Scapegoating in a Globalized World

I’m powering through the five-part podcast series “The Scapegoat” on CBC’s Ideas. It was originally aired in 2001, but was re-released recently in the wake of Rene Girard’s death last Fall. It explores Girard’s thought in a series of interviews with Girard and a few other scholars.

Tonight I listened to part 4, which brought up the fact that there are two types of mimetic rivalry: external, and internal. But first let’s talk about mimetic rivalry in general.

Girard’s central insight is that human beings are inherently mimetic: we imitate each other, particularly when it comes to desire. I desire what you have, imitating your desire for what you have. You then see that I desire what you have, and your own desire for it becomes all the stronger. But this shared or mimetic desire therefore leads to mimetic rivalry: we both want what you have, and begin to compete with one another for it. But as I compete with you for what you have, you then imitate my competition, so that eventually the mimesis is not about the object of the initial desire at all, but rather about each other. We each call upon the other to imitate ourselves, while also seeking to imitate the other, and in so doing get in each others’ way. Girard holds that this tension and rivalry is the root of human violence, and that religious sacrifice of a scapegoat is a way of channelling that violence onto a common enemy of the community to discharge the tension that threatens the peace of the community. The incredible contribution of first Judaism and then especially Christianity is that it exposes religious sacrifice for what it truly is, a system of controlling and discharging that violence, and that the victim or scapegoat is in fact innocent.

In part four of this series, Girard talks about two types of mimesis: external, and internal. External mimesis is when we imitate someone with whom we cannot compete, and therefore it is imitation without rivalry. We cannot compete with this other person because of a distance between us, whether that is physical distance (in space or time, such as when we imitate a hero from the past or from another country) or social distance (as when we imitate a parent or a person from another social class with whom we could not effectively become a rival). Girard holds that the course of history is toward more and more internal mimesis, and therefore more rivalry; and while his theory of why this is has primarily to do with psychology, I see a different cause – not that they are mutually exclusive, but sadly, probably cumulative.

Globalization is a complex social process by which the world becomes more and more economically interdependent, socially smaller, and culturally integrated. Globalization, then, has reduced or removed the social and physical distance that keeps some mimesis external, allowing for much more internal mimesis.

As we become more democratic, the social distance between different classes disappears: if a hundred years ago a blue collar worker wanted to imitate a banker, they would have tremendous difficulty doing so, whereas now there are social forums in which their different levels of wealth and connections are to some extent set aside, allowing mimetic rivalry where before none was possible. Further, the American Dream is mimetic: a Donald Trump explicitly invites competition with new rivals, and uses the mythology of the American Dream to level the playing field with would-be rivals in order to better induce their mimesis, using their imitation and perceived competition as a way to gain their identification with him, and therefore to gain their support for his presidential nomination. Democracy and cultural shifts have removed the social distance element of external mimesis, making internal mimesis with those to whom we are physically close more possible and likely.

But globalization has also reduced physical distances, not only through transportation (because you can fly around the world in a day), but also through the internet (a new place that is easily accessible from almost anywhere in the world), and through immigration and cultural integration (or lack thereof). For example, let’s say that I want to imitate Tony Robbins, the self-help guru: we’re both enormously large people (he’s much bigger, which just makes me want to surpass him in other ways even more!) who speak in public and write (hopefully) inspirational things. In fact, his whole schtick as an inspirational speaker is largely inviting mimesis: he invites our imitation explicitly, and also implicitly by modelling success and linking it to the principles he preaches. So if I were to take some of those principles and start preaching them in my own words, perhaps even initially giving him credit, I would eventually run into conflict with him when it turns out that we are each holding super-exclusive conferences in the same city on the same weekend! My imitation of him has now become rivalry with him because of our physical proximity, because these days guys like Tony and I just fly around to new places all the time. Of course, it would likely turn to rivalry much sooner, probably as soon as I first published a blog post on a website that competes with his. A hundred years ago if he was in the US and I was in Canada, our paths would likely never cross and if they did it would be non-confrontational, but in the internet age we are in immediate rivalry.

