Charles K. Bellinger / Reflections on Girard and Policing

[The following essay is excerpted from Charles K. Bellinger’s The Tree of Good and Evil: Or, Violence by the Law and against the Law (Cascade, 2023).]

As we seek to understand the phenomenon of killings by police, we can focus on the psychology and personal character of the individual officers or shift to a more sociological mode of explanation. I have elsewhere pointed to the weakness of the “bad apples” theory of unjustified police shootings. That theory cannot explain the lack of indictments and convictions in so many cases; the bias toward impunity for the police is a feature of society in general. This is not to deny that particular police officers may have racist attitudes; there is no doubt that there are some “bad apples.” What I am denying is that this is anything close to a satisfactory understanding of the phenomenon we are seeking to grasp. Commentators on these matters, for example, often draw a distinction between two different cultures of policing, the warrior model and the community policing/guardian model. The warrior model assumes an atmosphere of constant menace, in which the police are like soldiers in an eternal war against crime. Proponents of the community policing model argue that the warrior model becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; the attitude of the police alienates members of the community and increases the general level in society of violence by the police and against the police.

When the warrior model is active, there is a tendency for police officers to kill “under the color of authority,” rather than being a direct outgrowth of an individual’s psychological character. The officer is playing a role in representing society in its ongoing struggle against violent crime. Police officers around the world play this role, but the context of the United States requires attention to the long history of racism as well as to the societal role played by the officers.

In the United States, slavery was part of the cultural fabric from the 1600s up to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The defenders of slavery quite explicitly described persons of African descent as occupying a lower rung on the Great Chain of Being than White people, who placed themselves on the highest rung for human beings. Above them were the angels and God; below the Africans were the great apes and the rest of the animals. The slaves were viewed as agricultural animals who could be bought and sold, and whipped when necessary, to punish them for alleged disobedience or laziness. Scholars have extensively described and criticized the cruel inhumanity and immorality of the system of chattel slavery.[1]

Although the South lost the Civil War on the battlefield, the racist attitudes that animated slavery continued on in the hearts and minds of the majority of Southern White people for generation after generation. In the North also, many White people held to the belief that they were superior to Blacks, and hysteria over the alleged desire of Black men to rape White women led to lynchings in states such as Indiana, Illinois, and Minnesota. The majority of the lynchings took place in the South, where racial segregation and discrimination were culturally dominant up until the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955 is sometimes thought of as the last lynching, but other hate crimes of a similar nature occurred later, such as the murder of James Byrd by three White supremacists in Texas in 1998, the murder of James Craig Anderson in Mississippi in 2011, and the murder of nine members of a Black church in South Carolina by Dylann Roof in 2015 (to mention just three examples).

The word “othering” has become popular since the 1990s in academic literature. It offers scholars a more refined way of expressing the concepts of prejudice and discrimination. “Othering” is a psychological process through which a person defines the members of a group or class of people as different from, and inferior to, the group or class to which the definer belongs. Human beings lift themselves up by pushing others down. I form my “identity” through saying what I am while at the same time saying what I am not. I am White, not Black; I am an Aryan, not a Jew; I am a Hutu, not a Tutsi; I am a Serb, not a Muslim; I am a Japanese, not a Korean; I am a Communist, not a capitalist (or vice versa). Othering is a feature seen in many different cultures at many different points in history.

Clearly, in the United States discrimination against Blacks is a prime example of othering. This social phenomenon has had a particularly powerful expression in the customary manner in which White police officers have interacted with Black citizens. Consider this passage from Craig Boylstein’s book When Police Use Force:

In cases of restraint and Taser use, subject fatality may not have been the objective. In cases of firearms discharge, however, the goal is often to eliminate a disobedient body deemed threatening by an officer. In terms of officer-initiated firearm-related fatalities, a minimum of 102 unarmed Black people were shot in 2015, representing 37 percent of unarmed people killed by police that year, five times the rate for unarmed Whites. Of the 102 cases, only 10 resulted in the officer being charged with a crime, with two deaths resulting in convictions of the officers involved; one officer was sentenced to one year and allowed to serve his time on weekends.[2]

