You are here

Challenging the violence of scapegoating

As our cultural temperature rises to higher thresholds, fed by the anxiety over money, safety and religion; there have been a number of reckless, if not dangerous, attempts to bring the fever down. It has been ever thus. Virtually every ancient culture has had some practice of ritual sacrifice. In the early Jewish tradition, a goat was selected on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The sins of the community were written on the goat, and with all the insults people could muster, it was sent into the wilderness -- where it would die. It was the scapegoat. The high priest would then go into the Holy of Holies, and since the sins of the community had symbolically been removed, he would pray for atonement -- that God's mercy would provide people with new life for the New Year. Ritual sacrifice is no longer practiced much in the modern world, but scapegoating is alive and well. Because it works -- in an insidious way. When an individual or group is identified -- usually because of some perceived or projected difference -- and is cast down or thrown out of the community with accompanying insults and degradation, the fever of anxiety for the rest of the community goes down. For a time. The Salem witch trials were an exercise in scapegoating. As was the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As is the near epidemic levels of bullying in high schools across the country. Over the centuries the dominant white culture has demonstrated a devastating capacity to identify racial minorities as scapegoats. And while different religions have long been ruthlessly effective at scapegoating one another, a new and disturbing trend seems to be emerging: the scapegoating of Muslims. Our rituals may no longer support scapegoating, but some theologies do. Violence is identified as a disease that needs curing, and violence (be it physical or verbal) is presented as the cure. This runs the risk of making violence sacred. The biblical prophets argued -- with great passion and considerable risk to themselves, that the practice of violence in order to bring peace is wrong. There are some theologies which hold that Jesus' death was an atoning sacrifice; that by giving in to cultural violence Jesus was providing space for it. For many, this then gives sanction to a belief that ideologies and religions can continue to wreak violence as a means of keeping the community temperature down. I don't see it that way. Jesus stepped in between violence given and scapegoating violence received -- and he has been a haunting presence ever since. His was a witness -- and an instruction. God chose his son to stand non-violently in the face of violence, in the hope -- indeed the expectation, that the fury for scapegoating would be exposed as cruel and inhuman -- and ultimately destructive to the development of community. We are called to stand up, speak up and act up in the face of scapegoating violence. Even when we don't want to. Even -- and especially, when we may have a very human, but nevertheless insidious desire to build ourselves up by putting someone else down. The world needs our witness.

Add new comment

Our comment policy requires that you use your real first and last names and provide an email address (your email will not be published). The Communications Office of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark reserves the right not to publish comments that are posted anonymously or that we deem do not foster respectful dialogue.