All human societies are rooted in violence. This has been one of my core convictions since Rev. Dr. Duane Larson introduced our Systematic Theology class to the work of French philosopher, sociologist, theologian René Girard in that first semester of seminary. The context of this introduction was a lecture on the great “Atonement Theories.” Theories of the Atonement are discussions about HOW God accomplishes the salvation of humankind from what Luther would call “sin, death, and the devil.”
(This is a theology discussion, but it’s also a practical anthropology discussion, so I promise there’s more to it than just a load of BS. Please follow along if you can, because this is really important for how we humans live together, how that living together is complicated and becomes problematic, and how we can actually get out of the trap, thanks to God’s work in Jesus. This is also central to my own ministry, which a lot of people call into question because it isn’t exactly “orthodox.)
So, back to Girard. All human societies are rooted in violence. To put it slightly differently, violence is “original” to humanity – or better yet, our cultural “origins” lie in violence. This a a good way to look at “Original Sin,” by the way, if Augustine’s (or Luther’s or Calvin’s “Total Depravity” theories of humanity make you want to vomit.) And violence is something we “catch” from our environments. (Akin to Luther’s idea that all human works are shot through by sin … it’s just not that it’s some kind of rottenness we inherit because our parents had sexual intercourse in lust.) This is a phenomenon known as “mimesis” or “imitation.”
One of the classic “proofs” of mimesis is the group of kids placed in a room with a dozen toys. No particular toy is more appealing than another … until one kid picks one to play with, and then suddenly, that is THE toy to have. Because Timmy has the red ball, it must be good, so now *I* want the red ball! It’s not that the ball is desirable in and of itself: it’s that MY desire has been shaped by what Timmy has. I’ve acquired his desire. If there are 10 kids and 10 red balls, no problem. But if there are 10 kids and only ONE red ball, that desire leads to rivalry, and the rivalry sometimes leads to violence.
Our biblical narrative plays this out with the story of Cain and Abel, which incidentally is where “sin” is mentioned for the first time in Genesis. It’s not Adam and Eve eating the fruit, but it’s at the point of rivalry between Cain, whose offering to God was not deemed pleasing, and his brother Abel, whose offering WAS acceptable to God. Cain, lacking what Abel had, became his brother’s rival, and violence ensued. God had warned him not to do what he was about to do because “sin is crouching at your door.”
Are you following me so far? Good.
Keep in mind that Abel, the son of Adam and Eve, was now dead. That left Cain to be the one who went and founded civilization. So the culture of the world, according to the biblical narrative, is founded on murder. Society is rooted in violence.
I think Cain and Abel’s story isn’t meant to be taken as a play-by-play history, but it sure does make a point about the origin of our cultures. The other interesting thing about this is that, when God confronts Cain, God tells him, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the soil for vengeance.” Vengeance: the taking of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. In other words, vengeance is not justice. It’s just a continuation of the violence cycle.
How ya doin’? I hope you’re still with me. This gets even more interesting. I just want to keep checking in with you.
OK, desires are inherited from social Others (mimesis). Frustrated desires lead to rivalries. Rivalries lead to violence. Violence is self-perpetuating (and escalatory) through the vengeance cycle. The Bible highlights this reality in the story of Cain and Abel and the subsequent founding of civilizations by the murderer Cain.
Girard and Girard followers call this the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism. “Scapegoating?” I hear you cry. “Where does scapegoating come into this?” Gosh, I’m glad you asked!
Mimetic conflict exists not only between individuals, but also between groups within a society or between whole societies. But for groups to exist in constant violent conflict is unsustainable. There needs to be ways to curb the violence, or else it will result in an all-versus-all cage match with the very likely outcome of complete obliteration. So there needs to be some kind of societal pressure valve that bleeds off the rivalry for the sake of group survival. Enter the scapegoat.
A scapegoat is an embodied symbol of the conflict, and it provides an Other, some kind of an outsider, upon whose head these conflicts (or “sins” or woes or what have you) can be placed, thereby unifying the group or groups in their common “hatred” of this “enemy.” The scapegoat, once identified, can then be dealt with, either by driving it out of the community or by killing it. In so doing, a temporary but actual peace falls over the group. At least until mimetic conflict then rises again, and the whole process has to start anew.
If you think about how this plays out in American society, just as a case in point, you can think about how conflicted groups might need to find an easily-identified Other, upon whose head they can cast blame for their lack of good fortune, their difficulty in finding jobs, their failing cultural structures, or what have you. Our own history is rife with this. The immigrant, for example, has always been a convenient scapegoat. They look different from us. They talk different from us. They eat differently from us. Let’s blame THEM for our woes, because those of us who look similar to one another can’t very well blame each other. That would result in civil war! See what I mean? Plug in any group you want. The story is always the same. WE are in conflict over land or jobs or opportunities or this, that, or the other. As long as there’s somebody different, someone easy to identify as the culprit, we can beat and chase and kill them … in small numbers, because if we got rid of them ALL, we’d have to turn back on one another, and that just won’t do.
