The Politics of Scapegoating (John 12:20-33)

The politics of Scapegoating or “Scapegoating, Treyvon Martin and Seeds Falling” // The message I gave on March 25, 2012 (John 12:20-33)

_Headlines of a Scapegoat

There are a lot of things happening that have caught my attention in the news recently:

One of the recent news pieces that has captured us all had a headline that read: US Army Sergeant Kills 16 In Afghan Villages (Link). “U.S. officials said the shooter, identified as an Army staff sergeant, acted alone, leaving his base in southern Afghanistan and opening fire on sleeping families in two villages.”

Alabama followed Arizona’s lead by passing a law last year aimed at making everyday life difficult for the state’s estimated 120,000 illegal immigrants. The Alabama law, known as H.B. 56, allowed local police to check the immigration status of people stopped for other crimes, required public school officials to collect data on the number of illegal immigrants enrolling, and forbade illegal immigrants from entering into private contracts or conducting any business with the state (There was a recent This American Life episode on the unintended consequences this is having in AL).

Detroit Free Press headline read: Unhappy public not sure who to blame for high gas

We’re all very familiar with the Sandra Fluke contraception hearing and Rush Limbaugh’s demeaning and hurtful comments.

OneGeorgeFox is a group of LGBTQ students who have recently written a letter to George Fox asking to not be discriminated against any longer. They want to be allowed to have an open conversation about homosexuality on the campus of George Fox, and want discrimination ended. This has created a stir in local churches and is (hopefully) prompting healthy discussions around these things. Right alongside this the new headline runs – Ex-Student Convicted In Rutgers Spying Case: ‘I’m Very Sorry About Tyler (Clementi)’ (Link).

And Most strikingly, and heartbreakingly was the murder of Treyvon Martin, a 17 yr-old African-American who was shot in the chest while walking home from a convenience store. He was killed by a man who was on neighborhood watch. Treyvon was armed only with skittles and a can of iced tea (Link).

What do we notice about all of these things? Each of these recent news stories share a common thread and a modern tendency, and that tendency is to find a scapegoat for our problems. Our subject today is “the politics of scapegoating” and how to address it.

Okay so what is A Scapegoat?

We are all probably familiar with the basic idea of a scapegoat:

A Scapegoat was used back in the Old Testament. In those times during the Jewish Day of Atonement there was a goat offered for the people’s sins. But it is important to note that the goat was never killed.

[slide] Marcus Borg writes “The sins of the people were symbolically placed upon the goat, which was then driven into the wilderness (Lev. 16:20-22). The goat was a “sin-bearer” — but it was not killed, not sacrificed. Indeed, to have offered up a scapegoat laden with sin as a gift to God would have been sacrilege.” (103)

Scapegoating — It is when a person or a group is:

“singled out as the cause of the trouble and is expelled or killed by the group…Social order is restored as people are contented that they have solved the cause of their problems by removing the scapegoated individual, and the cycle begins again. The keyword here is “content”, scapegoating serves as a psychological relief for a group of people. (Wiki)

This morning I am interested in this connection with scapegoats being our “sin-bearers” and offering “psychological relief.”

This is all around us. We do it in our families, we do it at work with our bosses and co-workers. We cast our spouses as scapegoats. We cast “the world” as the real problem. We often make the poor our scapegoats. We are convinced that the problems of society come down to these individuals over here, or those over there.

This constant drive to blame is deeply psychological:

Anything we can do to find some psychological relief, anyone we can strap “sin” onto and send out into the wilderness will be quickly grabbed in exchanged for turning around to look at ourselves.

Obviously these situations are far more complex than anyone problem, any “lone shooter” but to get at the complexities we have to ask questions like: who is being blamed here, and who is being protected? Who is playing the scapegoat? Who do they represent within society? Who are the ones casting the image of “scapegoat” on another? Through questions like this we will begin to see the power dynamics (and often the money) at work.

So here, in the headlines I’ve offered, you have a whirlwind of issues from Gay-rights, to immigrants, to african-americans, politics, sexuality, women’s rights, consumerism and war. These are pretty much the makings of a perfect storm. And in every instance we find ourselves given the opportunity to respond in a variety of ways.

