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, 20-22aAs 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.
“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...
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.