The immigration aspect of rivalry is a bit scarier, and it incorporates another important sociological and theological concept: representation. For decades now, the “clash of civilizations” model has been prevalent. The basic idea is that Eastern (i.e., Muslim) and Western civilizations cannot coexist, and will eventually come into direct conflict. This is of course not at all necessary or inevitable, but many believe that it is. This idea goes back for ages, but it has taken on a large following in the last few decades because globalization has put East and West in close proximity: a comment on the internet or in the press today can lead to international war tomorrow. While it is common for the scapegoat to come from among us, in cases of war the scapegoat comes from a rival group or clan – in this case, from Islam.

There are enormous tensions in our society (economic inequality, race issues, environmental issues, gender and sexuality, etc.) that can be overcome by giving us a common enemy, the scapegoated Muslim. On the other end there are enormous tensions as well, many of them legitimately linked to the Western military and economic domination of the Middle East for the last 40-50 years, but many internal too – poverty, clan warfare, religious ideological divides, etc. While the West tends to scapegoat a leader (Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden) or a faction (the Taliban, Al Qaeda, Daesh) and use it as pretext for an invasion, angry Eastern militants lack the military power for such tactics, and instead declare war on the West in general and then gruesomely execute individual westerners.

This is where representation comes in. Daesh doesn’t particularly care who they execute, so long as they’re a white westerner, the more prestigious the better. To them, each one of those people is representative of the West, of American military oppression, etc. They are symbolic representatives of their enemies, and therefore symbolic victories. Typically, it is the only type of victory they can achieve against superior military rivals.

For the West, the representation goes the other way: to attack a single person, we invade a nation and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Let that sink in: Daesh kills individuals in order to achieve a type of victory over a massive enemy, while we kill masses of people to achieve victory over individual enemies. (This in no way justifies what Daesh does, but we need to keep our own actions in perspective.)

But with immigration, representation goes the other way for us too. Daesh kills individual white people largely because white people are hard to find in their part of the world – usually only Western soldiers or journalists, perhaps some aid workers. But meanwhile, while we are at war with a foreign group like Daesh who claim to be motivated by Islam, there are millions of Muslims in North America. It is very easy for us to scapegoat those Muslims who live among us for the crimes of Daesh half a world away, and we’ve seen that in an increase in violence against Muslims and vandalism toward mosques in the past year.

So while the fight against Daesh can serve as a scapegoat for all of our internal pressures and politics, relieving the tensions we carry about race and sexuality and other hot-button political issues, the tension we carry about fighting Daesh gets relieved by attacking the individual Muslims or other immigrant outsiders in our own midst. Our scapegoating is now serialized.

This type of serial scapegoating will only increase because of the smaller world created by globalization. Once upon a time, having a common enemy on the other side of the world provided an ongoing release of internal tension by setting up a rivalry that could not be consummated due to the physical distance and sheer cost of doing so – so we could feel free to hate, say, the Chinese, because we would never actually meet them. Once upon a time we could dream about a class revolution, when we would finally get what was ours from the rich bankers and elites who barely knew we existed, but not yet, so we’ll get back to work for now until we have the means to launch that revolution. We could scapegoat without actual violence, because social and physical distances kept us separated from our would-be rivals, and therefore no actual rivalries or violence ensued. Now, it would seem, violence is always available to us, always there to funnel the internal tensions created by our ever-increasing rivalry (which has become the basis for our economic systems), allowing us to drop bombs in Iraq to keep from exploding into civil war or murder at home.

More than ever, we need Christ, who is the anti-scapegoat. Christ not only reveals the innocence of all scapegoats, but also the ignorant participation of all of us in putting them (and him) to death. Girard says that becoming a Christian means acknowledging that you are a persecutor of Christ, recognizing your role in scapegoating, and following Christ in the way of defusing this cycle of rivalry and institutionalized murder. So when someone you know is ranting about Muslim immigrants (or homosexuals, or Mexicans, etc.), first be cognizant of your own status as a participant in the scapegoating and murder of Christ and so many others, and then self-consciously address the scapegoating you see. Like Christ, identify with the scapegoat and absorb that rivalry (and if necessary, that violence) into yourself willingly – not seeking it or stirring it up, but not shrinking from it either, like Christ before Pilate. While representation can lead to scapegoating, it can also undo it if we choose to represent the other, to represent the scapegoat.

