Scapegoating our Muslim Brothers and Sisters: An Example from Girardian Theology

Since his death a few weeks ago, I have found myself drawn to the theology and writings of Rene Girard. If you are unfamiliar with his ideas, I highly, highly recommend Richard Beck’s recent 7-part series at his excellent Experimental Theology blog that explains very well Girard’s mimetic theory and scapegoating. This is a series I wish I had written.rene-girard-scapegoat

I just want to use this as a prompt for a quick social commentary piece. The plight of Syrian refugees and Muslims in general has dominated much of the recent news, and much of my thought. I find it very interesting, in light of reading Girard, that 2015 America is reverting to a scapegoat mentality towards the minority among us.

In short, Girard’s theory says that for many thousands of years, human civilization used collective violence aimed at a minority or marginalized group, in the form of a sacrifice, to act almost as a “pressure-release valve” for human society. Beck summarizes Girard in this way:

1. Sacrifice was a real solution to communal violence.

2. But for that “solution” to work the truth about the sacrifical mechanics have to be systematically obscured.

3. Religion, via its mythical structure, provided this obfuscation.

4. The obfuscation was this: The voice of the scapegoat, the very personal cries of the one being murdered, had to be silenced. Thus, scapegoats were chosen (and are still chosen) from marginalized groups, powerless people. Further, the murder of the scapegoat must not be seen for what it is (i.e., a murder). It must be a divinely sanctioned “sacrifice.”

5. This scapegoating mechanism–rationalized, sanctioned, “religious” violence–still defines the human condition. Our collective Sin is this machinery of violence.

6. Thus, in order to save us, the scapegoating mechanism must be exposed.

The progression of Judaistic monotheism slowly unveiled this hidden mechanism by initiating a move towards identification with the scapegoat. The death of Jesus was the final act in the revealing, showing the ultimate futility of the sacrificial mechanism by disclosing the inherent innocence of our scapegoats.

We seem to have lost this conclusion. In a rush to assuage the primal fear we feel in the world, a fear of the different and of death, we have seized upon a voiceless and minor victim, that of the small Muslim community in America, and the innocent refugees fleeing violence elsewhere, and made them our scapegoat. And as the rage and anger and hate builds to a breaking point, we get closer and closer to that moment of collective violence that relieves the great societal tension that has been building for years and years.

The death of Jesus, of the innocent scapegoat, reveals the futility of such violence. It shows that safety and security, the future of society, our own personal well being, is not achieved by violence. Violence only begets more violence, until we have all operated as the scapegoat. Instead, by identifying with those we oppress, we can begin to feel compassion, and we begin to heal our world by striving for the betterment of all peoples.

We are at a crucial juncture in history. The revelation of violent futility in Jesus’ death did not end the scapegoating mechanism by any means. Many times in the subsequent 2000 years has collective violence been used to pacify the anxiety of society for a short time. We are dangerously close to living through another one of those moments, if we have not already crossed that event horizon.

May we find the clarity and sanity to recognize our trajectory towards death. May we find it soon.

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