The many cases of police misconduct summarized earlier in this chapter paint a picture that fills out statistics such as these. From the point of view of the Black community, American history has three different eras: slavery, segregation and lynching, and our current era of police brutality and the mass incarceration of minorities. Violence, driven by the psychological phenomenon of othering, shape-shifts in different time periods, while still remaining a key structuring element of American culture. Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow expresses this idea in terms that have resonated with a wide audience.[3]

In some situations, however, White police officers shoot and kill unarmed White (or Latinx or Asian) persons without proper justification, or Black police officers kill Black citizens, as in the William Green case in Baltimore. Racism is a key aspect of what we are seeking to understand, but it is not the only aspect of the problem.

René Girard can assist us in gaining a deeper understanding of this phenomenon of police misconduct. In Violence and the Sacred Girard argues that the violence that human beings perpetrate on others calls forth revenge from the relatives or other associates of the victim, but acts of reprisal lead to further acts of reprisal, so that there is “the risk that the act of vengeance will initiate a chain reaction whose consequences will quickly prove fatal to any society of modest size.”[4] Ancient societies developed unconscious strategies for preventing such a meltdown, such as scapegoating and human sacrifice, but for us “the circle has been broken. We owe our good fortune to one of our social institutions above all: our judicial system, which serves to deflect the menace of vengeance.” Our judicial system does not end vengeance, rather it places the sole responsibility for enacting vengeance in the hands of the sovereign state. When the system of vengeance is taken out of private hands, and made public, the danger of escalation can be avoided.[5]

Just as the human body needs water to continue living, so also does the social body need a kind of psychological water. For Girard, the two main springs that flow out of how human beings organize their social life are religion and the judicial system. Religion seeks to constrain violence through the power of moral persuasion, though it also employs “a strange mixture of violence and nonviolence” in its rituals and teachings.[6] The judicial system employs a similar strange mixture, and Girard describes it as the “most efficient of all curative procedures” in preventing interminable acts of revenge. He argues that with the development of judicial systems in Western history, “retribution still holds sway, but forged into a principle of abstract justice that all men are obliged to uphold and respect.”[7] Girard says that “our judicial system rationalizes revenge and succeeds in limiting and isolating its effects in accordance with social demands.”[8] Jean-Pierre Dupuy summarizes well how Girard views the law:

The law first emerged as a prohibition against mimetic violence, sanctioned by the vengeance of the gods . . . Law is the ordering of good violence, concealing its origin in sacred violence. It is ritually-controlled vengeance. With the emergence of a judiciary, it becomes rationally-controlled vengeance. In principle, the state has a monopoly on violence, and so there is no longer the threat of its spiraling out of control. The criminal pays for his crime, and the agency inflicting the punishment is the state, which is neither a private citizen nor a relative of the deceased. Reciprocal violence is impossible.[9]

Because law and what we in the modern world call “religion” arise out of the same anthropological root, they are two different attempts at limiting and managing violence in human culture.

The law forbids those behaviors through which human beings harm each other: stealing, lying, rape, murder, etc. Girard points to the Ten Commandments as archetypal in this regard, but he is of course aware that cultures outside of the Judeo-Christian West have their own similar laws and rules. Girard notes that the last commandment, which forbids coveting, is actually the key to those that come before.[10] Human beings mistreat others in various ways when mimetic desire dominates their psychology, which is another way of expressing envy or covetousness. The essential falsity that lies at the heart of the human condition is our hypocrisy. We are all shaped in our thinking and acting by mimetic desire and the minor and major sins to which it leads; but we also have a deep need to think well of ourselves. We need to continually say to ourselves that we are “law-abiding citizens,” in contrast to those others who are criminals. The Law as a structuring principle of society allows us to think of ourselves as among the righteous, the good people; and it gives us license to mistreat and kill those whom we have labeled as the evildoers, the criminals. When we execute our (unseen) scapegoats, we renew the health of the social body; we cleanse the world by ridding it of the malefactors. The Law, in Girardian terms, is a kind of invisibility cloak worn by the scapegoat mechanism. The police, as representatives of the State, have the function of upholding the Law; they are representatives of society in its continual struggle against the evildoers. But the Law was born out of an originating event of scapegoating, an act of violence. This places the police in the heart of culture, in that zone where law is violence and violence is the law.