We can root for the underdog, the outsider; we can look for ways to bring about change within the system that creates these problems, we can ignore the problem and hope it goes away, we can look for someone to blame and the list goes on.

Treyvon Martin was a scapegoat, for a neighborhood who was trapped by its fearfulness, and the rage of one man.

1 US soldier will be the scapegoat for a military system that deployed him 4 times knowing that he had PTSD.

The president is the scapegoat for whatever we think is wrong with the country.

Gays and Lesbians are often pegged as the scapegoats for failing heterosexual marriages.

Immigrants are scapegoats for our anxieties around economics and race.

Our children or our spouses are often the scapegoats for our own unhappiness and struggling relationships.

We want someone to blame. We need relief from just how troubling all of this really is.

Even Adam in the garden quickly turned and pointed his finger at Eve:

“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

Abraham and Sarah, even Moses blames others. It’s everywhere, but nowhere are we led to believe that this is the way of Christian discipleship.

Jesus didn’t say you will know my followers by their ability to scapegoat, right? He said you will know them by their love [unconditional] Love. This hardly needs to be stated, but Jesus does not want us to make scapegoats of one another.

Here’s an aside:

I have a question: Where does our need to blame someone else come from?

I think it can come from our understanding of faith. If we understand faith in terms that God is a punitive God who must punish sinners, then God needs someone to blame. In this framework, Jesus becomes a kind of divine Scapegoat; or maybe our Scapegoat is Satan or a Demon (the voices in my head); maybe it is Adam and Eve and the idea of “original sin;” maybe it is this or that…

It should be clear that I do not believe this is how we are to understand faith. We do not get into faith in Christ, so we can get out of being the ones to “blame,” because God is not someone we need to be saved from. In fact, it’s not about blame at all. Growing in faith is about ourselves being transformed into the people who live like Jesus and our society being transformed into a more just and loving place.

As long as we can find “psychological relief” (whether it is Jesus or Treyvon) so that we no longer feel the anxiety to change, then we won’t change.

Scapegoating is about ‘othering,’ while Christianity is about ‘gathering.’

_Seeds Falling

In closing, I should probably say something about John 12. Here Jesus tells one of his shortest parables and it is one of my most favorite:

“Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.

Then comes the interpretation:

Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (John 12:23–26 NRSV)

Here we have Jesus talk directly about what is about to take place with his own life. Like a grain of wheat, he will fall into the earth and die, so that more fruit will be birthed.

Death in this parable is not about a scapegoat, but about a deep transition into something new.

We can let other people take the fall for the injustices all around us, and in doing so the seed only falls and dies. But Jesus tells us, if the seed can fall “into the earth,” that is good soil, soil ready and prepared to do its work, then transformation can take.

This parable is about the process of a metaphorical death that brings about an entirely new way of living and relating in the world. When Jesus dies, it is his Spirit that comes and scatters as though seed, all around the world. John 1 says “the Light enlightens everyone.”

This passage doesn’t stop with Jesus, it is an invitation into death for his followers.

For us, to be like a grain of wheat is to find those ways that we seek to “save our lives” and in the process lose it.

Scapegoating others is a seeking to save our own lives and in the process we die. It is a seeking to protect ourselves from shame, guilt, our own complicities. Scapegoating causes a relief that keeps us from ever feeling the need to change.

So we are invited in parabolic form to lose our lives as though a seed falling to the ground.

As a seed falling to the ground we are asked: why does this person or issue create a strong reaction in me and am I willing to own up to that feelings and work through them?

As a seed falling to the ground we are asked: what attitudes and beliefs do I have that alienate others that God may be asking me to change?

As a seed falling to the ground we are asked: how am I being threatened here, my position, my status, my power, my comforts, and why do I have such a strong allegience to these things when I am invited to come and lose my life that I might live.

As a seed falling to the ground we are asked: why am I so resistant to others who are unlike me, why am I so quick to assume they are wrong, or that they are out to hurt me?

As a seed falling to the ground we are asked: why am I so resisted to letting go of the branch, which keeps me from falling into the earth and being made new?

Open Worship