence a week or two ago I had to go for a bit of a walk and think about it for a bit. Girard is right, as he is about so much, and what I think he means is this:

We learn pretty much everything, says Girard, by copying from other people. This applies to skills and behaviours but also to attitudes and desires. We learn what to like and what not to like, so he says, and I think he says truly, by seeing what other people like or not. This process (he calls it mimesis) helps build communities by ensuring that all the members of a group have shared desires, aims and objectives but it also means that all communities are potentially conflicted because mimesis will inevitably lead to competition. And when two individuals or two groups become conflicted both will begin that conflict by carefully establishing and cataloging the way the other side is different. So the differential meaning is inflated. There is a THEM (and you cannot believe how different they are from us in every important way. And do you see how scurrilous those guys are!) and an US (and anybody with half a brain can see the superiority of almost everything connected with us!) And so the conflict begins, usually with posturing and name calling, and escalating through the well worn stages of ever more barbaric violence and ultimately death. As the conflict escalates, the original difference between the parties becomes less and less of an issue and the conflict itself becomes more and more the issue: there is a test of strength that WE SIMPLY MUST WIN. And as both sides become more and more consumed with winning, they mirror one another and become less and less distinguishable from each other until finally no one can really tell the unionists from the nationalists.

And so we in the West look in horror at ISIS. We are shocked by their barbarity and violence and all the more so because it is so different from our considered, civilised, democratic norms. They indiscriminately kill and maim and destroy, and we cannot, in the name of all that we hold dear, tolerate this. So we fly in the jets and our bombs fall,  violently and destructively on the ISIS fighters and indiscriminately on the people held captive by them. In order to preserve ourselves from destruction and barbarous slaughter we inflict destruction and barbarous slaughter. Conflict becomes the subtle destroyer of the differential meaning it seems to inflate.

There is another way, a way which transcends all our violent ways, or so says Rene Girard. It's not easy, and it involves paying close attention to another conflict; and to the act of violence that was supposed to end it; and  to the empty tomb which followed it, and to the birth in a stable which proceeded it.