Thesis: Presuppositions II – Scapegoating

Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers is a complete system, and it’s difficult to remove any piece of the puzzle or extract a central essence.  Not that the individual pieces can’t stand on their own – they can – but only that all of the pieces are so intertwined that, even if you think that something is somewhat peripheral, it keeps popping up in unexpected places.  One of those pieces of the puzzle that I don’t want to spend much time on in my thesis, but which seems to play an enduring role in Wink’s thought, is the idea of scapegoating that he draws from the philosophy and anthropology of Rene Girard.

Rene Girard sees endemic violence going all the way back to the earliest humans, and notices that it follows an escalating pattern of retaliation.  He sees this as the result of a mechanism he calls “mimetic rivalry”.  It starts with “mimetic desire”, which is actually what leads to social cohesion – you and I get along because we mimic each others’ desires, or want the same things.  Wanting the same things involves having the same purposes, and as any politician worth his salt can tell you, people need a common purpose if they’re going to get along or make any progress.  (This also lends itself well to in-groups, because if there’s one thing that gives human beings a common purpose, it’s having a common enemy!)

So we get along when we mimic each others’ desires, or want the same things.  But what happens when there’s only one thing that we both want?  We both still want it, but you have it, and I don’t.  This creates “mimetic rivalry” – and we compete over the thing that we both want.  But we still need each other, and we’re still bound together by our mimetic desires, and so we can’t just kill each other (sometimes people do, but if we all did, there’d only be one of us left).  So there’s still a community, but it’s full of tension as these rivalries play out.  Faced with this, a community can make one of two choices: we can kill each other, or we can redirect the tension onto someone or something else: a scapegoat!

In the Pentateuch, God gives Israel all sorts of instructions on how to worship, including what to do when they wanted to approach God.  Being sinful, they needed to deal with their sin, to ease the tension between them and God, before they could enter his presence.  They would deal with their sin like this regularly: by taking an animal, placing their hands on it to transfer their ritual uncleanness to it, and then killing it.  There was even a ritual in which the people’s sin (collectively!) would be passed on to a goat, which was then sent out into the desert to die – exiled on behalf of the entire community.  The animal would have to be without any defect or uncleanness, so that it was clear that it was not dying or being exiled for its own impurities, but for those that were being imparted on it.  A scapegoat.

We scapegoat people all the time; we call it “passing the buck”, or simply “blaming” someone for something we’ve done.  We let someone else face the consequences of our own issues, problems, sins.  We “civilized” people no longer do this in a physical way most of the time.  As individuals, we lay blame on others for our actions, and sometimes people are wrongfully executed (“I’m just a patsy!”) for crimes others have committed – but most of the time we just do it for petty things: like when your big brother bugs you so much that you hit him, and then you get in trouble for hitting him, and then claim “he made me do it” – as if he was forcing you to hit him, rather than you just not controlling yourself.

But collectively, we scapegoat in VERY big ways – economists call them “externalities” because they are the costs of a service or product that are external to that service or product.  For example, the shirt you’re wearing right now was probably made somewhere in Southeast Asia, and the person who sewed it probably worked for fifteen hours straight and barely had enough food to eat; this is the cost of our cheap products, and it’s a cost that we’ve “externalized” – that is, it’s a cost that we don’t pay.  We have tension in our community about fashion (because we don’t have anything important to fight about), but we can all have more fashion (and thus get along) if we find people in Bangladesh to pay for it.  The environment is a big scapegoat: almost everything that we own is produced using fossil fuels, which pollute our air, water, and soil – but it solves so many of our problems!  We can (somehow) tune out the environment, pretend it’s not there, send it into the desert, out of sight and out of mind – but enjoy the fruits of its misery in the form of products made from and by oil.  Oil is the root of global conflict (“mimetic rivalry”) but the environment (and the troops) are the scapegoat that allows the rest of us to be productive and successful and bond as a community or nation.

