Blame is a wicked curse. It creates tensions that can lead to waves of uncertainty and fear which can cause policies that are sinful in nature and structures of sin in our institutions. These waves crash on the shores of our society and make their presence known, but people tend to accept the tide for what it is and move on in life, disregarding the consequences of not calling the injustice out; these injustices can come in the form of a great tsunamis and can impact societies for years wreaking devastation to all in its wake.
Philosopher Rene Girard recognizes that the problem of blame stems from “mimetic crisis” which if not addressed leads to violence in our society. It is the psychology of mob mentality and addresses the social rationale of rooting out different perspectives in a society in the name of preserving one way of thinking. Rational thinking goes out the window when a society looks for a target to carry the sins of society as a rite of purification for that society. Girard calls this “scapegoating.”
Girard notes, throughout history societies have sought to transfer the guilt and sins of its members on to one person or a group to exorcise the sins of the larger whole – usually a minority group or a group with less power. It is a phenomenon that we see in early primal religions and is even present in the Hebrew Scriptures. The society would offer a he-goat to the gods as a rite of purification. In the case Hebrew society, members would offer a sacrifice before entering the Temple as a form of purification and an offering to G-d.
In Greek literature, Zeus uses Pandora as a scapegoat. He offers Pandora a box of knowledge and tells her not to open the box. Curiosity gets the better of Pandora, she opens the boxes and unleashes problems into the world. Zeus and other gods ultimately blame Pandora for the problems of the world.
In the case of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Adam scapegoats Eve for eating the apple from the tree of knowledge after being tempted by the serpent. Throughout the Bible there are references to scapegoating, but from the Christian perspective, Jesus was the ultimate scapegoat – assuming the sins of all and serving as the “Lamb of God” and dying for the sins of humanity. “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jewish leaders that it would be good if one man died for the people.” (John 18:14)
Girard’s theory stands the test of time. In the last one hundred years we see scapegoats all over the world. Hitler popularized it with his scapegoating of the Jews in the 20s as did Stalin regarding Trotsky in Russia to preserve his power. Politicians throughout the years have used it as a tool for gaining political power.
America has a rich tradition of scapegoating. Every new group has had the finger pointed at it for its problems. First it was the Native Americans, then the slaves, then it was the immigrants arriving at Ellis Island… We can go deeper into our history and see the roots of scapegoating in Salem during the Salem Witch trials and Joseph McCarthy and the Army-McCarthy hearings in the 50s.
Recently we’ve seen how Asians have suffered due to the recent pandemic. Nationalist groups have mastered the art of scapegoating in blaming immigrants from Mexico and Latin America for our economic problems. The solution in this case, from their perspective, is to build a wall to keep them out.
It is easy to look the other way in scapegoating. Freud identifies the act of scapegoating in psychology through the act of denial and projection. He notes that we initiate these behaviors as a way for us to deny ourselves blame and deflecting our own psychological inadequacies on to others. We may not even be conscious of the fact that we are doing it.
Our LGBT friends tend to be the latest victims of scapegoating. Gay bashing and homosexuals who suffer at the hands of those who do not know what to do with what they deem an acceptable lifestyle. Those people who are insecure in their own sexuality may tend to fend off homosexuality through gay bashing or illicit gay slurs. Such practices compromise our integrity as human beings.
Our self-awareness as individuals is where scapegoating begins and ends. Culturally bringing attention to this behavior brings awareness and heightened sensibilities in identifying it in our country. We are called to “judge not lest you be judged.” This may be why Jesus remained silent while being scapegoated.