Still with me? I have a point. I’ll get to it soon.
The thing about scapegoating is, we know it’s bad. We know it’s avoidant of the issues that actually cause the conflict. But it’s convenient. And most of the time, when we identify a scapegoat or scapegoats, we don’t even really realize we’re doing it. If we do, it doesn’t work, because it’s downright unjust. If we can’t ALL come together, convinced that this guy or that group is the one deserving of our scorn … if there isn’t unanimity over against the scapegoat, there will always be somebody to point out the truth, and the mechanism will fail.
I’m gonna bring the biblical narrative back in for a minute. And Girard, too. The Bible is LOADED with attempts to create scapegoats. Once you start to see them, you can’t UNSEE them. You can’t NOT see that Cain killed Abel, not because Abel was a bad brother, but because he had something that Cain did not. To skip over some other notable examples and jump straight to the biggie, it’s not that Jesus needed to die because he was a bad guy. It’s that he had something nobody else had. Authenticity and authority.
John’s Gospel lays it out best when it builds up the conflict between Jesus and the various groups of religious authorities of his time. The Pharisees and the Scribes and the Sadducees did not like one another. They were all vying for the authority to lay claim to authentic worship of God. When Jesus did his healing and his teaching, “and with authority,” how do you think that was viewed by those who claimed that mantle for themselves? And when Jesus’ disciples talked about him as a king, how do you suppose King Herod took that? How about Governor Pilate, the emissary for the great Caesar? Not well, I can assure you.
And so the High Priest Caiaphas spells it out for the slower-witted among them. “It is better for one man to die than for a whole nation to perish.” In other words, let’s scapegoat Jesus. He’ll bring us together – and not just US, but the Roman political powers, too – over against him. And that’s exactly what happened. John’s Gospel tells us that Pilate and Herod even became friends over the scapegoating of Jesus.
But the story of Jesus, and especially the story of his resurrection, spells out what happens when a society creates a scapegoat, kills it … and then it comes back. Uh oh. But what about all those sins we placed on the scapegoat’s head? Where are they? Yup. They came back with him.
Where Jesus’ story is different from other scapegoating stories, is that when he does come back, he doesn’t come back with the same cry for vengeance that Abel’s blood called out to God from the soil with. His blood comes back speaking of peace. Speaking of forgiveness. We schemed to kill God, and God forgives us. Woah.
That is the center of my theology, and this is the very basis for my ministry. As a culture, we no longer have the convenience of choosing forgiveness or unforgiveness. We’re too far down the road for that. Our choice is now between forgiveness or extinction.
The crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, spells the end of scapegoating. We don’t have that option any more. The “deep magic” of it is exposed and shown to be unviable. We need a DIFFERENT way of gathering together. A way that isn’t over and against a common enemy. And that Way is shown to us, is embodied for us, by Jesus, “whose blood speaks a better word than Abel’s” (Hebrews 12:24).
I hope you’re still with me, cuz I’m still not done.
Now, just because scapegoating doesn’t work anymore, that doesn’t mean that we don’t still engage in the practice. As a minister of the Gospel, I know this on a very personal level. Not only do I see parishioners attempt to scapegoat one another, I myself am often the identified scapegoat. Did you all see my Facebook post of December 8, 2021? I called it “On Pastors and Social Media.” It was a long post, so you may not have read it.
Whether you read it or not, that post was, in a way, precisely about how people scapegoat pastors. I wrote it for myself, but I also wrote it for my fellow ministers, AND I wrote it for lay people. In that post I point out that pastors hold a post that has traditionally forced them to comply with societal expectations. In a sense, we embody Jesus — not because we are the holy Sons and Daughters of God — but because we are public figures. And when we fall outside the expectations that people hold for public figures, we’re knocked off of the pedestals that most of us never asked for. I certainly never asked for it. All I’ve ever wanted was to be faithful to the call I’ve received from God to go and live among the people and remind them that God loves them. God sometimes thinks they’re a jerk. God knows that they love to create scapegoats. But God wants to free them from that Original Sin of violence and the perpetuation of violence through revenge.
Remember when, after Jesus performed the sign of feeding the multitudes in John’s Gospel, how the people came to him and tried to make him king by force? That’s when Jesus knew his goose was cooked. The people had an expectation of him as their king. He wasn’t there for it. And they killed him because of it. Killed him. Murdered their scapegoat because he didn’t fit in with what they thought he should be.
I’m going to speak candidly here. But a quick recollection first.
Back in seminary, we had a couple of classes on dealing with life in the parish. One of the sessions focused on “church alligators.” (Now that I’m a Florida resident, I think I take some offense to that term on behalf of my new reptile friends. But I digress.)
