Our Scapegoating Nature

Jesus came, in part, to stop scapegoating. He used his harshest words on religious leaders of his day, who used their status to come down on other people. The Parisees, for instance, blamed the poor and the “sinners” (whomever they deemed as such) for the Roman occupation, while they claimed to be pure. Jesus’ death, furthermore, was the ultimate rejection of scapegoating: rather than let one group be blamed for it, the Bible clearly indicates that we all bear guilt for Jesus’ suffering and death– every last one of us. No one is left out, so there we cannot say, “it was the Romans!” or “it was the Jews!”

But even though Jesus and the subsequent apostles put a stake through the heart of scapegoating, it has taken Christians far longer to catch on. We still do it. Whatever the problem, you can be sure that one Christian group or another (or one secular group or another, for that matter) will find someone else to blame. I do this sometimes, and so do all of us. But we need to begin looking past our scapegoating nature and look first at the “log” that is in our own eye.

Examples of scapegoating are numerous. Conservative Christians have their list: it is the “secularists” (e.g. postmodernists, relativists, feminists, evolutionists, gays, abortionists… the list goes on). It is easy for conservatives to pin blame on these people, because it absolves them. It is the gays out in The Village and San Fransisco; it is the secular postmodernists in the liberal universities. You can hear this from the pulpit in conservative evangelical churches, and most congregants will agree. Premarital sex? Yes, that’s ruining America. Our country is obsessed with it. The secularists? Sure. But then what happens when you question the extravagant wealth often present in these churches (both their buildings and their congregants)? What if you question the allegiance to the false nationalistic mythology, embodied by the American flag standing next to the Christian flag in many sanctuaries? Suddenly, you are hit with a wave of arguments, qualifications, and technicalities that any relativist would be proud of. You realize, suddenly, that you hit too close to home. You see, people know how to qualify their sins so that they don’t seem sinful.

More liberal churches, generally speaking, have a similar problem. Talk of social justice abounds, but too often such talk doesn’t call into question our lifestyles; it focuses on oppressive structures. The scapegoats are the consumerists, materialists, those who won’t take care of the environment, the government… but not us. You can talk about social justice as it relates to the Bible, but be careful, and prepare to hear a strong defense, if you want to talk about sexual morality.

What if the problem is all of us? That is what Jesus showed us. And that is what we need to realize once again.

Comments (2)

  1. carl

    hi Nathan,

    Just made a long comment on your post from several weeks ago about Bailie and Christian apologetics. I was a bit critical there, so I wanted to also say that I really like the general direction you take things here in this post. I think scapegoating in place of real self-reflection is all too common on the left, the right, and everywhere in between (including in me).

    Where I part ways with you is where you say “Talk of social justice abounds, but too often such talk doesn’t call into question our lifestyles; it focuses on oppressive structures. The scapegoats are the consumerists, materialists…”

    If we’re scapegoating “the consumerists” or “the materialists”, then we aren’t actually “focusing on oppressive structures”. We’re just blaming people.

    I really don’t think the solution is less focus on oppressive structures and more focus on our “lifestyles”. On the contrary, I think “lifestylism” can be a real easy way out (for Anabaptists especially), where we substitute a self-gratifying quest for personal purity (Jesus wasn’t much for that) in place of a real commitment to confronting unjust systems (Jesus was big into that).

    We don’t need more lifestylism, we need a better understanding of what we are talking about when we talk about “oppressive structures”. We need a better understanding of how systems are not just the sum of their parts, how dynamics of privilege and exclusion function (with no need for a single malevolent guiding hand or conspiracy) in our institutions, how the Powers (as Walter Wink calls institutions) in their fallen-ness can manipulate all of our best intentions to serve evil purposes.

    Most of us aren’t used to thinking in systemic terms, so discussion can easily devolve into personal namecalling and scapegoating (and I’ve been guilty of that as much as anyone). So let’s have less scapegoating, more focus on oppressive structures, and leave excessive lifestylism to the Pharisees (oops, that’s us).

  2. eric

    Interestingly, pastor mommy (my mother, a menno pastor) asserts that Jesus was most likely a Pharisee himself. Most of his arguments emerge from or react to Pharisaic tradition. Oops, can’t even scape goat them. Oops, them is us. This all gets messy very fast.

    I’m happy to talk about sexual morality – but mainly to say it has a lot more to do with taking care of ourselves and each other and a lot less to do with stoning people. I think that could be said about nearly any “morality” – a word that is quite possibly more dangerously legalistic and loaded than it is helpful.

    Is there a problem with having a strong defense?

Comments are closed.