The Violence of Desire

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. James 4:1

Scholars have long debated why human beings are so predisposed to violence. The history of humanity and the history of war is the same thing, people often say. Why? What lies behind the conflict that has plagued humanity since their expulsion from Eden?

Whilst words like aggression, exploitation and poverty are often used when discussing the roots of violence, some scholars see these factors as part of the problem and not part of the cause. One of them is the French philosopher René Girard. According to Girard much of human behavior is based on imitation and rivalry. Put simply: We think other people are happier than us and conclude this is so because they have things that we do not have. We then want these things and so a process of imitation or “mimicry” is initiated, aptly called “mimetic desire” by Girard (definitely worth Googling). Ultimately, when there are more people than objects of desire the only way to get what we want (and become happy in the process) is to be first in line. That, of course, is when the violence breaks out.

I think Girard is spot-on. I have witnessed a violent fist fight at a clothing sale. I have seen the riot police in downtown Pretoria restraining a huge, mad crowd who were trying to force themselves into a small shop that offered crazy bargains to the first few customers. I have seen these and countless similar displays of Girard’s theory in action.

The answer to all the craziness? According to the rest of the passage in James: Simple, selfless prayer.


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