On Seeing and Not Seeing Scapegoats

In a few weeks--June 5-7--I'll be in Baltimore speaking at the Theology & Peace conference (details here). The Theology & Peace conference is inspired by the work of René Girard and seeks to "gather theologians, pastors, activists, and others interested in applying the insights of mimetic theory for the formation of an authentic and effective theology of peace." If you are going to the conference I hope to see you there.

If not, I might catch you in Chicago this fall for the annual SBL/AAR conference. Unclean will be a part of the book session hosted by the Colloquium on Violence and Religion, another group interested in the applications of Girard's work. I've never been to SBL/AAR. As a psychologist it's not my professional conference. Maybe I'll see some of you there. Look for me, I'll be the psychologist.

At both conferences I'll be talking about the work in Unclean (primarily Chapter 6 "Monsters and Scapegoats") that tries to make connections between purity psychology and the practices of scapegoating.

The connection seems clear as the scapegoating ritual in Leviticus is a purification ritual rooted in the notion of expulsion--expelling the scapegoat, along with the sins laid upon it, into the wilderness.
Leviticus 16.6-10, 20-22a
“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat. Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering. But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat...

“When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites—all their sins—and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the wilderness in the care of someone appointed for the task. The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a remote place...
As I argue in Unclean, the connection between purity and expulsion is rooted in the dynamics of disgust psychology, how we push away or vomit out contaminating and foul substances. At root, there seems to be a deep psychological connection between purity psychology and scapegoating.

But the argument I make in Unclean goes further. 

René Girard argues that prior to the gospels religious myth--the sacred--obscured the scapegoating mechanism. Rather than seeing victims being murdered we see sacralized violence, violence backed by the decree, plan, and will of the gods. According to Girard, the gospels desacralize violence, exposing scapegoating for what it is: murder. The gospels accomplish this feat by reading the scapegoating story from the inside out, from the perspective of the victim. As we follow Jesus through the Passion narrative the story is keen to declare him as innocent. So why is he killed? The story reveals that Jesus is killed because there are a variety of constituencies vying for power. Jesus is killed so that these powerful constituencies can maintain the status quo or gain leverage against each other (particularly as they try to exploit and use public opinion against each other).

So telling the story from the victim's perspective desacralizes violence, it exposes the powerplays and violence at work when we scapegoat. And because of this we know scapegoating to be a bad thing. Girard would argue that the gospels played a key role in this moralizing of scapegoating.

And yet we continue to engage in scapegoating. We know scapegoating to be a bad thing but we haven't stopped.


This is an interesting question because the pagan myths that sacralized violence before the gospels are no longer with us. The gospels, it seems, did a bang up job in exposing the violence of sacrifice, animal and human. And yet while the obscuring myths have been eradicated we know that scapegoating continues to happen. But why does this happen if the mechanism has been exposed, laid bare and is now open to view? Why, if we know scapegoating to be wrong and evil, do we still do it? If the gospels made scapegoating more transparent why are we still blind to it?

Something, it seems, is still obscuring the mechanism. And if it's no longer pagan myth then what is it?

I think you could make a pretty strong case that we've just replaced the old myths with other myths. What sort of myths? My hunch is that the myths of old weren't really about pagan gods. My hunch is that those myths were really about Empire--the principalities and powers. And those myths are still very much with us. Myths of God and Country continue to sacralize violence.

But the case I make in Unclean has less to do with mythology than with psychology. Recall the intimate psychological association between purity and scapegoating. My argument in Unclean is that scapegoating continues to plague us, even in this disenchanted age, because a suite of psychological processes mask the scapegoating mechanism. Rather than myth certain psychological mechanisms hide the violence from our eyes. The reason we scapegoat is because we don't see our violence as an example of scapegoating. If we saw this we'd stop.

So what's the problem? Well, as I argue in Unclean the problem is that we don't see scapegoats.

We see monsters.

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12 thoughts on “On Seeing and Not Seeing Scapegoats”

  1. Puppy-TORTURING monsters, to be exact: http://www.joshbarkey.com/2012/05/perfect-blog-post.html

    Wish I could be there at the place with the thing. Enjoy.

  2. I think the issue of marriage equality and homosexuality fit into the case you make. 10 years ago terrorists(and still). 25-45 years ago communists. 70 years ago Nazis. 150 years ago slavery. 250 years ago witches...and the list goes on. The scapegoat mechanism seems to play in every facet of history. The movie Apocolyptic comes to mind in regards to the reaches of it. You mention the gospel telling the story from the victim's point of view, but as I think you have concluded before, those that participate in scapegoating are just as much victims. In most cases I would say victims of the principalities and powers. "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do."

