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15 January 2011

The Arizona Shooting and the Myth of the Sacred Scapegoat

There are no coincidences. The universe saw it fit for us to get a taste of home-grown violence, a week before we hear John's assessment of Jesus, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29), and eight days before we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose message of non-violence seems needed more than ever.

A right-wing political group publishes a map of US states and names of certain US politicians who didn't vote as expected, and adorns their states with crosshairs. On the face of it, it's nothing, just one small incident of verbal violence ... but it is conceivable that such verbal violence gives rise to a poisonous plant that grows and grows. For on January 8, one such plant exploded, quite literally, when one of the politicians included in said map, Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords, got shot in the head. A gunman opened fire outside a supermarket near Tucson, AZ, and shot her and at least 17 others. Congress woman Gabrielle Giffords lies sedated in critical condition. Nine-year-old Christina Greene was shot dead. Six innocent people have been killed.

If Muslims published pictures or names of US politicians with superimposed crosshairs, our government's response would be severe. But unlike in that case, the terrorists at the root of this violence are no anonymous strangers we can "take out" with a surgical strike. This is terror grown at home: way too close for comfort. The discomfort is palpable in the accusations flying around these days.

Others have begun to reflect about how those who incited violence should be held responsible, and how such violence can be prevented in the future. I am concerned with what's underneath: What gives rise to such violence, not just in deed, but already in the words that come before the deeds? In this proudly egalitarian society, we need to ask who sows violence, who feeds and nurtures it, and to what end. Before my reader gets weary of who I might blame, here is a hint: everyone is implicated.

John's words about Jesus are a good way to start some theological thinking: "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!". We have carefully polished these words and made the sentence part of our Sunday liturgy, but the underlying imagery is rather bloody. In Old Testament times, the scapegoat was the tried and true way to get rid of the sin of a whole nation, and that is what the Gospel of John has John the Baptist refer to.

The French philosopher and literary critic René Girard suggests that indeed, the need for a scapegoat has been there since human beings have formed communities. The collective violence of a people demands that there be a victim that will die and unite everybody in one purpose.

Girard describes scapegoating as one of the oldest mechanisms to fend off social crisis. At some point, when feuding threatens to dissolve the community, spontaneous and irrational mob violence erupts against some distinctive person or minority in the group. They are accused of the worst crimes the group can imagine, and then they are lynched. In the wake of the murder, communities find that this sudden war of all against one has delivered them from the war of each against all. The sacrifice of one person as a scapegoat discharges the pending acts of retribution. It "clears the air."

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat 

The sudden peace confirms the desperate charges: If the scapegoat's death is the solution, the scapegoat must have been the cause. Since everybody else is allowed to remain unconscious and nobody else is held responsible, violence rises again, until the next scapegoat is found. And on it goes, in endless senseless unconscious repetition.

Scapegoating is with us still. The prescription is that divisions in the community must be reduced to but one division, the division of all against one common victim or one minority group.

Now, René Girard holds that, unlike all other myths of the world (which support scapegoating and generally are on the side of the "mob" perpetrating it), the stories of the Bible tend to rehabilitate the victims. He says the main difference between mythology and biblical stories is that

instead of speaking in his own name, the biblical author chooses as his hero the principal victim, whose viewpoint prevails in an account that does not suppress the persecutors' version but regards it as deceptive. 

In particular, Girard says the story of Jesus’ crucifixion is the story of a failed sacrifice. He says that Jesus’ death is told in such a way as to utterly cut the legs out from under our rationale for scapegoating, victimization and violence. Unlike when mythical sacrifice succeeds, in the case of Jesus' death, peace does not descend, and the memory of the murder is not erased. In the case of Jesus' death, an odd new counter-community arises, dedicated both to the innocent victim whom God has vindicated by resurrection and to a new life through him that requires no further sacrifice.

"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" The Lamb of God, Jesus, is the lamb that God is offering to the sacrificial monster. Who is the sacrificial monster? Humanity. It is us who demand sacrifices to keep our order. It is humanity's sacrificial inclinations that are exposed in the story of Jesus, so that we can no longer blame it on God. We can no longer say 'God wanted that sacrifice.' John the Baptist says, "This is the Lamb of God."

This is not our lamb given to God. This is the Lamb of God given to us -- to us, those who demand sacrifices.

What Jesus exposed is that we humans keep order by sacrificing some for the sake of others, while justifying it with our gods. THAT is the sin which Jesus takes away. We don't see that our sacrifices create victims, because we blame it on God and justify ourselves. Our bloodthirstiness and our enslavement to the sacrificial mechanism -- Jesus the Lamb of God, the crucified victim of the institutions in which we abide, came to reveal this to us in his death and resurrection.

When the temples of sacrifice ceased to be, sacrificial institutions of order did not fully cease to be. At the time of Jesus, the sacrificial order shifted from the temples toward the Law. The Apostle Paul began the Christian task of exposing the Law, too, by showing how the Law was yet another sacrificial order that Jesus came to replace with God's righteousness, a justification by sheer grace.

As if commenting on what happened in Arizona, Dr. King said,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.  Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it ... Returning violence for violence multiplies violence adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

We are invited to accept Christ's invitation to abide in him, and in him alone. He came to take away our sin -- and along with it, to take away our reliance on the institutions of sacrifice, institutions that promise us life but only bring death. The Good News is that Christ came not just to take away our old shelters, but to offer us a new one: to abide in his love. Jesus came to replace the Temple and all other institutions of sacrifice.

"This is the lamb of God". The invitation is before us. What is offered to us is a way out of the vicious circles of violence. The sacrificial monster doesn't have to be fed any more, because we know better. We are aware now; we understand the mechanism. We know that our sacrificial systems only bring death. We know where life is.

"Look! Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!"  Here is a promise to embrace. Here is a promise to hold on to. Here is liberation for me and for you.  Here is Good News to proclaim to the world.  Go, tell it on the mountains, over the hills and everywhere!

John 1:29-42

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