Reflections on Scapegoating

We are pleased to be sharing, over the coming weeks, a series of four reflection pieces on the State of Formation visit to the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum this spring. Each one is a collaborative piece from two of our Contributing Scholars.

Lauren Seganos

A few weeks ago there was an opinion piece in the Boston Globe called “The wicked irony of Holy Week.” In it, historian and writer James Carroll describes how the story of Jesus’ death, told and retold by Christians during Holy Week for centuries, was transformed from a narrative about God’s love and passion to a tale of hatred. What does Carroll mean?

The early Christians observed Holy Week with a sense of solemn consolation. In the passion of Christ, God does not condone or cause suffering, but rather joins us in it. The word “compassion” means just that, to suffer with. In our darkest hours, human beings are not alone, and Christians profess that Jesus, on the cross, embodies that reality.

However, in the centuries since Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday, the story has changed. Instead of a narrative about God’s love and compassion, it has become a story of hatred and blame. I am speaking here, like Carroll, of the Church’s painful history of anti-Semitism, placing the blame for Jesus’ death on the Jews, and consequentially repainting the Christian story as not one of God’s solidarity with the suffering, but of Jesus, in the resurrection, foiling the wicked plans of his Jewish enemies. Christian history is stained by the blood-soaked sermons of popes and priests, calling their congregants to find their Jewish neighbors to make them pay for the death of Christ. It has been said that anti-Semitism is Christianity’s real original sin, and I find it difficult to disagree.

Imagine a child sitting on the floor with two toys in front of him. He is only playing with one of the toys but his sister shows up and wants to play with that second toy. As soon as his sister indicates that she wants to play with that other toy, the first child will immediately forget the toy he already has, and express urgent desire for the second toy. An argument ensues, probably leading to a tantrum or two.

Now imagine that in the midst of the siblings’ fight, a third child enters the room, perhaps a child that is often the brunt of jokes or teasing. The brother makes an unkind joke about the newcomer, the sister laughs, and their fight dissolves…at the expense of the third child.

The dynamics operating in this story probably sound familiar, or at least believable. Rene Girard, one of the most prolific cultural theorists of the 20th century, uses this story as an example of deep human phenomenon: desires, competition, and conflict. Just as similar desires and rivalry cause conflict between the two children, likewise envy and competition that are driven by desire often lead to conflict and violence among individuals and communities. But, as theologian and Andover Newton Theological School professor Mark Heim writes, at some point, when feuding and conflict threaten to dissolve a community, spontaneous and irrational violence erupts against some distinctive (usually minority) person or group (“Saved by What Shouldn’t Happen: The Anti-Sacrificial Meaning of the Cross” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today). This new person or community now becomes a surrogate victim towards whom the hostility or punishment is redirected, through expulsion, lynching, or execution. Then, almost miraculously, because of the sacrifice of this new common enemy, the original rivalry and violence ceases to exist. The peace and harmony that is suddenly established seems to confirm that the common enemy was to blame all along. And this common enemy is known as the scapegoat.

According to Girard, the myth of the scapegoat as a necessary sacrifice to bring peace is a story that we as humans continue to tell, in mythology, in international relations, in politics, in religion (Violence and the Sacred and The Scapegoat). But Girard challenges the notion that scapegoating is acceptable. Because sacrificial scapegoating unties the many at the expense of the one, we tend to close our eyes to the sin that it really is: violence, particularly against the innocent. We create myths and tell stories in ways that make the victim invisible, so that our collective conscious is clear and we never register the injustice of this system.