  3. I don't know which is worse:  symbolically laying all the sins of the tribe on one poor innocent goat or then banishing it to a wilderness existence.  Didn't the goat at least get to come back when the red ribbon turned white?  Wonder how long that took!

    Do you think that most people at least sense that violence is a horrible thing?  By "sacralizing" it, we put God's sovereign stamp of approval on what we do.  Even the dominant (at least during my lifetime) atonement theory, Penal Substitution, attributes violence and punishment to God's nature, will, and sovereign plan.  That -- believing that our violence is not a holiness violation -- is an existential consolation, if I've understood that correctly.

    And if that defense fails, then voila:  Scapegoat.  Shift the blame and guilt to a third party (not ourselves or God), and then close our eyes to the suffering of the scapegoat(s).  As the religious leaders answered Judas, "Not our problem [your guilty remorse]!"  I really find that part of the story (and what follows) unbearably sad.  I don't feel like saying, "He got what he deserved."  Don't know what else to say about that...  ~Peace~

  4. There were two goats, a Pure one that was dedicated and sacrificed to the Lord and an Other one that was dedicated and cast out into the wilderness. Two ways of processing Sin. In this schema, Jesus would be the Pure goat that was laid on the alter. Where do we find the Other goat in the Passion? ... real question, never thought about this before. I guess maybe it is Israel, which is cast into wilderness with the destruction of the Temple.

    See now, we tend to think of what happened to the scapegoat as a bad thing, but OTOH it got to go live out its own life on its own terms, away from either being dedicated to the Lord or served up in a savory stew. If we think about Adam and Eve, or Cain, Ismael, maybe Jacob?, Noah? ... being driven out is actually the part of salvation, in that it makes a sufficient atonement and allows participation in the next phase of Kingdom development. 

    A little rough here, just kicking' it around. But maybe we should "scapegoat" nonconforming people more: encourage them to go there own way rather than forcing them to the altar or the stewpot.

  5. Just got back from early voting. In the parking lot I saw a little vehicle plastered with stickers. What got my attention was the one prominently proffered on each door: killed: 54 Viet Cong. Maybe he was a sniper..who knows? I'm pretty sure he was in the voting line with me. God and country....iN the name of God and country. I 'm also pretty sure which primary he voted in. Violence and unquestioning patriotism go hand in hand....to my way of thinking. So go ahead and kick me out sith my load of sins. I 'll just wander in the wilderness of nonviolence....a vast minority in my own time.

  6.  Someone followed my link and asked me why it was relevant. I see his point, so since I don't know how to delete or re-phrase my comment, here's the explanation I gave him:

    I guess this post only obliquely relates to Beck's, and what he's saying about scapegoating. For us to have an "in" group,
    someone else has to be in the "out" group. In this post I was attempting
    to show (through satire) that most blogs get popular by creating an
    "out" group, and pandering to the pride of the reader. In time, blogs
    often become clusters of like-minded individuals, who gather to
    congratulate themselves on what idiots other people are.

    One of
    the things I love the most about Dr. Beck's blog (in addition to his
    clear, thought-provoking writing) is that I never get the sense that he
    is trying to do that. There is a humility and inclusiveness there that
    makes me happy.

    The whole "puppy-torture" thing is incidental,
    and refers obliquely to the "Slacktivist" blog, whose proprietor often
    refers to the false-indignation of people who invent aggressors and
    villains (his example is "kitten-burners") in order to make themselves
    feel better, as part of the in-group. "Puppy torture" is SUPPOSED to be a bit over-the-top.

  7. I loved the post. And I really like the puppy videos. :-)

    Now we need to work on the perfect blog comment.

  8.  Ha! Thanks. I posted a link in Facebook, and it prompted a discussion with a professor-friend of mine in Canada on the perfect Facebook Update. My suggestion was: "Turning off my Facebook account, now. If you need me, I'll be at my house, hanging out with real people."

  9. Hi Josh,
    I'm pressed for time this morning, but just wanted to say 'thank you' for articulating so beautifully my perception of ET and Dr. Beck.  For some reason, I thought immediately of this verse:

    “You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.  But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.  (Matt. 7:13,14 - NLT)

    Here at ET, I have felt that the gateway to life is opened and, though the path is difficult, there are friends with whom to journey on The Way.  ~Peace~

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