“Christ is not divinized as a scapegoat. Those who take him to be God – Christians – are the ones who do not make him their scapegoat,” writes Renee Girard in his text Quand Ces Choses Commenceront.
Girard’s work attempts to reveal the role that violence and victimization play in the organization of human society and his research, particularly in his Violence and the Sacred, contends that humanity needs violence and uses violence to create peace and harmony within communities. Without violence as an organizing principle,, and therefore without a subject upon whom violence may be directed…a victim, people groups cannot maintain peace or establish tranquility.
Not only does violence organize secular communities, it also unites and organizes religious communities. Arguably, violence is never absent religious overtones.
Violence acts as the glue of communities because it allows the majority in the group to direct their animosity and hatred toward a “sacred” object upon which they can uniformly direct their aggression. This object or person is what we call the scapegoat.
The scapegoat is also a person that is believed to have violated the taboos of community, so aggression toward this person is justified.
Yet, the scapegoat is not sacred in and of itself; it is “sacred” precisely because it brings reconciliation.
When the community identifies a scapegoat to fill its need for harmony she becomes the target of a unifying animosity. The only way to keep peace in the community is to destroy the “presumed” problem, the scapegoat, as a response to the conflict. The community unites around this cause and directs its aggression upon the violator, sacrificing it for the good of the community. The people who were once threatened by disharmony are now united in cause and purpose through violence.
As Mark Heim notes in atonemental work, Saved from Sacrifice, “In the train of the murder the community finds that this sudden war of all against one delivers it from the war of each against all.”
This process of uniting around violence, finding peace in the death and annihilation of another, is not limited in its scope. It also lies at the center of the Christian story: the Crucifixion of Jesus.
I do not presume to be able to descandalize the Cross or Passion event of Jesus the Christ with such brevity. Such, in my opinion, has already been handily accomplished by Mark Heim, Renee Girard and others in their seminal works. But it is not too far a stretch to say that however Jesus is understood, mimetic violence is a part of his narrative…and it’s a narrative that does not cease upon the nails entering the hands of Christ. We continue to employ its mechanizations into the present.
Jesus is not to be the scapegoat of Christians; this, however, is precisely what we often make of Jesus.
The crucifixion is the event in which Jesus is killed by the people for the benefit of the people. The story of the Gospels shows us characters that kill Jesus in order to establish peace. Christians, rather than confronting Pilate’s medium of peace as sinful, condone this violence against Jesus and write songs and hymns reveling in the gory details of a victim known as Jesus. Mark Heim reminisces, “I attended worship services all my life…and sang about the blood shed for me…If I was comfortable with the abstract idea, why did I shrink from the reality?”
Christians deplore the technology of sacrifice, except in the case of Jesus, wherein his sacrifice was necessary to forgive our sins. Our sin problem becomes the problem of Jesus and we gladly accept him on the cross in order to give us the peace and harmony we need in the Church community. His death unites us and hides us from our own selves in the process.
Jesus becomes the scapegoat whereby we can not only pacify our ethical guilt, but in so doing alleviate ourselves from the threat of an angry God. It’s a “win win”: peace with ourselves and peace with the Holy Other.
And if it works with Jesus, why not continue to unconsciously pursue this mimetic verbal and physical violence into the present to make us feel more American, more Christian? After all, if God destroys Jesus to bring peace, surely we can destroy lesser humans to accomplish the same.
Along with Jesus, we American Christians are now doing the same thing with a major world religion: Islam.
Our present, and decade old phobia of Islam, is the continuation of an unfolding drama that for most Americans began on 9/11/01 in lower Manhattan. The country had experienced a rupture to their worldview that morning. The instantaneous refrain that was heard throughout the nation was revenge: to paraphrase President Bush, “I hear you, the world hears you, and soon the people responsible for this event will hear us all.”
At that point in history, polls demonstrated the nation was united in purpose and violent pursuit of the criminals. This was scapegoating in action: directing hate and violence toward an agreed upon enemy in order to restore order, unity and peace. We sought salvation in violence.
We sought to kill those who were not guilty to rebuild the worldview that was taken away from us from the actual guilty parties. Only through violence could we seek peace. It was the dialectical impossibility of American politics to somehow be the bearers of peace with one hand, while holding an anvil in the other.
The scapegoating that began almost a decade ago has now spread to the religion in general. Most Americans have very poor ideas about Islam and many have no problem condemning it as religion of hate and death. The hatred that is brewing against Muslims in our nation is astounding, even while many Americans spewing Islamophobic rhetoric have never read the Koran or spoken with a peace loving Muslim.
Islam has become an easy scapegoat. Americans have figured out a way to make Islam their sacrificial victim and kill it for the good of the many.
It works, it unifies and it gives us a common enemy to hate. Rather than engender Deuteronmistic hospitality as Moses and Jesus taught, American Christians are ready to put Islam on a cross. Can we not see what we are doing? Do we not see that we are using the same sinful violence that killed Jesus to give us excuse to kill an entire religion and culture (physically and verbally)? Did Jesus not suggest that if we hate someone in our heart, we have already committed murder against them?
A question in the spirit of Girard would be apt to ask, “Does Jesus die in order to affirm the peaceable kingdom that is brought through violence, or does Jesus die as a testimony against violence in order to establish the peaceable Kingdom?”
Is Jesus’ death an affirmation of violence as a unitary principle or is his death the swallowing and ending of violence as a currency whereby we should attempt to establish harmony?>
Some of my fellow brothers and sisters will, and have objected, saying, “Do you see Muslims showing your type of tolerance? Do you see Muslims wanting to understand your faith and love you?”
My reply is, “Yes”. I have experienced hospitality and love from Muslim strangers. I have been with them in Syria and walked the streets of Damascus, sipped Turkish coffee with them in Jordan and put my arms around Bedouin wanderers. I have felt the hospitality of peace loving Muslims that have saved money for years in order to take their family on Hajj to Mecca. I have seen their smiles and heard their children laugh. I have been at home in their presence and have eaten dinner at a common table, even talking about things like Jesus and Mohammed in a place called Sinai.
So “yes,” I have been with Muslims who have “tolerated” my Christianity and attempted to “understand” my faith.
But even if I hadn’t, I still serve a Christ that teaches, “You have heard it said You Shall Love Your Neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you in order that you may be sons and daughters of your Father who is in heaven.”
We’ve already made Jesus a scapegoat…must we make an entire religion and ethnic group one also?