Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Scapegoating: We Hate It (except when we do it)

Last week President Trump announced via Twitter that he would ban transgender people from serving in the U.S. Military.  This came as a shock to the U.S. Military since they've been working for years fully integrating openly transgender people into the military.   For now at least, the U.S. Armed Forces do not treat a tweet from the President as the same thing as an official order, so they will continue to allow trans troops to serve.  It seems like a classic political move aimed at changing the subject of the news cycle.  The news is bad about Trump's staff in the White House, his relationship with the Attorney General and Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so let's change the subject.   If he can score some points with his supporters in the Religious Right and Alt-Right, then that's all the better.  It's scapegoating at its worst.

I wish I could say that Donald Trump is the only person who scapegoats others, but I do it and so do plenty of people I agree with and even admire.  It seems like humans can't help but cast the blame on someone else, so they do not have to take responsibility for the problems they or the people they care about face.

I'm not letting Trump off the hook.  Nor am I letting Steve Bannon, Trump's racist adviser off the hook either--this reeks of a Bannon move (listen to Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Joshua Green give his take on how Bannon likes to do this sort of thing).  And no, I'm not letting Trump's Vice President Pence who seems to love oppressing LGBT people off the hook either--I feel sure he has been whispering in Trump's ears.  I'm just saying that Trump is not alone in doing this kind of thing--he just has the loudest microphone at the moment.

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

We get the term "scapegoat" from the English translation of Leviticus 16.  There Yahweh gives Moses instructions on how to observe the Day of Atonement.  Among other rituals, Aaron is told to do the following:

"He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin-offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel." NRSV

The goat for Yahweh gets sacrificed in the tabernacle's Holy of Holies.  The goat for Azazel (an ambiguous term that most scholars think represents a demon living out in the wilderness--the Hebrew word is made up of two terms literally meaning "remove entirely") takes on all the sins of the community and is sent out into the wilderness.

"Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness." NRSV
Philosophers and anthropologists have seized on this image as a way to understand human societies and dynamics of power.  Dictators often attain power by scapegoating a minority for society's ills (think Hitler's rise to power through Antisemitism).  Communities and even families do it to support order and rules (think the "black sheep" of the family).  In the case of Trump--this week at least--transgender people are a convenient minority to pick on to achieve his ends.  He does so with false claims about the costs of medical benefits for transgender military personnel.   

I wish I could say that Trump was the only person I know of who does such things, but scapegoating is everywhere. Conservatives do it.  Liberals do it.  People of all races do it about people of other races.  Religious people do it.  atheists do it.   

Take the instance of transgender people--I've been told by transgender people that the "T" in LGBTQ is the letter most despised by the other letters.  Today's Washington Post political cartoon by Tom Toles shows Donald Trump in the first frame saying, "I needed to throw somebody under the bus to distract from all the bad narratives."  In the next frame we see a bus with a body underneath it marked "Trans" and Trump addressing three people: the first's shirt says "L," the second's shirt says "G" and the third's shirt says "B."  Trump says to them, "I thought you'd be happy.  I picked the least popular of you."  (Here's the link to it, but you need a digital subscription to see it.)  Sadly, even many gay, lesbian and bisexual people who have been themselves the victims of discrimination often disparage transgender people.  

Every group likes a scapegoat.  It happens in politics.  It happens in families.  It happens in churches (usually the former pastor).  It happens in offices--anybody ever known a bad manager who fires somebody else as cover for his own incompetence?  I like them too, because that means everything can be someone else's fault--entirely their fault, not partly their fault.  If it's only partly their fault then I might bear some responsibility too.  Then I'd actually have to do something.  If I've got a scapegoat handy, I can blame them and like the goat bound for the wilderness in Leviticus 16, I can devote my energy to getting rid of them and go on feeling good about myself.

Zurbarán, Francisco, 1598-1664. Crucifixion, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Some years ago I was introduced to the work of the French philosopher Rene Girard and his theory of scapegoating.  Girard's ideas have been used by some Christian theologians interested in understanding the meaning of Jesus' death as something other than "penal substitutionary atonement" (Human sin is an affront to God and must be destroyed, but God loves us and sends Jesus to die a violent death in our place to save us--that is, if we accept Jesus Christ as savior, if not then we get the violent death in hell).  

Girard wrote that human societies develop scapegoating rituals--often as a part of religious rituals--in order to deal with instability within that society.  Humans are driven by desire for what others have.  This desire develops into conflict and triangulation of battling groups against one another.  Eventually, the conflict gets bad enough that a scapegoat is found for all the problems.  Society overcomes its divisions and unifies in its blame of the scapegoat which must be destroyed.  Greater bloodshed is spared by destroying the scapegoat only.  Things simmer down until the next time conflict boils over and then a new scapegoat must be found.

For theologians using Girard's ideas, Jesus's death is not a pawn in a cosmic drama within God's self, but rather Jesus is a scapegoat humans used to overcome their differences.  The religious authorities, Romans and the general populace of Jerusalem could overcome their tensions by agreeing that Jesus was the real problem.  A cheap form of unity was found and nobody has to take responsibility for society's problems but Jesus.

Taken this way, Jesus' death, these theologians say and to some extant Rene Girard says too, there is great irony in Jesus' death.  The person scapegoated--Jesus-- is the one person who hasn't done anything wrong!  Since Jesus is the only one who can be truly innocent and he is the one who gets scapegoated, then the falsehood of scapegoating is revealed.  Jesus was not to blame--everyone else was.  Understanding scapegoating, whenever it happens and whoever perpetrates it, means that everyone must take responsibility for her or his own part in the problems facing a group.  There is no more "black sheep" of the family, because everyone in the family plays a part in its problems.

I don't mean to ignore the power differential between say the President of the United States scapegoating transgender troops and an average person scapegoating their neighbor who doesn't take care of his lawn.  I do, however, wish to point out that scapegoating is always wrong.  

It is a tragic irony that a religion which claims to worship and follow the person who stands as the ultimate false scapegoat is so stinking good at scapegoating.  Christianity is currently good at scapegoating LGBTQ people, but it has a long and terrible history of scapegoating whoever the heretic of the week happened to be.  Let's demonstrate a different type of Christianity, one that denounces scapegoating by whomever perpetrates it and does so by first looking in the mirror.
Grace and Peace,


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