The death of Jesus at first glance appears to be another story about a sacrificial victim. Indeed, there are Christian theologies of sacrificial atonement that would affirm this telling: in a violent death Jesus takes on the sins of the world to bring reconciliation between human beings and God. And on the surface, Jesus appears to be another scapegoat in a long line of scapegoats. In the midst of first century conflict between the Romans and the Israelites, and between Jews and other Jews, the trial and crucifixion of Jesus was intended to unite the communities through a common enemy, and bring much needed peace through his death. Salvation and harmony is purchased with blood, and the work and function of the scapegoat appears to be business as usual. The high priest Caiaphas even comes right out and says it in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel: “You do not understand,” Caiaphas tells the men plotting to kill Jesus, “that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

But what is unique about the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ death is that the perspective of the story is flipped. Instead of hearing a story about a necessary scapegoat from the point of view of an angry crowd, we hear the scapegoat story for what it really is: a story about a victim who is clearly unjustly accused and wrongly murdered. On the cross, Jesus is not an invisible, silent scapegoat; Jesus is a visible victim.

Even though Jesus dies the scapegoat’s death, it isn’t a typical sacrifice. The Gospel narratives in actuality reveal a truth that is deeper and indeed turns this sacrificial system on its head. As Heim suggests, “God is not just feeding a bigger and better victim into this machinery to get a bigger payoff, as the theory of substitutionary atonement might seem to suggest” (“Saved by What Shouldn’t Happen,” 218). Instead, Jesus’ death exposes the injustice and machinery of violence by shutting it down. Since the Gospels highlight his innocence again and again, we cannot buy into the narrative that scapegoating sacrifice is merited and necessary because the victim is not to blame. Just before he breathes his last breath, Jesus announces, “It is finished,” signifying that his death leads not to the false and impermanent peace of sacrificial scapegoating, but a peace purchased with blood so that no more blood would ever be shed again (John 19:30).

This is why James Carroll calls Holy Week a wicked irony. Instead of seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection as the end, the completion, of the scapegoating system, once and for all, for centuries Christians turned around and turned the Jews into scapegoats responsible for the death of Christ. The Jewish people became the new scapegoats. On the same day that Carroll’s Globe article came out, I was in Washington D.C., with several Contributing Scholars and Editors of State of Formation, touring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The reality of Carroll’s article hit me hard that day. As I was in the midst of preparing my own sermon to deliver on Good Friday, I walked the halls and exhibits of the USHMM, seeing firsthand the atrocities and unfathomable horror that was made possible by centuries and centuries of Christian hatred of their Jewish ancestors. The weight and enormity of my task to preach was heavy on my heart and I knew that, even though this would be my first Good Friday sermon, I could never preach on this day again without remembering the countless other Good Friday sermons that ended in bloodshed.

As a Christian I cannot be held responsible for the past sins of my faith community, but what I can do is call on that community to understand, acknowledge, and lament how our story has been twisted and manipulated at the cost of innocent human lives. I can reclaim our story for what it is, a rejection of the sacrificial scapegoat, and continue to live out that story by rejecting any new iterations of that scapegoat system, Jewish or otherwise. Because if there is anything we know for sure, it is that history repeats itself, but only if we let it.

Wendy Webber

As I was touring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum with Lauren and the other Contributing Scholars and Editors of State of Formation, I was struck by how scarily similar so many of the events and attitudes on display in the museum were to modern situations.

Lauren tells a hypothetical story of two siblings who are fighting over their toys until a third child enters and they settle their differences by using a third child to displace their anger. Immediately I am put in mind of the story that was quickly circulated in light of the Baltimore riots of the Bloods and the Crips declaring a truce to unite to “take out” white officers. This story spread like wildfire because of how fundamentally we understand the power of a shared enemy as a uniting force. The idea that the police represent a shared enemy of two rival gangs is an easy story to tell despite a long and bloody history of conflict between the two gangs.