Christ is the ultimate imitator, imitating God the Father and asking us to imitate him. This is the ultimate external mimesis, a mimesis without rivalry in which we imitate him who refuses all rivalry. As the conditions for internal mimesis grow, it is more crucial than ever that we imitate Christ, and in so doing, defuse rivalries – starting with our own.

On the Sanctity of Life

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that laws that banned Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) violated the Charter rights of Canadians and suggested conditions under which PAS might be administered so as to prevent abuse. A government committee recently released a report suggesting expanding those conditions, even before any legislation to that effect was proposed.

Bruce Clemenger has since written numerous editorials in Faith Today that see the Supreme Court ruling, which overturned a previous ruling that had prohibited PAS, as the triumph of personal autonomy over the sanctity of life. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which Clemenger is president, is campaigning against PAS, and the implication is that they do so based on Christian values. So I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering about where we get our Christian notion of the sanctity of life. Let’s take a look.

The Sanctity of Life

noun: sanctity; plural noun: sanctities
  1. the state or quality of being holy, sacred, or saintly.
    “the site of the tomb was a place of sanctity for the ancient Egyptians”
    synonyms: holiness, godliness, blessedness, saintliness, spirituality, piety, piousness, devoutness, righteousness, goodness, virtue, purity;

    “the sanctity of St. Francis”
    • ultimate importance and inviolability.
      “the sanctity of human life”
      synonyms: inviolability;

      importance, paramountcy
      “the sanctity of the family meal”

When we talk about the sanctity of life, particularly in relation to life and death issues such as PAS and abortion, we tend to mean “inviolability” as the definition above suggests. Life, we hold, is of ultimate importance – it is inviolable, trumping every other consideration.

Now, aside from the fact that we violate this all the time with war, the death penalty (thankfully not in Canada), and how we allocate foreign aid (yes, we have the resources to prevent millions of deaths annually, but find it too expensive), I’m not entirely sure where we get this from in the first place. So I did a search for “what does the Bible say about the sanctity of life?” and found a list of 19 verses that are held, at least to the crowdsourced views of, to support the concept of the sanctity of life. While they seem to affirm the God-given nature of life, that’s not the same thing as sanctity or inviolability.

The Bible most certainly affirms that human life is good, and even that life in general is good. The first chapter of the Bible describes the creation of the world, and at every stage God declares that it is good, declaring at the end that it is even very good. But note that God said that light and darkness were good, as were land and water. God declares his creation good because it is his creation, not necessarily because it is alive.

There are many verses that talk about the way that God has created human beings, knitting us in our mother’s womb, etc. Indeed, God has created us (at least indirectly), and that speaks volumes about the importance of our lives. There are also verses that talk about children as being gifts from God – as a father, I affirm this. There are verses that talk about God’s interest in our lives, that he knows everything we do and say, has counted the hairs on our heads and values us more than sparrows. This is all good and true, and shows that God values human life. But that’s not the same as holding it to be inviolable.

Because even though God created us, and gives us life, God also takes life. A lot. The Bible is full of instances where God kills people, and tells people to kill people. And death is still sad, and God even mourns, but that doesn’t stop death. God can stop death, but doesn’t. Life, to God, is a good thing, but far from inviolable. God does prohibit people from murdering each other, but the penalty for murder is death.

I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

Genesis 9:5-6

Knowing that death happens, and that it’s unfortunate and even terribly grievous, is a powerful thing. However, it does not stop God from taking lives, nor does it stop God from telling people to take other people’s lives. To help keep this in perspective, remember that even though God does not stop death, God does have the ability to give life, and plans to resurrect us all (the righteous and the wicked alike).

Where, O Death, is your victory? Where is your sting, Hades?

I want to clarify that I think that God takes death very seriously. God doesn’t say “meh, I’m going to resurrect them anyway – no big deal.” God mourns death, and even hates it, working to overturn it on a more permanent basis. It is in the first sense of sanctity, then, that I think God views life; not that it is inviolable, but that it is holy and inherently good. But there are also times in the Bible when people recognize that death may be better than life: Job notes that it would be better if he had not been born than to live with the calamity and illness he was experiencing, and several prophets (I think of Elijah and Jeremiah, off the top of my head) wished for death; Jesus tells hypocrites that it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the sea than to mislead children and make them into hypocrites; and for Paul “to die is gain.” Each of these are very different contexts, with Job and the prophets emphasizing the terrible nature of their current reality, Jesus revealing the unrealized yet still terrible nature of the hypocrites’ current reality (and actions); and Paul pointing to the glory of resurrected life to come. So life is not just violable, but sometimes worse than death, at least in our perceptions and sometimes even in reality.