But this isn’t what Girard is talking about; he’s referring instead to a ritual scapegoating that he finds in most cultures throughout history.  Israel used actual goats for their scapegoating, but many cultures have ritualistically sacrificed a human being on a regular basis, supposedly to release this tension.  In the penal substitution theory of atonement, Jesus is the final scapegoat – the only scapegoat that is sufficient to die for the sins of all humanity, the true fulfillment of the Hebrew sacrificial system (and every other sacrificial system, I suppose).  According to Girard, the innocent victim of scapegoating is often honoured and even deified by their community afterwards, believed to live on as a god or goddess – this certainly applies to Jesus, who was only deified after his death and resurrection.  “Religion is therefore, according to Girard, organized violence in the service of social tranquility.” (Engaging the Powers, 146)

Walter Wink sees scapegoating as an essential problem of the fallen world, and finds the notion that God has ordained in through the sacrificial system to be simply wrong.  Perhaps God had ordained it for a period, as a part of progressive revelation?  Perhaps the people of Israel, coming out of pagan cultures, attributed this practice to God? (This is what Wink thought.)  But he holds that it is categorically incorrect to imply that Jesus was a scapegoat at all (and he condemns Paul on this point in places where Paul implies it), when in fact Jesus was the anti-scapegoat.

There is in the universe, however, a counterforce to the power of myth, ritual, and religion, says Girard, one ‘that tends toward the revelation of the immortal lie,’ and that is the Christian gospel….

The violence of Scripture, so embarrassing to us today, became the means by which sacred violence was revealed for what it is: a lie perpetrated against victims in the name of a God who, through violence, was working to expose violence for what it is and to reveal the divine nature as nonviolent.

It is not until the New Testament that the scapegoat mechanism is fully exposed and revoked.  Here at last, Girard asserts, is an entire collection of books written from the point of view of the victims.  Scripture rehabilitates persecuted sufferers.  God is revealed, not as demanding sacrifice, but as taking the part of the sacrificed.  From Genesis to Revelation, the victims cry for justice and deliverance from the world of myths where they are made scapegoats.  In the cross these cries find vindication. – Engaging the Powers, 146-47.

What Girard (and Wink) are saying here is that the scapegoat system is the tool of the Powers – a tool that we still haven’t properly taken away from them.  The cross was not God’s act of scapegoating against his own son, but rather God’s identification with the victims of scapegoating, in such a way as to reveal scapegoating as the opposite of his intention.  But not long after the cross, there were some who, being so conditioned by the scapegoating system, used this as a metaphor or explanation for the mystery of the cross.

Scapegoating did not become a primary theory of atonement for about a thousand years after the cross, but really took hold in the Reformed tradition in the form of the penal substitution theory.  There are many today (especially in Calvinist circles) who hold this to be the primary understanding of the cross, and even some who would break fellowship with Christians who do not hold to the penal substitution theory.  After all, one such scholar noted, behind theories of atonement lie the very nature and character of God, making arguments about atonement theories actually very deep and potentially divisive.

There are a growing number of scholars, particularly in the peace traditions (e.g. Mennonites) who reject penal substitution and the corresponding violent view of God.  As I was looking for the works of Marcus Borg in our library (because Wink refers to Borg very frequently) I came across a refreshing and exciting collection of essays called Stricken by God? in which Borg has a chapter (alongside NT Wright, Rowan Williams, Richard Rohr, CFC Moule, Miroslav Volf, and many others).  Most of the big-name scholars’ chapters are taken from other published works, but all of them at the very least question penal substitution, and many of them suggest alternatives.  Another thing that many of them have in common is their reference to Rene Girard, and the first endorsement on the first page of the book is from Girard himself.  This endorsement is followed by similar praise from Stanley Hauerwas, John D. Caputo, Brian McLaren, Marit Trelstad, and…Gregory Boyd!  I look forward to reading Boyd again to see how much this endorsement of a book which rejects penal substitution actually influences or has any bearing on his theology of spiritual conflict (and thus this thesis), but if it has a presence there than this can be a good point of comparison between Wink and Boyd.

So, to sum up: in spite of the violence of the Old Testament (which is usually human vs. human even though it is attributed to God), in the New Testament we see God identifying with the victims of violent scapegoating.  Yes, the atonement is still violent – but it is our violence, perpetrated against God, rather than God’s violence (through us) perpetrated against his Son.  In dying on the cross, God in Jesus Christ is identifying with humanity, giving his Yes to humanity while at the same time giving his No to the violence that humanity has projected on to him and was at that time using to kill him.  The Powers use scapegoating to prop up a system based on envy and rivalry; God calls us to a new system entirely, based on generosity and self-sacrifice – and that generosity and self-sacrifice exposes the scapegoating system for what it is: a tool of the powers which keeps human beings in endless cycles of bondage and violence.


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