Author Interview: Paul Gifford Towards Reconciliation

“The most stimulating and enlightening book I have read for ages, opening up René Girard in a compelling way.”

-Angela Tilby, Canon Emeritus of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford and Canon of Honour of Portsmouth Cathedral

How did you arrive at the title of Towards Reconciliation: Understanding Violence and the Sacred after René Girard?

Backwards! I knew René Girard (at Stanford University, in California).

The most interesting thing in his work ? How it helps us understand something really gigantic which baffles us all: ‘sacred violence’.Think of how we were absolutely phased to see the beheadings and crucifixions of ‘Islamic State’…What on earth…????

 And where does that take us ? ‘Towards Reconciliation’  Because, as we begin to understand where sacred violence  comes from,  we also begin to understand for the first time what getting over it (‘reconciliation’) really means. We see why,  imitating  each other’s desires; we all fall into rivalry, conflict and violence.  It’s all about the psychic ‘internet’ that links us:  already in nature..  Before www and ‘trending’ were ever dreamed of  (think of that!)

How would you describe René Girard’s influence on your thinking?

 Massive. He brought it all together. ‘Mimesis’  (that’s reciprocal imitation to you and me) is what links things up. So for instance:  the baby’s first smile (‘answering’ the mother’s smile) ;  the way the world’s stock markets ‘follow’ or ‘react to’ one other (‘New York sneezes, London catches cold’) ; the fashion industry and internet ‘trending’ (copying models of desire, styles, interests etc – and manipulating them!) ; the way we communicate (‘do you copy that, Red Leader?’); the way we are able to learn anything and everything. It’s all a matter of  imitation.

Are there any points on which you disagree with René Girard?

Not really. It’s very convincing stuff and breath-takingly original. Perhaps he concentrates more than I would on the negative side of mimesis – the shadow side.  But that’s because negative mimesis – the sort that produces two hands reaching out for the same desirable things, getting in each other’s way; falling into tit-for-tat rivalry , conflict and violence is what we least understand. And what we most need to understand!

Has the relationship between violence and the sacred changed in recent times?

 Girard says it has. Primitive peoples had rituals which disarmed the fateful dynamic of rivalry and conflict which threatened their very survival. When things got really bad, they  took a scapegoat victim; and made him/her into a ritual sacrifice to the powers above. It’s the idea of a lightning conductor taking the hit, turning aside that fearsome thunderbolt that would have destroyed the community as a whole. To ‘sacrifice’ – in that primitive sense –  is to  ‘fabricate the  sacred’. That’s mythical of course: you can’t buy off catastrophe with bloody sacrifices (though you do pacify the conflicts… for a while)

 Now, we no longer believe in the power of rituals like that. So we’re entirely exposed to lightning striking our entire house! In the shape FOR INSTANCE of: Coronavirus; climate change, floods and droughts; nuclear accident; wars between  the Haves and Have-nots…There’s an awesome lot we need to be protected from! And what do we have to protect us? Or for transforming the game (that’s another way to see ‘Reconciliation’)?

How has René Girard informed your perspective on the Passion of Christ?

Well, Girard sees it, precisely, as God’s way of ‘transforming the game’.  God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself ‘(as Apostle Paul says) . In a sense Jesus ‘takes the hit’; but the hit doesn’t come from God.(that’s a human misconception: we project our violence onto God) – and there’s  no transaction (we really must stop thinking of Jesus bargaining with God – or doing a ‘Deal’ Donald Trump-style, so as to let us off the hook!). The hit   comes from our own (blind, self-mystifying – ‘sacred’!)  – human violence: ‘They know not that they do’.

The Passion of Christ (His suffering for the world) teaches us to slip out from under that human self-mystification involved in sacred violence. It makes peace truly – without mystification. It gives us a new – and adequate – model for putting things right. And the Resurrection tells us God is in it.

Yes, the  Passion does defeat evil on a cosmic scale. When He welcomes back the first batch of 72 disciples sent out to pioneer His mission without Him, Jesus for the first time, I think — contemplates his own self- sacrificial death: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’. Satan is the founding murder – sacred violence as foundation for our culture, our civilisation and our world. He’ll take the hit; but Satan will fall to earth, broken in his prestige, and in his hold over God’s creation.

Where do you anticipate Girard’s legacy being most apparent?

Well, he himself says he wants increasingly his work to be an argument in favour of Christianity, which is set aside, he thinks, very superficially and foolishly, by modern people. It’s what we most need!

But the fact is that it is.also . universal: you get to know why your baby smiles; why your money disappears, why governments are ‘faking it’; why Darwin isn’t the end of Christianity, but an unrecognised worker in its vineyard…It’ll tell you where real hope lies,  etc

In which aspects of everyday life could Girard’s insight be of greatest value?

 Personal relations; social interactions ; seeing the opportunity in the present Coronavirus crisis…’Redeeming’  the world for  our children and grandchildren

What does your writing process consist of?

Copy and paste, really. You ‘copy’ other writings (register them inwardly); then you  re-write (‘reciprocate’) in kind, but creatively, incorporating your own response. Then you repeat the process: you ‘copy’ your own insights; and then reciprocate and paste again, rewriting them better!

What are you currently reading?

 One of my own pieces of 2006, on laughter and humour. That’s because I used to teach French; and, yesterday,  a French radio station got in touch and said it wanted to  do a week’s broadcasting on humour throughout Europe. I have to say,  in an interview to-morrow whether  there such a thing as ‘European laughter’– or do I think  British humour is different?

What will be your next project?

At least I shall know a bit better, having studied Girard, what it is that I am doing…whatever it turns out to be!

Get your copy of Towards Reconciliation Here

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