Fact is, it may not be the case at all. Gang members have publicly denied ever making such a truce. The fact that the story of black gangs uniting to harm white cops was so quickly at the center of the Baltimore riots story illustrates a scapegoating that is very much still with us –that blacks, stereotyped as thugs and gang members, are a root cause of violence in the US. Rather than looking at the complex roots of violence including the causes and consequences of systemic racism, blacks are scapegoated as a simple–and therefore easily removed–common denominator of violence in the US. I am part of this problem. I am inside this culture that has created such a stereotype. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”

I am also reminded of a community I encountered recently where the ease and harm of scapegoating is painfully obvious. More so because in this case I am an outsider looking in, which gives me not better, but a different perspective. When I was in Ghana I visited a Kukuo, a camp for alleged witches. (I’ve written about this for State of Formation before.) There, (mostly) women are too often accused of witchcraft and being the direct cause when a tragedy like illness, death, or miscarriage falls on an individual or community. These women are attacked and banished. In Ghana, the accused make their way to one of the camps for alleged witches where they will struggle to live with inadequate food, shelter, and water most likely for the rest of their lives. In other West African countries, where witch camps do not exist, they are attacked and killed, so the camps are a small blessing.

From my perspective it was unquestionably clear that the women being accused are not causing droughts or miscarriages. They are unprotected women–women without a man, husband or adult son, to speak for them. They are too old to defend themselves from most assaults. And they live in a community that has little or no understanding of the causes and treatment of malaria. But they are being blamed when a person falls ill or dies from malaria or a neighbor miscarries or any number of local misfortunes. They are scapegoats. Plain and simple.

A lesson I learn from seeing scapegoating happening in another culture and context is how difficult it is to recognize from the inside. To me the witchcraft accusations in Ghana are obviously an example of a cultural scapegoating–one that is astonishingly ineffective at addressing the problems is seeks to solve. But inside this culture it is nowhere near obvious that scapegoating is even occurring. So many people readily accept that these women are the cause of negative events and easily believe that banishing them will solve the problems. Even the alleged witches themselves individually told us that though they themselves were innocent they believed that the others in the camp must be guilty.

As an outsider I can observe the dynamics of the scapegoating easily. What I cannot do easily is open their eyes to it. For one thing, it’s not practical. Outsider’s voices have very little weight inside. There are still the human rights violations that need to be addressed, but it’s not going to work in the vast majority of situations to walk in and say, “You’ve got a scapegoating problem. Let me show you.” At least not in the beginning.

But let me get back to the lesson I learned encountering scapegoating by other cultures and communities. It reminds me how careful and conscientious I need to be in my own life and cultural context. It’s too easy to absorb and reinforce a cultural message even if fundamentally you disagree with it. As a white American, how do I contribute–by words or actions or lack thereof to–to making nonwhite communities in the US scapegoats in our culture?

Lauren demonstrated taking a critical eye to one’s own community to combat scapegoating found there. As a Humanist, I all too often witness blame for humanity’s ills put squarely and solely on the religious. As a minority speaking of a majority it may not have the same immediate danger that the scapegoating illustrated in the halls of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum did, but scapegoating of any kind is dangerous and I am best positioned to call my community out on it.

I often feel like a broken record because of how often I repeat the importance of not just being open to difference, but making the effort to seek out and explore different people and cultures. But today I make that call with a different goal in mind. Perhaps a way to combat scapegoating is to witness it in others. Not to condemn them for it (though we should do everything in our power to end it), but to recognize how easily one can fall victim to it–fall victim to generating and proliferating it. As an insider my voice carries a lot of weight toward breaking down cultural scapegoating. On a wall at the Holocaust Museum is the famous poem by Martin Niemöller:

It speaks to how important it is to call out members of your own community when they band together against false villains. But before you can do that often you must mine your own culture and your own place in it to discover and confront for yourself where you are failing to speak out.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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3 thoughts on “Reflections on Scapegoating

  1. There were a lot of good thoughts there. I highly recommend James Carroll’s classic work on antisemitism and his personal journey, “Constantine’s Sword.” It appears that no camp, tribe, faction, minority or majority is immune from a positive bias in their own favor twinned with a negative bias toward outsiders. While every group needs to practice honest self-reflection and examination, just as individuals do, any attempt to shine the spotlight within rather than in the direction of outsiders most certainly will result in the demise of the messenger, which I prefer to call, “shooting the donkey.” I wonder if Neimoller’s famous poem would grace the walls of the Holocaust Museum, if they were aware he held to theological antisemitism. Don’t feel bad, I was surprised to discover this also:

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