But what of autonomy? Clemenger holds that personal autonomy has triumphed over the sanctity of life, and many argue that this is a shift toward liberal values (usually contrasted with Christian values). But what does the Bible say about autonomy?


A search for “what does the Bible say about autonomy” doesn’t come up with a nice list of verses like my previous search did, however misdirected those verses might have been. Instead, it comes up with scores of articles about “the horrendous sin of autonomy” and “the corrosive effects of autonomy and individualism.” These articles refer to the fact that autonomy, in the sense of choosing for ourselves, was the original sin, and that Christians subject themselves to God’s will.

What those articles miss about the “sin” of autonomy is that the sin involved as abuse of that autonomy, not the autonomy itself. God was the one who placed the forbidden fruit in the garden (for no revealed reason) and instructed Adam and Eve not to eat it, seemingly for the purpose of testing them. Human autonomy is not only God-given, but it’s crucial to fulfilling our God-given purpose as stewards of the earth. It is so important to God that we be co-creators rather than drones that God gave us the autonomy to disobey and refused to revoke it even when we disobeyed. In fact, rather than retract our autonomy in order to protect human life, God instead wiped out all life except that of Noah and his co-voyagers. At least in Genesis, God pretty explicitly values human autonomy over life.

But why does God value autonomy so highly? It has to do with the nature of love and genuine relationships. Chosen relationships are better than forced relationships, and love itself cannot be forced. God desires a loving relationship with all of creation, but human beings are (or at least appear to be) the only creatures capable of loving God back in a way that involves actively choosing to love God. Other creatures embody many features of love, such as the loyalty and devotion of our pets, but humans have the ability to direct their loyalty and devotion, in spite of everything, toward God if we so choose.

Those who say that autonomy is sinful, then, are not referring to our autonomy itself, but rather to our choice for autonomy over God. When God gives us commands to obey, we can choose to obey and thereby to love God, or we can choose not to. By choosing not to love God, we are in some sense choosing our own ability to choose over the one who gives us that ability. Theologians sometimes differentiate between “freedom from” and “freedom to”, noting that a more positive understanding of freedom is not to focus on what we are free from (which may include the will of God, should we choose to disobey), but rather to note that we are free to do the good things that God asks of us. The point of “freedom to” is that we are not coerced to be good, but we can choose it, and that choosing to do what we are asked to do is not at all the same thing as being coerced. The sin of autonomy, then, is to focus on “freedom from” without the balance of “freedom to.”

In regard to PAS, there are elements of freedom from and freedom to. People want to be free from pain, confusion, and slow but inevitable decline, and knowing that death will come sooner or later, like Job want it to come sooner. Unlike Job, most people do not experience a supernatural windfall of God’s blessing at the end of their lives, and we’ve gotten very good at prolonging the duration of people’s lives without actually enhancing or maintaining the quality of those lives – so people in chronic pain or dementia suffer longer before they die. People in those types of situations, like Jeremiah, want their suffering to end; and Christians in such situations, like Paul, look forward to a better future (and sometimes want it to hurry up). At the same time, we now have the technology to end people’s lives “safely” (that is, with no chance of screwing it up and without inflicting suffering). This allows us to control the time and method of our death. The question is, does this give us the freedom to die?

Good Question

I don’t know. I have incredible sympathy for people suffering from chronic pain, mental illness, and dementia – things that can not always be cured or even properly controlled by modern medicine. I also wonder at the wisdom of prolonging life past our ability to live well, and shake my head at the lack of proper palliative care available in Canada to help people make informed decisions with real alternatives about how their final years will go. I think we need to be clear that human beings have an inherent and inalienable right to life, but not a responsibility to live it, at least in any laws that I’m aware of in the world today.

Christians need to be careful about where our values come from: I value life, and I’m even okay with saying that life has incredible sanctity. I may even be okay with life being inviolable, I’m still working that out. But if our values are labelled Christian, they should reflect Christ and the Bible – and at least in this case, we may have gotten it wrong.