Alligators in the church are the people who have expectations of a pastor, and when that pastor, being a human being, fails to live up to those expectations, those folks will seek to devour her or him. Sometimes these confrontations are direct. Sometimes they come in the form of anonymous letters. Sometimes they come through people gossiping and creating emotional triangles, in which they team up against a pastor (or someone else) in order to get more folks on their “side.” All of this is scapegoating.
Are you shocked that such people exist in the church? I know you aren’t. Neither am I. It’s “human nature.” It’s “original sin.”
But when we were talking about these “alligators” in our seminary classes, one thing we kind of all agreed upon was that we would put no stake in cowardly anonymous letters. If someone doesn’t have the courage to speak to another person face to face, but hides behind the anonymity of a written complaint, it’s probably not worth your time. It flies in direct opposition to the guidelines we, as a Church body, claim to adhere to and which are set out in Matthew 18:15ff. But if, as a pastor, you receive such a letter from a congregant, it would not be inappropriate to bring that complaint to light. Take it out of the shameful shadow and expose it to the light of the Truth of the Gospel.
Here’s where this rubber hits the road for me. I received a call from a synod representative today. The “synod” is a body of worshippers, an “assembly,” who is called together by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the whole. If you want to think of it purely as administrative, that’s probably appropriate. I mean, properly speaking, it’s all the clergy, rostered leaders, lay people, administrators, everybody. But in common parlance, the synod is the office of the Bishop.
Anyway, I got a call from the synod, telling me that they had received two letters of “concern.” When the representative said to me that they are truly concerned FOR me, not ABOUT me, I believe them. On a personal level, I believe them. Luther’s explication of the 8th commandment stuff, right? But when that rep told me that these members of another congregation are “concerned” about some of the things that I post on FB as “inappropriate” and “unbefitting a person in my role,” I don’t see that as “concern.” I see it as an anonymous complaint against me.
Now, as I said, I’m not interested in revenge. But I AM interested in bringing this to light. What that person or those persons meant to do was to get me “in Dutch” with the synod authorities. This is textbook triangulation. It’s textbook scapegoating. Whatever. I’m a grown-up and I can deal with it.
BUT part of the reason I believe I’m called here, not just to my current congregation (whom I love dearly!), but also to the people who call themselves christians in this part of the world, is to bring to them a message of repentance.
Repentance. Metanoia. A changing of the mind. A TRANSformation of the mind into the mind of Christ, not a CONformation of the mind to the patterns of this world. Remember this world? This world, that’s shot through with mimetic violence? Yeah, as followers of Jesus, who take our calling seriously, we have GOT to stop equating the role of pastor with a conformity to certain expectations about what we deem as “moral” or “proper” behavior.
As a seminary prof once told us, “Your job isn’t to tell people that they’re sinners. They know that. Your job is to remind them of grace.” Well, that’s what I’m here to do. Right now. Someone out there has tried to scapegoat me. It’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time. But remember this: the Kingdom of God is in your midst. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of liberation from Law and Expectation. You may hold me to an unrealistic and outdated expectation, and you may try to symbolically kill me (or drive me away, cuz that’s another thing that happens to scapegoats), but I WILL come back. And no, I won’t come back with vengeance, but speaking a better word: peace.
As God forgives all of us who tried to drive him out of this world on a cross, following the POSTIVE mimesis of Jesus (aka “imitatio Christi”), I’ll forgive you, too. But I want you to stop.
If you have a problem with me – and I understand where that’s coming from – bring it to me. Don’t be conformed to the scapegoating pattern of this world. I’m a reasonable person. At the end, we may find that we disagree anyway. Oh, well. Our unity isn’t in agreement. Our unity is in Christ, who sets us free. Disagreement ain’t nothin’ but a thang. I may not be the pastor for you. No harm there. But please don’t try to stop me from being the pastor that someone else needs: one who speaks their (often foul) language. One who drinks the same things that they drink (“John came neither eating nor drinking and they said he had a demon. The Son of Man comes eating and drinking and you say, ‘Behold a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!'”)
The truth is, there is a need for variety of pastoral types for a variety of people types. Ya know? Don’t step on my funk, just because I don’t fit your mold. Don’t step on my call, just because you don’t understand it. I forgive you, whether or not you forgive me for being me.
I’d also invite you, whoever you are, to look at the comments on my post and see the people whose lives are touched by my approach to ministry before you judge it “inappropriate” and “unbecoming.” That’s just some advice. You know, the Church is in decline, and we keep wondering why. For my money, it’s precisely because nobody wants to be a pastor who gets scapegoated for pastoring the way they pastor.
Anyway, that’s it. I hope you got something out of this. Maybe the personal aspects of this post don’t resonate with you at all, but you’re intrigued by the theological aspects. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I dunno. But if this has anything of value in it, I’d like to hear from you. And again, if you disagree, well, this post is public (as you noted in your letter to the synod). That means you’re free to publicly comment on it. Cool? Cool.