Colluding in Scapegoating the “Other”

What accounts for the discrepancy between 30% of the American public confessing to racial prejudice while 90% claim they believe … Continued

What accounts for the discrepancy between 30% of the American public confessing to racial prejudice while 90% claim they believe in God? Tolstoy attributed such discrepancies between belief and conduct to the thin and weak veneer of Christian formation among believers, calling this “discord between the mode of life of our societies” and the religious ideals professed at its greatest level ever. Kierkegaard regarded Christendom as a “crowd” of irresponsible, impenitent persons living and acting in ways completely at odds with the love of neighbor taught by Jesus and the Biblical prophets.

As our experience and knowledge of the global community has broadened, the gap between belief and practice seems to extend far beyond the boundaries of Christianity to encompass most major forms of religious belief. Something more seems to be at work than simply the weakness and failure of the Church.

Gordon Allport in his classic study entitled “The Nature of Prejudice” regards the role of religion as paradoxical. “It makes prejudice and it unmakes prejudice.” Allport felt that the creeds of the great religions all embodied the ideal of the universal kinship of humanity, while, at the same time, many of the horrors of persecution were due to these same ideals. His conclusion was that one cannot speak sensibly concerning the relation between religion and prejudice without first examining the details of the specific issues in question.

Allport’s “The Nature of Prejudice,” first published in 1954, examined carefully the phenomenon of “scapegoating.” The concept of scapegoating is Biblical in origin and refers to Leviticus 16:20-22 describing the ancient Hebrew ritual for the Day of Atonement, a ritual of purification and cleansing for the people of Israel. For this ritual two goats are chosen, one is sacrificed on the altar. The other goat, the scapegoat, is driven out into the wilds or alternatively thrown over a cliff. “The goat shall bear all their inequities upon him to a solitary land.”

Allport describes the process of scapegoating in a couple of ways. The Biblical story he diagrams as: MISCONDUCT, GUILT, SYMBOLIC PLACEMENT OF GUILT ON THE SCAPEGOAT.

Allport’s more psychodynamic explanation for the same process is:
1. Frustration generates aggression and irritation
2. The aggression becomes displaced or projected upon the “scapegoat”
3. The resultant hostility toward the “scapegoat” is justified by stereotyping and blaming the “scapegoat”

Finally Allport drew attention to a very important feature of the scapegoat theory as an important generator of prejudice. He pointed out that the theory assumes “scapegoating” is an unconscious process. “Few people know the real reason for their hatred of minority groups.” We are unaware that we are distorting reality to justify these negative attitudes, feelings, and behaviors toward the “scapegoat.”

Due to the writing and teaching of the French philosopher, Rene Girard, recent years have seen an increased interest in the complex dynamics of the scapegoating process. In March, 2008, I was very pleased to see an article by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, on just this subject.

The article picks up on a key piece of Girard’s work, the cultural systems of wishfulness, covetousness, desire, and envy which fuel our competition for status, power, and wealth, turning mentors into rivals and sowing seeds of anxiety and frustration. Thus the Archbishop writes that this cultural system we live in inevitably leads to tensions and rivalries which somehow must be contained. “It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity.” When I read these words I thought: “Hooray – the Archbishop is finally getting up the nerve to speak out and identify, out loud, the awful scapegoating of homosexual clergy and those who support them.”

Unfortunately, all of the examples the Archbishop chose to illustrate his article were taken from the strife in the Middle East and parts of Africa with no mention of the present discord in the Anglican Communion. Undaunted, I read further as the Archbishop described the impact upon societies of enmeshment in the scapegoat mechanism:

1. By exploiting real fears it breeds untruthfulness, thus making the handling of these fears far more difficult
2. It renders negotiations futile
3. It provides a rationale for keeping the external conflict going
4. It becomes indispensable to the political leaders because the scapegoated “enemy”
represent a major claim to power and continuity for these leaders

Since the Archbishop’s list perfectly describes what has happened and is continuing to happen in the Anglican Communion for the last several years, I quickly came to the conclusion that Rowan Williams was writing about his experience as the titular head of Anglicanism, but for reasons of his own did not feel he should name directly the dynamics at work.

Rowan William’s list of consequences fails to describe the consequences for the “scapegoat.” Assuming that I am correct that there is no way the Archbishop could have written this article without discerning clearly what he was describing, I find his failure to be explicit an outrage and a complete misunderstanding of leadership. I am certain that Dr. William’s recognizes that no one is innocent and that there are great difficulties involved in exposing unconscious, hidden processes and evasions in which all are complicit. But as the Archbishop himself says, “the Christian church has been guilty of colossal evasion, colluding in just those scapegoating mechanism it exists to overcome.”

Written by

Comments are closed.