For Girard, “religion in its broadest sense” is a term “for that obscurity that surrounds man’s efforts to defend himself by curative or preventative means against his own violence.” This same enigmatic quality seen in religion “pervades the judicial system when that system replaces sacrifice. This obscurity coincides with the transcendental effectiveness of a violence that is holy, legal, and legitimate successfully opposed to a violence that is unjust, illegal, and illegitimate.”[11] The police live on a knife’s edge in that their actions can in some circumstances be seen as heroic and virtuous, as when they kill an active shooter, but in other circumstances they can make wrong choices and commit murder. Like a boat that capsizes, they can at one moment be on the side of the righteous and at the next moment become a criminal themselves.

What the accounts of police misconduct summarized here illustrate is the reality that Black persons still function as scapegoats in our society today, even though American society has made significant strides in reducing racism. The Black person who is killed is guilty; the fact that he was killed has defined and marked him as guilty. As Girard says, “The unfortunate man is not stoned because he is monstrous; he becomes a monster because of the stoning.”[12]

The officer typically says, “I feared for my life” or “I thought he had a gun.” Because the police are representatives of the State, and because the State is the source of the Law, and the Law is the way our society struggles against evil, the officer is presumed to be innocent and the one who was killed is presumed to have deserved what happened to him (or her). Only in the most egregious circumstances, such as the execution of Laquan McDonald on a street in Chicago, is the veil pulled back to reveal the dynamics at work in the culture.

Why does the district attorney or the grand jury so seldom indict an officer who kills in questionable circumstances? Why is the officer who is tried so often acquitted? From a Girardian point of view, the officer is the representative of the righteousness of society, which is a psychological construction that our society must continually maintain through the othering of the evildoers, the criminals. To view the officers as guilty would throw a wrench into the gears and cause the whole scapegoat mechanism to go awry. This is why “society,” the “law-abiding citizens,” are so reticent to view the officer as guilty of a crime. But Girard’s thought continually reminds us that the idea that truth is on the side of the victim is a slow, steady, inexorable force present within human culture to reveal the workings of the scapegoat mechanism. This is why it will become harder and harder in the future for police misconduct to go unnoticed and unpunished. If police cadets were exposed to the basic outlines of mimetic theory in their training and sensitized to precisely the issues that are discussed in this chapter, then the process that Girard sees working in history will have made a decisive breakthrough.

One of Girard’s favorite passages from the Gospels is the story of Jesus being accused of being able to cast out demons because he himself draws his power from Satan. Jesus responds: “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? If I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your own exorcists cast them out?”(Matt 12:26–27). Violence has its deepest root in the mystery of evil, to which we give the name Satan, or the devil, or Beelzebul. Girard is not a pacifist; he would approve of the war against Hitler and of the need for a police officer to kill an active shooter. But he reminds us of the uncomfortable truth that violence is still a tragedy. Even a defensible act of killing still is an action that draws its energy from the demonic realm. It is a Good Satan casting out an Evil Satan. Satan is the accuser, the one who labels the Other as guilty and as deserving of death. This is why the work that police do is always on the knife’s edge, because it takes place in that realm where the law and violence enter into a realm of indistinction.

Giorgio Agamben focuses on this realm in his important book, Homo Sacer: Sovereignty and Bare Life. Agamben points out that in ancient Greek there were two words denoting life, zoe, which means the physical life of plants, animals, and human beings, and bios, which is the life of a human being as a member of a society. Bios is, under normal circumstances, protected by the law against murder. But bios is a fragile construction that can be removed by order of the sovereign power within society at a given time and place. A monarch or a military general, for example, could declare a particular person to be an “outlaw,” meaning that he has been expelled from the community and can then be killed with impunity. He has been cast out of the realm of bios and pushed down into the realm of mere zoe, bare life, that is on the way to death. He has been expelled from culture and been reduced to the sphere of nature; he is merely an animal.[13]

Agamben traces these concepts through history, culminating in his description of the Shoah, the Holocaust. Hitler’s program was to strip all Jews in Europe of the rights of citizenship, so that they could be reduced to mere zoe, animal life on the way to death. He succeeded in convincing many Germans that Jews could be killed with impunity, because they had been expelled from the realm of bios. Agamben speaks of “the camp as the nomos of the modern”; nomos here means “law” or “ordering principle.” He does not discuss slavery, but his analysis clearly applies to the plantation system of chattel slavery, which was the nineteenth century version of “the camp.” We can extend Agamben’s theory into our present day by considering the mass incarceration of minorities in the United States as our version of “the camp.” In Agamben’s words, the “sovereign nomos [law, ordering force] is the principle that, joining law and violence, threatens them with indistinction . . . the sovereign is the point of indistinction between violence and law, the threshold on which violence passes over into law and law passes over into violence.”[14] This is an apt description of lynch mobs “taking the law into their own hands.” About the modern world Agamben worries that “democracy” is not an unalloyed good. If the power once held by the monarch and the officials of the state is now dispersed among the citizenry in general, then the citizens in general become the new power that can decide which human beings belong to the realm of bios and which will be pushed down into the realm of mere zoe.

Paul Kahn’s comments on slavery also help to illustrate this point. He argues that the assumption at work in the slave-owning ideology is that the “slave is what we are not: nature without culture. If the slave is pure nature, the master is not a product of nature at all.”[15] The masters create a culture, while the slaves are always trapped within “the shame of nature.” Paralleling the argument of Agamben concerning zoe, Kahn describes the slave as shameful, debased, merely natural, like a beast of burden. The master is what the slave is not. Kahn continues, “We prevent this emergence of the shame of nature in our own activities by projecting that shame completely upon an other. That other is the scapegoat, the slave, the native, the Black, the enemy who threatens to remind us that beneath the world of class, power, patriotism, and culture remains the shame of our own nature: we are born like every other animal, and we die just the same.”[16] He continues, “When we maintain [the world of culture] by projecting outward the threat that nature poses to the symbolic, we create the conditions for evil, for just then we defend our own humanity by making the other less than human. We are not him. He lives a life of shame; we live a life of culture . . . This form of evil appears whenever the social order sustains its own humanity by dehumanizing the other.”[17]

Girard, Agamben, and Kahn all illuminate key aspects of human culture that help us to understand our predicament. They help us to comprehend the behavior of the police and the atmosphere of impunity that surrounds them. They also illuminate the media that we consume in such large quantities: the police dramas with their formulaic plots, and the YouTube videos of police shootings in which the narrator says with approval that “this perp took the asphalt temperature challenge.”[18] Such a casual dismissal of the sanctity of every human life is woven into the fabric of our culture.

[1] See, for example, Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery as It Is: Selections from the Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses; John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans; and Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.

[2] Craig Boylstein, When Police Use Force: Context, Methods, Outcomes, 122.

[3] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[4] René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 15.

[5] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 16.

[6] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 20.

[7] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 20–21. The other two main possibilities for limiting vengeance are “sacrificial rites” and “trials by combat, etc.”

[8] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 22.

[9] Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Desire, Violence, and Religion.”

[10] Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, 9.

[11] Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 23.

[12] Girard, I See Satan Fall, 66.

[13] Girard says, “The mimetic genesis of religion may be situated in the seemingly interminable transition between animal and man” (The One by Whom Scandal Comes, 111).

[14] Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, 31–32.

[15] Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil, 148.

[16] Kahn, Out of Eden, 168.

[17] Kahn, Out of Eden, 170.

[18] See, for example, the YouTube channels “Active Self Protection,” and “Donut Operator.”

Charles K. Bellinger is professor of theology and ethics at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. He is the author of The Genealogy of Violence (2001), The Trinitarian Self (2008), and Othering: The Original Sin of Humanity (2020).


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